A Bear, a Little Monkey, and a Mountain
Our neighborhood cinnamon bear came through the yard a few days ago. Our two dogs began raising hell before the bear came out of the woods behind our house. I jumped up from my chair on the deck, where I’d been sitting in the sun pecking away at my keyboard like a drunken woodpecker on an old birch tree, and to be safe, I yelled to Saoirse to climb up into our neighbor’s playhouse. The bear was just passing through, with no interest in us or our annoying dogs. Even with an enticing morsel of a child, dangling on the swings, dressed in a monkey costume, the bear had some other destination on his mind. Whatever the case, the bear was headed down the mountain with purpose and intention.
On Monday, a few days after the passing bear, Annette had her second PET scan. This is the head to toe scan to find active cancer cells in the body. On Sunday she kept to a strict diet of nothing fun or tasty (only protein, and non-starch veggies, and water – plain protein, no fruit, no sugar --- plain, no and non-this and that-and all blah). She handled that well, though the demand that she do absolutely nothing all day. No exercise what-so-ever for a day, including chewing gum for 24 hours, is a near impossible act for someone like her. They want to minimize activity of body cells before the scan. Then, because of the Covid-19 disruptions to flights that deliver the isotopes from Seattle, she had to wait on Monday to eat anything at all until after her appointment was over at 4 pm. She went to the PET alone while I took the kids to the dump, which arguably could have been more painful. We sat in a line of overloaded pickups in howling wind with debris and dust and stink flying everywhere, while she sat alone completely still in a dark room for an hour after the injection of isotopes, and then onto the CT table for the actual scan which takes another twenty minutes. We were still in line at the dump when she called from the parking lot, where she sat devouring some snacks. When I hung up the phone, Atticus asked, “did she get an ‘A’ on her test?”
We continued sitting in line, inching forward every few minutes towards the swirling pile of trash, while Annette headed home to eat a plate of lasagna a friend brought and two bowls of curry.
The horrible wait for results began. To say it’s easy waiting for results like that is a flat out lie. The anticipation for news is a bit like waiting to see what the dogs are barking at in the woods. Something is coming and there isn’t anything you can do about it. Might be a neighbor kid, or a moose, or a bear, or a bear chasing a moose, or something that you’ll never see. The best plan is usually to draw the kids and dogs in close and wait.
So that is basically what we did.
The first bit of news came from a call Tuesday afternoon from an aid at the oncologist’s office with a quick update. Numbers and stats that Annette’s trembling hand scrawled on a note pad and the words: marked reduction. (This is a fancy medical term that means “obvious” or “noticeable.” But the word is read more like something you’d remember from Shakespeare: mark-ed.) This was good news, for sure. It meant the treatments work. I’m not going to lie. I think we were both hoping for the sort of miracle where the tumor reduction wasn’t only marked, but dead-ed (a non-medical term that I just made up that means really f---ing dead).
After the kids went to bed, we did something we’ve been avoiding. We opened up our computers and began researching what those numbers and stats she wrote down meant. She’d had an SUV score of 16.9 and now it was 2.4. So yes, Atticus, she got an “A" if the lower number is good news (which it is). However, this also seemed to mean more chemotherapy ahead. On Wednesday, her PA called and they chatted and when she hung up and didn’t come out of the bedroom, I knew something was going on. I went back and we sat together on the edge of the bed and she dropped the bomb that early indications appeared that, after two months of chemotherapy already, she had a Deauville score of three, which meant at least three more months of treatments to go. We tried to focus on the good news that the therapy was working, but this seemed crushing to think that she was only a third of the way up the mountain or a third of the way into this cancer marathon.
I delivered the kids to my sister’s on Wednesday afternoon to begin our bi-weekly exchange of kids and chaos for chemo and quiet. Then Thursday morning Annette began her ritual preparations for treatment: a smoothie (this time with treasured tundra blueberries from our friend’s Liz and Andy) and her brisk walk around the neighborhood with the dogs.
Together, we headed into Alaska Regional, masked up, and ready to get the process underway. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that we looked like that bear that went through our yard. Headed somewhere with purpose. We knew that we’d get to sit down with Dr. Liu, her incredible oncologist, for the real debriefing of the PET scan, and then she’d back in the chemo chair.
The kind doctor took us back into his office and his computer screen lit up with the scans of her body. I’d never seen the thousands of image of a scan like that, and he flipped through the screens with the similar ease I’d have flipping through the screens of one of my screenplays or a novel until I find the page I’m looking for. He explained what we were seeing, and showed the difference from the scan in February to this week. My medically ignorant (and color blind) eyes could see the dramatic difference. The monstrous blob in her chest, like her physicians told us in the beginning, melted as they said it would. The activity in the tumor was all but gone.
On top of that great news, he delivered the choice in front of Annette. She could go for another six chemotherapy treatments with possible radiation, or four with certain radiation. This is the standard process of dealing with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and is a choice many face. The answer for Annette was pretty clear. Go for the plan for four and then radiation.
I can’t quite nail down the right words to describe the relief and elation we both felt in those moments. We knew that by the end of the day, she’d be done with her fifth treatment and that would mean she’s over halfway through the chemotherapy, halfway through the marathon, not just halfway up the mountain, but on the way down.
I feel like with this pandemic we’re all sort of like the cinnamon bear of late, with other destinations on our mind, other places we’d like to be, hoping something better is over the mountain. What I think we should focus on is not so much what is to come, but on the positive news in our lives and the love and time we have together now.