Scars That Heal, Wounds That Won’t
I have scars that heal and wounds that won’t.
Tomorrow I go back to the hospital for a check-up. It has been about two months since I last saw my doctors. In that time I have experienced some healing. I have been able to introduce some new foods into my diet. I can eat many vegetables that do not contain seeds. A pickle that has been cooked is soft enough. I have gone to salad bars with Barb and tried small servings of artichokes, beans, bean sprouts, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, corn, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, peas, radishes, red cabbage, sauerkraut, scallions, snow peas, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, and even zucchini without mishap. Most fruits are fine in moderation. Fresh tomatoes remain a challenge for me. Strawberries and raspberries are not my friends. I look longingly at celery, but tried it once recently with painful results. Imagine trying to pass a roll of floss. Of course, nuts are still a hazard. Eating them is like trying to pass glass.
When I last saw the doctors I rarely ate meat. It was tough to digest. My intestines had been burnt by radiation, which meant that they ran slowly and often experienced distress. Now I can eat most meats but rarely have any desire for anything spicy.
My radiation burns have healed. The red marks remain around my hips and thighs, but are starting to fade. Several of them were mildly infected at one point in my recovery. The scars look like rosy lightning bolts.
My fingernails no longer peel like the skin of an onion. But there is a line somewhere around the midpoint of each that shows some trauma. On same nails it is a deep ridge that I can feel with my fingertip. On some nails it is a line of tiny white dots, almost like bubbles fizzing to the top of a glass of club soda. On one nail the dots are raised and faintly yellowed, as if stained by a citrus fruit. I attribute these scars to chemotherapy–although no one else has mentioned this phenomenon in the books I have read. For several months my nails seemed flattened at the top, but now they curve. Country Joe, one of my cancer buddies, told me that his nails had gone completely flat–a sign of lung cancer. Soon my nails’ scars will grow out and be clipped away.
My hair continues to fill in. I can barely see my scalp when I view the back of my head. I still keep my hair quite short so that it escapes the wear and tear of styling. It is darker than it was before. There is more silver there. It has some wave to it. It annoys my mom that I cannot stop touching it. She says, “You never lost all of it so why the need to reassure yourself it is still there?” I have no answer. It remains fine and thin, soft to the touch like a baby’s hair. I have eyebrows and eyelashes. The lashes started longer than they had ever been before, but I noticed last week that the long ones were falling out and had been replaced by what appear to be shorter lashes. My eyebrows are darker than they used to be. I have very few white hairs there.
There are miniscule white hairs on my forearms. I cannot feel them, but I see them in the right light. There are one or two tiny hairs beneath my arms and the faintest dusting of hairs down there, too. I have so far shaved about five hairs off of my legs.
My knees still hurt. I still take Osteo Bi-Flex once a day. It has helped. But I used to climb stairs well. Now it depends on the weather. Most days I take the stairs one at a time and rely on the handrail to steady me. I used to move swiftly down the streets of the city with my briefcase on wheels keeping up. I am slower since cancer. I have not been out of breath, but cautious. I no longer presume the legs will carry on as usual. It is as if we are coming to the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement and the laborers in this enterprise may slow down so as not to be taken for granted.
I still have a brown patch of skin on the inside of my left forearm where a particularly nasty port was installed for intravenous delivery of some medicine. In the center of that persistent “bruise” there is a red spot where the needle tapped blood. But the radiation tattoos on my hips are gone. I have been marked nearly indelibly by needles stained with medicine rather than by those that bore ink.
My tongue has changed. For several months there were faintly yellow marks along its sides, almost like thin chicken’s tendons. They are gone. My tongue has some fissures in it. I see them when I stick my tongue out and arch it. It looks much better than it did five months ago.
I think my blood pressure has risen. I have mentioned before my rising impatience with other drivers. When I heard my boss had described me as “insane” or “crazy,” it felt like a thermometer shot up with a spiking fever. I have noticed that I feel tension the way I did back when I worked in D.C. It makes my head hurt. I feel tightening along the temples. There is a feeling of hesitation that falls just short of physical disorientation when I move suddenly. I find myself taking off my “reader’s” glasses and closing my eyes. I try deep breathing until the sensation of squeezing that sometimes creeps over me creeps away. I went to a Walgreens store for a free blood pressure check last week but waited so long for the P.A. to return from his or her break that I grew angry enough to leave before confirming that there was a problem. I tried one of those self-serve machines, but the cuff did not fit properly. It failed to read me twice, then gave a very high reading–the likes of which I have not seen since the day I learned I had cancer.
If my blood pressure has risen, it is not a change in diet. If anything, I eat healthier now than I did two months ago. My weight has changed by only three pounds. I have used salt once in weeks. I eat more fish than I have in years.
I no longer am overwhelmed by the smell of my own body. For months I swore I smelled something burnt and entirely unwelcome that emanated from every pore. Now I pick up that smell on rare occasions. I attribute this in part to how much water I drink every day. When I am not at work I guzzle water all day long.
My bladder is still ailing. So far I have had eight hours straight without pain. It was one blessed night. Many days I can manage a three hour block of time without having to go to the bathroom. This happens when I am at work and do not consume fluids. It is a relief not to live in constant fear of a loss of bladder control in a public place. I still lose that control when at home or out and about. I don’t mean a small loss of control like actress Kirstie Alley mentions in her new Poise pad TV ad. I mean complete helplessness. It comes in a frustrating cascade of panic that adds to my weekly pile of laundry.
The pain is still keen, like I have forced hot vinegar through burning flesh. Sometimes, when I have control, I flinch at the first shock of it. Other times the pain gets lost in the emotional reaction I have to having no control. There are days when it hurts even though I am not trying to urinate. The pain is sharp, but unsustained. Have you ever seen a pirate movie in which the pirate has someone hold his prisoner’s hand flat on a table, fingers splayed, while the pirate uses his cutlass to stab at the table? As long as the blade hits wood, the victim is fine, but who can keep stabbing at the table without taking a bite from flesh? It feels like that sometimes. There is an unexpected slash of pain followed by a respite of indeterminate length. Then the pain is back and sometimes so sharp that I catch myself wanting to cry out.
I don’t cry though. I have grown accustomed to this pain. I wince. I flinch. I catch my breath. I freeze for an agonizing moment. Sometimes I sigh as the pain dissipates. But I have the command over my emotions that I did not have in December and January. Back then tears ran down my cheeks and I cried freely, sometimes for long periods of time during which I prayed frantically for relief. The pain is no longer that fierce gnawing at my nerve endings that signals clots are trying to pass. There is no sensation of congestion in my lower abdomen. Back in December, when things were at their worst, I felt puffed up, not at all like bloating. It was like someone filled me with helium until the balloon that was me might pop. There was tautness but also lightness, like the part of this body that is me had to shrink to the point of fracture and dispersion to make room for all the blood I was going to have to expel. I have not seen blood in a long time. I am so grateful for the healing that has taken place that I sometimes forget when the pain I still experience felt so awful that I could not bear it.
I know nothing much for sure any longer, but I don’t feel like I have cancer. Even as I write those words I feel compression in my chest. I don’t want the doctors to find cancer when they test me this week. Donna Summers died a couple of days ago “after a long battle with cancer.” My nose runs at the idea of a battle with cancer that goes on for a decade. This week the NATO summit is being held in Chicago. If people would come here from great distances to protest nations’ decade-long wars to hold onto ravaged foreign lands that we may never be able to hold or rehabilitate, then what must it be like to fight a battle in which the enemy is as tough to find, engage, and defeat as a terrorist cell but the war takes place on our own soil? If my bladder was only the first of many casualties of the war on cancer, then how many skirmishes could I survive? I will handle what I must, but I will acknowledge the valor of soldiers everywhere, including those who fight the enemy inside. It takes courage to go see the doctor tomorrow. It diverts energy from the process of going on living to rehabilitate what has already been burnt, poisoned, or mowed down in the last bout with the enemy. In times of economic woe, it would be nice to think I could abandon my post on the cancer frontier and go back to just making a living. But a war begun is difficult to abandon. The enemy has a way of turning retreat into defeat. And what seems like foreign land is often perilously close to what we hold most dear. So to all of those soldiers engaged in battle against cancer, disease, despotism, hatred, and violence, I honor your sacrifices. And those of you who fight these battles so that others might live free of fear, I salute your courage. And for those of you who fall in the battle, you will be remembered. Your losses will be counted.