We've crunched the numbers. The oncologist, my fifty-seventh-birthday gift, his face serious but reassuring, conveys the effect without using the jargon. "Over a ten-year period, you have a 19% chance to..."
Reoffend. Repeat. Reoccur. As a novelist equipped with a detachment for events, I'm a reluctant character in my own play. My eyes wander to a chart depicting cutaway breasts under seige, the less harmful in situ, the dreaded invasive image, fractured walls sending out deadly messengers. My father had prospered until eighty-nine. My mother died at seventy-four after a delayed diagnosis of bowel cancer. Suddenly ten years seems like a long time.
"With Tamoxifen, you gain 4%." The math spins me around. 4% of 19%? He lowers his hand. "The risk drops to 15%." Then he pauses and beams like a car salesman revealing the extra cup holder. "AND if you take chem...."
A frisson of fear charges down my spine. That care package of information I'd memorized after diagnosis. With negative nodes and positive estrogen sensitivity, surely I'm a respectable Stage 1 out of 0 to 4. What had the brochure "Chemotherapy and You" said? "Of some further advantage, but the side effects must be weighed."
Then I register the puny number and take a deep breath. Why overreact? He's offering presents. "2%? Does anyone opt for that?"
A vigorous nod. "Oh, everyone. Imagine those two women." He consults his watch and leaves me with the nurse. "I can't believe it. People go through hell for virtually nothing," I say.
She flashes a cryptic smile as she helps me from the examining table. "Not exactly. But what would you expect from an oncologist?"
"I don't understand."
"He's not lying, but his caseload involves a limited number of women. I see five times that. And many refuse chemo. I would." She shakes her jolly blonde curls. "Losing my hair. My two-year-old would go bananas."
A weekend later, unwilling to surrender any odds, I stand at the reception desk of CancerWorld aka the Northeastern Ontario Regional Cancer Centre, Sudbury's glittering compensation for being the heart, stroke, cancer, and from evidence in the malls, obesity capital of Canada. Directed to a desk and chairs blocking a narrow hall, I sit in the makeshift office and give the clerk my history. "And we'll need a picture." A Polaroid camera appears.
I can't blame my confusion on the chemicals I haven't yet sampled. Do the doctors want a picture of my scars for research purposes? "Nude?" I ask, receiving a shocked look, a stifled cough. Along with my nametag, mercifully lacking the "Hello, my name is," the snapshot will help the volunteers shepherd me to a variety of appointments.
Blood tests unnecessary for now, after weighing in like a jockey, at last I enter the inner sanctum, the L-shaped chemo room, fitted with twenty reclining chairs like a beauty salon, occupied by people at quick glance over fifty, a few exceptions. A gawky teenaged boy, accompanied by his friends and family, puts on a brave smile, trades jokes and bicep jabs.
One of the countless, pink-smocked aged volunteers, perhaps with a family or personal connection to cancer, brings a hot pad to prepare my veins, which turn out to be a heroin addict's dream.
A large wall clock has hands that never seem to move. A shelf the length of one wall holds piles of well-thumbed magazines and paperbacks interspersed with model heads wearing colourful scarves. A baseball cap will sail me through the hot summer. Through the windows, tourists across the street park at Science North or admire Ramsey Lake. Sudbury's best face. No time to be inside.
"Oh, absolutely," the nurse replies to my hair question, setting up the anti-nausea steroid drip. "Ten to fifteen days. You could shave it immediately. Take back the power."
Half an hour later come the first chemo bags, one pink, one clear. Because of the need for delicate, steady infusion, the nurse sits companionably with me to manually administer the drugs. We speak of dogs, family, vacations, and weather. At the last minute, when the lines clear, a brief but powerful feeling passes over my upper nasal cavities as if I had snorted habanero chile powder. As my eyes tear, she passes me a handy tissue box.
Repeat three more times, every three weeks. With no apparent physical side effects, I hike daily with my German Shepherd and Mini-Poodle in the deep woods behind my wilderness property. But soon the leaves of the birches and poplars lie shredded before me, chewed and choppy green Hallowe'en mouths littering the peat paths. Sticky grey nests coagulate on branches like living cotton candy. Tent caterpillars have their own cycle. Some areas are spared the attack, but others lift barren arms toward the sky. Droppings fill the silence, tiny Swiftian Yahoos expressing themselves a gram at a time. Will their attack kill the trees?
Sprung free in September, I feel lucky, opt for a few weeks in the American Southwest, Utah first, where I return to a remote, dusty canyon an arrowhead I had taken a year before. A tiny, perfect bird point in dark red jasper, perhaps a millennium old. Nearly the same size as my potent little enemy. Superstition or insurance? In Roswell, New Mexico, I buy a biker-style green head scarf, covered with Munch-eyed aliens.
Back in my territory, a sharp chill slaps the air as I take a hike. In a denuded grove where the caterpillars had attacked in full force, I expect to miss the colour show, then squint against a faint and distant blur. Pulling a birch branch close reveals a natural bonsai. Auxiliary leaves have formed, hoping to suck enough of the waning sun to survive winter. In a sweat from the climb, I take off my Jays cap and rub my scalp. Bristles? With a whoop, I toss the hat onto a branch five feet above my head. Snowshoeing up there in February on a parallel universe, I will remember.