May 7, 2013: a day that will live in infamy. Well, not really. But I’ll never forget it.
The phone rang that morning at about 8:15. I’m a night owl, so I usually skip those early calls. But this time I struggled out of bed, read “Billings Clinic” on the caller ID, and answered the phone.
It was my dermatologist, Dr. Reck, calling to tell me that the small lesion that he had snipped off my head 10 days earlier was lymphoma and that his nurse would be calling back shortly with an appointment with an oncologist.
Lymphoma. Cancer. The Big C. Something that happens to other people. Right? This time, wrong. I was booked in with an oncologist that same afternoon.
“How are you?” Dr. Muslimani asked as he entered the exam room. How am I? Well, Duh! Why do medical people ask you that? Would I be there if I were fine?
“Scared,” I said, which was the truth.
“Don’t be scared.” He then explained to me that I had a rare form of lymphoma that he’d only seen once before at a big teaching hospital back East. When I find a piece of 19th century porcelain at a secondhand store, rare is good. But who wants a rare cancer? But, lucky for me, the doctor had seen this before.
He then outlined The Plan. If the cancer had not moved from my scalp to other places in my body, it was not only treatable but curable. I’d have a cat scan, then a bone marrow biopsy, and then, if it was “so far, so good,” I would have radiation treatments.
And so began my journey of discovery. May felt more like a month of months rather than just 31 days. It was a time of faith and questions. We all know that we’re born, we live and we die. Was this how my life would end? Was it better to know for sure, ahead of time or to just fall asleep and not wake up? And always with cancer, “Why me?”
On May 9, two days after my diagnosis, and on my 65th birthday, my father died. Are coincidences God’s way of remaining anonymous? One friend said that my dad had given me a birthday gift.
So just what kind of a gift was this? Lymphoma and my father’s death within 72 hours? The angels should be floating down from the Great White Throne with instructions and explanations.
My father’s funeral was on May 17, just 10 days later. I arranged with Smith Funeral Chapels to have a private time with dad the day before. I had a very small floral token that I placed in his hands. Then I sang to him, prayed and read my Bible.
“See you soon, Dad,” I whispered. Truly, our few years on earth, in comparison to eternity, are nothing.
But then I realized that with this weird lymphoma, our reunion might, indeed, be soon. Or sooner than I would have thought just 10 days earlier. Looking at my father in his casket, I was facing my own mortality. But at the same time I could feel his presence with me. The body in the casket was not my father. A great sense of peace came over me, a peace that had nothing to do with the results of my medical tests.
Still, cancer is cancer. Many obituaries include the phrase, “A courageous battle with cancer.” It always makes me think of Dylan Thomas’s poem. “Do not go gently into that good night ... Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Would I be waging a courageous battle with cancer?
And are you only courageous if you die? If you live on without the drama of a hard-fought decline and death, are you still considered courageous?
My older grandson, Trey, has often commented on how many people I know in Billings. “Every time we go out to eat, Grandma, you see someone, and they’re always somebody different.”
But if I know a lot of people, so does God. Every day, one or two friends or acquaintances would call me or cross my path.
“I just felt the Lord wanted me to call you,” said a friend the day of my dad’s funeral. She had not known until then that my father was gone. I thank everyone for the kindness, caring and prayers.
I have now safely passed both the CT Scan and the bone marrow biopsy and have begun radiation treatment on the site of that first lesion on my scalp. Dr. Goulet, my radiation oncologist, explained to me that I may have permanent hair loss in that area. For me, it was a no-brainer. I signed in three places to give my OK.
But Dr. Goulet said that people actually decline treatment for that reason. I imagine their obituary: “died of cancer, but their hair was beautiful; not a strand out of place.” What’s a small bald spot in exchange for, in my case, a 95 percent recovery rate?
And the Clinic cancer center even has a wig boutique. Maybe I’ll end up with a collection of hair pieces in different colors.
I am now a cancer survivor. I was the too-smart girl with the glasses who didn’t go to the senior prom, not a clique that I enjoyed. We cancer survivors belong to another special club that I would also have preferred to skip.
There are many platitudes about the superiority of the spirit over the body. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma invaded my world and has made me revalue what days and years I may still have. I intend to cherish every moment I have between now and lights out.
My Aunt June, an eight-year survivor of ovarian cancer who has since died, told me that she started every day with this verse: “This is the day which the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalms 118:24). My grandmother taught her, and then she taught me. I think of my aunt every morning as I say it myself. Today is the only day we truly have.
I will walk proudly around the West High track on July 12 at the Relay for Life with my fellows. You are a cancer survivor if you are alive. If you can walk. If a friend can push you in a wheelchair.
I look forward to receiving my survivor’s T-shirt, for me as significant an award as an Olympic gold medal or a Purple Heart. To join us at Relay for Life, call the American Cancer Society at 256-7150.