Hardly a quiver in the dirt

23 08 2020

Do I have cancer?

I mean, the surgeon scooped out the tumor and got clean margins, and there’s nothing to indicate a spread, so: do I have cancer?

I’m still a cancer patient: I start radiation this week, and after that’s completed, I’ll be on hormone treatments for five years, but both of those are to lower the risk of recurrence. Sure, the radiation could zap any stray carcinoma cells—presumably that’s one of the ways it reduces risks—but it seems weird for me to say “I have cancer” when. . . maybe I don’t?

Yes, I know: it’s too soon to tell. Oncologists speak the language of “x-year survival rates”, and one month out of surgery is not enough time to know much beyond what they discovered in the surgery itself. I had a tumor, and now a don’t, and while I know that matters, I’m still not wholly sure what that means.

My puzzlement may stem from the fact that the docs caught this early, none of my tests indicate a propensity to metastasis, and, importantly, I won’t be undergoing chemotherapy. I’m old enough that cancer still carries the implications of chemo and hair loss and nausea and “looking like a cancer patient”; well, I am a cancer patient, but you wouldn’t know it to look at me.

I am not in any way complaining about this: like I said, I am VERY GLAD not to need, and thus not to have to endure, chemo. But it makes it [too?] easy for me to think that my cancer is just this summer thing that I’m dealing with, and not much more than that.

And maybe that’s fine, because maybe it isn’t much more than that. Goddess knows I have carried too much HEIGHTENED DRAMATIC MUSIC into too many situations in my life, so maybe my measured response now is. . . appropriate.

Or maybe this is one of those cases in which I’m refusing to listen to the minor chords that (appropriately) accompany cancer.

I don’t know. I don’t even know how much thought to give to this. It matters, yes, but how, and how much? I’ve yet to find out.





I can no longer shop happily

12 08 2020

Cancer requires stuff.

If you’re getting chemo, then there’s a good chance that you’ll need something for your head: wigs, scarves, hats—something to cover you and keep you warm.

Happily, I will not be getting chemo, but my particular surgery and the radiation has required me to buy:

  • sports bras (aka cheap compression bras): to keep the girls in place
  • saltines & ginger ale: to deal with post-surgical nausea
  • Aquafor: to deal with the “skin irritation” (aka burns) from the radiation
  • hydrocortisone cream: to deal with the “skin irritation” (aka itching) from the radiation
  • cheap undershirts: to protect my clothes from the Aquafor and hydrocortisone cream
  • aluminum-free deodorant: presumably to somehow not mess with the radiation
  • fragrance-free soap: presumably to avoid further skin irritation
  • cloth masks with filter inserts: Strictly speaking, this is more about the corona virus than the cancer, but since I’ll be commuting into Manhattan every day for four weeks to get zapped, I wanted something that would be both more environmentally-friendly and more effective than surgical masks. (The clinic will still give me a surgical mask to wear instead of my cloth one, but that’s on them.)

My radiation oncologist also suggested I use ratty old bras, since “you’re not getting them clean” after all of the creams; since I already have those, however, that’s not a required buy.

Again, had I needed chemo, I’d probably have had to buy even more stuff, to deal with the nausea (for the tummy) and the effects of nausea (for the throat and mouth), and things I haven’t even considered, and won’t consider, because, honestly, I don’t have to, and this is already enough.

So, yes, I am learning *so much* from this cancer; I would have preferred to have remained ignorant.





Down here so laughable and small

9 08 2020

I mentioned on Twitter that I’d recently had cancer surgery, and someone—a Dr Lilly Evans—who responded encouragingly also told me to “accept help you are offered”.

I’m not so great at that.

It’s not that I don’t want help. . . sometimes, but that I have difficulty accepting it. . . sometimes.

When I told my friends in NYC that I had cancer and would be getting surgery, they all asked what they could do, volunteered to take me home. I accepted because I knew I’d be in no shape to get myself home, and insisting I could do Everything myself would have just been dumb.

Also, the clinic was clear that I if I didn’t have someone to pick me up, they wouldn’t perform the surgery.  So there’s that.

So I asked my friend C, who lives near me in Brooklyn, to pick me up. She’s one of my oldest New York friends and, as I’d told her, we’ve been drunk together, so she wouldn’t be fazed if I were loopy coming out of the clinic.

Anyway, I’m not sure what more any of them can do. Friends here and elsewhere regularly check in, and C and I have gone on a couple of walks. My parents call and my sister texts to see if I’m all right; it makes it easier that I mostly am.

I don’t know that I will be, come the radiation. I know: don’t borrow trouble, but this is going to be harder on me than the surgery. It’s one thing to have surgery and within two weeks be largely recovered; the radiation will last weeks, with the effects lingering even longer.

It’s also going to drive home that, yes, I am a cancer patient. I was diagnosed at the end of June and had the lump removed about a month later; I barely had time to have cancer before it was scooped out of me.

That’s not how it works, of course. Or maybe, not of course, since I still don’t know how this works, still don’t know how to be a cancer patient. And I suspect that the radiation—and the chemo, if I need it—will drive home that indeed I am, whether or not I know what that identity means.

~~~

It’s easier in the clinics. I’ve told friends that I’ve amassed my own collection of doctors within Mount Sinai, but, really, it’s more that they’ve collected bits of me. The radiologist, surgical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and medical oncologist, each with their own sight into my cells and my treatment, don’t wait to be asked for help. Their secretaries set up the appointments, and I show up.

Taking care of these bits of me is their job.

And it’s one they do very well. Y’all know I’m all about “brand loyalty is for suckers”, but I have received terrific care from almost everyone at each of the Mount Sinai clinics I’ve visited. (And those who haven’t been terrific were still. . . fine.) Everyone from the receptionists to the secretaries to the techs to the nurses and to the doctors themselves have all been real human beings, and have treated me the same.

My second biopsy was rough, in and out of the MRI, and at the end of a long day of testing and waiting. Every time they pulled me out of the machine, one of the nurses would come beside me, put her hand on my back, and cover my hand, to keep it warm. She didn’t have to do that, and I wouldn’t have even thought to have asked for it; I get the sense she does that for everyone.

The doctors have been straightforward, and, during procedures (in which I was conscious), have explained what they were doing, asked how I was doing, asked if I had questions, and, when they could, chatted about. . . whatever. And as soon as they had results, they called, and outlined what was next.

So even if they were there to deal only with bits of me, they still treated the whole of me as what—or who—ultimately mattered. I expected them to be professional; I didn’t expect them to be kind.

~~~

Maybe that’s what makes it easier to accept help from these professionals: that they are professionals. I expect that if they’re good with me, they’re good with everyone. It’s nothing personal, so I can let them take care of me. That’s what they do.

Yeah, I know, that’s what friends do, too; it’s just that with them, it’s all personal. And that makes it hard.





I got some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days

5 08 2020

My world, along with everyone else’s, dwindled as COVID spread; with the cancer diagnosis, it tilted.

Less than two months ago and I was wondering about fall teaching, how long New York would be shut down, the election—the election!—and trying to get back to sustained writing.

Well.

You know how a fish-eye lens distorts the view, bringing the center object in too close and pushing everything way far back? Yeah, that’s a cancer diagnosis. I’d guess that’s how it would be in normal-ish times, but in a pandemic, that contrast between fore- and back-ground is vertiginous.

Oddly, the pandemic has made my treatment. . . easier. That I’m teaching online gave me all kinds of flexibility for the many appointments I’ve had (and will have), and that clinics want to minimize contact means that I can fill out most of the “paperwork” online ahead of time. I’m not yet sure of my radiation treatment schedule (besides that it’ll be daily), but I won’t have to race up to/down from the Bronx before teaching my first/after teaching my last class to get that treatment.

And the trains are empty, which means I always get a seat coming home.

Cancer is terrible, and this pandemic is terrible, but their combination, for me, is somehow not twice as terrible, and may even be less terrible.

I don’t know if it’s that abrupt shift between the intimately personal and global, between the entire set of tasks I have to do to deal with my cancer and that feeling of helpless rage over the absolute and complete fuck-up that is the response of the US to this horrible virus that somehow lessens the impact on me.

Or maybe it’s recognition that before the diagnosis I was avoiding something that could make me very sick and perhaps even kill me, and now I’m dealing with something that could make me very sick and perhaps kill me—but probably won’t, because doctors have a better handle on my type of cancer than they do on this type of corona virus.

And while my anger at the cancer has pretty much dissipated, it has only increased at the response to the virus. I live in a city in which over 20,000 of us have died, lived through days in which hundreds and hundreds of people died. Both the mayor and governor made mistakes early on, mistakes which cost some portion of those lives, but they got better, and in the past 3 days zero deaths have been reported.

Other states, cities, could have learned from our mistakes, could have avoided the spike in cases, in suffering, in death, but too many of them didn’t. And even when politicians did the right thing, some portion of the public continues to insist on doing the wrong thing.

And the federal government and current occupant of the White House? My rage has gone supernova: I am blank.

There are no magic incantations against cancer, no magic incantations against this virus. The options are all unpleasant, and have a cost, but just as I as a cancer patient at least have options to avoid even more unpleasantness—and death—so too does the government and we as a society have those options.

Pity too many of us aren’t taking them.