Tag Archives: cancer

It’s hard to know.

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On Monday, Lit Hub published this piece by my sister, in which she talks about “Returning to Writing After a Stage Four Cancer Diagnosis.” I shared it the same day on Facebook with mixed emotions that included both trepidation and relief.

When Annabelle first learned that she had Stage Four lung cancer this past spring, she only confided in our oldest sister. This is how our family rolls. We blunder through life trying (and often failing) to navigate the intricate web of secrets and lies we construct to protect each other from the truth. Months later she finally revealed her diagnosis to my younger brother and me in a masterfully worded email that led us ever so gently to the terrible conclusion. After reading her long email, I sat reeling. I was struck by the fact that even in that moment, she was trying to take care of us, just as she has all her life. She somehow managed to reveal the heart stopping news in such a way as to reassure us that this was not the worst thing in the world, but an unfortunate blip on her horizon that she would get through.

When I talked to the sister who had borne Annabelle’s secret by herself for months, she said with a rush of pent-up emotion: “I’m so glad you know now, because it was horrible to be the only one to know. But I’m so sad you know, because now that you do, I know you can never be happy again.”

Until the publication of her essay, Annabelle had been slowly titrating the news of her diagnosis to family and friends. It took her multiple attempts to tell my parents. I think they are in such denial that the fact hasn’t actually sunk in even now. I have had several painfully uncomfortable conversations with my mother in which she’ll casually ask, “Is Annabelle sick or something? Do you know what’s wrong? It’s not cancer, is it?” Each time this happens, I call my sister to ask her if she was perfectly clear in explaining the situation. The last time it happened, she said, “I JUST got off the phone with her and we discussed it. She definitely knows.” I think my mother knows, but doesn’t want to know.

It was a relief to post Annabelle’s essay, because like our oldest sister, it was hard for me to carry on as if nothing was wrong. But now that it’s out there, how do we carry on?

Annabelle’s essay begins with a quote from her novel Tiger Pelt, which is partly inspired by our dad’s life: “Fall seven times, get up eight.” That’s what Annabelle’s doing with her usual (unusual)? strength, humor, and grace. That’s what I’m going to try my best to do. But now that we all know, what else can we do?

  • If you buy things on amazon.com, (is there anybody who doesn’t?), you can go to https://smile.amazon.com/ and choose Lung Cancer Research Foundation as your charity of choice. At no cost to you, Amazon will donate a percentage of your purchase price to the charity. Great strides are being made in research and development, especially in immunotherapy drugs that make it possible to live with cancer as a chronic, but treatable condition. Even if you don’t pick Lung Cancer Research, pick ANY charity, because – why not?!
  • If you’d like to make a direct donation to the Lung Cancer Research Foundation, you can do so here.
  • If you happen to be going to the Virginia Festival of the Book, come say hello! My sister is on a panel to talk about Tiger Pelt in the context of “International Stories, Shared Humanities.”
  • Be inspired by Tiger Pelt, a story of hope and survival against terrible odds. We are a family of survivors!
  • “Be kind for you never know what battle someone is fighting.”…When I posted my sister’s essay, I knew I would hear from family & friends. To be honest, I dreaded this a little, because I knew it would bring me right back to the day I learned the news. What I didn’t expect was the outpouring of love and support from friends who wrote or called or told me in person that they were moved by my sister’s words and that they are holding her and our family in their hearts and prayers. This has meant the world to me and I thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart.

On Mortality, Banality, and Boobs, Part 2

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At the rather bluntly named “Breast Care Center,” a nurse escorted me back to the same room, where I had learned I would need to have a needle biopsy just a few days earlier. I couldn’t wait to get it over with. The sooner they got the pathology results back from the biopsy, the sooner I would know one way or another what my life would be like for the next few months, or perhaps years.

The nurse told me that a doctor would come in and talk with me in a little while. She left a clipboard and a brand new marker sealed in a plastic pouch on the counter and walked out. As I waited for the doctor to arrive, I idly wondered if the marker was for me to doodle with in case I got bored.

Suddenly, an adorable little boy dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt popped his head into the room. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, and smiled at me from his twinkly Asian eyes. I wanted to pinch his cheeks, give him a lollipop, and then help him find his mommy. He could have been my own son. It turned out he was my doctor.

He opened the marker, wrote something on my chest above the breast in which lurked the “areas of concern,” and then tossed the marker into the trashcan. He explained to me what was going to happen next and then we headed to the room.

Another young doctor and two nurses were waiting for us in the room. I lay on my side on a stretcher and they wheeled me up to the mammogram machine. They clamped my left breast into place and once again I got up close and personal with the cold hard surfaces of the mammogram machine. I couldn’t see anything or anyone, but I felt one of the nurses grab my fingers. She told me I could squeeze hers as they numbed the area with four or five shots of lidocaine. Disembodied voices asked me meaningless questions. I knew no one really cared where I was from, or how long I’d lived in Charlottesville, but I understood that these questions were meant as a kindness and so I gave answers as if they mattered. Every now and then throughout the procedure one of the nurses would give my hip a pat and then let her hand come to a rest there. I usually hate being touched by strangers, but I think I will remember the warm weight of her reassuring hand with gratitude for the rest of my life.

The area numbed up quickly and they extracted a tissue sample and inserted a titanium marker in its place as a permanent souvenir of my visit to the Breast Care Center. As for the tissue sample, they put it in what the nurse described as “our Suzy Bake Oven” to make sure they had enough and wouldn’t need to go in for more. Once they took a few more photos of my traitorous appendage, I was unclamped and wheeled away from the machine.

And now the second young doctor was mashing down my boob with both of his hands…hard.

“I have to do this for the next ten minutes,” he said apologetically, “It will stop the bleeding.”

“OK,” I said and I turned my head away to look at the clock. Making eye contact in such a situation did not quite seem the thing to do. The horrible thought suddenly crossed my mind that the two young doctors who had worked on me that morning, from Asia and India, might easily be one of the many international students who pass through my office on a daily basis for a travel signature or a program extension. I see so many students that it is impossible to remember all of their faces or names. Maybe I helped this young man file for work authorization so that he could be legally permitted to be here pinning down my boob as if it were going to run away. This thought – like so many of the other thoughts that had been racing through my head for the last couple of weeks – had to be shoved away just as quickly as it reared its ugly head.

After the ten minutes were up, I was bandaged and the nurses gave me my post-procedure instructions. It had seemed like an eternity, but the entire procedure was over in less than an hour.

“You’re heading straight home now, right?” one of them asked.

“I was planning to go to work, actually,” I answered.

“No, honey,” the nurse shook her head, “You’re not going to work. You’ve been through a lot and you’re going to be exhausted. Go home, get into pajamas, take some Tylenol and watch a movie.”

And so I did.

Related post: On Mortality, Banality, and Boobs, Part 1

On Mortality, Banality, and Boobs, Part I

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I can’t stand suspense…not in movies or books, not in sporting events, and certainly not in real life. The past couple of weeks have been one long, suspenseful nightmare because I thought I might have cancer. Let me tell you right upfront that I do not.

It all began with a callback mammogram. I got a letter in the mail explaining that it was sometimes difficult for mammograms to produce clear images for people with “dense breast tissue.” Dense breast tissue — hunh?! After nursing three babies, more like droopy, flaccid hackysacks that have lost all their stuffing. But – whatever.

This was not my first rodeo. I had been called back for a second mammogram once before so I knew what to expect. I knew I would be in for a torture session that would somehow manage to be simultaneously futuristic and medieval. I would be asked to mash the side of my face against the plastic and metal of a mammogram machine. I would be made to sling my arm around it as if in a lover’s embrace. A stranger (a lovely and kind nurse, but a stranger nonetheless), would pat and squash and arrange my breast as casually as if she were making a biscuit…if making biscuits also involved mashing the dough impossibly thin between two cold, hard plates. I would endure the torture with stoicism, wincing only when I simply couldn’t bear it.

“Too tight?” the nurse would ask as she turned a knob that would cause the boob vise to clamp down ever tighter.

“Yes,” I’d gasp.

She would loosen the crank a touch, but then with a cruel, deft flick of her wrist, she would tighten it right back to its original position.

“I saw that!” I would think bitterly each time it happened.

Never mind. It would all be over soon enough. I’d receive my benediction and be dismissed to go on with the rest of my life. Only this time I wasn’t.

I knew something was up when the nurse escorted me to a back room I’d never seen before and told me that a doctor would come talk with me soon. I was pretty sure she was trying to avoid making eye contact with me. The doctor spoke to me in gentle, soothing tones. She told me that there were “areas of concern” that would need to be further examined. I would be scheduled for a needle biopsy. Once the pathology report was back, if there was evidence of cancer, we would discuss my treatment options.