Cancer does not discriminate. A television star, a stay-at-home dad, a college athlete — a cancer diagnosis can hit anyone at any time. Each person’s cancer journey is a unique experience (sometimes confusing, or sorrowful, or joyful, but maybe always exhausting) but amongst each cancer warrior, thriver or survivor is a shared thread of experience.
Cancer Wellness is excited to introduce a new online essay series, cW Slice of Life, featuring stories from survivors that are as unique as their cancer diagnoses. With these words submitted from cW readers around the country, we hope you find familiar feelings and words of wisdom, or that they, at the very least, act as evidence for what it means to be part of the cancer community: I am not alone.
Read on for Part One of “Tomorrow I’ll Know,” the first of a three-story series by Mandi Chambless.
By Mandi Chambless
It’s five am and I’ve been awake for hours. The anxiety is suffocating. In my mind, I’ve been making plans for days now.
I don’t want them to have to do it for me.
As I stare up at my ceiling, every item in my room is clearly visible, although midnight shadows are cast upon every surface. I’ve been staring for long enough that my eyes have become accustomed to the darkness; each object as real and as tangible as the fear that’s steadily grown inside me for weeks now.
I do my best to breathe slowly and deeply. I don’t want to wake Blane, my husband of 10 years, or arouse our three dogs that are quietly snoring on the floor at the foot of our bed. Tonight, this is my fear and my fear alone.
Just a couple more days and I’ll know.
But what relief will come with the Knowing? Isn’t that when the hard part starts?
The more I allow myself to think, the more panic begins to choke me. The more I try to calm my mind, the more it races.
What will I tell them? How do I tell them?
DO I tell them?
Just a couple more days. Then I’ll know.
The ceiling fan whirs. It’s gentle breeze on my face; the only reminder at that moment that I am not alone. I’ve shared my fears with a couple of friends, although I can’t possibly share the enormity of this with anyone. It’s cruel, especially before I even know the truth myself. I can’t stand the thought of subjecting others to undue stress… I wonder if I’ll feel the same after I know.
Then the pain comes, erupting through my abdomen as if it must make its presence known, refusing to be ignored. I shift onto my side, willing myself to relax but knowing that it’s impossible. It’s been two weeks, after all, and the pain is a frequent visitor. I quickly blink back the tears trying to escape the corners of my eyes, my pillow a patient and loving receptacle.
Something is wrong.
No no no no no. Don’t go there. You can’t.
But I have to. What other choice is there?
I force my eyes closed, thinking the fervent prayer of a sinner facing their fate. Bargaining with God, making promises that may or may not be kept but are offered up as a sacrifice, regardless. As if God is oblivious to a human’s bluff in their greatest time of need…
Sleep finds me right around the time Blane’s alarm clock starts singing that agitating early morning tune. I’ll never understand early risers. I discreetly pull the long end of my pillow over my eyes slowly, making every effort to appear asleep. I don’t want to talk about it right now.
He already knows. This time at least. He didn’t last time. Still doesn’t know about last time, at least not yet. It isn’t the first time and it most certainly won’t be the last.
I feel him get out of bed and quietly close the double doors to our en suite bathroom. I’m wide awake now as he flips on our vanity lights, and the brightness illuminates the crack under the door. But it’s not the light that is robbing me of sleep.
I lie still for what feels like seconds, but before I know it, an hour has passed and he’s silently walking out our garage door to get in his truck and head to work. I’m alone. But this is a feeling I know well.
Just a few more days and I’ll know.
Eventually I rise out of bed and go about my day, simultaneously ignoring the anxiety and pain taking turns ravaging my stomach. I feed the dogs; I have a meeting with my manager. I visit my customers in their offices and I send emails on my work laptop. I smile when I am supposed to. I force laughs at the appropriate moments. But I am a void. I go through the motions and I get through the day, but I am not present. I am inside myself, choking back terror and wondering how I will tell them.
I wonder what it is that I will have to tell them.
I urge myself to make a run to the grocery store, but I’m not hungry. It’s more complicated than that — it has been painful to eat for days now. My distended belly expands even more with the slightest intake of food, and my waistband digs into my flesh, leaving an angry red indention. I push my cart through the aisles, not filling it with anything. My soul (and my abdomen) is busting at the seams already. I can’t take on anything else. Not even a box of Triscuits. My mind wanders as I look around at the other shoppers…
These people have no idea what I’m going through. No idea that in the back of my mind I am making a mental list of the songs I want played at my funeral. Wondering if I should fill a USB with pictures for the slide show so my husband doesn’t have to do it himself. Questioning the mundanity of everyday life but also already missing it before I’m even gone.
Am I leaving right now? Is it slowly happening? Has my time come?
My abdominal pain suddenly gets so severe that I struggle breathing. I lean on my empty shopping cart for support. This could quite possibly be due to anxiety, I tell myself. But it could also mean that the cancer has spread to my lungs.
Am I drowning from the inside without even knowing it?
But maybe part of me does know it.
I just want to go home. I abandon my empty cart and fish my keys out of my purse. I keep my head down as I walk out of the store and to my waiting car. Once safely inside, I sit there, in the parking lot, with my head leaned back on my headrest and eyes closed. The heat of the day engulfs me, but I don’t resent it. I let it enter every pore in my body because the discomfort is a distraction from the fire raging inside of me. Finally, I start my car and head home.
Early the following morning, history repeats itself and sleep yet again eludes me. But this day is different. Step one begins today.
Only a couple more days and I’ll know.
My stomach is in knots all morning, even as I walk in the doors of Texas Oncology. I am alone, as I prefer to be when I have a stressful appointment. COVID restrictions make it impossible to have support anyway, so why would I make Blane come with me? I give the receptionist my name and obediently take a seat in one of the turquoise chairs, waiting for my name to be called. I look around and catch a few glances from the elderly patients in the room. Their eyes dart away from mine and I know why. Although I’m 40 now, I still look “too young to have cancer.” I pretend to be busy on my phone until my name is called.
I’m guided into the phlebotomy room, flanked on either side by two pleather chairs with large swinging armrests, and sit where directed.
“What’s your date of birth?” the nurse asks me as she pulls a label off a pad and wraps it around a specimen container.
I politely answer as she wipes the crook of my right arm with an alcohol pad, the coolness shocking my mind out of its haze for a moment. She feels for a vein, and I take a deep breath in as I turn my head to the left to ensure the needle is out of my range of vision.
Normally it doesn’t bother me. Today, it feels as if it will kill me.
She fills four vials with my blood, then pulls out the needle and has me press a cotton swab to my arm. She wraps purple gauze tightly around my arm and sends me on my way. I say a prayer over those vials as I stand up and leave the room, willing them to be normal and healthy. And now I wait.
A 30-second appointment holds the answers to what is remaining of my life.
I head home and do my best to get on with my day. A call with my manager, emails to customers. Blane comes home, makes dinner and asks me how I’m feeling. I answer truthfully, but succinctly. He knows I don’t want to talk about it. He wants to help me but doesn’t know how. I don’t know how either. How do I tell him what I need when I can’t even put it into words? How can he help me when he’s every bit affected by this as I am? I don’t even want physical touch right now. Not even a hug. It’s restricting and makes me feel guilty. It also makes this more real.
Music plays in the background. Ben Folds Five comes on. “She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly…” My gut wrenches. How on earth can we possibly be expected to know what to do?
Only two more days and I’ll know.
The Day Before is here and I have to admit that it’s better than Yesterday. I don’t know why it’s better but getting Step One out of the way has certainly eased my mind a little. It gave me a goal to achieve. A box to check; as if I had done something about “it.” My nerves are still working me over but I do feel slightly more content, and my stomach pain has slightly subsided. I can get through this day OK, I think.
Tomorrow I’ll know.
A feeling comes over me and I take a break from work and grab my personal laptop. A sudden growing and insistent sense of urgency to write engulfs me. The need to put my story in writing before it’s too late. The words of one of my best friends and survivor confidants have rung in the recesses of my mind for a couple years now: “I want to finish my book soon so that my husband doesn’t have to finish it for me someday.” Her words seem to be getting louder in my head with every day that passes in which I continue to feel discomfort in my abdomen.
Twelve and a half years ago, an oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, said “I’m sorry,” after informing me that I had stage IIIC ovarian cancer and had a whopping 20 percent chance to live five more years. I was only 28 years old. In the midst of my terror, I wrote. In the midst of my pain, I had to tell my story. This, what you are reading right now, is as true as it gets for an ovarian cancer survivor. The disease is dubbed the “silent killer,” its menacing grip initially so subtle that most women aren’t aware of its presence until it is too late. A venerable wolf in sheep’s clothing, mimicking minor gastrointestinal issues that are all too easy to shrug off, leading to plummeting survival rates and skyrocketing numbers of lives lost.
It never ends, even though we look healthy. When the pain comes, we don’t have the luxury of shrugging it off as a stomachache. It never ends, worrying about our future, or lack thereof. Me telling them it’s back. Flashes of my family together at Christmas without me. My husband alone in our home. Me, not existing anymore.
As I am typing these words, I am encased into my own version of hell. It simply never ends.
Tomorrow I’ll know.
Mandi Chambless is a 13.5-year survivor of stage IIIC ovarian cancer. In May of 2021, Mandi experienced what she feared was a recurrence. Diagnosed at 28 years old with a 20 percent chance of surviving five years, this fear was not new to her but her desire to offer a glimpse into the life of a cancer survivor grew. This three-part series was born in tandem with her panic.
Mandi lives in the Austin, Texas area with her husband Blane and three rowdy dogs: Caesar, Dodger and Daphne. She is currently completing the first draft of her manuscript in which she details her cancer experience, from misdiagnosis to “carrying on.” When she’s not writing or wrangling dogs, Mandi enjoys creating art, traveling and the feeling of the warmth of the sun on her shoulders.