I’ll Have to Call It “Cancer”

There’s nothing else to call this post, because it’s all about cancer. But I hope you’ll keep reading.

I remember as a child listening to grown-ups talking about cancer. “The damn cancer. It’s everywhere.” They talked about it as if it were a living being—“evil” and “unrelenting.” I regarded their talk with a removed indifference as if they were speaking of bad weather. Even though I knew my maternal grandmother died of cancer before I was born. And both my grandfathers died of it before I was ten. And my uncle had been battling it as long as I could remember.

The cancer finally got that uncle, Jack. He died of leukemia in his 40s. His wife, my aunt Patty, was diagnosed with breast cancer later that same year. She underwent a mastectomy. That was sixteen years ago.

When I was in my late 20s, I heard of a younger acquaintance of mine who had lung cancer. We were not good friends—I was a senior in college when she was a freshman—but I knew her. I read the blog she wrote during her last months, and wept at work. She was not a smoker.

I thought of her recently when I read an essay in HerStories that remembers a friend who also died young of cancer.

My mom’s best friend, who might as well be my aunt, battled lung cancer a few years ago and underwent surgery. She’s been clean for awhile, although the doctors recently found a “suspicious” spot on her lung. She’s waiting to hear what it is.

Remember Michelle? She was my first friend. We grew up next door to each other. Her mom has cancer for the second time.

So does the man who lived across the street from us growing up. We often played Capture the Flag in his backyard with his children.

So does my aunt. Again. She recently found out she has the BRCA-2 gene and so, in addition to her two mastectomies, chemo, and radiation, she will also have a hysterectomy. My mother will be tested for the gene; if she’s positive, so will my sister and I.

A friend of mine often posts links on Facebook to the blog of her friend, the mother of Superman Sam, a seven-year-old boy battling leukemia. I never clicked on the links—I just couldn’t—until a couple of weeks ago. It turned out that day’s post was about the return of the cancer after a remission, and the prognosis was not good. One of the best, and worst, parts of being a parent is the ability, for better or worse, to empathize completely. My son does not have cancer. But as I read the mother’s words, my breathless sobs were for that boy I don’t know and his mother, and for my own son.

I don’t regard cancer with indifference anymore. Not even close.

Why tell you all this? Because this blog is my bully pulpit. Today I’m going to use it for a selfish purpose. Today is my sister’s birthday.

She smokes. And for the first time, I’m deeply understanding why my mother has begged and begged her to quit. I’m realizing that it’s completely possible that I will not have a sister to grow old with. To go on road trips with. To obsess over Mumford with. To spoil my children. And to know, one day, her own.

So today, in this pulpit, I’m asking her to stop smoking.

Our uncle, our aunt, our grandparents, our neighbors, our friends, and that precious little boy, did not have a choice. For now, you do.


Meet: My Scars

There was a time I looked down at the scars on my thighs and beamed with pride, as any child with a scar. The scars cut through the muscle to create indentations, one broad horizontal stroke on each leg midway between the knee and hip.

I loved summertime because I could wear swimsuits and show off the scars. I could wear shorts and when I sat Indian-style with bent legs, the scars cut deeper and were more evident. People asked, “What is that?” And I loved to tell them, “Scars from when I was in the hospital as a baby. I got so many shots in my legs that there’s no muscle

Leonardo da Vinci's rendering of the human leg

Leonardo da Vinci’s rendering of the human leg

there anymore.” Sometimes I wished the story was more compelling–a stabbing, maybe, or a car accident. But the fact that the scars were even there, that I was lucky enough to have them, was enough.

I’m not sure when it changed—maybe after reading a certain number of fashion magazines; maybe it was the eleventh time a friend complained about her butt; maybe it was the third time I heard about someone, “She’d be prettier if she lost some weight.” Maybe it was just the normal transition from prepubescent confidence to pubescent self-consciousness.

Then the scar on each leg marked a line. Below the scar my leg was slender and muscular. Above the scar my leg was flabbier and the flesh sat heavier upon it. The scar became a demarcation between what my leg could look like if it wasn’t there, and what it did look like. Between good and bad. Desirable and undesirable. There was no gradual upsweep from knee to hip. There was “pretty” and then “ugly.” And cutting right between the two, dividing them, making it impossible for the two to meet, were my scars. I lost ownership of them.

For another essay on physical scars, read father and Iraq War veteran Sean Davis’ piece, “Skin as a Road Map” HERE.




Meet: Overnight Shift in the ER, Part I

The following post contains sensitive content. It is based on an interview with a woman who works the overnight shift in a suburban Chicago ER.

I’m the patient access specialist, so I get all their demographics and insurance info. We see some pretty crazy stuff.

Abdominal pain is the most typical ailment. Sometimes it’s appendicitis but usually they’re just constipated. Literally full of shit. Especially kids.

People stick a lot of things up their noses, and in other crevices. We’ve had cucumbers in the anus, other things that have had to be surgically removed. They scoot around how it happened but it eventually comes out. Once an older guy came in and said he fell in the shower and the shampoo bottle went up his butt. It just doesn’t happen like that. The whole thing was in there and he couldn’t get it out. I hope it was a small one.

An 11-year-old came in once and the mom was kind of embarrassed. The little girl had stuck a Chapstick up her coochie. But they didn’t have to surgically remove it.

Speaking of, a woman came in once because she needed us to check if she already had a tampon in. She thought it got lost up there. Who does that? I mean, I would go to great lengths to not have it be the ER doc checking on that.

A 50-year-old guy broke his penis once. Did you know you could do that? I looked it up on Wikipedia—there’s no bone in there but a ligament or cartilage that can be broken. He said he knew it was broken because he heard it crack. He had to go to surgery the next morning. Don’t know how they repair that.

The hardest moments are when children die—usually traumas or drowning. One boy had a television fall on him and he died. I can still see him. It doesn’t leave you. Neither do the sounds—of the moms, the nurses. They just kept working on that one boy because the mother wouldn’t stop screaming. He was five.

There have been cases of suspected abuse but I haven’t seen them. We’ve had sexual assault victims come in but we don’t know the outcome. It’s not like you can have a CT and find out what it is. They’re hard cases.

If it’s a level 1 trauma—gunshot wounds or stabbings—they’ll go to [nearby hospital]. We do get level 1’s because they don’t know they’re level 1’s in the field. A couple jockeys from the racetrack have come in. One jockey a few years ago was knicked by another horse and he fell. His horse fell on him and paralyzed him.

One night a stabbing victim walked through the door. The guy who stabbed him drove him there—apparently, he was remorseful. It was over a girl.

I like that it’s different. I’ve been there four years and I’ve never have the same night twice.

Part II: Medicaid, homeless people, and drug seekers