– Nonfiction by Cheryl Levine –
There are days, sometimes weeks, when you don’t even think about it. Then, one day, in front of the bathroom mirror, you face the glaring reminders. Three scars.
First one: Portacatheter, just below the right collarbone, which was used to administer the two rounds of chemotherapy.
Second one: Colon surgery, J-shaped and six inches long, from stomach to abdomen.
Third one: Liver surgery, three inches long and straight through the navel.
They say the worst part of a colonoscopy is the prep, when you are virtually tethered to your bathroom, so your colon clears out for optimum viewing.
It’s not the worst part.
The worst part is when you wake up to a sea of white coats at the foot of the hospital bed telling you that the polyp in your colon was so large, the scope couldn’t fit around it and you are being wheeled down immediately for an emergency CT scan.
The worst part is when 2 days later you learn the diagnosis is Stage 4 colon cancer. The cancer has spread to the liver.
The worst part is when you realize there is no Stage 5 colon cancer.
You know you have a good match in your oncologist when he compliments your boots and your silver hoop earrings, and actually makes you laugh while you can still taste the panic in the back of your throat. He warns you and your family to stay off the internet. Don’t research this because it will scare the shit out of you, he says. You’re young and we’re going to hit this hard.
You feel a bit better when there is a plan: colon surgery, twelve weeks of chemotherapy. Liver surgery, twelve weeks of chemotherapy.
You realize this plan is your 2007.
All 12 months.
During your week long stay in the gastrointestinal surgical wing, you realize you are one of the few female patients, and definitely the youngest by at least twenty five years.
The parade of interns and residents that invade your space daily claim they love your room because it is full of gorgeous flowers and an array of lavender moisturizers. You know you’re winning the hospital room competition, you know, the one which you just invented.
Chemotherapy every other week for twelve weeks. Three hour sessions.
You quickly conclude that if the nurse in the infusion room cannot access your portacatheter by inserting a needle just above your collarbone on the first try, you need to demand another nurse. You’re more than willing to be considered a bitch for doing so. Actually, you kinda revel in it.
About half way through your treatments, a fellow chemo patient leans over in his chair and says, “What are you doing here? You don’t look sick.” You stare at him for a few seconds, then reply, “I’m not. I’m just here for the drugs and the chocolate cookies.” You grab your infusion pole and move to a chair across the room. You realize that some cancer patients can be real assholes but you’re not sure if it’s him or it’s you.
You celebrate your 50th birthday on one of your “off” chemotherapy weeks with a braised short rib ravioli dinner in the North End.
Maya Angelou comes to Boston during one of your “on” chemotherapy weeks. You’re exhausted and frustrated and scared of everything but drag your chemo ass to the Opera House because, well, it’s Maya Angelou. You listen to that mesmerizing voice reading her poetry and weep while sitting in your chair.
Your “New Yorker” subscription expires. You wonder if you should renew it for the year or wait.
Your MFA membership expires. You wonder if you should renew it for the year or wait.
You decide to wait.
You receive the good news that, after the first surgery and round of chemo, there is no visible sign of cancer in your colon and the two tumors on the liver have shrunk. Continued aggression is still strongly recommended.
Your liver surgery is scheduled for August.
Your surgeon removes one third of your liver.
2007 is more than half over.
Round two of chemotherapy begins.
You receive gifts of blue colored pins and bracelets that are supposed to be offers of support for colon cancer patients. They are not. They piss you off in their banality. Seriously people: don’t buy the cancer merch.
You make a list of movies that you’ve never seen but feel an urgent need to, and rent stacks of DVDs.
You give yourself permission to stop reading a book if you don’t love it.
You develop neuropathy in your fingers, toes and throat. You can’t drink anything too warm or too cold because if you do it feels like daggers running up and down your throat. You keep gloves next to the refrigerator to protect from the cold. You wear thick woolen socks under your Uggs and hope this goes away before winter.
On your last day of chemo, you arrive at your car to find it festooned with balloons, and chalk on the windows declaring “Congratulations!” and “Fuck Cancer!” You know which friends decorated it, even though none of them would admit it.
Late Fall 2007
Your CT scan shows No Visible Sign of Disease. Your oncologist hugs you with joy and sets up another scan in three months.
You have a recurring nightmare that everyone is lying to you: your doctors, your husband, your children. You’re still really sick but they decided not to tell you. You keep this nightmare to yourself.
You learn that the median life expectancy for Stage 4 colon cancer is 2.5 years.
You’re relieved you stayed off the internet and didn’t know this statistic in 2007.
You now have CT scans annually. Your oncologist tells you the odds of getting cancer are now no more than anyone else.
You realize a lot of life is just plain luck. You’ve lost three friends, all younger than you, to cancer. Why them and not you? You hate the phrase, “She lost her battle.” What the hell does that mean? It implies it’s her fault she’s dead. She obviously didn’t fight hard enough.
You still have days when you feel something really bad is bound to happen. No one is this lucky.
So: You meditate. You practice yoga. You write. You take long walks. You scarf down family-sized bags of Lays.
It all helps.
About the Author – Cheryl Levine
Cheryl Levine is a former newspaper columnist and free lance editor. She has had essays published in 24PearlStreet blog and Silver Birch Press and has read for Grub Street’s Tell All Event in Boston. She is currently working on a memoir dealing with a range of intersecting topics from her Italian-American heritage, to parental abandonment and its effects on identity, to scary medical diagnoses.
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