I was sitting in my windowless office at Lesley University in Cambridge on a spring morning in 2006, writing a report, trying to focus on my work, buzzing with nervous energy. I answered my phone, grateful for the distraction, until I heard the official-sounding voice on the other end of the line.
I’d gone to see a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, concerned about a mysterious lump in my low back. It had been a long, tiring winter, and I hadn’t been feeling well for months. I suffered from dry eye syndrome. My eyes didn’t produce enough tears, and a burning, itching sensation often woke me up in the early hours of the morning. My hearing had suddenly gotten worse; one morning I awoke and noticed that my left ear was plugged up, as if I were on a plane. (The hearing never came back, though at the time my doctor and I thought I was merely congested). My body, in that year when I’d turned 49 and was facing the ‘big 5-0’, seemed to be betraying me, as if to remind me that life definitely did not begin at 50. So I was relieved when the specialist said that my lump was just a fatty deposit.
Just as I was about to exhale, the doctor pointed out a tiny red spot on my chest, one of many spots on my freckled torso, and said, “I’d like to do a biopsy on this one, just to be safe.”
I’d had biopsies before, and had a few pre-cancerous moles removed, but the dermatology nurse told me not to worry, and so I put it all out of my mind, or tried to, until I answered the phone on that cool April morning.
“This is nurse _____ from the Pigmented Lesion Clinic at Mass General. Your biopsy was highly irregular, malignant, and it’s melanoma…”
Time felt suspended, elongated, as if I were dreaming. I looked down and felt the gray carpet ripple under me, and I understood, for the first time, what having ‘the rug pulled out from under me’ really meant.
The nurse chattered on, and I heard her through the static in my mind, as if she were calling from a remote location. The malignancy might have been removed, but the margins weren’t clear, she said. I should call Doctor I__, who specialized in this type of procedure.
Still buzzing, I dialed the doctor’s office and got a voice menu for the Yawkey Cancer Center. Suddenly I was a patient; suddenly I had cancer. A week later I was in the surgeon’s office, heart hammering, waiting for his prognosis.
“The word ‘cancer’ is like ‘insect,’ he said. You could be talking about a huge locust or a tiny ant. Your cancer is very superficial. You won’t die from this.”
Five days later I lay on an operating table as the surgeon cut a six-inch long incision down the center of my chest. I was alert, anxious to have the whole thing over with. The doctor, face half hidden behind his mask, pointed out the site of the original biopsy on my upper chest and asked another young doctor, “How aggressive do you think his cancer is?” It was as if I wasn’t there, as if my torso were simply a specimen laid out for their examination. I began to hum, to drown out their conversation.
“Are you freaking out?” the surgeon asked.
“No,” I said, though I wasn’t exactly tranquil. “I just don’t want to hear you discussing this in front of me.”
That ended their conversation, and 20 minutes later I was dressing to go home. Based on the doctor’s comments –- for once, it was good that I (or my malignancy) was
superficial –- I was fairly confident that I was basically healthy. Still, I was relieved when, at my follow-up appointment two weeks later, I was declared cancer-free.
Months went by, and I dealt with the realization that my hearing was gone, and the adjustments that come with hearing loss, along with other health challenges, like ‘birthing’ a kidney stone. But my skin healed, and after several years the scar faded behind a mass of gray-brown chest hair.
Still I notice it from time to time, run my finger along its snaky line, and remind myself of my good fortune.