Friday, February 13, 2015

Love, Oncology Style

Let me preface this by saying: everyone involved is now fine and healthy.

Please refer back to this phrase in case you feel yourself freaking out at some point in this post. I freaked out just writing it, and needed this reminder.

Now then...

My eldest child developed a strange and persistent lump of skin that didn't respond to any sort of topical treatments. The lump was dubbed “It,” and It had to go. So last summer during school break, we had It removed. As a parent, it's disconcerting to hear your child's doctors essentially throw up their hands and say “we don't know what this is, but It should come off.” So, there was a minor bit of outpatient surgery that left us with you-babble-while-anesthetized stories that will serve us for years. Off went the excised part of my child for a biopsy, and home came my child, bandaged, sutured, and drugged, and glad to be rid of It at last.

Until the phone call.

Suddenly we're getting a call from the lab, the technician reading off the very long medical name for It, which sounded like blah blah blah lymphoma blah blah blah, followed by phrases like “pediatric oncologist” and “radiation treatments” and “start immediately.” 

It turns out that cancer is a wonderfully clarifying disease. You are either the type of person to fall apart, or the type of person to get into ass-kicking mode. I'm pleased to say that I married the latter.

My wife drove from school to daily radiation treatments, with the other children in tow. We'd meet up at the end of the day: child-in-question exhausted from the radioactive assault, other children exhausted from the daily trips through San Francisco Bay Area rush hour traffic, my wife exhausted from driving and worry, and me exhausted by association. August, September, October... these months are blurs. Somehow, my child managed to keep it together, managed to stay strong enough through the treatments to stay awake at school, managed to keep spirits up despite missing sport practices and not having the energy to make it past 9:30 at night.

Somehow, it all worked out, and everyone involved is now fine and healthy. The lump was benign and rare, treatable with excellent recovery odds. “If you must get cancer,” said the oncologist, “this is the one you want.” Yay?

My heart goes out to parents of patients dealing with worse incarnations of this disease. We got off lucky. Oh sure, there's now qualifications. A six-month oncology followup soon, and lifetime annual checkups with a dermatologist. Watching the sun exposure, especially on the site of the surgery and treatments. And parents remembering what matters, and refocusing.

Eldest is on the cusp of adulthood: just celebrating a major birthday, learning to drive, even thinking about life beyond high school. Around midsummer last year, my wife and I were sufficiently Freaked Out about any and all of these, because “Motivated” is not a term we would have applied to this child. We have not yet seen one leave the nest, and I'm always afraid that we're somehow screwing it all up. There are plenty of things to worry about when that first child is ready to stretch their wings. I hope, for all of your sakes, that you handle it better than we were.

Post-op, these things don't seem to matter as much. There's still the usual background-level worry that every parent has for their children, and we always reserve the right to Third Degree when the situation arises: we were teenagers once, too. (“Who is going to be at this party? Where is it? Who's driving? How are you getting home? Do you have your phone? Call us any time.”) But now we're fretting less about grades, less about future plans... fretting less about a lot of things, in fact. It's a good feeling, the non-fret.

I'm generally anti-New-Year's-Resolution, but I did privately agree with myself to try to be more easygoing in general at work, at home... at life. Smile a bit more. Agree a bit more. Stress a bit less. Stress a lot less, because my capacity for stressing out has been both increased and drained by last year's activities. Also: take regular vacation days, simplify whenever possible, spend less money, read more library books. Maybe, like most resolutions, these will fade away in the months to come. This blog is littered with a thousand good intentions and projects-started, after all. I'm no stranger to a lack of focus.

So that's kind of where I am right now, and where we are, and a sort-of explanation for why the extended silence here. After getting through the holidays, and getting the official “OK” from the oncologist, we have also been able to stop, and breathe, and look at each other and realize: that completely sucked, and we don't ever want to do that again. On a day devoted to love, we are taking it. Appreciating what we have, what we did, and that where we go in life is not always where we planned it. Thanks, cancer! You sucked, and don't darken our doorstep ever again.

* * *

One administrative note: I'm turning off comments for this post, not because I don't like my three regular readers, but because we're still suffering a bit from empathy fatigue. We generally didn't say anything to anyone until after the treatments ended, and as such, extended friends and family didn't hear about it until we put a very condensed version of this story into our annual snarky-and-weird holiday newsletter. You could pretty much track the US Postal Service's efficiency by the phone calls we received as our cards made it across the country and the recipients went "OH MY GOSH CANCER" and then called to comfort us. Our response to all: "It's fine, we're all fine, treatments were done in October. Relax."

So if you have the urge to freak out, here's some alternative actions:
  1. Say this aloud: "It's fine, we're all fine, treatments were done in October. Relax."
  2. Consider donating to a reputable anti-cancer charity and help kick this stupid disease's ass.
  3. Hopefully nobody is on the fence about this, but please vaccinate yourself and your children. I can now officially say that I was the parent of a temporarily immunocompromised child, and we had to contend with endless hand-washing, carrying around alcohol gel, and worrying about colds rocketing around my child's school. Now measles -- freaking measles! -- is in the Bay Area. Please keep the population safe and get your kids their shots.
  4. If you have kids, hug them, and if you have a significant other who has shown amazing strength, courage, and keeping-it-together-in-the-face-of-insanity, please hug them more. And if you have neither, please hug a nurse, oncologist, or radiologist (with permission.) Double hugs for the pediatric variety. Hugs for everybody.
And that's about all the room I have on the soapbox today. Expect a resumption of the usual, intermittent programming soon. Some things never change. I need to tell you about pens!