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Facts & Arguments Essay

The diagnosis that changed my life Add to ...

The scene is a waiting room in a busy office used by six doctors, all specialists. I watch the clock, flip through dated magazines and begin to resent this doctor I have never met, this man who thinks his time is more important than mine.

I check my watch again and think of all the other things I should be doing. I am not alone. The impatience in the room is palpable.

A fortyish woman wearing a track suit emerges from an examination room with a greying, slightly overweight doctor wearing a stethoscope around his neck. They head toward the nurse's desk. His hand is on her shoulder and he guides her gently to the open part of the glass.

Everyone looks up in unison to see if it is their turn. The others seem to know this is not their doctor and one by one they return to their magazines and handheld devices, discouraged. I decide this doctor must be the ear, nose and throat specialist I am here to see. Watching him, I try to decide if I will like him, if he will listen to me kindly, attentively or patronizingly.

He begins dictating rapid-fire instructions to the nurse. I overhear snippets and then a request for an urgent MRI. The woman is pale, shaken. She says, "Yes," and then, "I don't know."

And then I realize what I am watching.

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I have the terrible sense of being at the scene of an accident, transfixed by the drama, staring. I am back in time, in my 20s, with paramedics pulling me out of a car wreck and passersby staring at me. I try to send them urgent telepathic messages to look away. I don't know if I am still clothed, if I am gruesome. I don't want to be seen like this, a spectacle in shattered glass.

And here is this woman, exposed to me in a way she could never have imagined. She has cancer, and I know it. I don't know another thing about her, but I know this intimate, crushing fact, know it only minutes after she does, know it before she knows what to do with it.

The least I can do is spare her my staring. I pretend to be interested in my magazine.

I decide I like this doctor. He swiftly moves her through her next steps and keeps his hand on her shoulder. "Is there someone we can call to pick you up?" he asks.

And I am in awe of this woman, of how she can stand there and fill out forms without her legs buckling, without crying.

I wonder what she was thinking when she came here. I wonder if she, like me, was mentally cataloguing the contents of the freezer and reading old Chatelaines hoping for dinner inspiration.

Maybe she had been worried about returning to her looming e-mail at work. Maybe she was supposed to see her child's teacher today or visit her mother. Maybe she was expecting to leave with a prescription for antibiotics because she had some tenacious infection, like me. This was only supposed to be a minor disruption in an otherwise routine day.

I think about how plans and freezer contents and work can become suddenly and utterly meaningless. Ashamed of my self-absorption and my petty impatience just a few minutes before, I say a little prayer for her.

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And then it is my turn. With a new willingness to wait, I wish the doctor could take a break before he sees me. His day isn't working out too well either. It has to be hard to tell someone such bad news. I promise myself I will make this visit easy for him.

He smiles at me and introduces himself and shakes my hand. I thank him for seeing me.

He is efficient. He has reviewed my tests. He looks in my throat; I say ahhh. He feels my neck. He says something. He waits for me to understand. I don't understand. Say it again. Something about lymphoma. Please say it again. I'm sorry, please say it again.

Then, he guides me to the counter, to the gap in the glass, and dictates instructions. Another urgent MRI. There are forms.

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I do not know who is impatiently waiting, watching me, or if they understand what they are witnessing.

My legs do not buckle and I do not sob. I feel the weight of the doctor's hand on my shoulder and the pen in my hand. It anchors me to the present and draws a line to the next minute and the next one and the one after that.

I do exactly what the woman before me did. Without knowing it, she has mentored me through my first minutes as a cancer patient, and I am grateful for her example.

Now, almost six years later, I think of her often and hope that she, like me, is well.

Jane Cawthorne lives in Calgary.

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