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Harpham, Wendy S. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000291767.64216.49

With love and affection I am naming her Blueberry. The “new”smell makes me swoon as my fingers slide over the slick cupholders and regionally controlled air vents. Time will tell if the preceding weeks of car—dealership shopping and checking out Consumer Reports paid off. Along with safety features and budget constraints, I care about reliability, a top priority since I'm in cancer treatment and can't afford a breakdown.

A week or so into my blue—minivan bliss, the sky opens up. I turn on the wipers. The wipers don't turn on. “What the…?” Leaning forward—as if with my face touching the windshield I could peek between the raindrops for a clear view of the road!—I make a u—turn and head straight to the dealership, all the while muttering to myself, “No big deal. Just a minor new—car wrinkle.”After not one, not two, but three visits to the dealership, Blueberry is cured of misfiring wipers.

A few weeks go by before I notice a weird buzzing noise coming from the dash. I'd like to turn the radio louder and forget about it, but I do the right thing and take Blueberry to the shop. Two days later my mechanic has the problem diagnosed and fixed, and I'm back behind the wheel. It takes another day or two before I assume I'll get to where I'm going, instead of listening for the buzz and wondering if my beloved blue minivan can make the trip without a hitch.



Blueberry reminds me of my recurrent cancer. I'd rather be working, or traveling, or doing pretty much anything—even laundry—instead of going to the cancer clinic (again) for diagnostic scans, consultations, treatments, and post—treatment exams. I've long ago accepted that life is unfair and you gotta do what you gotta do, but—and I'm not complaining; just stating facts—cancer can be so darned inconvenient when I'm trying to live my life. Her Royal Highness signals me with an enlarged lymph node here or a new pain there, and I have to drop what I'm doing and respond to her demands (maybe not that minute or even that day, but soon enough).

“What now?”My kids are howling with delight at Blueberry's latest antics. The inside lights are blinking on and off. I see my afternoon plans vaporize. Then a warning “ding—ding—ding”sounds in rhythm with the flashing lights. I shift gears and pay attention to everything so I can give a good history to my buddy at the dealership who recognizes my voice from “Hello.”I'm not the least bit worried. He'll find the electrical glitch and get it fixed. Eventually, anyway.

He's fixing Blueberry while I'm getting a lift home and while I'm taking my husband to work (so I can borrow hubby's reliable 11—year old car). He's still fixing Blueberry while I'm picking up my husband from work and, later, when I'm stuck at home while my daughter drives to practice. Finally, he calls to tell me Blueberry is “like new.”Like new? Like “Blueberry new”? Or like “good car new”? So I find someone to drop me off at the dealership, where I wait in line to pay and then wait for them to bring her out. Buckled up, I drive back home, watching and waiting to see if the current problem is really fixed.

Everyone has car troubles now and then, but Blueberry is a lemon. She may not meet the legal criteria under the Lemon Law since each new problem is repaired in three or less visits, but, hey, a rose is a rose. Dang! The ignition won't turn. I'm calling a tow truck. I'm canceling my plans so that I can take Blueberry to the dealership for her thirty—sixth (and counting) service visit. Ah, my poor One—and—only with the cool cupholders and regionally controlled air vents. My sweet Blueberry. I must hold onto hope that this repair is my last repair, the end of my car troubles.

Hallelujah! Now six years later, I can tell you it was.

A million reasons can explain why patients get edgy or rude or demanding. They may be in pain, sleep—deprived, frightened, or angry at the whole world. Or, in fact, they may be feeling pretty good, totally at peace with their disease and their Maker, and most grateful for their health care team, but they are momentarily torqued by the inconvenience of their illness.

I try to deal in healthy ways with both my cancer and my car. After linking up with qualified professionals, I comply with their prescriptions and am punctual with tune—ups. When early signs of trouble develop or serial problems wear me out, I strive for the equanimity needed to do the right thing. I even try making lemonade out of lemons, blending optimism and humor with hope. Yet, when feeling trapped by fate, I occasionally break down, leaking expressions of frustration and anger. I am so, so sorry.

I've learned that whether dealing with cancer or a problem—prone car, it helps to go with the flow. But illness is different than car troubles (or most anything else, for that matter). Patients who feel pushed to the breaking point don't have the option of trade—ins or trade—ups, only trade—offs. This is a reality of which I am reminded every time I leave the cancer clinic and confidently buckle up in Greenbean, my reliable green van.

© 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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