I had known for about five years I was dying. I just couldn’t get the doctors to agree with me. Being a highly organized person, I began to plan effectively for the event. I took out both life and paycheck insurance. I disposed of my high school diaries and old love letters, so my children would not need therapy. I even chose my death spot, a beautiful beach house with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. The house’s owner, my longtime boyfriend, was not big on the idea, however. But as a couple of twenty years, we knew how to compromise. We agreed, when the time came, he would push my wheelchair down the hill and see if I made it across PCH. This would be a sign.
In Sept. 2015, I was diagnosed with both parathyroid disease and thyroid cancer. Either one would have killed me in less than five years. Yes! “See I told you !..” It was great to finally be vindicated. In October, I paid Dr. Yeh, an interestingly named surgeon, to slit my throat. This proved to be the first of many counter-intuitive decisions I made to live.
Dr. Yeh spent three hours in my neck on a scavenger hunt for cancer. It was kinda of like an cancer infomercial –“But…Wait…There’s more…” Behind the first cancer, he discovered a second type he termed, “very aggressive”. Now I try to avoid those two words. To me, they mean totally undateable. To Dr Yeh, “very aggressive” meant, keep going. He ended up with a winning basket of lymph nodes, an entire thyroid, assorted tumors and vascular structures.
Dr. Yeh seemed professionally excited about his discoveries. “Two kinds of cancer together!” Personally, I didn’t share his excitement. I was worried, and not just about the cancer. I was worried that Dr Yeh was going to publish a medical paper of his findings and forevermore my name would end with the word “syndrome” or “disease”. My kids would not appreciate it when, upon hearing our name, patients burst into tears and asked, “Reaven's’ Syndrome? Does this mean I’m going to die?” I hoped not, for everyone’s sake. I don’t need the immortality of being a diagnosis and having a brochure entitled "Reaven's’ Disease And You" with happy couples riding bikes together through fields of flowers.
The second counter-intuitive decision I made involved drinking…a radioactive cocktail. A nurse in a HAZMAT suit brought out something in an airtight lead container, which she unscrewed with gloved hands. There was no festive paper umbrella or embalmed cherry on a pick. It would have been a nice touch…Just a small blue pill and a Dixie cup with water on the side. For $3,000 dollars you think they could use stemware. Nevertheless, I felt a toast was in order, “Hair of the dog?” Nah. “Bottoms up?” was inappropriate 'cause my voice was so horse from surgery I sounded like a phone sex worker who was a heavy smoker. (This would later prove disturbing for my third grade students). In a surprisingly traditional twist, I turned back to my Jewish roots and croaked out, a hopeful “L’Chaim”.
I was in isolation for three weeks, anxiously awaiting the birth of my superpowers. As an avid sci-fi fan, I realized that massive doses of radiation usually signaled the advent of strange new abilities. Still waiting on that, unless epic vomiting is a superpower? At least my radioactivity might kill the termites infesting my woodwork. I was reluctant to use chemicals; after all, that stuff can give you cancer! But with my luck, the termites would be the lucky ones to develop super-powers and become giant, carnivorous, insectoid masters. I might never make it out of the house alive. But I did survive--and, unfortunately, so did the termites, especially those that were suffering from insectoid cancer.
When I finally emerged from my medically imposed house arrest, I discovered I had joined the Cancer Club. It was an unexpectedly large organization. I had never applied for membership, just like those AARP cards I started getting years ago in the mail when I was twenty. Nevertheless, I found myself in groups where people introduced themselves with their cancer as a surname. “ Hi, I’m Mary second stage breast cancer.” Or, “I’m June Ovarian, two years out!” “Hi June. Hi Mary, I’m Laura Thyroid”. Social interactions with non-club members were even stranger.
At a party, a woman with purple lipstick informed me that I had created my cancer by not speaking my truth. “It’s toxic to your body to repress your feelings. This is why the cancer is in your throat.” This new information presented me with an etiquette and medical quandary. Normally I ignore unpleasant people I do not know, especially if they have an expiration date, like this purple-lipped party guest. However what if she was right? Shouldn’t I tell her what I really think, just to prevent further cancer? “You know Purple-Lips, normally I would just move on to the cheese plate, but now that you explained to me how dangerous it is not to speak your mind, I feel compelled to ask, 'If you are so full of shit, why are your lips so purple?'”
Does cancer really care? What if cells talk? “You know she has unresolved mother issues.” “Yes, I sense a lot of repressed anger..” “Breast or uterine?” “I don’t know, can’t we just mutate and wonder around?” “Maybe we should wait. She’s eating vegan and in therapy..”
I know that people talk--and rudely, too. “I have been asked so often, “What happened to your throat?” I’ve found a surprisingly effective answer. “Prison knife fight. You should see the other bitch! Least I walked away…”
My own children were more sensitive to my plight. With the survival instinct of the young, they immediately began using my cancer as an excuse to facilitate their lives. My son easily broke up with an aggressive girlfriend, avoiding her anger and actually gaining sympathy…”You know, as much as I really want to be with you, I am emotionally unable to be in a relationship since my mom has been diagnosed with cancer…” My daughter dealt with an angry professor the same way and was offered an extension and support. Who could have guessed my children would be so deeply affected in all aspects of their lives?
So I told them, “You know children, one day I hope to be well and you will no longer carry my cancer burden. ” There was silence, no doubt they were too moved to speak, then my son finally said, “That’s right Mom, it’s always about you!”
Humor is a powerful weapon. I have used it to laugh about my pain and myself. I have used it to defend and defuse and to nurture and support. But to be honest, cancer is not funny. Some people say suffering ennobles and that illness teaches life lessons. They have not been really sick. Actually pain and illness make a reduction sauce of your soul and erode your spirit.
Life always ends badly and bad things happen all the time. Cancer is just one more lottery ticket you never bought. Born during Plague time in Europe? Oops! A woman in Muslim countries? Outa luck. At the Trade Center on 9/11? Sorry! Albino in Africa? If you don’t know, I’m not even gonna tell you. Hey, a hundred years ago, I would be toothless, but I probably would have already died in childbirth by the age of 15.
The odds are even worse for other life forms. Bambi’s mother is the least of it. A fish egg has a one in a million chance of ever reaching full-grown fish hood. And remember all those nature shows? They are just one big food fest. Everyone is always getting eaten, usually as some British guy narrates. “As the playful baby penguin take his first step, he is unaware of the giant leopard seal stealthily hunting him from beneath the ice…” Guess what happens next? All I know is if I ever hear some British guy doing a serious voice-over about my life, I’m running for cover. “As Laura approaches her blind date, eagerly anticipating the mating season, she is unaware of his previous issues with her species. This does not bode well for the latte..”
At first, when it appeared I was going to live, I was stumped. Another curve ball! Just when I had planned so well for death! Like they say, “We make plans and God laughs.” Now I need a new plan. Especially for all the scarves. People keep giving them to me, so I can cover up my scar. But I’m good with it. I figure it is always a smart safety plan for a woman to have an identifying mark on her body, just in case. Besides, my scar looks like a smile to me.
Tags: Cancer, cancer, Dr. Michael Yeh, endocrine, Endocrine, Endocrine Center, Endocrine Surgery, Endocrinology, lymph nodes, parathyroid disease, patient stories, radiation, Reaven's Syndrome, scar, scars, support group, surgeon, thyroid, thyroid cancer