My brain’s a little foggy this week, so I’m sharing an essay I wrote three years ago. My MS was new, and I was still trying to find the best treatment. My life felt turbulent. I grasped for hope wherever I could find it. Most of the time, though, I didn’t believe I’d ever find peace. Fake it ‘till you make it, my mom always says.
Reading it back, this essay feels like it was written by a completely different person. That person was scared and stressed. She felt lonely. She hadn’t even hit 30, and her life was over. I’m sharing it now precisely because I’m not that person anymore. I still have bad days, certainly. But I truly feel at peace in a way I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life. Shit happens to all of us. It doesn’t need to define us forever.
I sat in the waiting room and filled out paperwork before getting my first mammogram. I kept shaking my head, still not quite believing that at 27 years old, I needed a mammogram. The test was required before I could begin my new MS medication, Ocrevus. One of the possible side effects was breast cancer, and my neurologist needed to be sure I didn’t already have it before starting Ocrevus.
My doctor explained that the chances of anyone on this medication actually getting breast cancer are next to zero. During controlled trials, six women on Ocrevus got breast cancer. That number is within the statistical norm. Still, because none of the women on the placebo got breast cancer, the drug manufacturer was required to list it as a possible side effect. So there I was, one year into my MS diagnosis, waiting to get a mammogram.
As I filled out the paperwork, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for myself. Some of the other patients in the waiting room kept eyeing me. I was the youngest person there by a few decades. They saw my age and my cane and felt sorry for me too.
I looked at my cane apologetically. I didn’t blame it. Besides, it wasn’t some plain Jane or a behemoth with four feet. Crafted of burnt beechwood ringed with circles of contrasting color, the curves of the handle would make any woman jealous. My cane was my staff, my supporter, my weapon. It held me up when my leg couldn’t handle the job on its own, and it did it in style. It told the world I might be disabled, but I looked damn good. Still, my cane couldn’t protect me from my thoughts, which wormed their way into my head. They said that no matter how often I told myself I loved my cane, I still wished I didn’t need it.
Just then, I saw a woman in a wheelchair come into the waiting room. Her husband pushed her in and went to check her in at the front desk. She looked sad. She smiled when her husband returned with the paperwork, but it didn’t reach her eyes. I focused on my paperwork again, and a few minutes passed when I realized the woman was massaging her leg and crying. She didn’t make any noise, but her face contorted in pain as the tears ran down her cheeks. Her husband held her hand, his face showing a different kind of pain.
I tried not to feel sorry for this woman, remembering my resentment toward my pitying onlookers. Even so, I thought about my leg, muscles weak and pulled tight, and I couldn’t help but be thankful it had never hurt me like that.
After a while, a nurse brought me to a second waiting room, where I changed into a robe. I put my things in a locker and sat down. I was alone for a minute, playing with the stretchy key ring for my locker when another nurse wheeled in the woman from earlier. She was still crying.
The nurse asked what was wrong, and the woman told her she had a cramp in her leg. Her voice was a low sob. She put her head in her hand as the nurse muttered a quick “I’m sorry” before walking away. I wanted to tell this woman it would be okay; things would get better. But I didn’t know her story. I didn’t know if things would get better for her. I didn’t want to add to her pain, so I said nothing. I watched the Property Brothers transform someone’s tiny kitchen into a chef’s paradise on the waiting room TV. They all laughed and hugged and professed their joy and thanks. The woman across from me continued to cry.
The mammo tech walked into the waiting room and called my name. She took me into a room, and we talked while she got me ready. She wasn’t not much older than me, and we laughed about the general awkwardness of mammograms as she put a lead apron around my waist. We talked about my aunt, who was also a mammo tech there, and how she baked the best desserts.
Exposing my breasts to a stranger was odd, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable. The mammo tech explained how the imaging worked and squished my boobs in various ways. And then we were done.
I headed back to the waiting room to change out of my robe and get my things. I put the stretchy keychain with its little key back on the locker door. The crying woman was gone. I sent positive thoughts to her, for whatever that was worth.
I left the hospital and got a burrito for lunch. As I walked toward the restaurant, a man saw my cane, paused, and held open the door for me. Part of me was thankful for the kind gesture. The other part felt irritated because I felt rushed. I hobbled toward the door a little quicker. The man smiled at me, and I thanked him, even if I only half meant it.
While I ate lunch, I tried not to be nervous about the mammogram, but I worried anyway. Tests you don’t know the answers to are never fun to take. I worried, too, about whether this new medication would work. I worried about the fact that my leg might never get better. The burrito tasted like nothing.
I took a few deep breaths and told my brain to stop focusing on the negative. My mind had a habit of doing that. Instead, I thought about the good. I was starting a new medication; there was potential for progress there. My cane was badass, and I loved it despite my need for it. I had family and friends who grounded me and kept me sane. My leg didn’t make me cry (most of the time, anyway).
MS could be a tricky disease. I was unsure of what tomorrow would look like, let alone 20 years from now. That uncertainty frightened me, but it also gave me hope. Besides, none of us knows what’s going to happen. Maybe we’ll all fire our nukes, and we won’t have to worry about anything anymore. But perhaps someone will find a cure for MS. I might become an award-winning novelist. Maybe I’ll live a life full of joy and wonder and be known as a fashion icon for girls with canes worldwide. Just then, I ate my burrito. I’d worry about the rest later.
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That is a touching essay. I empathize with you. I too struggle with a few chronic conditions. Being in my 30s now though I feel more at peace with my circumstances. It keeps me grounded and going.