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Monday, March 23, 2015

Whispering About Cancer

Back in the days before pink ribbons, relays for life, and awareness movements, “cancer” was something people whispered about.

I remember people using their hand to form the letter “C” when whispers could be heard by small bystanders. I think more often than not cancer was whispered instead of spoken because people didn’t want to “upset the children.” There were also euphemisms. “He’s has been sick for a long time,” was often code for “He’s going to die from cancer.”

By all means, raising awareness about cancer has helped promote early detection for common cancers like breast and prostate cancers, so I am not advocating going back to the days of cancer, but I think that sometimes being kept in the dark about some aspects of cancer can be a good thing.

Up until a few weeks ago, we didn’t know that eye cancer existed. Or if we had heard about it, it never stuck. I’ve seen “Save the Ta-Tas” bumper stickers that oddly promote breast cancer awareness, but I don’t think anyone has one that reads, “Save the Peepers.”

Six in a million Americans get ocular melanoma. When Other Bill drew the short straw and was diagnosed with it, I questioned why these odds couldn’t be applied to his buying the right Powerball ticket instead of growing a malignant tumor on the back of his eye.

It was ten days from diagnosis to surgery, so we really didn’t have a lot of time to understand the ins and outs of the surgery or post-surgical care or long-term effects on his vision. We just wanted that tumor killed. In one day we saw five different doctors who rushed us through the battery of tests and briefed us about insurance and what was needed in order to get ready for the surgery.

I kind of slammed on the imaginary brakes when the ocular oncologist said he was going to sew a radioactive gold plaque to the back of Other Bill’s eyeball. This, of course would require, I assumed, a needle. “Needle” and “eyeball” belong in the same sentence as much as “machete-wielding” and “child care teacher” do. While my feet were on the brakes taking this in, I was trying not to think about how they were going to get to the back of his eyeball. Put it on a little lazy susan, perhaps?

Ordinarily I don’t do internet searches regarding health issues, because without any trouble you can convince yourself you have leprosy when in fact all you have is a gnat bite. But since we already had a worst-case-scenario diagnosis, curiosity got the best of me, and I turned to that digital Magic 8-ball known as Google, because I wanted to see what this radioactive seed-holding plaque thing looked like.

In a fraction of a second, up popped a picture, and frankly, the plaque looked like a bottle cap. Great, I thought. So for four days Other Bill would be hanging out in a hospital bed with a rusty Yoo-hoo crown sewn onto his eye with a piece of fishing line and a carpet needle.


Okay, that was all I wanted to see. I would spend the pre-op week with my eyes tightly shut and my fingers stuck in my ears while chanting “LA-LA-LA.” So if someone whispered “cancer” or “eye needle”, I wouldn’t hear it.

On the fifth day in the hospital, the ocular oncologist breezed into the room for 17 seconds, saying the surgery was successful, and that he would see us in two weeks to go over the results of the genetic testing.

We didn’t know what the genetic testing was for. Naturally I just figured it would tell us who fathered the tumor.

Once again, I stayed away from the 8-ball. Ignorance is bliss. And it’s a good thing, because it saved me worrying for two entire weeks. Ocular melanoma, I later learned, could be classified as a 1A, a 1B, or a 2. The 1A tumor has the least likelihood of metastasis, and a 2 is a significant chance of metastasis. Other Bill, being the middle child, was naturally a 1B.

I was already having horrific nightmares, so I was glad to know after two weeks that my ignorance saved a lot of stress and anxiety, which are everyday by-products of cancer. There is worst-case-scenario worrying, which I wrote the book on and will autograph if you buy a copy. There is insufferable waiting. There is hospital stress. That is finding the delicate balance between being a screaming, evil bastard who gets up in the face of the incompetent, semi-literate hospital staff  and talking kindly through gnashed teeth to ensure that there is no delay in getting your husband’s pain pills. Then there is the stress of waiting for post-op PET scan results which will tell you if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

We are six weeks post-op now. The PET scan was clear, and even though Other Bill is easily exhausted and is only working part-time, we are at the point now where we can almost dare to think about breathing easily.

But then at work the magic 8-ball is staring me in the face for 8 hours every day. “Ask me,” Google coaxes. “Ask me. I’ll find it for you. C’mon just type it in. Or speak to me if you’d prefer.”

Reluctantly I type in, “ocular melanoma radiation plaque surgery video.” I pause before hitting the Enter key. But then I think, “What the hell.”

And there it is. Needle and thread. Scissors cutting eye muscles. The big gold bottle cap. And this scared looking eye with black stitches hanging out of it, looking like the thing in “The Robot Spy,” the episode of Johnny Quest that gave me nightmares as a kid:


There’s just one thing I’d like to know. Is there a way to get Google to shut up? Or if not, can we get it to just whisper?


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