Not Necessarily Cancer
Jennifer L O'callaghan


“First of all, let’s be clear, Sophie. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cancer.”

The doctor is young - perhaps even younger than I am - and shifting her weight from one foot to another as she looks at me. I wonder if this is the first time she’s given this speech. Her voice is uneven, unsure, as though it is trying on her mother’s shoes.

 I almost feel sorry for her.

“When Pap smears come back abnormal, we usually just schedule a second one, but I’m concerned. I didn’t want to do this over the phone. I’d like to schedule you for a colposcopy to take a better look. Let’s make sure we catch this thing early.”

Thing? What thing? The thing that’s not necessarily cancer?
 It is beginning to dawn on me that something could be wrong, that I should have been paying closer attention when she was babbling about atypical squamous cells and biopsies. I concentrate on the smoothness of her forehead and nod every now and then to show that I get what she’s telling me, even though every sound in the room stopped when I first heard "possibly precancerous."

When do they drop the "pre?”

 The procedure, she warns me, is quick, but also painful. “You won’t be able to have sex right before or after.”
A smirk tugs at the corners of my mouth.

Oh yes, I'm just a nymphomaniac in Hush puppies.

"Chances are this is nothing." She smiles weakly at me and I half-expect her to give me a thumbs up, a "Go team!"

"But we like to be sure. If everything checks out okay, we'll do more frequent Pap smears for a while to keep an eye on things." She pauses, suddenly very interested in a crack on the tile floor.

 "If it is something to worry about, and understand we don't think it is, necessarily. Well... Just remember that cervical cancer is very treatable, especially if it is caught early."

This news is somehow not a comfort to me.

She leads me out to the “team scheduler,” the clinic’s fancy word for receptionist. He is a scowling middle-aged man with a ponytail. For some reason, I have never trusted men with ponytails, so I am not surprised when he sighs and rolls his eyes at me. I want to smack him.

He is looking at my chart with an arched eyebrow.

I start to feel ashamed and a little dirty, like when I was a hormonal seventh-grader and my mother caught me watching soft porn on Cinemax.

I cross my arms over my stomach and stare over his shoulder at a “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” plaque on the wall.

“When can you come in? We only do these at 10 a.m. on Fridays or 1 p.m. on Wednesdays. Let’s get it done as soon as possible.”

I fumble through the pages of my day planner, wondering why everyone keeps saying “let’s” so casually, as if we are all going to put our feet up in stirrups while the gynecologist scrapes tissue samples from our cervixes.

Let’s catch this early. Let’s get it done soon. Let’s pretend this isn’t happening.

My mouth tastes like cotton as I mumble out a date. The team scheduler hands me a pamphlet. It is too bright and cheerful-looking, much like the “Chlamydia is not a Flower” brochure I was chuckling over in the waiting room, before I knew anything was abnormal in my cervix.

 I drive home, seeing only a blur of trees and buildings through the car windows.

 What just happened?

 When I left work today saying I had a “womanly” appointment, my co-worker, Bob, had asked me if I was pregnant. I gasped in mock horror and scolded him, “Oh God, no! That’s just mean!”

And it is what I thought -- then. I mean, I can’t even keep Sea Monkeys alive, let alone a child. But maybe I’ve cursed myself. Maybe I spoke too loudly and the fates have decided for me the option is gone. Maybe I won’t even live to be an aunt now.

 I am overreacting again. I can feel it. It’s probably nothing. Just like the doctor said. It could be nothing. ... An infection ... It could be a lab error, for God’s sake.

 Cancer. I remember the word being whispered around my grandmother’s apartment. When we talked about her like she was already dead. When everything smelled like disinfectant and vomit and pain. But wasn’t Grandma something like a hundred years old when she began her regular trips to chemotherapy, began losing her silver bob? I am not even 30.

This can’t be right. It’s a mistake.

When I walk through the door of my apartment, my boyfriend, Jim, looks up from his Playstation game and asks, “How’d it go?” I start to sob. I can feel my face getting hot and red and in a moment I am soaking his shoulder with a mixture of tears and snot.

 “What’s wrong? What happened?”

“I had a bad day at work,” I hiccup softly, blotting my face with a crumpled Kleenex. But he’s already tugging at the pamphlet in my hand.

 “What’s this?”

 “It’s nothing. I just have to take a test.”

“Can I help you study?” he grins and I shut my eyes for a moment to stop from crying.
 When I open them again, he is exploring my face, chewing on the end of his thumbnail intently.
 “Well? Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

 “I’m dying,” I wail, ashamed of my own melodrama, and he laughs, waiting for the punch line.

 “I am,” I say, sniffling, believing it for just a moment. “Of cervical cancer. I have to have this test.”

 I thrust the pamphlet at him and run from the room, flopping face down on our bed.

Is he sitting out there in the living room, reading each page of “Your First Colposcopy” with the same intense attention he gives to “Batman Beyond” on Saturday mornings? Or is he walking out on me?

“What’s the best-case scenario?” he whispers, suddenly at my ear, his breath warm on my neck.

When I don’t answer, he fills in the blanks.
“It could be a mistake. It could be nothing.”

 I roll over and blink back a few more tears.

“What’s the worst-case scenario?”

 “Well ...” I take a deep, shuddery breath. “I might have cancer. I might not be able to have children. I might die.” I cannot meet his eyes.

A heavy silence hangs between us, punctuated by the tick of my alarm clock.

“We can always adopt,” he says finally, resting his chin on my shoulder. “Or, you know, we could steal one. There’s always a bunch hanging out at the park. Just leave a trail of M&M’s to our front door.”

I want to laugh, but it catches in my throat and comes out a strangled sob.

He kisses me softly, the stubble of his beard scratching my cheek. He smells of shampoo and Listerine and home.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

I sit up and blow my nose. “The thing is, I don’t even know if I want kids. It’s kind of like when I was in college. I got this recruitment letter from the CIA.” I pause for a moment, waiting for him to crack a joke about what a lousy spy I would make, how I’d probably topple the whole government in one of my infamous “can you keep a secret” moments of weakness. But he just sits there, his brow furrowed. “And I didn’t do anything about it, ‘cause I read you can’t be in the Peace Corps if you’ve been in the CIA. Not that I want to join the Peace Corps. ... I just like to keep my options open. Does that make sense?”

The phone’s ring startles us both, and I leap to answer it, grateful for the distraction.

Before I can even squeak out a hello, my sister, Annie, launches into the latest installment of why her life is ten times worse than anything I can possibly imagine.

“Hey Sophie, you’ll never believe what crap the administration is throwing at me this week. I mean, maybe I should just get pregnant and leave them high and dry for nine months. I’ve got tenure. I’ve got security.”

I stand there grunting an occasional “Oh” and “Really?” while she prattles on about the joys and perils of Pennsylvania public education.

I am trying not to concentrate on how casually she tossed out the word pregnancy, or how something tore inside of me when she said it.

As she is detailing exactly how many times this month her students have failed pop quizzes, I blurt, “Annie, have you ever had a Pap smear come back abnormal?”

The moment I’ve said it, I wish I could reel the words back in. My sister pounces.

“Why? What’s wrong?” And then, “Are you two using condoms?”

I lean my forehead against the cool wall of the bedroom.

Jim mouths “Annie?” at me, and when I nod, he begins to stab himself repeatedly with an invisible knife.

“No, Annie. Why should we? We live together. Besides, what’s that got to do with anything?”

“You should be using condoms until you get married. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about these things.”

There’s that word again. What things?
 I don’t think a condom would make a difference between not necessarily cancer and nothing at all. Besides, since when does disease magically evaporate with “I do” and “You may now kiss the bride?”

“Never mind, Annie. It’s not important.”

Jim grabs the phone out of my hand. “Look, Annie ... We were just on our way out. Sophie will call you back later.”

My sister is still squawking on the other end when he clicks off the phone.

“Let’s go for a drive,” he says, curling his fingers around my wrist.

We drive to the same beach we frequented all summer long and take off our shoes, even though our feet numb almost instantly in the icy February sand. The air smells blue and salty, and we plop down near the water’s edge, where the tide laps at our toes and the wind gnaws on the tips of our noses and ears.

Jim doesn’t say anything for the longest time, and I feel the weight of the whole day squatting on my chest.

At least I’m out of tears.

He clears his throat. “A little boy died here this summer. Did you know that? He was digging a hole with his friends and the sand collapsed on top of him. His friends ran to get help, but by the time they came back, the sand had all filled in and the rescuers couldn’t tell where the hole had been. They just started digging and digging. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like, being that kid buried alive. Suddenly having the walls come crashing down on you. But I gotta tell you, I bet it was worse to be the kids watching.”

He digs his big toe deep into the sand, unearthing an old cigarette butt and a crab claw. He is not looking at me.

“When’s your test?” His hand envelops mine, squeezing my fingers.

“Not until March. I couldn’t schedule it any sooner.”

How can three weeks suddenly feel like three years?

We watch the tide grumble to the shore. I lean against him, and he wraps a cautious arm around my shoulders, as if I am made of porcelain.
It’s funny. This morning everything seemed possible in that unextraordinary way life behaves before it blindsides you. Before the sand caves in. Before your Pap smear comes back abnormal.




Copyright © 2001 Jennifer L O'callaghan
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