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Diagnosis: Critical Mass

The doorbell rang but I sat motionless while my husband greeted our visitor. He made the appointment with this new specialist against my wishes and was now directing her to the living room where I sat staring at my clenched hands. As a career cancer patient, I was fed up with specialists, hospitals and therapies. Sensing my reluctance, she put her briefcase on the table and studied me patiently.

“Are there symptoms?”

I nodded silently and gazed in the other direction

“This is really painful, isn’t it?” she said.

Another silent nod.

“Do you mind if we begin?” She was trying to be sensitive, but I resented one more intrusion into my precious time. Art is my nirvana/meditation/sanity/soul, and I needed to be at the easel. Finally, I faced her squarely. “Did you bring anesthesia?”

It was more of a challenge than a question, but my fabulous care-giver husband had prepared her. She pulled from her briefcase and handed me the required medical marvel – fresh, gooey fudge generously embedded with a zillion pecans and drizzled all over with caramel. Survival comes in many forms.

“Let her start the examination,” I relented. My husband took her down the hall to the bedroom and opened the closet. I heard her audible gasp, and already knew the dreaded diagnosis: Critical Closet Mass.

I wasn’t even into my second chunk of fudge before she was in front of me, wild-eyed and demonic.

“Well?” I looked up at her, mumbling through the delicious gunk in my mouth. “How bad is it? What’s the recommended procedure?” (Specialists always use that term.)

“Radical de-bulking. Immediately,” she replied.

Whoa. I wasn’t prepared for this! I needed more time to plan and adjust; maybe hide some things. She obviously didn’t understand the complex clothing requirements of a chronic cancer lifestyle. I led her back to the closet and explained my system, which had evolved over several years of chemotherapy and double-digit surgical events:

A. After surgery garments, large and loose.

B. Between chemo clothing when I can wear normal people clothes.

C. Chemo-infusion outfits, warm and cozy — with access to my medical port.

D. Drug-reaction clothes to accommodate a full body rash and peeling blisters.

E. Evening wear not paint-splattered yet (artists always have wet paint somewhere).

F. Fat clothes for when my Graves/Hashimoto’s disease is acting up.

While my method was alphabetical order, my closet looked like alphabet soup. The closet doc was clearly overwhelmed, so I didn’t even try to explain what every experienced chemo-club member knows: Never throw anything away, because shopping is impossibly difficult. We just stood there, our eyes locked in silent negotiation.

My husband had promised to find an experienced specialist. This one’s toughest assignment so far had been too many pairs of red shoes – so I calmed her with fudge.

It was just in time because she was slowly raising her eyes toward the top shelf, stacked with the most essential clothing item for a perpetual chemo patient – hats. She stared in disbelief at my prized collection, which started 20-something years ago with my first cancer diagnosis. You know the drill – if it fits and you look good in it, buy one in every color.

“Fran, you just have to let go,” she whispered. Was she kidding? I’ve spent years clutching at life with my fingernails (beautifully manicured, thank you) and now somebody says, “Let go.” I don’t think I know how.

“Do it for your husband,” she pleaded. “Your book says, ‘dare to dream’; your husband dreams of using the closet.”

I sighed, acknowledging that quantity wasn’t the only issue. During dinner last night, my husband tactfully remarked how much styles had changed over the years while I was “out to chemo.”

Maybe it’s time to throw it all out and start over? You can bet your boots – this is going to require LOTS of fudge.

Fran Di Giacomo is an artist, and author of I’d Rather Do Chemo Than Clean Out the Garage: Choosing Laughter Over Tears. She has lived with metastatic ovarian cancer for 14 years.

Visit Fran at

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