Laurel Dezieck, School of Medicine, Class of 2015
Second Prize Winner 2015 Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award
Do you know why they use a gun to start races?
I always assumed it was because of the human instinct to run when you hear loud noises.
Bang! You jump, eyes wide, and then you’re off.
I am right. The origin of the starter pistol is actually attributed to cowboy horse races in the early eighteen-hundreds, preying on the physiological startling reflex to spur horse and rider into action. It’s that startle, that begins everything.
But first, you line up, jostling with people of all shapes and sizes on every side of you. Garish shoes and complicated water bottles. Hired pacers shout out their times. Everyone stretching and flexing to give purpose to their restless movements. You wait, the anticipation buzzing through your body, compounded with icy moments of asphyxiation before you catch your missed breaths.
You remember getting the message, still at work, glancing down at your phone in the hallway.
“Give me a call when you can. It’s nothing urgent.” But you already have a sense of what was going to happen, the way you do when you’re standing in wait, shivering, tense.
Then the words. “So it looks like I have breast cancer.” Bang. The starter pistol.
It starts. You’re going on pure adrenaline, first with short, abrupt, pseudo-jogging steps as your body gets muffled by people in front and behind. You’re claustrophobic and itchy, clamoring to move, like something writhing inside of you, rearing to get out.
You cried, she didn’t. You were supposed to be the strong one, the almost-doctor who spoke medicine fluently. Sometimes it’s terrible knowledge- having an idea of what could happen, the worst case scenarios. You feel shame, that she got the diagnosis and you shed the tears, that she was comforting you when you should have been holding her.
Slowly, people start to spread out, your stride gets longer, you go, faster than perhaps you should. You try to relax a little, know how much it will hurt later if you push too hard right now, let the adrenaline burn through you too fast. You try to smooth out your stride into something natural.
A bilateral mastectomy, to start. We need to see if there’s lymphatic involvement. A lot depends on whether or not she needs radiation. Oncologist. Breast surgeon. Plastic surgeon. Repeat. She’ll likely need to be on medication long term, just as a precaution. Recovery can take a few months. Back to work in 4-6 weeks, maybe, if she’s lucky. Reconstructive options. Breast cancer. Breast cancer.
Mile two. You’re still in shock, still not quite adjusted to the fact that this is going to be a very long journey. You can’t quite settle in yet; your stride is choppy; you lift your legs too high. You spur yourself forward and realize that you’re going to fast, then slowly reign yourself back in, knowing that you’ll pay for every mistake with your energy expenditure much later when there’s nothing left.
You look at her across the table.
“How are you?” You ask. She sighs.
“I’m alright. I’m kind of glad actually that it’s out in the open and now we’re just
moving. It takes the guessing and the waiting out of it and there’s a clear path forward.”
“Well just tell me what you need.” you say, hoping you sound calmer then you feel. She makes checklists, calendars, schedules. She thinks out loud. “Will I be able to fly to that conference, attend the big company event at the end of March? It’s best to do this now, when things are slow at work. I won’t have to miss anyone’s school events. Could you come look after the dog?”
Four miles down, twenty-two to go. You can’t think about those twenty-two miles (twenty-two- point-two to be exact) or you’ll psych yourself out. Keep it together- you just need to worry about the next stride, then the one after that. People line the roads, cheering and waving witty signs.
One day she comes home from her pre-op appointment, arms filled with bags of supplies and goody bags from Dana Farber. Pink hats and stickers, wrist bands.
“It’s just not me.” She says. “It doesn’t feel real, like it’s happening to me.” She didn’t want the label, “cancer patient.” If she put on the bracelet, the baseball cap, it would all be real.
She throws all the pink in the trash. It made you both feel better.
Mile 10, you feel OK. You’ve got a good stride going, there’s still spectators on the street, cheering you on, keeping the energy up, handing out water and fruit. You can’t let yourself think about the sixteen miles left to go.
It’s time for the surgery. She doesn’t sleep the night before and nether do you. It shows the next day. You nod off during conference, lose the trail of thought of the lecturer. You putter between patients in clinic, waiting to hear she’s out of surgery, sneaking into the bathroom to take the hushed call.
“She’s out, everything went well, looks great. She’ll call when she wakes up.” Another patient is here, do another physical, try to look interested.
Good margins, low grade. No lymphatic involvement.
Mile 14, you start to settle in. Focus on making every movement efficient. A little more than halfway there. You feel strong, albeit nervous, and you try not to think too hard about the twelve (point two) miles more.
The visiting nurse comes to clean the drains and you’re immediately wary of her. She’s a little rough around the edges and doesn’t like the dog. She says some things that you’re pretty sure aren’t true. You learn how to clean the drains and re-dress the wounds, and do it yourself.
Her coworkers send over foil covered dishes and you wonder what you’re going to do with six pounds of baked ziti. She writes thank-you notes to everyone but you know that part of her wants to gently remind them that nobody died.
Mile 18 is the worst mile. So is mile 19. The crowd has thinned- you glance grimly around to see if anyone else is starting to lag. Everybody smiles in a tight conciliatory way. You bunch together in little groups as though to pool your strength. You’re mentally clinging to each other, hoping that if you stay together, no one falls behind.
Life still goes on, even when she has cancer. The dog needs to be walked, plants watered. Projects at work, projects at home. Planning for the summer. The boss is supportive, but behind the cheery, reassuring emails, the question hides- how long is this treatment going to take?
Mile 20, hurts. There’s just pain: your arms, neck, shoulders and legs cramping; the nausea, the stinging in your eyes from sweat and sunscreen. You can hear your left achilles thrumming behind your ankle, the vibrations getting louder, threatening to snap at any moment.
It’s not that people stop caring, it’s just that their lives reabsorb them and their cheery check-ins and covered dishes become an occasional “how are you doing?”. It’s not malicious, just human nature. The quiet is a lonely relief; in some ways, you feel isolated, a little abandoned, now that the well-wishers have retreated. At the same time, you get to take a deep breath, drop the brave grin, and sulk a little. She doesn’t have to be a fighter for anyone.
Mile 22. Just put your head down and don’t let yourself consider any option but to move one leg and then the other. Just keep moving. One foot, the other. Forward. If you stop, if you even entertain the idea of stopping, it’s over.
The surgeries and appointments keep coming. Each one is promised to be a little easier, a shorter recovery, but the fatigue remains, builds, so you don’t know if you’re going forwards or backwards really; it seems like the resolve to pain ratio remains static, at least from where you’re watching.
The last mile is agony. Every muscle is so tight you’re sure the next stride will snap something. Your chest is on fire, every breath pulling more flame into your lungs. And yet you can’t stop shivering. Your body has give up; the thermometer is cracked, hot and cold and feverish.
Gynecologist. Oncologist. Back the surgeon. A cute on her finger at the nail salon- could that cause lymphedema? What if her arm swells up? Back the surgeon.
You cross the finish line. You’ve envisioned this moment, thought about raising your hands above your head in triumph. And it’s there, bubbling up, but all you can manage physically is a little shrug of your shoulders. Will yourself not to be sick.
A volunteer drops the medal over your head, wraps you in a blanket, offers you bottles of water
and bananas that you can barely grasp because your fingers are numb and cramped. You shuffle forward, find her in the crowd. She hugs you tightly even though you’re sweat and gatorade stained. She holds you up because you can barely stand, and you wonder yet again how she anchors you both, keeps everyone afloat. Your mother is the most courageous woman, and this year she won an incredible marathon.