• Crysta Balis

April Fool's Day - The Day I Found Out I Have Covid Cancer

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

And What I Would Give to be Laughing.


It’s Wednesday, April 1st. April Fool’s Day. I’m standing in the Breast Clinic waiting room at the General Hospital in Ottawa, hands in pockets, tapping a little bottle of sanitizer. I’m looking out the nearest window, eyes scanning the sparse landscape of city line and parking lot. I’m avoiding the other women, doing some old school staring-and-thinking instead of phone scrolling because Covid 19 is on the loose and if He gets on my hands, I know I’ll inevitably end up ingesting Him and getting double pneumonia. I have read too much news lately, and also watched a video of a New York City, Front Line physician reassuring his audience that not touching one’s face was the only way to avoid Covid. It was this video that convinced me not to cancel this appointment – that I could get through it as long as I sanitized my hands and kept them away from my face.


I’m here at the Breast Clinic so I can cross another item off my To Do list, and assure my husband Mark that I’m all clear, that the cyst that was benign in 2017 is still benign.


The other women are sitting. Not wise, I judge. Covid chairs.


“Crysta, So-and-So and So-and-So,” a woman wearing a face mask and shield announces somewhat impatiently even though she just appeared. The other two women stand up. She hurriedly walks through a doorway without us.


“Um. Should we be following you?” I ask her, leading Team Waiting Room.


“Yes. Don’t touch the door. …Here. Put these gowns on. Ties in the front. DO NOT leave anything behind in your changerooms. Then go to the second waiting room down the hall.” Covid changerooms. I tried to change without letting my clothes touch any of the surfaces.


Swanky digs. Someone recently poured money into this Breast Wing. It’s got high ceilings. Textured flooring. Luxury cement. I change and wait in the next room. Home by 10am. Coffee. Take my son, Eli, outside for some air while Baby girl, Mavi, naps, I start planning. When the ultrasound tech calls me, I have already planned dinner. I get butterflies.


“I’m going to book you for an urgent ultrasound,” my family doctor had said. Urgent because the Whitewalkers are coming. I had reassured myself, thinking about the projected numbers of Covid cases that were bound to invade our cities and shut everything down. It’s just a cyst.


The ultrasound is typical. The masked tech is a jovial woman. “If the radiologist wants more images,” she explains, “then we’ll do a mammogram next.”


“Can I wash my hands?” I ask her, eyeing the sink. She obliges.


Twenty minutes later, the radiologist requests a mammogram. More butterflies.


“She needs to get a better picture of what we’re looking at,” says Jovial.


The mammogram is the breast version of a carpenter’s vise clamp. No further description necessary. Jovial, now skirting eye contact, tells me the radiologist would like to see me. I haven’t missed her nuanced avoidance behaviour or the extra push she puts into a chuckle. Does she seem nervous? She takes me into the next room to meet the radiologist, who has warm eyes behind her safety goggles.


“Hi, Crysta?” She’s wearing a polka dot scrub cap. She’s probably beautiful, but I can only see her eyes. Uh oh. She is right-tilting her head. Why is she right-tilting? Something’s off. Let’s get out of here.


Hi. How are you?” I reply.


“Great. Listen. Crysta. I think based on what I’m seeing I would like to get more imaging. I’m going to order you an MRI.”


Murky ultrasounds. Just last year my ultrasounds were long ordeals because Mavi moved around so much. I’m not alarmed. It’s going to take three scans to rule out cancer. “Oh. That sounds good,” I offer, compliantly. Shit. She’s still tilting her head. Something is definitely wrong..


“Yeahhhh… I don’t really like what I’m seeing in the imaging, so.”


She doesn’t like what she’s seeing. She doesn’t ….like… what she’s seeing.


…Does not compute. Doesn’t like - What the fuck does that mean? Ask her what that means!


“…Oh, okay.” I say, the consummate polite kid. “Um, do I have cancer?”


“Crysta, I don’t like to sugar-coat things.”


I picture a lollipop.


“I’m going to tell you honestly….” She continues. “I would say most likely, yes.”



I am dreaming, because the radiologist just said words that don’t describe me or my life. Mark had been asking me to get this lump checked for months. My mind stops and starts again, like an engine puttering on the last drops of gas.


My babies.


And now my heart is my whole body, aching and thudding and yearning to be part of Eli and Mavi’s future. The air splits open up but closes in on me. My babies. I can clearly hear sounds in the distance that were previously indistinct.


“Do you have anyone with you here today?” she tilts her head all the way to Level You’re So So Fucked.


That’s your cue. She just gave you permission to cry.


I have babies!” I sob. The last word releases a deluge of tears.


“I know. It’s hard,” she says, putting her hand on my shoulder. Covid hand. That’s a nice human gesture, I think, respecting the risk she just took to comfort me. She removes her hand. “You know,” she says, still head-tilting, “we have a wonderful resource here. A book about how to deal with cancer as a parent. Actually, let me see if I have a copy. Do you want me to get you the copy?”


She just offered you something. Say something. “Okay, thank you,” I say politely. Your face is soaked. Probably mascara-streaked. “I can’t wipe my face because of Covid,” I say, trying to find eye contact with the avoidant ultrasound tech.


They bring me Kleenex and I try not to let my fingers touch my face while I dab the skin around my eyes. Okay, rein it in. Get down to business. “How will Covid affect things?” I ask. I’d just read an article about cancer surgeries being canceled. Cancer patient casualties. A woman whose surgery was canceled who attempted suicide. It was sad, but far away. Cancer was too distant to understand. Now it’s in this room. It’s me.


“Excellent question. For now, all surgeries have been canceled.”


Fuck.

“Oh. Okay.”


“But some of the benefits of the pandemic… it would normally take another week to schedule you in for a biopsy, but we actually have time right now.” She’s suddenly holding a clipboard and a pen. “If you consent.”


Of course I consent. I take her Covid pen and sign. We’re back to business. I’m being lain back on the table that had been behind me the whole time.


Mark will be wondering where I am. Tears flow down the sides of my face when I think of him, with the kids, wondering. I’m embarrassed by the tears. All I know about cancer are the clichés about fighting and being strong. This crying here like this – this is not being strong.


They’re going to think I’m doomed.


A third person hovers over me. Some injections numb me. More talking. Warm tears involuntarily flow out the corners of my eyes as I nod and pretend I am listening to what they’re saying to me. Loud clicks every time a biopsy is taken, followed by a surge of warmth – the blood – oozing …out of the hole? Ugh. 3 loud clicks in my breast. 2 in my armpit. Lots of warm oozing.


“More compression – here hold this. Get her a new gown.” I wonder if this much blood is normal. Later, when I am free to stand up, I announce that everything is going black and I am gingerly ushered back on the table, feet up. They bring me orange juice and I obediently sip it out of a Covid straw. My God, this is not the behaviour of a fighter.


I’ve been gone for so long, maybe three hours? Mark must know I have cancer. I say something about my husband. Warm Eyes reassures me with something she thinks is hopeful. “You know, for some women, it’s only spread as far as the lymph nodes.”


Spread... Spread… Spread… Spread…. Spread…


“You’ll get the biopsy results in a week. You’ll meet with the surgeon then, and you’ll want to have your partner there for that meeting,” says Warm Eyes.


“But I was told I can’t have guests at the hospital,” I interject, “and Covid – there’s no one to watch the kids.”


Warm Eyes squints her eyes. “Right… right,” she says in an apologetic tone.


I’m given the Cancer parenting book and some instructions to keep my wounds clean. I hear none of them and I try to repeat them back but only make the new face, the third person who’d appeared and stayed behind when everyone else left, sigh and repeat the instructions. I grow faint again when I stand, but I need to get out of this room. Third Face asks me if I’m sure. I hesitate, but if I can just get to the car then I can finally cry without being worried that all these specialists will see me as an unworthy cancer opponent.


The elevator doors close and I sob. When they open, I exit and stifle more sobs. As I pass Module B, I see a guy sitting in Covid chairs. His head is bald – chemo bald –Oh my God I’m one of you now - and I sob. You’re an asshole. He saw you look at him. I can’t help it. I exit the building. Enter the parking lot. I can see my car. I’m so close. I sob. Finally, my car. The tears are now pouring out. I pull out my sanitizer and douse it on my hands through blurred vision. I open the car door. Sanitize again.


I’m finally free. Yes. Do it. You’ve earned it. I wale on the steering wheel and console as I’ve seen them do in movies. I am screaming and sobbing and crying and screaming again, all while punching the steering wheel. The adrenaline that has been building up for three tortuous hours begins to dissipate, and I stop punching but keep sobbing.


Oh this feels good. I look in my rear-view window. Two people sit quietly in the car behind me, undoubtedly wondering at this spectacle. Fuckem. I used up my last ounce of self-consciousness in the Breast Wing.



I see the Cancer book I must have flung to the passenger seat: “What About My Kids? A Guide for Parents Living with Breast Cancer.” The word Kids taps the endless reserve of warm tears that will continue to fall for days. A big white label over the title reads “Please return to the Psychosocial Oncology Program of The Ottawa Hospital. Thank you.” Oh my God they gave me the ward copy. How doomed am I?


The car is in drive, and I’m exiting the parking lot. Radio on, an overcast day. I’m on my way home to Mark and the kids. More tears. This is just the beginning. There will be many Zoom calls. Many sleepless nights. Many more tests, and many more tears. Many restrictions on the supports we can get. Much love that shows itself in the kindness of friends and family and acquaintances who want to help. For now, I focus on the road ahead of me. It’s leading me home to Mark, Eli and Mavi. I’ll be there soon, I think. All that matters to me right now is them. I’m coming home.

Read the sequel, "Spread" HERE

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