I was with my co-worker, standing in line at the post office, tucked inside the cellar of Macy’s department store in downtown San Francisco, waiting to ship materials for a leadership training that I was planning to lead in D.C. the following week. I was an ambitious 32-year-old nonprofit director, who was recognized as an up-and-coming local community activist, and just beginning to earn national acknowledgements in my field. We were trying to handle our post office business fast, to get away from the putrid stench of rotting garbage that poured into that corner of Macy’s from some mysterious source.
My phone rang. I left my co-worker standing in line and stepped deeper into the smells of grossness to get a better cell signal.
“This is Jade,” I answered in professional work mode.
“Hi, Jade,” said a commanding but slightly hesitant voice on the other end. “This is Dr. We’ve-Never-Met. I work with Dr. You-Saw-Yesterday.” He was very matter-of-fact in his introduction. “I’m calling, because she’s out today.”
“Yes?” I said.
“Are you in a place where you can talk?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. Not really knowing what he meant by that.
“I’m calling to tell you that we found something significant in your x-rays and blood work from yesterday,” he said.
Now, I must interrupt to admit that I was someone who did not understand the term “significant” in the medical sense. I had only used the word as regular people do – for neutral or positive everyday messages like, “How many significant digits are there in 3.1400?” or “That hot guy’s your significant other?!” So, this doc’s pause-for-effect was lost on me. Call me whatever.
Dr. We’ve-Never-Met continued, “You have a type of cancer called Lymphoma.”
“Wait, what do you mean by a type of cancer?” I said. “So, it’s not cancer cancer, right?”
Denial. I so predictably fell into the first stage of bad news hell.
“It’s cancer,” he said.
Then, the call dropped.
I was lugging heavy boxes for work, stuck in a labyrinth of toaster ovens and blenders, trying not to breathe through my nose. Some guy whom I’ve never even met before was apparently pinch-hitting for my doctor, and just called to say that I’ve got lymphoma cancer?!
Rancid garbage smell will always remind me of that cancerous blow.
I can’t tell you what I felt in those first moments when I found out I had cancer. I think that when you are hit with something that tragically huge all at once, you cling onto the smaller problems in the moment that you think you can solve – even if they’re unrelated. At least, that’s what I did. I told my co-worker the news and we raced back across Market Street to my office. Had I not been with my co-worker, I would’ve probably been flattened by a trolley.
When I got to my desk, I called Dr. We’ve-Never-Met back from a trusty old-school land line. I solved the dropped call issue – that’s all I could handle … and that’s all I did.
I can’t tell you the rest of what Dr. We’ve-Never-Met said to me either, although I do remember that he kept asking if I had any questions. And I have a complete black out about how I got from my office back to my apartment. I’m not sure if I caught a cab or took the bus, but I somehow fell into the doorway of my apartment later that morning. I sat alone on the hardwood floor behind the front door and stared at the blank wall in front of me for hours. I watched the daylight in the hallway change from morning to afternoon. I pinched together a tiny pile of dog hairs and sand from the floor, and I stared at the scuff marks along the bottom of the wall from shoes kicked off in a rush. I had never noticed them before.
At some point, I called my boyfriend and told him. And when he came home, I was still there on the floor with my shoes, coat and work bag hung on my body.
To this day, I have not met Dr. We’ve-Never-Met – the voice that first told me I had cancer.
This photo was taken by Robert Houser for a work-related trade journal feature. It was taken after my first couple chemotherapy treatments. My hair was thinning, complexion paling, teeth stained from barfing, and you can see the fresh biopsy scar on the base of my neck.