Seventeen years ago today my father underwent surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center for a tumor the size of a baseball that was thoughtlessly wrapping itself around his thymus gland. We remember the day because it was the day after Veteran’s Day; no surgeries could be performed on Veteran’s Day Monday. So it was a Tuesday. I went to school as I always did, although I cried every time I tried to talk to anyone; my mom took my dad to the hospital and stayed there all day.
A week earlier dad had been in Bethesda, MD, reading grant proposals for NIH as he did every year. One week earlier that tumor silently growing inside him had begun to exert such pressure on his chest that, alarmed that he might be having a heart attack, he went to Johns Hopkins where preliminary tests revealed a mass. He came back to Seattle, went to his primary care physician at UWMC, and things began to happen at an alarming speed. I was the last person to be told what was happening, or at least that’s how it felt.
Much later, my father told me that the membrane containing his tumor had been less than one micron thick, or some other infinitesimally, impossibly small number. Much later he told me how close things had come in that surgery room, with his chest open on the operating table and a pathologist nearby to diagnose the tumor that lurked dangerously close to his heart. I knew none of this at the time. I wouldn’t have understood what I know now: survival swings on the thinnest rope of chance. Of fate. Of a patient who listens to his body and a doctor who listens to his patient, of a tumor that keeps growing but does not burst open, sending its dark army across the landscape of the body. I have known three people with this rare cancer, and my father is the only survivor.
Eleven years before the cancer there had been another health scare. I was five and remember only that for months my dad drank bottle after bottle of Ensure, supplemented with prune juice that oozed dark purple from its jug in the fridge. Once in a while I’d drink one of the Ensures. I loved the shape of the little bottles, the artificial taste of vanilla, of synthetic strawberry. What I didn’t know was that my father’s stomach was so scarred with ulcers that he couldn’t eat. The medicines didn’t help. The doctor was ready to order a surgery that would have removed most of his stomach and altered his quality of life forever, a tragedy for someone who loved good food and wine. Another doctor finally realized that the physiology of his Asian patient was different from his usual Caucasian patients and that a different dosage might work.
The new dosage worked, the scars healed, he could eat again, although I remember a childhood of pointing out dishes that were too acidic or too spicy or too otherwise indigestible for him. But it bought him time until more medications could be invented. And then the cancer came, and again he was lucky, and again more time was bought. Seventeen years so far. I thought again about this point in time, seventeen years ago, when a friend with two daughters in their teens told me last month that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. There will be surgery, and radiation, and chemo. It will be hard on everyone. And you will walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and you will fear no evil…