Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Day 719: Cancer Cold
One night this winter, as one of the only snowstorms of the season descended upon us, Gabe decided to ride his bike to the dentist's office. A few minutes after he left, I got a call. A desperate-sounding person was asking me to help him up the hill. His chain had broken and he wiped out right in front of our house. I know he was in a lot of pain. His entire side was ripped up, his hip was badly bruised. But. Augie was so sick with what turned out to be bacterial pneumonia that I thought he would choke to death. He was crying, saying, mommy, please help me stop coughing. Then Gabe was lying on the ground in the living room groaning and Lenny was looking around wondering what kind of madhouse she was living in, and I told Gabe, very calmly:
"EITHER STOP GROANING IN FRONT OF THE KIDS AND SCARING THEM OR FIND SOME WAY TO GET YOUR GIMPY ASS UPSTAIRS! UNLESS YOU NEED TO GO TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM, IN WHICH CASE I WILL TAKE BOTH YOU AND AUGIE AT THE SAME TIME!"
Or something to that effect. I sat there dreaming of teenage boys, wondering when one would come along to shovel my enormous driveway so that I could actually get the car out to drive to the hospital. A little while later I saw the fifth grader next door shoveling us out without being asked, and I understood why Lenny was so head over heels in love with him.
So again, there are few things more annoying than the man cold, right?
Except, maybe, the cancer cold.
Cancer survivors seem to fall into two camps with illnesses. There are those who have severely compromised immunity for a long, long time, and they contract every illness around. Then there are people like me, who can honestly say things like: "I don't get sick. I just get cancer."
Seriously. Everyone around me is always sick with something--my kids, my husband, my mom, my friends, my kids' friends, my co-workers. And I NEVER CATCH ANYTHING. Then all of a sudden, I have a day like yesterday. I came home from work and just felt weird. My throat hurt and I had a headache and was dizzy. I felt like I had a fever, though I didn't. I fell asleep on the couch at 7 pm, right after dinner. I woke up around 8:30 and went to my real bed, watched a little tv, fell asleep again, woke up at my normal time and felt ok, went to work, went to the gym, even. As the day wore on, I got that vague feeling of sickness again. Right now, it's hard to talk. My throat is hurting more. I have a slight fever, my glands feel swollen, my head feels like it's swimming and it's hard for me to focus my eyes.
I have a cold, right?
I am hosting a visitor from Canada tomorrow at work so I have to be there all day, but I made an appointment with my general practitioner on Thursday to make sure I don't have strep. There's no way in hell I'm missing the Listen to Your Mother performance on Sunday, May 6, so I have to be healthy. You guys are all crying if you didn't get tickets. It's going to be amazing. Speaking of crying, during our second and final rehearsal on Sunday, there was talk of the need for an intermission after my piece due to the copious amounts of crying it induced. I don't know whether to be proud of that or disturbed, but I guess that means it moved people, right? So anyway, I have to get on antibiotics if that's what's going on here. There is something I have to say, and someone I need to say it to, and that is going to happen no matter what else is going on in the world.
Why am I writing about this, something so pedestrian and uninteresting? Well, because there is no such thing as a cold for me, not yet. You all get colds. I get cancer.
I feel these swollen glands and I think about my lymph nodes. My head feels so strange, not like a normal headache nor a normal bout of congestion, but something in between. I literally feel like I can't see. And I think about brain tumors. My body hurts, but only vaguely, nothing that shouts out that I have a 102 degree fever and therefore my body should hurt like it does with the flu. And I wonder about bone cancer. Then, I wonder if there's some kind of breast cancer metastisis that could lead to all of these symptoms at the same time.
You can tell me I'm paranoid, or ridiculous, or that I'm a hypochondriac. You can tell me to get over myself. But I ask you this: Why wouldn't you expect the worst sometimes, when some of the worst has already happened? I mean, everyone said it was just a clogged milk duct, mastitis at the worst. Oh wait, sorry...it's cancer. No, not one tumor. You've got three. No, not the normal kind that we can treat with maintenance medications. You have something more insidious, rare, and aggressive, something we don't really understand. But wait, I don't feel sick at all, I feel great, I am healthier almost than I've ever been!
I don't get colds. I get cancer.
Yes, I know it's been almost two years. I am more aware of that fact than anyone. In less than two weeks, it will have been two years since diagnosis. Two days after that, I will perform in the Listen to Your Mother Show. Two days after that, I will have a mammogram. Normally, I would be just so nervous and panicked about that test that I would be acting like a crazy woman anyway, but I have been trying SO HARD not to think about it. I have been having pain in my breast and I tell myself it's just because of my cycles, even though the pain is completely different and is more likely related to scar tissue. I am purposely not feeling for lumps. After all, I am going to have about 57 breast exams in just a few weeks, and what's a few weeks? I remember Gabe telling me he had felt my lump when we were making love a few weeks before I felt it, but he didn't say anything because he assumed it was a duct, and since I was nursing, he didn't feel it the same way again. I know he still feels guilty about that. But a few weeks didn't make any damn difference, not really. And I have things to look forward to, damnit! I am so close, this close, THIS CLOSE! to two years! I have to make it, I WILL make it with no evidence of disease, because I have been waiting with bated breath every day of these almost two years to be able to say that. You can't take that away from me! Right? Or maybe I should say, please?
But you know, there are so many before me who thought that who were wrong. So many who did the right thing, and lived the right ways, and were beautiful and strong and feisty and amazing and their damn cancer metasticized anyway. And there is no way to know if you will be one of those people, until you either are...or you aren't. So colds bring these fears out, because people like me rationally know that it could be something else. My mom has a friend who is a doctor who told her, there is no such thing as a simple headache after cancer. And that's the truth.
So that really is more annoying than a man cold. Stupid cancer.
It makes it hard to talk in normal ways sometimes. On the one hand, you get tired of all the people who ask "How ARE you?" like you have just emerged straight out of the grave. What is there to say? I never know. I mean, I realize that when people ask how you are in a normal situation, it's expected that you say fine, or great, or whatever, because everyone knows that the person doesn't really give a shit how you are. That's the point of small talk. But if you've had cancer, people do care, in the sense that when they're asking you how ARE you, they are asking, do you still have cancer? Can I move on to the next subject or do we have to get stuck in cancerland?
And the problem is that the answer is somewhere in between. I AM fine. Most of the time, I AM great. My life is normal...most of the time. But there are aspects of it that are not normal. When someone asks, how ARE you? I want to say: well, right now, and for the next two weeks, I am kind of...terrified. I am living in limbo. I am distracting myself with all kinds of really meaningful, time-consuming things, in part because I need to distract myself. I am worried in a way that I know you don't understand. I am in denial, or maybe it's not denial because maybe I'm really fine, but I am trying so hard to assume that I'm fine that it feels like denial.
Because, you know, I have to have a mammogram, and the first time I ever had one, I found out that I might be dying. So...that's how I am.
But I don't say any of those things, because it doesn't behoove me to be insufferable. Here's an example. I went with the kids to get haircuts last week. (Don't we look cute all cleaned up? And, for that matter, don't you love the picture Lenny took of me? I know now how she sees me! Crooked and crazy!) Now that I've committed to being a short-haired woman, I go every six weeks or so, but the kids hadn't been in 5 months. They went first, and I got them situated reading books (Lenny was actually reading, of course, and Augie just makes up insane stories, talking at the top of his lungs) when it was my turn. My stylist asked how ARE you, and all the thoughts I mentioned above went around and around in my head, along with thoughts of panic and despair over not having sold or rented our other house, issues with our jobs, worrying about what we will do about child care after school when Lenny starts first grade next year, and everything else.
And I said, "Well, I am really in need of a haircut."
What else could I say? After all, I'm not a man. I don't do well burdening others with my shit. I write a blog instead.
So now you understand why I rarely ask anyone How are you? When I'm leaving water aerobics and I see my dear older friend changing for the class after mine, I don't ask her that. When I see another parent getting his child dressed to go home from school, I don't ask him that. When a friend I haven't seen in a long time gets in my car so we can go somewhere, I rarely ask her that.
So what do I ask? Something along the lines of the following theme, a question that usually leads to a not-so-short answer that is often just shy of the truth:
"Are you ready?"