15: I Don’t Want to Die!

15: I Don’t Want to Die!

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

I Don’t Want to Die!

There’s no disaster that can’t become a blessing …
~Richard Bach

“I don’t want to die!” was all I could say, all I could think about. Nothing else mattered. No other thoughts intruded. I felt as if I was drowning and my husband was the life preserver I clung to.

“We’ll beat this,” he assured me, holding me tightly

I heard the words, but the reality of the moment was just too terrible to accept. I wasn’t old. I felt wonderful—except for the insidious cancer that had just been diagnosed. That news hit me like a blow to the heart, to the soul. This wasn’t possible. It had to be a mistake.

At that time I was fifty, with my children raised, my husband moving up in his job and our finances finally stable. Life was good. I felt I was in the best physical shape of my life. I felt accomplished in my career. I felt—a lump in my breast.

“It can’t be anything bad,” I kept assuring myself, even as I kept that first, fateful doctor’s appointment. Of course not. Those kinds of things happened to other people, not to me. There was nothing like it in my family history.

“How long has it been since your last mammogram?” the nurse asked as I sat there shivering, more from fear than from the chill in the air of the examination room.

“I don’t know. Two years or so, I guess.” At that time, the recommended interval between mammograms for women under fifty was every two years. Thankfully, that has now been changed to once a year after the age of forty.

“Well, we’ll need to see the old films and I’ll schedule you for a new series,” the nurse said, so businesslike it seemed hardhearted. “Since they weren’t taken here, you’ll have to request them.”

“The old X-rays? How do I do that?” My mind whirled and I wondered how I was going to function, let alone handle all the details alone. Why was I there by myself? Because, in my panic, I had decided to shelter my husband from the trauma until I was certain I was all right. I had not told him what was going on or what I feared. After all, I was still assuring myself that this threat was nothing but a figment of my overactive imagination.

The doctor entered the exam room. He glowered at me. “Why are you here?”

“I found a lump.”

He checked the nurse’s notes. “I see that. But why come to me? Why not see your regular doctor?” Still, he scowled as if I were annoying him.

There was something in his tone and in my own mental anguish that pushed me over the edge. He was young, yes, but that was no excuse for his attitude.

I blinked back tears and spoke my mind, raising my voice. “Do you know how hard it was to come here at all? Do you? My regular doctor wasn’t in today and I said I needed to be seen urgently so they sent me to you. Do you want me to leave?” By this time I was weeping openly. I slid off the table while clutching the paper gown to my body. “I can go. I will go.”

He seemed to come to his senses and looked truly surprised. He also apologized, more than once, and I got my cursory exam before leaving for the mammogram. When I did hear from my regular physician the following day, he also expressed empathy and explained that my mini-tirade had actually helped open his colleague’s eyes.

That event, as unwelcome as it was, also taught me to stand up for myself. To ask for whatever I needed and to demand that my concerns be addressed. It was a new role for me, but it has become part of the advice I now pass on to other cancer patients. “This is your life. Your body,” I say. “Take responsibility for your care.”

Which brings me to the evening my husband brought me the bad news. I was away from home, attending a conference, and my husband, who was now aware of the tests that had been done, was to join me for the weekend.

I greeted him with a grin, then saw his expression. My jaw dropped. He reached for me. I think I may have said, “No,” or maybe merely thought it.

“The doctor called,” he said. “He gave me his home number so you can talk directly to him instead of having to wait till Monday morning.”

Nothing else was said. I fell into my husband’s arms, sobbing, “I don’t want to die.”

I don’t really know how long we stood there together. Perhaps it wasn’t long, but in my memory the scene stretches eternally because so much of what happened next is just a blur. I telephoned my regular physician and he explained what to expect next. He was patient with my confusion and I thanked him for giving me his home number, an act of unusual kindness that I remember to this day.

As I hung up, my husband asked, “What do you want to do now?”

The answer was easy. “All I want to do is go home.”

No banquets, no speeches, or party atmosphere appealed to me as it had just a few minutes before. I wanted peace. Quiet. Home. And now, as I relive that day, I sit in the special place that was the ultimate result of my illness. You see, we both got a wake-up call that day. Jobs were no longer as important. Money and career advancement took a back seat to survival.

I had surgery, then chemotherapy, and seventeen years later I am cancer-free. I still get nervous from time to time, sure, but I have learned to live with that lingering uneasiness about my health and it has kept me aware of the narrow escape I had. That’s not a bad thing, especially since I have been given many chances to reach out to others who are battling the same disease.

Through it all, I came to understand more about what really matters than I had in my whole adult life up to that point. Friends matter more. Family is paramount. Expressing my love and affection for everyone takes precedence over the many mundane tasks that had monopolized my previous hours on earth.

I still feel enormously blessed to have accidentally discovered that lump and to have survived to talk about it. Each day, each breath, each opportunity is an unimaginable gift.

Always remember that others have walked the same path that you are on, whether it was through illness or financial trials or other disastrous calamities.

You are not alone. Reach out. We’re here to take your hand.

~Valerie Whisenand

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