Me And The Big "C"
Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”
— Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
I try to convince myself I’m not a hypochondriac with the same intensity that a blackout drunk waking up in a strange bed surrounded by empty JD bottles tries to convince himself that he’s not an alcoholic.
But when my neck hurts, I run through the possible culprits - sinus infection, pulled muscle, or cancer.
My money is on cancer.
It’s always on cancer.
Even though I know the tumblers will never align correctly for me to win the lottery, I feel they definitely will in order to deliver me a cancer of the most exotic, painful, and incurable kind.
Sure, maybe I’m being paranoid, but I’ve been surrounded by cancer my whole life.
The first time I heard the C-word I couldn’t have been more than eight years old.
Sharon Nutting was my mom’s tall, lean, and 60’s beautiful goddess of a best friend.
She was Jean Shrimpton before I knew who Jean Shrimpton was.
Even at eight, I felt shy and awkward around her, and to this day can only recall her as if permanently backlit, with a corona of sunlight beaming through her long blonde hair.
I remember my mother relating a story about the moment Sharon knew she was going to die.
Freshly returned from a two-week family vacation in Hawaii, groggy, disheveled, and wearing a peak-a-boo nighty (in my mind), she rose from bed and slinked up to the bathroom vanity.
Disrobing to step into the shower, she glanced back over her shoulder and in the mirror caught sight of a dozen or more large black spots, contrasted against her healthy island tan, running down the length of her back.
She was 29 years old, with two young children and a husband who worshiped her - and was dead inside a month.
A couple of years later, when I was ten, my mom was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, a fancy description for a mole that just doesn’t look right.
In order to excise it completely, they took a six-inch square chunk out of her calf.
The doctors told her that the chances she would survive more than five years were low.
As in, if you ever had any preference for the place you wanted to be buried, you should start looking into it now, low.
1977 cancer survival rates low.
She beat it, but the anxiety around it never left me, and it was not surprising when lung cancer took her almost 40 years later - 10 years too late in my book.
Over the next two decades, there was a seemingly non-stop barrage of family, friends, and neighbors who were diagnosed, and succumbed, to one form or another of this cellular murderer.
First, it was Uncle Bud, who I never knew much about except that he didn't work and had interests in oil and gas - none of which made their way to me of course.
He was an awkward if not pleasant fixture at every holiday event, until he wasn’t.
Tired of fucking around with the peripheral characters in my life, cancer zeroed in on the person I loved most, deciding to plant a tumor in my father’s brain.
Not just anywhere in his brain, but dead center, where neither surgery, radiation, chemo, or any other number of late 80’s treatments could make a bit of difference.
Andrea Bell went down next.
She was the most popular girl in junior high, too California beautiful for even the best Beach Boys song.
But always nice to me, always kind, despite the relentless pestering of her friends and boyfriends who couldn’t understand why she was constantly talking to “that skinny dork."
I never could figure out why she liked me.
And I’m still ashamed to this day of my obscene high school power play, when after joining the marching band, she was rendered ever so slightly lower on the social scale than I, the bench-warming football player, and I chose that opportunity to blow her off.
She died in her late 20’s after a persistent cancer, which started with a tiny white spot under her tongue, relentlessly competed with prophylactic surgeries to see which one could eat up her angelic face fastest.
Honestly, I’m not a hypochondriac. Quite the contrary.
In fact, like most (stupid) men, it takes something pretty serious or extremely painful to get me to go to the doctor's office.
But there are some emotionally charged touchpoints that will get me to the physician ASAP.
The ones that cross-check the cancers I remember.
Last Sunday, everything was going great.
The OCD I’ve been fortifying in myself to combat my ADD was in full force, as evidenced by the numerous plastic organizational bins strewn about the room.
I was in the middle of a decade’s delayed project to gather and compile five decades of my personal life in photographic form.
Things were going well until I reached for a box on a high shelf, only to glance an omen of death gracing my forearm.
I’d been to my dermatologist not more than two weeks back for my regular six-month freeze and burn, where fair-skinned types like myself are relieved of the pre-cancerous growths our Nordic genes proffer up from even the slightest exposure to sun - or the light that turns on when you open your car door.
And I had emerged scarred but clean.
There was no way I should have a discolored growth the size of a pencil eraser on my arm right now.
So I freaked the fuck out, but in a controlled way, as I self-talked myself off the catastrophizing precipice.
My mom smoked, and drank coffee, and spent her youth laying out in the blazing hot Southern California sun covered in baby oil, I said to myself.
In fact, she smoked and drank coffee while she laid out in the blazing Southern California sun covered in baby oil.
Yeah. That’s why she had her melanoma.
But I was the skinny kid who didn’t go to the beach and wore eighteen layers of clothes in the middle of summer.
I’m sure it’s nothing.
But still, at 9:01 am Monday, I was on the phone with Coastal Dermatology.
The morning of my appointment I was a bit apprehensive, but as I stood in the shower, lathering myself up and singing show tunes, I remembered the dream I had last night.
It began as I noticed two small bumps, almost like pimples, on my body - one on my forearm and one on my chest.
I pinched the one on my chest and it popped easily, shooting out a tiny burst of clear pimple juice.
Hey, it’s my dream and I’m just keeping it real.
But when I went to pop the bump on my forearm, a thin, round strand of green jelly-like substance began to emerge from it.
The strand grew thicker and wider, eventually curling up over my head where it began to settle.
As more and more of the substance piled on my head, it began to form the shape of the Incredible Hulk's face, though the teeth were metal and pointy, as if those of a robotic vampire.
A disturbing visual to be sure, but then I stepped into the shower – in my dream – and it instantly washed away, leaving me shiny and clean.
I took a moment from my real shower to do a mental check and see if I could remember eating peyote or swallowing the worm from a bottle of mezcal last night, but I couldn’t.
It was then that I decided that the dream was some sort of allegory, trying to tell me that whatever medical problems I was worried about would be easily dismissed.
“It’s a vascular lesion,” Dr. Luxemburg said. “But we’ll take it off and biopsy it just to make sure.”
“How long until you’ll know for sure,” I said.
“Oh, 2 to 3 days at most.”
It’s been two days, and nobody has called. Of course, they don’t work on weekends, so we’ll have to see what happens on Monday.
You see, I’m not a hypochondriac, I’m a cancerchondriac.