What if it's...the Waiting is the Hardest Part

After the Biopsy: Midlife living means living through health scares

Posted Jan 25, 2014

Impatient in Waiting

A dear friend is in that awful but interesting medical purgatory; the time between the Before the Thing Happened and After the Thing Happened. There’s an excellent chance she’ll get good news Monday and move on with her life. She’ll be relieved, probably let herself feel the full terror of the possibilities for a minute or two, call her husband and then get back to work.

But for now, she’s floating in the limbo of Waiting.

Since she’s one of the most insightful and articulate human beings I know, and since she shared this with me, I asked, gently, if we could talk about what it feels like during this time when she’s calling herself a Patient-in-Waiting. Remarkably, she said yes. “I know you’ll make me sound thin,” she says.

How do we handle the Waiting?

Everybody of a certain age goes through it. Everybody waits for news about their own life or for the life of someone they love. It’s part of the deal you sign onto as a human being. First you find something or sense something, a lump, a difference in the size or shape of something, an odd pain, a weird bloated feeling. Whatever it is, depending on who you are, you either ignore it for two years or two months or two weeks or whatever you can tolerate, or you race to the doctor and demand every test there is. Maybe you’re a person who takes good care of herself and you go for some routine test and something unusual, slightly worrisome emerges on the screen or on the slide.

However you get into the Waiting, somehow you get there. First maybe you get very practical, ask if you need a ride home or can you drive yourself after the procedure. Sometimes you have to start the pre-Waiting Wait when you know you’re facing the test but they can’t do it for a few days or a week. My friend had hers done right there, no pre-Waiting Waiting. Just regular Waiting.

Why must we always wait over a weekend?

So we get the test and we wait. One day, two days, four, a week. Over the weekend. “Why is it always over a weekend?” my friend asks.

My friend thought it would be a good distraction to talk about the Waiting, rather than the potential outcomes. She says she feels like she has choices within the Waiting.

To Google or Not To Google

“I could Google madly,” she says. “I could delude myself into thinking I was educating myself, being a smart patient, taking control, but really it would be a choice to torture myself. Right now I don’t have anything but the waiting. Googling is always terrifying because what would I find? Worst-case nightmares. Blogs of lovely, dying women. Warped stats. And no real guidance or perspective. I know myself. I will not be drawn to the rational information. I will go for the gore. I know it sounds tempting, but I’m choosing NOT to Google just yet.”

Are there degrees of Waiting?

She has other choices, too, she says. Mental tricks she could play on herself while Waiting. “I could let my mind torture me with gruesome physical procedures and wrenching emotional scenes. There’s definitely part of me that’s already writing the letters to my kids. I would definitely do the dying mom video journals where you talk to them about everything, you know, like, ‘Here’s Mom on Sex’ or ‘Mom’s Advice on Relationships.’ Just all the things I want to tell them,” she says.

She pauses. “I think the reason I can indulge in this kind of thinking without completely losing my mind is because of the kind of waiting I’m doing. The actual chance, statistical chance, of me having anything bad is so small. There are definitely degrees of waiting. My doctor is aggressive, conservative and into ruling out the worst-case. My waiting offers more luxuries in thinking because there’s only a tiny chance the news is bad and even if it is the baddest, worst thing, let’s just say it is, it will definitely suck, but I probably wouldn’t die. I would feel differently if I had a significant chance of having The Thing and if it was a thing that would kill me.”

I ask her if she is going to do anything different today or this weekend, if the Waiting will have an impact on not only the choices she makes in her head but in her life.

“Totally,” she says quickly. “I’m not doing one ounce of work this weekend. We’ll do a family day trip somewhere we keep meaning to get to but never go. I’m going to be present. Pay attention. And I’m going to buy jeans. Fancy, obscenely expensive, made-for-ladies jeans. Two pairs. Maybe even three.”

About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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