Panic, Brought to You by the Cancer Center

There I was, back at the fucking cancer center.

I approach this annual appointment with trepidation but this year I was mentally armed. I took the whole day off. I scheduled a morning spot, in hopes I wouldn’t have to wait as long. I knew to expect the x-rays and blood work and humiliating nipple stickers. I mentally committed to wearing the ridiculous gown so that they could check all my lymph nodes if they wanted to. I was prepared to inform the cranky intake men in advance that yes, my blood pressure would be high, so that they wouldn’t lecture or threaten. It’s always high, I say, I am anxious when at the doctor. This is an understatement but, unlike my high blood pressure at a routine well visit, none of their business.

It began well enough, considering. Considering the registration desk balked at adding my wife. It only says husband, she said, I can’t use that field. It’s the law, I said pleasantly. I’m sure you can just use that field. We had a tense moment, she and I, but she recovered enough at the end to say congratulations, which I took as a positive sign for the rest of the visit.

In fact, there was no blood work or stickered x-rays. The waiting room was packed but my name was called fairly quickly. The intake person was someone my age who was understanding and reasonable about my blood pressure and didn’t tut at me when I clenched my teeth at the pain of the cuff. She weighed me without comment (I, of course, filled in the lecture about having gained weight since the last visit. I’m beating myself up enough, thank you, I don’t need more help. She deposited me in a room and said I didn’t even need the gown. You guys, it was like I was going to make it through the day without crying. I didn’t even see the colossal anxiety attack coming.

We took a slight trip downhill when the next nurse came in and produced a gown but she did turn up the heat and gave me a second gown and warm blanket. I don’t think I’m so large that a regular gown shouldn’t fit but it was far from being able to close. I pulled out a book to read and distract myself, since the naked wait is usually no less than 45 minutes later. I was pleasantly surprised to the see a resident in under a half hour. And she and I managed all the questions and prodding with only a few measured, deep breaths on my part.

You know though, she and I had the same name. Not only the same, not-so-common name, but the same unusual spelling. Could she have started the visit by commenting? Building some rapport? Would that have halted what was about to come? Could she have become my ally when the whole world got dark on the edges. I think, yes.

And then she left. I waited. Another hour. And, being scantily clad, I opted not to step into the hall wondering about my situation. I had seen the full waiting room. They were surely aware they had an occupied room. And when the NEXT nurse came in, brisk and perky, she acknowledged the wait without apology. They did know. I wondered if this was normal enough for them not to notice. In all though, this wasn’t a big deal. I expected a wait. I came prepared. I was using my keep calm skills. I was mostly okay.

Until I totally wasn’t. It started right around the time of the freezing stethoscope and you should start eating leafy greens out of the blue. Where did the oxygen go? It and my self-control spirited out of the room, and when I opened my mouth to respond, that I do, in fact, eat lots of leafy greens, I simultaneously realized she was lecturing me about the relation of my weight to cancer and making all manner of assumptions about my knowledge of health and my eating habits. I didn’t pass out, but I couldn’t answer when she asked me for the fifth time what my very-obviously-a-crocodile tattoo was and meant. I couldn’t answer because I could not breathe. I leaned over not to pass out, aware that she was asking again. And trying to focus on the other Meridith, the one sitting passively, the one who could have built some rapport, who might have saved me, just by using my name.

And actually, I was still somehow not past the edge. I managed to make a new appointment for next year. I managed to get to the parking lot. I managed to put the car in reverse (though not without fumbling into the wipers, the horn, and the hazard lights) and, as I was about to back up, a probably well-meaning worker began to scold about my space. I shouldn’t park here, he said. It wasn’t marked as maintenance, but apparently it was, and he was undeterred when I pointed out that I was actively crying and I’d like to go. I’m just trying to help you out, he said. For next time, he said.

My father once took my keys when I was too emotional to drive, saying that it was just as bad as driving drunk. So I was tried to hold it together for everyone else that had to drive next to me for the five minutes it would take to get to my wife, who makes everything better. But the worker wouldn’t move from behind the car and I was near to sobbing. I pled with him to please move, couldn’t he see he was making it worse? He was disinclined to hurry.

Some years later, he moved and I made it to Debra, completely in humiliating pieces, and she took me home. I’m trying to decide what the impact will be if I refuse to go back and then get cancer again and HAVE to go back having not been. How much worse will it be then? Weighing mental health and preventative health, how much difference is it making to visit the cancer center AND a dermatologist AND a general practitioner on the regular? As we have now moved to what counts as an glorified skin check, how much preventing is this step doing?

My brain was fuzzy for days after the visit, as if my memory and response time had short circuited. That can’t be healthy. I’m typically medically attentive but this time, I might have had it. I have year before the next appointment. Plenty of time to decide.

12 Responses

  1. I say skip it and save your mental health.

  2. I’m so sorry you had such a horrible experience (and it wasn’t the first time). Is there anyone else you can go to instead of this practice?

    On a lighter note – hope you were reading the new Kim Harrison while you were waiting. I just finished it and it was the last book in the series. I was very sad that it ended, but it was a really good one.

    Hope you are feeling better!

    • WHAT?! I didn’t know there was a new one or that it was the last. I’m on it.

      • It’s sad that the series is over, but its a really good last book. It’s very intense through the whole thing. Let me know what you think when you’re done!

  3. Is there another option for places to go? Or is it this or nothing?

    • This is the regional Cancer Specialty Clinic of Awesomeness. It’s the option I have for melanoma although there is probably a different surgeon to try should this happen again. It can’t just be the one guy (I hope). For dermatology and skin checks there are lots of folks, and I see a pretty good one. So there’s that!

  4. Damn, I know anxiety and panic well – this is what I go through at my psychiatrist’s office. Sorry you have to deal with that – I hope you are feeling better!

  5. I’m so sorry you had such an awful experience. I know what you mean about feeling foggy for a few days afterward–reaching that level of panic is the absolute worst. It truly takes everything out of you. Hope you’re feeling a bit better today.

  6. I’m so sorry, that sounds like a horrible and traumatic experience. Mental health affects physical health as well of course, don’t they know? I say don’t go back and just see the dermatologist and PCP regularly. I hope you are having a better day today.

  7. What I don’t get is how someone can see you’re on the verge of crying, can see you visibly struggling to breathe, and they still act like that. Even a doctor. Especially a doctor. They should know what a panic attack looks like. They should be able to see the telltale signs, the shaking, the shallow breaths, even the high blood pressure. I cannot forgive the ones who don’t.
    I’m sorry you had to go through that. ❤

  8. Damn girl. I wish I could have been there to provide throat punching to all who came within your safety perimeter.

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