After my doctor in Weaverville found a lump on my left breast in July, a dizzying round of appointments began, continuing, unabated, after the breast cancer diagnosis and beyond. The early appointments were mostly diagnostic in nature, which meant I saw those folks just long enough for them to scan, poke or stick my breasts, so there was no reason for them to remember my name, other than to send me a bill.
But once I started seeing other doctors on a regular basis, my campaign began.
It was simple, really. For insurance-filing purposes, I used my formal name “Elizabeth,” but no one who knows me ever calls me that. In fact, hearing it always gives me a chill, because I associate it with unpleasant occasions — the first day of school in a new place, my parents when they were angry, and now the name on the many medical bills I get in the mail. Nothing good.
So every time a nurse came out and called “Elizabeth?” into the waiting room, I’d smile and say, “Actually, it’s Beth. I prefer Beth.”
Somehow, at Dr. LeBlanc’s, my breast surgeon’s office in Asheville, they got it immediately, as did my nurse navigator, Denise Steuber, at Mission Health. After the first time, I was always “Beth” to them. It’s amazing how much that has meant to me.
One of the most difficult things for me about the breast cancer experience from diagnosis to treatment is how depersonalizing it is. At the diagnostic-stage appointments, there was the most cursory acknowledgment of my personhood before attention was turned to my breast or my lump. Of course, this was a necessary thing — that’s what their job was — but it still gave me the sense of being reduced to my tumor. I, as a person, didn’t seem to exist.
It doesn’t help either that every time I look in the mirror now after getting out of the shower, I feel a jolt. It’s taking a while to adjust to that new person I see. Where my breasts used to be, there’s an angry red line stretching from armpit to armpit. The medication I take to keep cancer at bay has already thinned my hair, and what’s left seems lankier and grayer. Adding insult to injury, though balding on top, I seem to have a rapidly growing peach fuzz beard (also compliments of the medication). Yes, I’m glad to be alive, but sometimes I still feel that I’m looking at a stranger in the mirror. A not very attractive stranger, at that.
So as I’ve trudged my way through endless appointments, I’ve found myself searching almost desperately for any way to get these people who are so intimately acquainted with my body to recognize my whole being. Something that would help me recognize myself, to feel a little less alien. I’ve been prodded, squeezed, stuck, drained, cut and sewn, and now I want them to see me as more than a malignancy. I want them to call me Beth.
Perhaps it should be enough for me that the doctors treated my cancer. And truly, I’m grateful for that. I know that doctors are pressed for time these days. But when you can do something so simple to help a patient feel whole again, why would you not?
The first time I went to my breast surgeon’s office after the mastectomy, I was a mess. I felt Frankensteinish — the long gash across my chest crisscrossed with Steri-Strips and drains coming out of holes under my armpits on each side. But when the nurse came out, smiled at me and said, “Hi, Beth!” I felt tears spring to my eyes.
I was a mess, and it was going to take a while for me to figure out my new normal, but somewhere under all the outer wreckage of myself, I was still there. Beth was still there. It didn’t take any extra time for them to remember that I preferred “Beth.” Just a little extra effort. And it meant the world to me.
When I go to the oncologist, I fill out a form listing any new symptoms. At the top, I always write “BETH” in large print and underline it. But they still call me “Elizabeth.” It’s October now — Breast Cancer Awareness Month. So next time, I’m taking my pink highlighter. I’m going to write at the top, “I prefer ‘Beth.’” And I’m going to highlight it with pink. I don’t know if it will make any difference, but at least that little bit of boldness might be the step I need towards finding my old, ass-kickin’ self again. My body may not be intact, but I’m pretty sure my spirit is.
Beth Rudolph grew up in eastern North Carolina, but always dreamed of living in the mountains. In 2003, she, her husband and two children finally followed their hearts west, first living in Boone, then Asheville. Her children are grown now, but she and her husband still live in a doublewide on a hilltop in Alexander where they can see the beautiful skyline of Asheville, the sun rise over blue mountains, and the endless expanse of sky. She is glad to be alive.