Compare a cancer diagnosis to a radio. There are days when the radio plays in the background; while present, it’s simply white noise. We’re able to carry on, almost oblivious to its existence. Then there are days when it’s not only blaring loudly, but it’s blasting our least favorite genre of music; we simply can’t concentrate on anything or function in any way.
My radio started Jan. 14, 2011. After a suspicious mammogram, I remember hearing Celine Dion during my biopsy. The radio played constantly with increasing volume as I awaited my results. On Jan. 19, 2011, a phone call jacked that radio even more: “You’ve got a little cancer there, Honey.”
The volume nearly broke my eardrums through a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. But now, more than two years later, the volume has mellowed to a white-noise level that’s tolerable. My oncologist has declared me “cancer-free.” Might that be enough to turn the radio off permanently? Nope.
If the scars, tattoos and tamoxifin aren’t enough to keep the radio at a dull roar, certainly a calendar full of “cancerversaries” raises the levels. Understandable. Predictable. Manageable.
But every once in a while, someone sneaks into the control booth and messes with the volume switch. It happened last month. A dear friend’s brother passed away after a battle with leukemia. Leukemia; a distant cousin to breast cancer. Aren’t we all related on some level? This giant family tree of mutating cells that wreak havoc on families and friends who cling to the thinnest branches of modern medicine’s hope.
Those six letters strike fear into the very core of anyone who’s ever been afflicted with such a malignancy. A lexicon that swirls around in my head like the trails of stars in a Van Gogh painting. Except they’re not midnight blues, warm yellows, whites. They’re red, black, army green, fire orange, pus yellow. They curl into each other until it’s one long train of fear entangled with panic and anxiety.
Crisis, cancer, calcification, core biopsy: those hard Cs that make the back of my throat hurt. The ectomies: lumpectomy, mastectomy, the “ect” sound makes me nauseous. The sing-songy long e sound at the ends of the other words: chemotherapy, surgery, oncology, biopsy. They lend themselves to a sick nursery rhyme.
I stood in line at the funeral home, surrounded by people in various stages of grief. I watched my friend’s family greet mourners. Like them, I was there to offer my sympathies and love. I had never met the deceased, but I knew him well: 38 years old, dedicated spouse, young children, adoring parents, loving siblings. A mirror. His story, albeit a different thread, hit very close to home. As I waited to greet the family, the radio was playing louder and stronger than it had in quite a while.
Cancer-free is a declaration we patients long to hear. But the truth is my life has been marked by that malady that ripped my family, friends, body, mind and heart into irreparable pieces. I’ll never be emancipated from it.
Each person I know afflicted with this disease raises the volume on my radio. Add another name on the Roswell list for whom we ride. My radio is blaring at intolerable, ear-splitting decibel levels from which I will never be free. The DJ has the voice of my 10-year-old: “If they don’t know how you got it, how do they know it won’t come back?” Indeed, I need to locate the volume switch soon.