“People like you…”
The nurse practitioner blew her raw red nose into a white, rough hospital-grade tissue. Clearly battling a bad flu, her mouth exposed over the face mask she’d moved beneath her chin, moved for her comfort. Defending a position sitting on a stool with both legs and arms crossed, she spoke at me while spewing her germs throughout the infusion center. The chemotherapy infusion center, where people’s ability to combat anything more than the cancers each one of us came to cure. People like us all prayed to our gods that we’d find a cure here. Some of us, people like me, could only hope to stave off death a little longer through enduring therapies that might also kill us. People like me.
Out of the pursed mouth of this contagious little nurse Typhoid Mary, came words I’d only heard once before, generally mumbled at people like me by men in mullet hair cuts, smelling of cigarettes and motor oil. Of course in the southern state where I’d lived the largest percentage of my life, a constant tug of war between cruel epithets and self deprecating jokes were cracked in reference to my religion – Jewish. Now my long heritage would turn on me again, because people like me, ashkenazic Jewish women are genetically predisposed to breast cancer. The eight tribes long ago set out to populate the earth with too few in the gene pool to wash us clean of this hideous mutation.
Back again my mind wandering at the dull drone of our nurse practitioner- tuning her in as if a UHF channel on my little black and white TV in my bedroom staying up too late watching Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. I looked at her as she said, “we don’t operate on people like you.” Blink. Blink.
People like me? People married to a guy named Craig? 51 year old women? Jewish women? People who’ve traveled the world? Who know how to bead jewelry? Whose parents both died in the past three years? Who earned honors degrees in English? Who could talk by the time they were six months old? Who grew up in New York City? Who lived on Miami Beach? Who loved singing? Who swam and were lifeguards? Who have two stepsons but none of their own children? Who love deeply and give compassionately? Who cannot believe they cannot hold a full time job ever again? Who never imagined that a palliative oncologist would become the most important person next to their spouse? To whom do you refer?
“People with metastatic breast cancer, that’s who.”
“Oh, you think so? Well, you’re wrong. And let me tell you first to please put your face mask on properly so you don’t pass us your awful germs and secondly don’t dare come to work sick ever again. Next, understand that all patients are different, with different constitutions, different kinds of cancers and some of us were even diagnosed at stage IV. And not because we are negligent in getting our mammogram, but because we have such dense breast tissue. And if you’re not a doctor how dare you tell me what you believe my therapy should or should not contain in its proscriptive recipe. You have no right to be here sick or nor the credentials to know what will make me better. I know there’s no cure for me, but I dare say people like you keep people like me from getting the benefit of life and a larger slice of the cancer research pie. So get out of here and you will never speak with me again, because people like me do not need the pessimism of people like you.”
I looked into her now tearful eyes and found no pity in my heart. I found only my fierceness and my tenacity – the qualities of spirit that keep me going even through the bleakest times of my life – and as she silently stood to leave I apologized for upsetting her. But people like me don’t have the time we used to waste on ignorance and behavior that required our patience. My words, blunt, yet sharp like a surgeons scalpel, had filleted out a piece of that thoughtless, careless person who knew nothing about me or anyone even like me.
So people like me, with hormone receptor positive, metastatic breast cancer and some bone lesions to prove it, can get lumpectomies to improve their mortality. We can do things that defy the odds. And we will do everything we can to cling to this light we call life for as long as it will have us. Our beautiful, full and rich lives to which we seek only live and compassion from those around us and we rage at those who speak from a platform of ignorant generalizations.
I am the only me that has or ever will be.
Don’t forget me.