Eight years ago, a brilliant and talented surgeon sat down in a consultation room the size of a closet and told me and my future in-laws that my fiancé had brain cancer. He told us that the cancer was “extremely aggressive.”
I hated him for saying that. I mean, who says that? What does “aggressive” mean when you’re talking about a tumor?
I thought he must have practiced telling families a loved one had brain cancer so many times. So, so many times. He must have developed a vocabulary that could be understood, but at the same time distance himself from the meaning behind the words so that the families would need to stop and process what they’d heard before they understood what it meant.
But I knew what it meant. It meant the love of my life was supposed to die. And I wished he would just come out and say it. Do the decent thing and talk straight.
Double talk or no, I decided M was going to be fine. And of course, M didn’t die. Hasn’t died. We’ve had eight amazing years of marriage and change. We’ve had ten years together. We’ve had three children and a home and a mouse infestation and unemployment and stress. Normal stress. Times when we could be relieved to just be normal people having normal problems. Almost.
And then that stupid fucking tumor had to go and start growing again. And M needed brain surgery again. And chemo again. And this time, I know so much more.
Yesterday we met with M’s oncologist, and talked about the future. Now that M is finishing chemo, the future is… a lot more vague. Most people with astrocytomas don’t finish chemo. They stay on it until the cancer progresses. But M’s isn’t progressing.
So… he can probably come off the chemo. Especially since he’s still wearing the Optune. And so he’s coming off the chemo.
He could probably come off the Optune, too, but…
The thing about this kind of cancer, his doctor tells me, is that its biology can change rapidly. So rapidly that it can essentially be another tumor in a month. A different kind of tumor, with different molecular mutations, unresponsive to different treatments.
I like M’s oncologist. She’s never talked in circles around us. She’s never minced words. She’s direct. She’ll say, “This is a chemotherapy that’s really rough, and you will be on it someday, that’s a fact, but I’d like to keep it in my pocket for when you really need it.”
She told us that M’s doing great, unbelievably great, spectacularly great. That’s a fact. But it’s also a fact that with this kind of cancer, previous behavior is no predictor of future behavior. Just because we got a six year reprieve once doesn’t mean we will again. And it doesn’t mean we won’t. This cancer is a motherfucker. We never have to worry about metastasizing tumors in his lungs or his pancreas, but it could pop up in his brain again any time.
As we drove home, I contemplated how to phrase that to our friends and family. In my head, I started to tell them that M was doing great, and we could completely stop treatment, but this kind of cancer is extremely aggressive.
And like that, in an instant, I was crying behind the wheel, driving down Michigan Avenue. Because that doctor, he was right. He wasn’t using some kind of double speech to give himself more time. He knew this disease. He knew what it looked like. He knew what treating it looked like.
Aggressive is just an accurate description.
I wished so badly I could go back in time to eight years ago, to the shocked, numb, angry, horrified, traumatized person who walked out of that tiny consultation room. I wished I could go squeeze her hand and whisper in her ear.
The surgeon is right- it is an extremely aggressive cancer. That wasn’t some stupid euphemism to keep you from freaking out because it means he’s going to die. It means this cancer is a fucking monster. But you know what? Monsters can be killed. Monsters can be caged. That doctor’s not trying to tell you M’s going to die, he’s trying to tell you what kind of fight he’s up against. And if anyone in the fucking world would slay a monster for you, it’s the guy recovering from brain surgery right now. All the doctor is telling you is that he’s seen what a bitch this monster can be.
I was fortunate and naive enough not to know that cancers have character to them. They have personality and quirks. Melanoma is like a Hydra, popping up all over the place when you cut off its heads. Osteosarcoma is like a zombie, chewing on limbs and infecting them as you shake it off. Pancreatic cancer is like a basilisk, sneaking up all of a sudden and paralyzing you. Breast cancer is like a harpy, abducting you and slowly torturing you to death. Glioblastomas are like a manticore- it’s fast, it can eat you, shoot poisonous spikes, sting like a scorpion, choose any of a dozen different ways to destroy you before you’ve figured out how to handle one.
I think of these monsters, and I think of Neil Gaiman’s* famous quote-
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
I always believed my romance with M was like a fairy tale, but I forgot fairy tales have monsters. Fairy tales are gruesome nightmares of witches of goblins and stolen children and dead parents and mutilated siblings and babies baked into pies. Fairy tales are litanies of woes starring figures that haunt our worst nightmares until the end of our days,
But they also have happy endings.
There’s one more thing I wish I could tell the me of eight years ago. Not the woman who emerged from a talk with a surgeon as a different person from she went in. I want to tell the girl who spent that night curled on the couch in the home she shared with her fiancé, sobbing uncontrollably and mourning the loss of the life she thought she was beginning.
I wish I could hold her so tight, wrap my arms around her and cry with her. And I would tell her to go ahead and cry. That it’s good to cry. I would hold her until she was nearly asleep and I would run my fingers through her hair and whisper in her ear-
And they lived happily ever after.
*This quote is actually a paraphrasing of a GK Chesterton quote, but it’s the version I know and love.
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