I was only a little surprised last year when my gynecologist suggested I submit to a blood test meant to detect ovarian cancer. I was in her office for my annual pelvic and Pap smear.
"You took some fertility drugs, right?" she asked, then nodded as I gave her a short recap of my drug history--three months of Clomid, 10 months of Pergonal, two cycles of in vitro fertilization with massive doses of Pergonal.
"There's some question about infertility drugs and whether they increase the risk of ovarian cancer," she said, "but no positive proof. But your drug history combined with the fact that you never carried a child to term could increase your cancer risk. I recommend you have this test annually from now on."
I agreed, and went down the hall to the lab for the blood test. I wasn't worried. My father's mother lived to be 96 and was healthy right up to the day she died. My mother's mother was now 91 and still healthy. (I try not to think about the disease called Shy-Drager syndrome, which destroyed my mother's nervous system and killed her at the age of 58.)
Every year I have a pelvic, a Pap, a mammogram and a physical. I want to live into my nineties not only because I enjoy life, but because I have two children, adopted at birth, who depend on me and need me to be as healthy as possible. I want to be around long enough to know their children and their grandchildren.
A week after taking the test, there was a message from the doctor's office on my answering machine urging me to "please call us as soon as possible. It's important." It was now 4:30. I called the office immediately.
"The doctor's office is now closed. If this is an emergency, please call . . . . If you are calling for test results, please call back during office hours from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This machine does not take messages."
The panic hit me immediately. I had cancer. One of my two tests had come back positive. I had 16.5 hours to ponder whether I had cervical cancer, which was bad enough, or ovarian cancer, which was worse.
I work alone at home, so there was no co-worker to tell. I didn't want to tell my husband and ruin what might possibly be his last night of peace.
I lay in bed for hours that night, eyes wide open. What good was it to have children and then not stay around long enough to raise them? How could I abandon them by dying? My husband is a good father and would take good care of both children. My son was 10--he might be all right. But my daughter was only 5. Maybe she wouldn't even remember me. Girls need mothers.
As the hours passed and my husband slept beside me, I decided to fight as aggressively as possible, whichever cancer I had. I would go for as much time as I could get. If it was some minor abnormality of the cervix I would just have them take everything out. If it was the ovaries, I would have them removed without a second thought. Anything I could do to get another five years.
I remembered the emotional pain when I realized I couldn't have children. "I would gladly cut off a finger if I thought it would help me have a child," I had told one of my best friends. Now I would remove whatever was necessary to see those children into adulthood. I would have surgery. I would have radiation. I would get chemotherapy. I would throw up and lose all of my hair. Whatever it took.
I write for a living. Some of it is satisfying, some I do just to keep the checks coming in. I decided I would drop the assignments I didn't enjoy. I would need that energy to get better. And I would finish my novel and send it off to a publisher. It only needed a few hours of revision, 10 or 15 at most, before it would be ready. I couldn't die without mailing out my book.
Then I realized all of the practical problems of surgery. The four of us were going on vacation in six weeks, as soon as school was out. That would have to be canceled. I was going on a retreat for a week in August to an arts camp. That would have to be called off.
We would need to find someone to live in to help with the kids while I was in the hospital. If I died, maybe that person, if I chose well enough, would marry my husband and raise my children. I went down a mental list of single and divorced friends until I found a suitable match. That settled, I fell asleep.
I took the children to school the next morning at 8:30, remaining outwardly calm. I hadn't yelled at either of them or at my husband. I had not let any tension show.
At 9 a.m. I called the doctor's office. Busy. 9:01. Busy. I pushed the redial button on the phone every 30 seconds until I finally got through at 9:20. I was told to hold while they looked for my file. I expected the doctor's voice telling me to come in for the results. Instead I got the nurse.
"Oh, Mrs. Patt-Corner? Your blood test for ovarian cancer came back within normal range. And your Pap looks fine, too."
I hung up in shock. Fine? It was urgent that I call back immediately just to hear that I was fine? Why couldn't they have just said that to my answering machine? Or sent me a postcard? Didn't they know that I would imagine the worst? How many other women would experience what I just went through because the doctor's office said it was urgent to call back right away?
"You should have told me," my husband said when I related my ordeal. "I would have calmed you down."
"I don't think so," I said. "It would have just doubled the anxiety. Anyway, I'm fine now. It was silly. It won't happen again now that I know better." I returned to my daily routine with relief. My novel went unfinished. I kept the boring assignments. And I refused to tell my husband which friend of ours I had picked out for him.
A few weeks later I came home at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon to a message on my answering machine. "This is the radiology lab. Please call back as soon as possible so we can schedule a repeat of your mammogram. The doctor is not happy with something she sees and we want to get a clearer picture."
This time I told my best friend. And my husband. He came with me for the next two mammograms. The shadows on the X-rays turned out to be calcium deposits, and my gynecologist sent me a postcard informing me that the results were normal.
Writer Melanie Patt-Corner lives in Kensington.