My life: Cancer
Dr. Ferguson, the surgeon, was all serious. I’d been referred to him by Dr. Gossage, father of the many children dubbed Gossage’s Sausages. I was 18, but my mother had been summoned to the appointment too.
I had a mole removed from my calf a week earlier - kind of blackish red and nobbly. An hour in hospital, a little freezing, a couple of stitches and on my way.
Now the test results were back.
I didn’t really pay attention. Biopsy, juvenile melanoma, he said. I saw the sun streaking on the tiles, heard a little traffic outside, admired the examining table with its paper covering neatly down the middle. He was a serious looking, white-haired and upright, holding himself in. Probably not that old, really, but when you’re 18, then 35 is the new 80.
Uh-uh, fine, I say. I’ll get some assignments from my instructors – I was in second year CEGEP, a Quebec two-year bridge between Grade 11 and a three-year university degree. In a week or two, we can schedule whatever it is you want to do.
Tomorrow, he said, in the morning, be at the hospital.
That should have been a clanging, flashing signal that all was not well – that calamity and sorrow, in fact, might lurk around the next corner,
But not for one second was I worried.
Perhaps there was tiny bit of willful blindness.
Mostly, it was the sense of indestructibility of the young male. It was not possible that anything physically could be wrong with me. That my body would turn on me.
Remarkably, truly remarkably, I was never troubled. Never frightened. Never contemplated, literally, the possibility that my time on this planet was done, before it had really even started. I slept soundly.
I showed up at the hospital and was shaved – my left leg - and drugged. Count backwards from ten, the doctor said as I stared into the oval light above the operating table. He, wearing a blue mask, placed a plastic mouthpiece on me. I tasted garlic in the back of my throar, counted 10-9-8 and lost consciousness.
I awoke, sort of, four hours later in post-op. Apparently threw up on a nurse, then slept another hour before they wheeled me to a room, shared with a moaning man
I awoke with a great chunk of my left calf missing and a thick bandage on my thigh, where Dr. Ferguson had shaved off a layer of skin and grafted it over the hole. My calf ached. Some of the muscle had been cut. My thigh was merely alarming. I had, at least for eight square inches, been skinned alive.
I was able to order meals, marking a little badly copied form each day. White toast tomorrow, or brown. Oatmeal, or cream of wheat? Chicken soup, or vegetable? Jello or fruit salad?
OK, they were not real choices. Jello and canned fruit salad have, aside from the lurid colours of the former, much in common – cold, sweetish, neither mushy nor crunchy. A texture for which no word has been created.
The food was not that good.
But the chance to choose was wonderful. When I lived in Toronto, we went by train to Montreal. My father was the Toronto advertising sales manager for a Montreal newspaper, and must have had meetings. We stayed at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and ordered room service the first night. I had a chicken sandwich and chocolate milk, a stemmed glass resting in an ice bucket, with a white crimped cardboard lid. And television, black and white, I think.
I had never been able to sleep on my back.
So I finally turned on my side in the night, although my leg hurt. I looked at the steel bars in the bed and then fell asleep.
In the morning the gauze bandage on my thigh where the skin had been removed – maybe two by four inches – was a rusty red. Laying on my side meant the skin cracked and bled through the bandages. The blood dried.
When the nurse had to change the bandage, the wound was ripped raw, returned to the moment when they had harvested the skin. Except then I was unconscious.
I didn’t scream. But I reached out with my right hand to my thigh, where it felt I like was being skinned alive.
But I didn’t touch it, for fear of infection. I just pawed above it, until she took my wrist and pressed my hand against the sheets and covered the skin with some worth of mesh, so it wouldn’t stick again, thenand gauze. I fell back.
My friends Jonathan and Jeff came to visit, people I had somehow met in my first days at Loyola. Jeff, I think, because he took the train in too from the west island – a stop near Dorval, much closer to the city. He was probably in a class with me.
So was Jonathan, I expect. Or maybe I met him through Jeff, because we had lockers in the same part of the basement. Jeff was lamb-headed – all tight curls – and Jonathan had dark, straight and shiny hair and shy intellect.
They brought bizarre gifts. An aerosol shampoo, so I could wash my hair during my six-day hospital stay – they did gouge out a good chunk of my leg, including some missing, aching muscle.
And a tattered paperback edition of Profiles in Courage, a book at least officially written in 1955 by John F. Kennedy, about eight U.S. senators who did brave things.
Jonathan was an ironist before i really got the concept.
I made it out of hospital. Probably, I spent a few days at home – I don’t remember. My room was upstairs, at the back on the right. I shared a half bathroom with Mark, my brother, then 15. Doors from each of our rooms opened into the bathroom.
And then, a few years later, I grabbed the The Final Diagnosis by Arthur Hailey out of the Beaconsfield library. And one night, before I went to sleep, I read about a tired pathologist who misread a tissue sample. Benign, he said.
But it was melanoma, Hailey wrote. The patient would die.
It was a throwaway line in the novel. But I was freaked. I could have died.