A Cancer Tale

I am a survivor of that killer disease, cancer. Though not nearly as much a “survivor” as many others who’ve been ravaged by such a heart-rendering, destroying beast.

Thirty years ago, while I was working on my bachelor’s degree at a small Texas college in the Big Bend of Texas (Sul Ross State College), my wife (at the time), Lucy, also a student, had a bad case of the flu (t’weren’t no flu shots back then). So we were visiting the college’s infirmary. The college’s doctor (so many years ago I just can’t recall his name) casually noticed a dime-sized lump on my left wrist where I normally wore my wrist watch.

“Doc” looked at it, rubbing it gently with his thumb and said, “When you bring Lucy back next week I want to look at it again.

Thinking little of it, I dropped Lucy off at our little college apartment and back to the college to run a printing press as one of my part-time jobs to supplement my GI Bill income.

Next week I took Lucy back to the infirmary. The lump on my wrist had grown to the size of a quarter. “I want to do a biopsy,’ Doc said. I had no idea what he was talking about, asking my new wife, “What’s a biopsy?” as we headed for classes. At 26 I’d never had a need for a doctor (other than childhood mumps) and knew virtually nothing about cancer or any other ailment that “old folks get.”

A week later, the lump had grown to almost the size of a half-dollar. By the time Doc had sliced out a piece of the lump using a local anesthetic (I watched with fascination as he removed a small piece of the lump, grayish matter and a lot of blood, but felt nothing but giddy).

I wish I could remember his name. I can see his face, even today, mindful of some Normal Rockwell painting of a family doctor. I only remember that he did needlework to keep his fingers nimble, and had framed needlework all over his office.

A few days later, at around 5 a.m., Doc’s wife was pounding on our apartment door urging us to “get up, get dressed, and go see Doc.”

Bleary-eyed and confused, we dressed, jumped into the car and found Doc at the infirmary. “The biopsy came back,” he said. “The report is that you have a cancer called fibrosarcoma, We need to get you to a cancer hospital as quickly as possible. There are two,” he said, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and MD Anderson, in Houston. I’ll call and make all of the arrangements. Which one do you want to go to?

Alpine, Texas, where the college is located, is a long-mile from nowhere, so I chose MD Anderson, in Houston, thinking that at the very least, it’ll still be in Texas. “Good! Go home. Pack. And hit the road,” he said. This was on a Thursday. I’ll schedule you for intake Monday morning.”

Driving from Alpine to Menard (my home town and the residence of my parents and Lucy’s parents) is 300 miles. From Menard to Houston is 350 miles, so we had a 650 mile trip to make in four days. As students we barely had enough money for gas to reach Menard. I called my parents and they agreed to loan me $1,000 (“just in case”).

From Menard to Houston we made it Sunday evening after a couple of stops for watermelon … Lucy was pregnant with our first child and she craved watermelon… to my sister’s home in Houston. She was a stay-at-home mom with a young child. Jay, her husband, was a Coastguardsman.

Monday morning we gathered what I thought I’d need “for a couple of days at the hospital” … little did we know how long it was actually going to be.

By the end of the week I’d been through two surgeries. One to remove the cancer, and another a “prefusion” of mustard and nitrogen gas on my left arm. The process, I think, is still being used today, but it was “new stuff” back then. The process, basically, is to isolate my arm from the rest of my body with a heart-lung machine and pumping the mustard-nitrogen mixture through my blood vessels to “kill” any malignant tumor still possibly in my arm.

It was an amazing experience for me. I had an anesthesiologist from England, a Japanese doctor, a doctor from Tennessee, nurses from Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and New York.

I had many room mates during the three months stay at MD Anderson. An older woman (at least she was “old” to me at the time, probably about 50), with lung cancer who smoked constantly when she wasn’t in her bed (there were smoking areas at the hospital back then), and a young man, a truck driver, with a lump the size of a football on his leg. And his young wife. He’d been treated at the Hoxsey Clinic inĀ DallasĀ (an alternative medicine clinic that treated cancer patients with herbs and such). The young couple has spent all they had on Hoxsey treatments, he lost their house, his truck, and now was losing his life.

I read, played checkers, and had numerous visits from my wife, Lucy, my sister and brother-in-law, and roamed the halls of the hospital bored to tears wearing a plaster cast from my chest to my left shoulder and down to my finger tips. My left arm was plaster-frozen in a perpetual semi-salute, but above my head. But, as hard as I’ve tried to remember, I don’t remember any pain, just boredom.

After about thee months I was given an out-patient status, having to stay with my sister’s family and returning to the hospital once a day for observation and consultation. That was miserable for me, for Lucy, and for my sister’s family. There was only one bed available for the two of us in her home, a single-wide bed on which both Lucy and I would sleep at night.

For the first few nights I’d roll over and conk Lucy with my hard plaster cast, but we finally worked out a system so she didn’t get beat to death. And because it was so difficult for me to dress myself in regular clothes, Lucy bought me a brand new red swim suit I could wear around the house. And that was a total disaster! Without thinking, Joanna, my sister, washed the bright red swim trunks in with her husband’s snow white Coast Guard uniforms. They came out pink! Would you believe a Coast Guardsman in a pink uniform?

After about a month of that the cast was removed and I was free to go home!

When we first arrived back at Sul Ross I was amazed at the number of faculty (and some students) who’d heard of my cancer. There was virtually mass hysteria as they went to get checkups for possible “cancer” afflictions. Thankfully, none showed up “diseased.”

Also, thankfully, the college gave me a reprieve form my course’s finals, except for my public speaking class. I’ve always been deadly afraid of speaking in public, so with a squeaky, chattering voice my final was a speech about my “cancer.” I passed. I know not how, but I passed.

After graduation I took a job teaching at a high school in Winters, Texas, and for the next five years traveled to Houston twice a year for a check up, then for another five years once a year. From Winters to Houston is a long 380 miles. And at a teacher’s salary of only a little over $3,000 a year, the trips were costly. I made twenty 12-hour trips to Houston by bus reading and sleeping.

On my first bus trip to MD Anderson, I didn’t have enough money for a hotel room nor money for a taxi so I had to take a bus that put me in Houston at about 3 a.m., walking the ten miles from the bus station to the hospital and walking back to catch a bus back to Winters. That was the last time I’d ever try that. From that day forward I swore to save enough money without having to walk that ten miles at each visit..

I read a lot on those trips. The two I most remember was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer, a 600 page tome, and The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant.

After ten years of poking and prodding, I was declared “90% cured,” and sent home for good.

The cost for those years of care? A few pints of blood thankfully donated by friends of my sister. And that was it.

Not another reoccurrence. At least not on my wrist. I was again diagnosed with a small cancer on the left side of my right eye about five years ago. It was removed in Columbia and I’ve had no occurrences since.

Perhaps the strange part about all of this is that I not once was frightened by the cancer nor concerned that I wouldn’t be “okay”. It just seemed to be an “is” and a “was.”

Doctors and hospitals come and go, I guess, but memories remain. MD Anderson and its wonderful nurses and doctors and all of the other staff will, forever, be a part of me.

But I was one of the lucky ones.