Pre-Planet Cancer

July, 2002

An odd sensation on my left foot. I awaken to a sterile hospital room streaming with sunlight.

Where am I? What’s going on? Who am I? Existential questions take on an especially dark edge when you’re tethered to a hospital bed by a shunt in your skull and coming down from a week-long morphine binge.

A large nurse — in my memory, her nametag reads “Maureen,” but it might as well read “Nurse Ratched.”

“Guh…” I try to speak, memories starting to come back. Brain tumor. Surgery. Car crash.

My sudden influx of self is halted when I realize the nurse is holding a needle. She notices me noticing the needle.

“Go back to sleep, I just need some blood,” she says. I’m sure the Countess Bathory thought the same line was soothing.

This was back in the blessed days before the opiate crisis, before Americans were properly frightened by fentanyl, and when physicians actually found it suspicious that I was occasionally refusing my allocated morphine doses. Morphine just made me sick to my stomach, and, since vomiting beats brutal headaches for my personal discomfort, I not infrequently turned down cheerful offers of pain killers.

I wish I hadn’t that morning, though; there are few things less enjoyable than a game of “Find the Vein” when it’s happening to your feet. I desperately close my eyes and try to pretend my extremities are in another country.

The downside of my first tumor occurring in an era when painkillers were literally provided with every hospital meal is that there were virtually no support sources for young cancer patients. Almost all the support offered to my family was aimed at my parent — because, I now know, no one expected me to survive. Fewer people expected me to be able to recall my name and address when I left the hospital. No one would be able to direct me to a neurologist who didn’t believe severe brain damage was reversible (or treatable, anyway); dates would flee upon hearing the words “brain tumor,” and the medical establishment had been aggressively treating brain cancers for less than 20 years. The Youth Cancer movement would be years in coming, and I’d be enrolled in grad school well before society realized that young adults and teens could survive, albeit with severe scars and life-long problems. There are no surviving photos of this first surgery, because all photos were taken on tiny, disposable cameras. Given the positively primeval brain cancer treatments of the era, it would be sheer luck that the pathologists would determine it was a benign tumor (all brain tumors start benign, right up to the moment when they’re not), and call off further treatment.

Like all chronic cancer patients, I would be screwed by being an early adopter. I’d have to learn to read again, subtle-yet-severe memory problems would limit my life choices, and I’d end up in the OR another time before my twenties were over. And another before I was 35.

I couldn’t know that at the time. At that moment, my future was almost as untouchable as my immediate past.

Let us leave that image of a squirming teen being tortured by a well-meaning nurse for the moment. And it is here our story begins…

Written by

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

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