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The Other Seat

by Melissa Gallagher

Inspiration image

Melissa Gallagher (right) with her mother-in-law Carol Gallagher

On March 10, 2005, I was diag­nosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer when I was just 26 years old. I experienced a slew of emotions after the cancer bomb was dropped on my life, but self-pity was never one of them. In a way, I was relieved that I was the one with cancer and I didn’t have to watch one of my loved ones go through it. In my mind, now that our cancer card had been dealt, that meant my family members would somehow be protected from having to face this awful disease themselves. I’ve since learned that it doesn’t work like that.

For nearly a decade, I had been the one sitting in the “hot seat.” I’ve sat in the seat directly across from the oncologists as they explain options and rattle off medical terms. I’ve sat in the seat where you wait to be called into the exam room, the seat where you await your chemo hookup, the seat that gets wheeled into the operating room and then to recovery.

Fortunately, I’ve always had someone sitting in the seat beside me. Someone has always been there to hold my hand while I wait. Someone has always sat next to me, hearing the doc­tors say the same things I was hearing them say. Someone has always been waiting for me every time I’ve been examined or had an operation. For this I’m thankful, as I now know that the “other seat” is also a tough one to sit in.

For nearly a decade, I had been the one sitting in the “hot seat.” I now know that the “other seat” is also a tough one to sit in.

In November 2013, I received a phone call from my mother-in-law that shattered my belief that my cancer diagnosis would spare my family from the same fate. I felt my legs give out and the air escape my lungs as I heard the all too familiar words: oncologist, surgeon, cancer. For a fleeting second, I thought my own denial could prevent the things she was saying to me from being reality. If I just said no enough times, I could stop all this from happen­ing to her the way it happened to me.

Within a week, I was sitting beside my mother-in-law during a surgical con­sultation. This time, I wasn’t sitting in my regular seat; I was in the other seat.

I toyed with the stack of business cards on the desk in front of me and glanced around the room. I wondered if the nurse realized that I was sitting in the wrong chair. I listened as the nurse asked my mother-in-law questions about her ovarian cancer symptoms. Reality was caving in on me. I gave her a quick smile, as if to say, “Don’t worry; it’s going to be OK,” but really I felt like I had been transported back to the day I learned of my own diagno­sis. All the familiar feelings resurfaced – fear, desperation, hope, uncertainty.

I had always been thankful that my family members never had to sit in my seat. Today, I know how it feels to sit in theirs. Neither one is desirable. But with someone in each, you’ll never have to navigate the rough seas of cancer alone.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Melissa Gallagher is a two-time small cell ovarian cancer survivor living in West Islip, NY.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2015.