When I was a kid, my grandpa (maternal) always came to our house for Thanksgiving and we went to my grandma’s (paternal) for Christmas. As I remember it, Ma would get up early to stuff and roast the turkey and then prepare all the other fixings and by the time everything was ready, she was exhausted and in a grumpy mood. But then Grandpa would wield the carving knife and sharpening wand (apparently this is called a ‘honing steel’) and everyone would smile. Also, for once in the year, we were not required to eat stuff we didn’t like, which for me meant turkey skin and mashed sweet potatoes. But regular mashed potatoes? Stuffing? Homemade cranberry orange relish? Bring it on, baby.
But then there was the giblet gravy.
Wikipedia defines giblets as edible fowl offal. (That ought to put you off your crackers right there.) Every year, Ma would ruin her silky smooth homemade turkey gravy, rich with bird drippings and roasting pan scrapings, by adding said offal to it. Nobody liked the giblets very much but nobody ever said anything either because, well, family. I would look at my magnificent mountain of mashed potatoes, dripping with melted butter and, with a sigh, pour on the giblet gravy.
During my freshman year in college, Grandpa passed away. The next time I was home for holidays, probably Christmas that year, I was in the kitchen with Ma when she was making gravy. She started chopping the offal and I said, “You don’t have to do that.”
“The giblets. Nobody likes them, not even you.”
“Grandpa’s not coming.”
She gave me a blank look for a moment and then, just like that, we never had giblet gravy again. We got to revel in the smooth and silky and the cats ate the offal.
This all came to mind because my 54th Thanksgiving came and went and I celebrated with a head cold and a bowl of chicken soup. I had expected to start recovering by now, but that isn’t happening, won’t happen for some time to come.
I continue to be amazed at what they don’t tell you about cancer treatment. I made a point of doing diligent research because there were bound to be cultural and language barriers involved in how this is done, but even the English websites like breastcancer.org, the NIH and the American Cancer Society don’t give you much detail. I dug around and followed links and when I finally got close to what I was looking for, they invariably said, “Talk to your doctor.” But my doctor is not very cooperative.
Before we got started on chemo, the doctor told me I have a very rare form of cancer and that we would follow the standard treatment.
“But how can there be a ‘standard’ treatment if the cancer is so rare?”
“The treatment is world standard, not just Japan standard.”
“That’s not what I asked you.”
“I’ll show you the website.”
“You’re not answering my question.”
“Here, look at this American website.”
“Oh, never mind.”
I was told he behaves that way because he doesn’t like the way many doctors in Japan pussyfoot around illness, refusing to tell their patients just how sick they are. Instead, he goes way too far in the opposite direction. I have been baffled by this. Why tell someone they’re dying when they’re not? What possible benefit is there in scaring the pickles out of someone who is already scared? Am I meant to be grateful to him when the test results come back negative? But all he did was hand me the results. The nurse who managed to get blood out of my damaged veins and the lab technician who did the test deserve more recognition.
It took a lot of research and some tooth-pulling to finally determine that it doesn’t matter that the type is rare. And the term ‘standard’ is not quite accurate. It should be ‘strongest’. Because the tumor was large and starting to spread, they hit me with the strongest stuff they had because it has the greatest chance of being effective. If I couldn’t take it, they would try something milder, but by doing that I would lose effectiveness percentage points. I try not to dwell on the thought that the surgeon may have gotten all the cancer and there isn’t any need for any of this horrible treatment, while at the same time, there’s never any guarantee that it won’t recur or some new cancer will rear its ugly head and we start all over again. It happens.
The first part of my treatment was a three month course of Paclitaxel. The famed nausea that comes with chemo was well-controlled with steroids. My hair fell out, but that was also expected. Lung impairment was on the list; I expected it after being a smoker for so many years. Even bone-weary fatigue was explained and no surprise when it kicked in. What they didn’t mention was disorientation, memory loss, digestion issues, dry skin, broken nails, blurry vision, tinnitus and a level of grumpiness that makes Ma on Thanksgiving look like Mother Teresa on Valium at a day spa. Even now, four months after finishing Paclitaxel, I have new symptoms. This time it’s swollen feet and hands and pain in the joints and muscles of all four limbs. I was told that the pain comes from nerve damage caused by Paclitaxel and could last for years.
I’m angry and frustrated, but there isn’t any point in yelling at anyone. I’m enough of a grown-up to know that…most of the time. Still, I have to wonder; if they had told me in the beginning how hard this was going to be, would I have had the courage to do it? To be honest, I think I would have. Early on in this odyssey, one of my oldest friends, who is also a doctor, said, “It’s your boob or your life. Pick one.” Simple, direct, absolute truth. I picked. There is only one road that leads where I am going and I have to follow it.
As much as I hate the idea, percentage points is what it comes down to, and all the medical world has to offer. Cancer is unpredictable, and each person’s body reacts differently, so each cancer case is unique. In the social atmosphere of the ’60s, that might have been a cool thing, but in terms of human mortality, it means I will spend the rest of my life walking on a tightrope. There are no guarantees, no promises. Tall or short, beautiful or homely, wealthy or poor, dedicated athlete or couch potato, vegan or MacDonald’s addict, we’re all in the same boat. Nothing stands along the bus route to the terminal station except statistics and dumb luck.
I thought I was safe, but someone put the giblets back in my gravy.