Cancer, the Sequel….and a Non-Romantic’s Attempt at a Love Letter to the Healthcare Community….

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
~John F. Kennedy

This past October, I had my annual follow-up with my Oncologist.  “Everything looks great!”  He proclaimed after checking my vitals and lab work.  “Is there anything I should know about?  You feeling good?  No shortness of breath, any unexplained pain?  Any issues moving your bowels?”  He asked.

“Nope.”  I said with confidence, “I feel great!” and it was true, physically….mentally, I’m a shit show, but that’s to be expected.   It’s also true that I would probably die before I would ever talk about my pooping habits with him.

“Excellent!”  He said.  So, it’s time now that we add in a dermatologist for annual skin checks at your radiation site.  We have a doctor from Derm who works on our service.  I’m going to reach out to him.  His office will call you to schedule the appointment.”

“Sounds good” I said.

“It’s also time for a mammogram (joy) and we’re going to check your thyroid this year too. I’ll reach out to my colleagues and we’ll start working on getting those appointments scheduled as well,”  he said.

Me:  Has it ever occurred to you that I’m kind of like a body that has been donated to science, only I’m still alive so you get to work on a breathing corpse?

Dr. Most Amazing:  It hadn’t….

Me:  Well, you are welcome.

Less than a week later, I got a phone call from Dermatology to schedule my appointment and they were able to get me in within the month.  Before arriving for my exam, I made sure to thoroughly moisturize my radiation field, which extends from about the base of my collarbone down through my sternum.  (I could be making that up, because I’m not 100% sure where my sternum is, but I’m guessing I’m close).

Anyway, personally, I think that some maintenance/grooming effort is necessary whenever you see a doctor.  For example, before I see my gynecologist every year, I make sure I’ve shaved and moisturized my legs and armpits.  I give the old honey pot a good trim and I try not to poop before the appointment….just in case I miss a spot….could you imagine?

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Also, I ALWAYS wear socks.  Being barefoot is just too naked for me.

Before I go to the dentist, I dig out the floss I got from my last appointment, blow off the dust, do my best, and then hope that rinsing with mouth numbing/burning Listerine takes care of the rest.  Then, I tell the dentist….“Yes, of course.  I totally floss every day.  What kind of barbarian do you take me for?”  With a truthfull’ish face.

Turns out, I was NOT prepared for the dermatologist.  I hadn’t bargained on a full body examination.  Had I known I would be asked to strip down to my underwear, I would have for sure gotten a pedicure, thoroughly moisturized, shaved and most definitely, I would have worn different underwear and not the novelty joke pair that say, “Not Tonight” in big, red, block letters across the ass, that I used to think were HYSTERICAL when I assumed only my husband would ever see them.

So, as the doctor checked my scalp and in-between my toes and I tried not to die of embarrassment, I figured I would go ahead and ask about a dry patch of skin that had developed along my hairline on my left temple.  It was about the size of a dime and had been there at least a year.  At first, it was just a semi-flaky little spot that occasionally itched, but otherwise caused no real discomfort.

Then, this past summer, it began to get irritated.  The spot became itchier and then scabbed over.  Since I can’t ever resist picking a good scab, I struggled to leave it alone, which obviously made it angrier.

When I managed to resist temptation and put some effort into wound care, I would often end up accidentally brushing over it, causing the scab to break open and thus leading me to believe that I might as well just pick the rest of it off and let the scab start over.  I know, I’m gross.

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After the summer though, I resolved to really focus on healing it.  I began to properly clean and treat it.  I left it alone.  I kept anything other antibacterial ointments away from it.

After working out, I immediately cleaned it and I did my best to keep my hair pulled back and away from it.  But it wouldn’t go away.  It would sometimes take on the appearance of healing, but it never did.  It also never fully scabbed over.  Parts of it would, but other parts looked more oozy and crust-like.  Still, I wasn’t worried, not really.  There had never been a suspicious looking mole, or freckle in that area.

After everything I had been through as a cancer survivor, you’d think I would be jumping at the chance to point the spot out to a brilliant, highly sought after physician at one of the nations best hospitals and yet, even on the day of the appointment, I was on the fence about mentioning it.  I felt silly saying, “I have a scab that won’t go away, because I can’t stop picking at it.”  

Of course, it’s possible/probable that it was about more than that too.  There will always be a part of me that lives with the fear that cancer might come back and claim me.  That I’m living on borrowed time.  That the universe will eventually say, “Oh, crap, you’re still here.  We have to do something about that.”    

Sometimes, I think it’s made me crazy.  I over-exaggerate things I can reasonably explain (a minor headache must surely be a brain tumor) and over-simplify the things I can’t (that’s just dry skin).  It seems as though it’s my brains way of allowing me to run, while also caving into the underlying fear and anxiety that comes with being a cancer survivor.

But once I realized he was going to be investigating literally every square inch of my body, and I was already red-faced and ashamed at my scaly legs and chipped toenail polish and underwear choice, I figured I might as well go ahead and just speak up.

“Is there anything on your skin you’re concerned about?”  the doctor asked me politely.

(Besides the stubby beginnings of leg and armpit hair? I thought).  “Well, I’m not really concerned about it, more annoyed.  I just have this dry patch of skin I can’t seem to get to heal, even though I absolutely leave it alone (now) and have done my best to treat it with over the counter ointments (recently).”  I told him.

While the doctor took a look,  I was preparing myself for the fact that he would likely tell me it was psoriasis, or eczema.  That he would prescribe a cream and tell me to stop lying and LEAVE IT ALONE.  I was not expecting him to say, “Hmmmm….I think what we’re looking at is a basal cell carcinoma.”

Me:  I’m sorry….a what the fuck?

OK, so I didn’t really say that, but my face did.

Dr. Equally Awesome:  It’s no big deal, truly.  This is not something I want you to be worrying about.  It is the most common type of skin cancer.  Millions of people are diagnosed annually.

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Dr. Equally Awesome:  Really, you can stop scaling that wall.  Don’t worry!  This type of skin cancer doesn’t metastasize.  We’ll do a biopsy to confirm it’s a basal,, and assuming I’m right, which I’m pretty confident I am, we’ll get you in with Derm surgery and they’ll remove it and you’ll be done.

Me:
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Dr. Equally Awesome:  It’s ok, you can climb down from the top of that credenza now.   You’re going to be fine.  I wouldn’t tell you that if I wasn’t certain of it.

Here’s the thing though….to a cancer survivor, the words, CANCER and METASTASIZE and BIOPSY and mother-f’ing CARCINOMA are essentially synonymous with whatever word this would be:

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As he spoke they are the only words I heard….

So I took a deep breath and a hit of Cal–Stat and then I said.  “I hear you.  But to someone who has had the kind of cancer that can kill you, hearing that I have it, again, in any capacity, is just really, really scary.”

Dr. Equally Awesome:  I get it.  We’re going to take care of you though.

Me:  So….once it’s gone, can I call myself a two time champ?  (Because humor….always humor….)

Dr. Equally Awesome:  Hell yeah!

My streak of seeing wonderful physicians continued.  The surgeon who performed the procedure to cut out the cancer was incredible.  It took two passes to remove the spot that went from being the size of a dime, to almost the size of a silver dollar, before she was able to obtain “clear margins” (no more cancer).

Before she started to close the wound, she handed me a mirror so I could see it and when I saw how deep it was, my first reaction was to ask, “Is that my brain?”  It wasn’t, in case you’re wondering.

Then, before starting to suture, she stood there for a moment, studying the spot and pondering the exact right method for closing.  She was determined to close the wound in a way that would leave the least amount of visible scaring.

She was treating my face as though it were some kind of prized artwork she’d been commissioned to restore, instead of the face of a forty-year old who had spent her twenties shirking sun screen and, on some level, was getting what was coming to her.  It was clear I meant more to her than just another patient in a long one of patients.  Not because I was special, but because that’s the way she treats all who come to see her.

These folks who have taken care of me for the last nine years are my hero’s.  And since the Coronavirus outbreak, I’ve thought of them constantly; for all physicians and healthcare workers, really.  I am so thankful for them.

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In support of their efforts these past many weeks, I’ve been doing my best to listen to them and to hear them and to see them.  I feel like I owe it to them to read and watch everything they are doing for us right now.

I’ve seen the pictures of health care workers crouched, exhausted and grief stricken, in hospital hallways.

I’ve read news articles about healthcare workers isolating themselves away from their children and significant others; working long and emotionally draining hours and then going “home” to hotel rooms.  Alone.

And I’ve seen the photos of what many look like after a long shift.  Bruised, with deep marks from masks and face shields imbedded into their skin.

I’ve seen photos and read stories about healthcare workers holding tablets and smart phones in hospital rooms, so that loved one’s can be in touch with sick family members and in some cases, say final goodbyes.

They have no motivation beyond helping people and they are, in some cases, literally killing themselves to do it.

And to put it bluntly, I’m really fucking disgusted by the scum of humanity who are screaming in their faces at protest rallies.  Shame on you.

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You aren’t a patriot, or whatever is you’re claiming to be, no matter how many clothing items made out of an American flag you show up wearing.

This isn’t your moment to rise up against a tyrannical government because the Demolition Derby at your county fair was canceled this year.  So please, go back to making moonshine and squirrel hunting, or whatever it is you do, and let the real Americans do their jobs.

And guess what, we “snow-flakes” don’t want the economy to collapse either.  I certainly don’t want anyone to suffer financially, emotionally, physically, or mentally.

But at the same time, and I’m no genius, the inconveniences and the state of the economy  right now, are the bi-products of a global pandemic, not the result of sub-prime mortgages, or a crash in the stock market, or some other economic screw-up we need the Warren Buffets of the world to help us dig out of, at least not at the forefront leading the charge.

So while I recognize the need to reopen the economy for many important reasons, shouldn’t it be done in a way that fully aligns with the recommendations of medical experts?

And by medical experts, I don’t mean some random podiatrist from Boca Raton whose pissed his practice has taken a hit, since his elderly patients are staying home instead of having their corns removed.  Just because you took a semester of immuno-biology, or whatever, doesn’t make you an expert, so stay in your lane.

I am a privileged person.  I can stay home.  We can manage work from here and we have the resources and tools and skills (debatable) necessary to manage homeschooling.

Mentally, I’m, well, complicated, but I’m not suicidal, or depressed, or alone.  I’m not an alcoholic and no one in my home needs to be afraid of anyone else in my home.

I believe all that means I have the responsibility to not be a dick.  I can stay home and so I will.  Even if it’s annoying, or *gasp* boring.

I’m going to do it, so that those who don’t have my same privileges can go to their jobs, or seek out the help they might need, without having to worry about whether or not my ass picked up COVID-19 at a neighborhood Pampered Chef party and my sneeze isn’t just a regular sneeze.

We need to allow the time and space for our next level essential workers and their employers to develop strategies for returning to their jobs safely.

Most importantly though, we need to give our healthcare workers the time and space to breath and recoup.  Shouldn’t we be letting our scientists focus on, you know, science’ing our way out of this if possible and if not all the way out, at least into a more controlled new “normal?”

But hey, if you think it’s in your best interest to rally at what amounts to nothing more than a glorified Guns & Ammo Expo on the front steps of some government building, I guess that’s your right.

I personally think the medical community should have the right to tell you and yours to F-off should you come dragging ass through the doors of your local emergency room though.  That should be the price you pay for assuming that, just because you know how to load an assault rifle and fashion a tube top out of a confederate flag, you’re also an expert on infectious disease….but they won’t, because they are good people, the best of us.

I just hope that if nothing else, you manage to at least choke out a thank-you.