Cancer Covered Blog

The Dance

The last time I saw her, we both knew what was about to happen.

The sudden change in her cancer’s behavior, its recent appearance in her brain and spinal cord, had unsteadied her steps. She was now, too suddenly, in a wheelchair – though it might’ve been the only visible clue that she was dying: her cheeks were still full and colorful, and she still smiled and laughed easily. She was still too young and too lovely, a woman who deserved much more time than she was going to get, with a family that deserved more time with her than they were going to have.

She’d let me be her doctor for four years, and now my bag of tricks was empty.

We’d talked for years about the arrival of this day, not knowing exactly when it would come or what it would look like. Over four years we were gentle but nervous partners in a peculiar dance. She’d step through symptom descriptions, trying not to make too much of small things but worrying she’d leave out a critical detail. I’d analyze intently, looking for patterns but cautious to avoid over-interpretation, and all the while trying to anticipate what she needed and wanted to know. I’m not sure we were ever graceful, but we did develop a comfortable rhythm.

But one day about two years before she died, she interrupted our usual waltz with an uncharacteristically direct question. I was explaining that her current treatment wasn’t working anymore, that it was time to change to a different one, and was going over the schedule and potential upside when she interrupted me.

“Does this mean it’s getting closer?” she’d asked simply.

Her face made clear what she meant by “it”.

My ears were ringing a little as I tried to find the answer that would be truthful, but still easy for her to hear – the one that would tell her she was going to be all right and not to worry and to please please don’t cry, the one that would still let me be the comforter and the good guy, and would somehow make me ok with this unfolding tragedy.

I looked in my dance partner’s eyes, at the earnest sincerity behind her question, and took a breath.

“Yes. That’s what it means.”

And then we sat quietly together for a while.

Dr. Mitch Winkler signature
J. Mitchell Winkler, MD

Mitch has boundless energy and an unyielding approach to finding the most suitable solutions for each of his patients.

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