Health Maintenance

Being a thrilling tale of the importance and dangers of regular medical checks

So, this morning, I found out that Lori Alexander had a recurrence of her meningioma, which is a form of brain tumor. For those of you unfamiliar with Ms. Alexander, she’s a highly controversial figure amongst extremely fundamentalist Christians, and advocates for an extremely regressive form of Christianity in which women are completely submissive to men at all times and in all ways (which is kind of a hard sell in the 21st century, because even the most-religious women I know would respond to, “You’ll do it and like it without question, because the Bible tells me so,” with, “I hope the Bible keeps you warm on the couch”). But I’m not here to discuss her beliefs (or the fact that she spent most of her adult life unhindered by those beliefs, and didn’t start espousing them until she could financially benefit); I’m here to discuss her disease, and her response to it, because God knows she isn’t doing it. Also for everyone wondering where I’ve been for the past month or so; we’ll get there shortly.

I’m kind of forced to go with hearsay, rumors, and what I can find on my own, not because it’s particularly reliable, but because that’s the only information available to me. As I’ve written previously; when the option is complete ignorance or possibly bad information; specious rumors trump well-intentioned idiocy any day of the week (which is something I’ve written about), and, again, if she wants to go on-record about all the sordid details of her disease and medical information; I will absolutely stop and listen. Until then, Jesus told me to write this, and no one can prove otherwise. If you’re offended by that remark, just wait. Disclaimer: Even though I identify as a militant agnostic (I don’t know, but I know you don’t, either), and, even though I will be mocking certain beliefs, this should not be read as an endorsement or condemnation of religion; except for any religions that discourage one from seeking appropriate, timely, earthly medical care.

According to my possibly-inaccurate sources, Ms. Alexander got her first brain tumor; a meningioma, removed 17 years ago, and decided that her faith would protect her from that point (again; I could be completely wrong; the only facts I have confirmed are that it’s back, it’s different, and she’ll need post-surgical care)(I also know she’s claiming it isn’t cancerous, but I’ve never heard of a benign brain tumor that needed surgical resection and radiation; the point being, not only are my secondary sources unreliable, my primary source is unreliable). All of my friends on Planet Cancer are probably scratching their heads and responding with, “17 years between scans? I can’t even get 8 months between scans.”

As for myself; I’m due for the next round of scans, check-ins, and dental appointments next month. Normally, I’d just be tempted to write off my lack of productivity to the fact that it’s Plague Season, and, as someone who likes to write about first-hand experiences, I’m somewhat limited in describing my dog’s antics to a wider audience. However, after wrangling various specialty consultations and scans, I realized that it was probably some low level depression weighing me down. Not that it’s suddenly gone or anything, but I got a few more calls and appointments down, and life got slightly easier, just as L. Alexander’s news broke.

The love-hate-fear relationship disabled people have with the medical profession is a hard one to convey to able-bodied people, but it’s akin to playing Russian Roulette. That’s hardly something anyone in their right mind is going to hurry to, but it’s a weirder, more-complex issue with cancer survivors. Just like anyone else; we’d prefer not to play the game at all; but we’re also constantly aware that, the longer we put it off; the more likely it becomes that someone swaps the mostly-empty gun for a completely-loaded one (I apologize for that twisted metaphor). In this hypothetical metaphorical scenario, it’s like we either play the game, or incur a debt to a local mob boss. We know the options are bad and worse. So I totally understand Ms. Alexander’s impulse to stick her head in the sand and pretend that all is right with the world, right up until it becomes an unavoidable issue. My major complaint about cancer and chronic disease portrayal in the media is that it always paints a complex set of diseases as a temporary set-back, and the main characters either die a quick, painless death, or they return to life completely normal. And that fantasy-delusion that after chemo, after radiation, after surgery, after maintenance chemo, you get to return to your old life is so seductive, a large number of us buy into it, and never make those critical return calls, never follow through on consultations, and wind up dead. To return to my initial metaphor, what could be worse than regularly playing Russian Roulette? Paying for the privilege, and having to call specialists and radiologists regularly and nag them for an appointment time.

I wish I could say I wasn’t afraid of death, but I am. We all are. But that almost pales compared to how afraid I am of what death by brain cancer looks like, which is what I get to contemplate for a few weeks prior to all my consultations (fun fact: I now see specialists more frequently and regularly than I saw GPs or ER physicians when I was healthy). Again; I totally understand the impulse to pretend it didn’t exist, wish it away, etc; and I totally understand the aversion when the best-case outcome is, “You’re healthy at the moment; we’ll see you in a few months.” Somehow, even when you get the best-possible news (“This scan actually looks better than the last one”) it never feels like a clear cut victory; it feels like the warden has temporarily commuted your sentence. What gets me is the weird justification that Jesus will protect one.

Again, I’m an agnostic, and I’m easily-confused by religion (which tends to happen when one is familiar with all the weird, sordid ways monotheism has married itself to contemporary wealth and power)(I really should go back and reread the Sermon on the Mount, I must’ve missed that line). But, I have asked my Catholic friends to light a candle for me, I’ve been prayed over by LDS friends, and I’ve occasionally asked people to sacrifice a virgin in my name to Capacocha. On the other hand, I’ve survived three smitings/tumors, so maybe I should stop bothering the divine (or maybe those deities are all that good; I’m still on the fence). Where my story diverges from Ms. Alexander’s (okay, so, one point of divergence) is that no one in any of those faiths ever said, “By the magic of Pope Fingers, you’re cured,*” or “Joseph Smith says you’ll be alright,*” it was, “We’re all pulling for you, but you need to find appropriate, qualified medical care immediately.” Which, again, while a far-less reassuring message than, “God will take care of it, don’t worry,” is probably a better (or more-accurate) statement.

Bottom line; disease doesn’t discriminate based on faith, and if you feel that your beliefs give you an edge, kudos to you. Take your meds and get regular screenings. And remember, the one and only upside of cancer survival is, no matter how it turns out, it’s not likely Hell will be worse.

Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I have to go call my neurologists’ assistant’s pager and hope they get back to me in a timely manner (like everything else in my life, I wish I was joking about that).

*Yes, I know that’s not how it works, but I still get confused at how the Eucharist isn’t cannibalism and simultaneously not a metaphor (not to mention why we’re ignoring the parts of the Old Testament that command one to stone adulterers and the parts of the New Testament where Jesus tells us all to love one another; but eating pork is fine, and violently rapacious greed and selfishness are also fine), so my religious friends very well could say, “it’s just magic,” and I really wouldn’t be able to articulately argue against that.

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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