The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.


by Meagan SheddBreast CancerFebruary 23, 2020View more posts from Meagan Shedd

This post originally ran on Meagan’s website. See the original by clicking here.

My car navigates into the parking lot as the skies darken. As always, I find the spots identifying “for cancer center patients” and hesitate in locating my vehicle in one with their close proximity to the building, scanning for a non-reserved location that might be further away. The internal battle that wages about the necessity of this spot is brief and yet real, triggering an avalanche of emotion that causes a slight backup of traffic behind me, and I realize that I need to move and quickly.

Exiting my car and heading toward the building, I notice the entry to the birthing center where I delivered my son nearly 13 years ago immediately adjacent to the cancer center where I will have my appointment and again I am simply stuck. As the rain begins to pelt down on me, I pretend to look in my bag for something and sprint back to the safety of my car as if I have left behind a critical item. The truth is that I have forgotten my courage and need to collect myself as I dive into the safety of my silver Volkswagen and sit quietly, letting the familiar sense of panic wash over me perfectly timed with the thunderclaps outside. I figure I have exactly three minutes to think about the irony of one door leading to where I brought life into the world and another where I could learn of the timeline for my death.

Taking a deep breath and grateful for raindrops that ruin makeup as much as tears, I head back in, willfully ignoring the door to the right as if in some warped game of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

Checking in, I share my name, correcting its pronunciation several times while I provide the paperwork I completed in advance to expedite my appointment. Anticipated to span three hours, I am told to take a seat among the upholstered chairs in the otherwise stark waiting room, and anyone with a single semester of psychology or enough free time on the googles would be able to diagnose my condition based on my choice. I am alone. A friend and colleague offered to accompany me, but in my usual way of not wanting to inconvenience anyone, I declined her offer.

When one is hoping for the best but expecting the worst, there is perhaps a small handful of people I want to witness my response. Irony is that none of them offered to be there anyway. I am thinking about this when I am interrupted by his voice telling me to move and I look up when he says it again.

I ask him if I am in his seat, knowing full well there aren’t assigned seats and there weren’t any items indicating someone had left something behind. Before me is a small, frail, jaundiced, elderly gentleman. Dressed in jeans, a collared shirt, and ball cap, he is holding a small denim bag that appears to hold tattered paperback books in one hand and a coffee in the other hand. Once more he instructs me to move because I am in his seat. Glancing up at the staff member at the front counter who appears to be amused I move two seats over which apparently is not what was desired. Once more I am told that I am in the wrong seat. He points to the middle seat, “sit here.” It seems he wants me to sit next to him.

Reluctantly, I move. Looking up, the handful of patients and others in the waiting room are watching what is taking place. He is now settling in, placing his coffee cup on the table, pulling out books, and taking me in. He tells me I am beautiful, and the soft chuckle from the gentleman across the room is audible. The front desk staff person comes out to hand me more forms and talks to the man next to me, telling “Julian” to be nice to me. Julian is peering over my shoulder as I complete the paperwork, firing questions at a rapid pace, and I ask him if he would be okay if I take a few minutes to complete the forms quietly.

As I get up to hand them back, he also gets up for more coffee, and it is my chance to move seats. He follows.

Once more he tells me I am beautiful and instructs me to repeat a series of phrases after him. When I decline he is adamant that I repeat the phrases, and so I quietly repeat that I am beautiful to placate him, feeling more than uncomfortable. He is not shy about personal space, touching my arm, nudging my leg, commenting on my teeth. He asks about my family, my cancer diagnosis, and anything and everything while he pulls out a book with his neat and even notes in the margins and asks me to read phrases, make copies, interpret his annotations, and what I think about them.

My legs twitch as I try to listen politely for approximately 20 minutes, but there is a breaking point for me about Dr. Phil and the power of positive thinking and I crack. Finally, I tell Julian that there is empirical research suggesting that positive thinking may not be helpful for all patients and asking cancer patients to be positive all the time can have a deleterious effect.

He doesn’t seem to like that and his voice raises.

The gentleman in the corner starts to laugh louder. All I can think about is running. Julian tells me that it’s in the book so it has to be true and I need to consider it. I ask him what makes him think I haven’t?

He launches into a series of personal stories about his childhood, woven together with a warp of “you know what I’m saying” and the weft of “listen to me.” I halfheartedly listen as he plunges the Dr. Phil book into my hands frantically pointing at passages and instructing me to read about why I need to be positive.

Julian was diagnosed 11 years ago and comes in every week. This is when I fully notice he is also alone. I ask him if he has anyone with him. He looks at me and says, “yes, you.” My heart shatters into a million pieces as I look at him.

My name is called and I excuse myself. He tells me he hopes to see me next week, patting my hand. My eyes well up thinking about what that means. I don’t want to be here next week. I didn’t want to be here at all.

In my appointment I carefully listen to what the two oncologists say and agree to some of their recommendations, declining another one, suggesting to wait six months instead. Leaving the examination room to schedule my next appointment, the front desk staff person who checked me in notes to the scheduler I met Julian and they briefly discuss the encounter. “He’s never taken to another patient like he did with her.”

I briefly wonder if he will be there in six months when I come back. Leaving the cancer center, I glance back to the waiting room to see it is empty, noting the smell of hospital is in my clothes and hair as it always is. Going through the doors the wind pulls at the scent and I stand a bit longer in the rain hoping it will be washed away from me.

Glancing to the left before I step off the curb I catch my reflection in the window, thinking about what Julian said.

“She was beautiful, but not like those girls in the magazines. She was beautiful, for the way she thought. She was beautiful, for the sparkle in her eyes when she talked about something she loved. She was beautiful, for her ability to make other people smile, even if she was sad. No, she wasn’t beautiful for something as temporary as her looks. She was beautiful, deep down to her soul. She is beautiful.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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