Learning to Die #3: practicum

Brother et moi on a bench in Bois Fort

One morning 3 years after I became a renter, I was sitting on the edge of the bed coming awake when I discovered 7 lumps in my left breast. Those days, I made it a habit to check once a month and I had done so a few weeks before. Now a little garden had bloomed, large lumps and small and at least one too small to be felt if it had not been sore.

My sister/landlady was ill prepared for my appearance in our kitchen.

We got me to the local walk-in clinic somehow “Oh, these are just cysts,” the doctor said while writing a script for a mammogram. “Don’t worry. Be calm.” I had no family doctor. He was far away near the house I had sold. I went to the local hospital for the mammogram. “Oh, these are cysts,” said the technician, “but lets do an ultrasound.” All she said after that was,”Humm.”

I more or less coerced the MD attached to my Tai Chi Club to take me on. He palpated the lumps and studied the pictures, “Probably cysts,” he said and referred me to a surgeon. The surgeon said,”Probably cysts.”, plunged a needle into the largest one and drew out an astonishing amount of fluid. Not content, he seized another needle and attacked the next biggest one. Same result. Number 3 didn’t co-operate, a little fluid, then nothing. “Probably mixed,” he muttered. “Well, we’ll have to go in and take a look but I’m 99% sure these are not malignant.” So I got a surgery date three weeks away. Terrified beyond words, I went about my days as usual, walking around our little lake every morning, tutoring high school students from Hong Kong looking to get ‘highest mark’ and cooking dinner. The mantra, “Probably cysts” was continuous in my head. It was the last thing the surgeon said as I blanked out and the first thing he said when he saw me post surgery. But I’ve sent some tissue for a biopsy.” I was making dinner two weeks later when he phoned. “We have to do the surgery again,” he said. “There were two small cancerous tumours.” I went mad. “But they’re out,” he kept yelling. “I took them out.” “Then why surgery?” I demanded. “We have to clear the margins. We have to see if it spread into the lymph nodes.”

I hated him. I hated every single person who had said, “Probably cysts”. Every movement for two weeks had hurt. Walking was like torture. The poor little left breast, half the size of its sister now, began burning all along the incision. I couldn’t stand to look at a knife. How was it possible knowing what I did now to let it be done all over again?

It got done. All over again. This time I didn’t have projectile vomiting. They had figured out a better anesthetic. The home visit nurse came back again to bind the even longer wound. And yes, 10 nodes under my arm had been invaded. Eventually, I consulted an oncologist and said yes to radiation and no to chemo. At my advanced age – 62 – chemo was protocol. The doctor said, “I would have made the same decision for myself.”

My mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 59. She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 1969 when her lungs filled with fluid. My only previous experience was Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, where early cancer treatment in Soviet Russia had been barbaric. I was assured that it was vastly improved now. Must have been true. She died in 1976. It took more than half that time to diagnose the primary site -the ovaries. Most of those 7 years, she was able to drive and enjoy being unable to work, although that was the interval when my own family began to travel for respite. It had been nerve-wracking from that first unreal October, 1969 when heavy snow hung on the still leafy trees and we were one and all pulled out of our classrooms because she was about to die. At the end, she went back to the hospital on Nov. 1,1976 and passed away on Nov. 11th very close to 11 a.m. “Am I going to die, Roy?” she asked our father on the first day. He dodged his head and toyed with his fedora, “Well, I guess we’re all going to die.” I wasn’t sure if he was a coward or a wise man. I sat beside her daily as did my sisters. She had a bright red mark below her lip, which looked like a ruby. After she fell into a coma, we talked to her, read to her, sang the best hymns and love songs, we listened to that awful pause after an exhalation. And waited. Then the ragged, snoring inhale.

I assumed I knew how cancer ended and I doubted I would have seven years to prepare for it.

In fact, the terror had begun to fade three years after that when I popped in to have a clinic doctor look at a bloodshot eye. Nothing of concern. But at me age -65- I need a colonoscopy. He had a thriving business behind scenes keeping people well tested. Okay, I thought and went to my own M.D. and signed up. Turned out my intestines were in an irritated state and cameras on long prods made them way more angry. “Yes,” said the doctor. “Something there. The nurse will give you the surgeon’s information.” Cue panic. Unfortunately, the bowel had now swollen and I could consume only clear fluids and liquid morphine. The surgeon couldn’t find a time slot with his A team. I could have the B team in the middle of the night, but I wouldn’t want the B team. He looked at me.” Oh, no, no,” I said on cue.

So I starved. I stayed in bed. I longed for morphine time and as soon as it came, I longed for the next morphine time. Then I walked into the kitchen one morning and saw on the tiny TV there, the first tower fall. It went on and on as I desperately tried to get hold of my Los Angeles children. I finally tracked down my grandson at his father’s. “Keep him home,” I yelled. “Don’t let him go out.” The next day I had a second colonoscopy, pre-surgery, doncha know. I lay on a stretcher watching ruined streets and replays of horror. I had the surgery on Sept. 20th and it was not a keyhole operation.”You’re lucky,” crowed the surgeon. “Carcinoid, very slow growing. It will come back in all likelihood. It will probably spread to your liver, but it won’t kill you. Very, very unusual. I’ve only ever had one other.” Very lucky. Very thin. Very weak. Very much in agony. Very convinced death would be a better outcome.

After a week of fasting out of sheer fear of further pain, my brother boarded a plane in Brussels and came to my side. He began with white rice and charmed me and made me laugh, stitches be damned. He moved me up to steamed fish. “You can have your lunch if you come down.” Next day, he took me out for lunch. I knew there was a reason I patiently fed him 2 oz. of milk while his other two little sisters adored him.


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