Cancer Ha Ha Ha
I looked at the photographs of my colon where there were shiny polyps
that looked like red and yellow sweetmeats. Dr. Chew, the surgeon acted
like it was cancer but he said he couldn’t be sure until it was biopsied.
That meant the polyps had to be removed along with a lot of the colon
and the lymph nodes through an abdominal incision. Dr. Chew said, “We
can schedule your surgery next week.” This was simple and direct but
I wanted a long rambling dialog about surgical risk and survival.
The polyps had been discovered earlier during colonoscopy. Dr. Chew
had put a flexible tube into my digestive system to look at the surface
of my rectum and colon and to photograph any suspicious areas. Prevention
requires colonoscopy every ten years beginning at fifty even if you
have no symptoms.
I feared surgery, the scarring of my smooth abdomen. The risk of general
anesthesia, another heart attack, a blood clot in my brain were on a
list of complications. Now I had another question that only a psychiatrist
would ask: Was my fear of surgery a renewal of my castration anxiety,
the infantile and largely unconscious fear of mutilation.
I reacted as many do: I put off the operation. My excuse was that I
was waiting for a second opinion which I scheduled. I went to Dr. Blister
at Stanford. He was a white coated, muscular and serious consultant
who walked into the office with his satellites, a animated and attractive
young woman who was a physician’s assistant from India and a resident
physician, an Asian man who was silent and glum. Dr. Blister took the
medical records that I brought with me. He said he had met Dr. Chew
at Sun Valley and discussed my case.
Dr. Blister spoke, “I agree with Dr. Chew that the operation is necessary.”
He went on to name the complications of surgery which I received as
a verbal talisman against these dire events. He said that the length
of time in the hospital would be a week not be the three or four days
I imagined. He was articulate about the chemotherapy that might follow
surgery if the cancer could not be completely removed, “Not as bad as
the chemotherapy for breast cancer, you don’t loose your hair.” Not
everything Dr. Blister said was important as he quibbled about the language
used by Dr. Chew to describe the planned surgery.
Dr. Blister concluded, “The recovery from abdominal surgery is slow
and may take six months or more. I’ve had fifteen operations. I recall
after one operation that I had filled my cart at the supermarket but
I was just too weak to finish shopping so I just left it and went home.”
The imagery was compelling as I speculated about what would cause this
middle aged consultant to have fifteen operations. I assumed he meant
abdominal surgery rather then his knees or sinuses but I was there to
worry about my case not his. The gabble of clinical talk contrasted
with the parsimony of Dr. Chew’s style. My trip to Stanford was worth
it and I savored the vision of Dr. Blister as a wounded healer.
The surgery went as scheduled. Dr. Chew with a surgical resident, an
anesthesiologist and two nurses took an hour and a half to remove ten
inches of my colon including the polyps and nearby tissues. All I remember
about the surgery is a flash of consciousness afterward when I saw my
cardiologist looking like a triptych of Ben Franklins from a hundred
I was in the surgical ward from Tuesday to Saturday with a catheter
and an IV. I had a ten inch scar with my navel at its midpoint. Dr.
Chew was out of town so other surgeons visited me inspecting my incision
and discontent. I was on a liquid diet, apple juice and tea awaiting
the passage of gas through my reconstructed colon. I waited for this
event impatiently but it happened.
The five days in the hospital were a journey through the twists and
turns of a hospital fun house with unpredictable events appearing and
evaporating like the changing surface of a stew. There were visitors,
a needle that slipped out of the vein, the removal of the catheter,
using a walker, a gift plant that needed watering, the chaplain’s visit
and even a call from a hospital office about my insurance.
I watched television but my roommates on the other side of the curtain
in the two bed room were more entertaining. First, there was a twenty-something
Filipino seaman who had injured his hand on a merchant ship and after
many phone calls flew off to Japan to rejoin the crew. He was followed
by a older man who couldn’t pee and was constipated following a skin
graft. He needed the graft because of burns after an accident with grease
cooking at home. He was improved but still in the room when I left.
Finally Dr. Chew returned and said I could go home. When I told him
about Dr. Blister’s fifteen operations, one of his eyebrows went up
and he said, “Not Dr. Blister.” The truth was only a twitch away. A
week later I went to my office appointment and received the report of
the pathologist who said the polyps removed were cancerous but it had
not spread beyond the site of the operation. Dr. Chew called it a garden
variety cancer, a euphemism for the more ominous language of the report:
invasive colonic adenocarcinoma.
Now I was changing my bandage daily; my only restrictions were alcohol
and salads. I had a 95% chance of a cure but I would need another colonoscopy
in a year.
“Cancer, ha, ha, ha,” were the virtual words of Dr. Blister, the surgical
Paul Bunyan. I was waiting for Babe the Blue Ox.
© Paul Lowinger 2003