Life changed for me this week. Sound melodramatic and hyperbolic? No doubt, but it’s true. As it happens, I might have cancer. Talk about irony. I treat cancer. I’m not supposed to get it!
The explicit reason for writing this blog was to dedicate the year following my 52nd birthday to reflecting on meaning in my life and pondering whether I spend precious time on things that don''t pass the test of purposefulness. In addition, it was vital for me to invite others to join in the process. But I confess that there has also been an implicit reason for writing this blog. I don’t consider myself to be superstitious or superficial, yet on some level, I''ve been trying to ward off the fate that befell my father when he died of prostate cancer at the age of 52. As irrational as it sounds, it seemed like reflecting on dad''s experience with illness, dying and death would serve as a talisman to prevent me and my family from having to grapple with those very issues during this special year. Over the last seven days, however, my magical thinking has ceased.
Here''s what''s going on.
In an earlier post, I mentioned having particularly light skin coloring--"igloo white,” I called it. In medical terminology, it’s classified as “Fitzpatrick Grade 1 skin.” The scale was developed by a famous Harvard professor who understood that black is beautiful and that people with my pigmentation are genetically predisposed to hate the beach. I''ve taken pretty much all possible precaution, including but not limited to walking in shade even on winter days and wearing protective headgear ranging from cowboy hats to legionnaire''s caps that cover my neck—all intended to block out the sun and--so they believe—to embarrass my daughters. And, of course, I’ve undergone annual surveillance by my experienced dermatologist.
For those who haven''t had the pleasure of surveillance, here''s a brief primer. Save for a men’s bikini brief (and they do mean brief), you strip down to your birthday suit then submit to photography of the entire epidermis. Click, click, click goes the camera as you assume a series of positions reminiscent of profile portraits popular in ancient Egypt. Then you sit with the dermatologist to compare this year''s pics to last year''s, using zoom function like Google-Earthing your skin. .
This time, my dermatologist spent a lot of time on a particular spot on my left cheek. Then he looked up at me and stated smugly, "You made my day." That sounded encouraging, until he continued, "I''m almost certain you have a melanoma.”
"It''s an early melanoma,” my dermatologist reassured, “Completely curable in 99% of cases.” “The whole point of doing surveillance exercises,” he explained, “is to find these early lesions.” Today, my doctor had served his professional purpose. With the early detection, my lesion had made his day. And just maybe he’d made mine. For life, or at least that''s the hope.
What an emotional collage! Would it be understated to describe the feeling engendered by the photo shoot as vulnerability? Would it be overwrought to characterize the sentiment that emerged from the interpretation of the images as apprehensiveness?
Even before I got my bearings, a supportive colleague--an experienced cosmetic surgeon--agreed to do the biopsy. As his attendants draped my face, the writer within me seized the opportunity, "Would it be OK if someone were to photograph this for my weekly blog?"
My surgeon not only obliged by taking some still shots but even offered to have his nurse video the procedure. Then he joked that a movie would have more atmosphere if he were to turn down the lights while performing the operation. I felt comforted by his calm humor and the confidence that allowed him to quip. Finally, the end product went off to Pathology for review. Now I wait.
Both docs did their best to comfort me, but the experience was nothing less than a jolt. As a worrier, I can''t, of course, help but stew that, even with a 99% cure rate, someone has to be part of the unlucky 1%. And while a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, the moderate amount acquired during my three decades as an oncologist working often at the gruesome end of the spectrum feels truly perilous.
And that''s where it stands.
As we grow older and life thumps us, we develop a clearer picture of what''s important, and what has meaning and what we truly view to be "good." I''ve understood that, in theory at least, for quite some time. In practice, however, abstract concepts come into sharper focus when aimed in one’s own direction.
Maybe the dermatologist was right. Maybe, if I have cancer, it’ll be completely curable. For now, though, I admit I''m scared.
Until next Monday, Shalom.