It's been 10 years since I was treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. So much has changed since then. Both dogs that accompanied me, and gave me so much love and emotional support, have died and I am down another husband (due to divorce, not death). The treatment I received then was humbling and humiliating - four consecutive days of internal, high-dose rectal radiation, three surgeries, and a battery of tests. I lost count of how many people had their fingers up my ass or how many times I was sodomized by the radiation "wand."
After the surgical placement of radioactive seeds around my tumor, a team of medical professionals inserted the wand, estimated the correct position, and then scurried out of the room to X-ray me. The X-ray showed the correlation between the seeds that surround the tumor and the placement of the wand. More often than not, they would get it wrong - too far in, too far out, too far left, too far right - which meant they needed to hustle back in, remove the wand, and reposition it. I don't know what bothered me more, the fact that they performed this abrupt pull-out and reinsertion without so much as a dinner invitation, or that they left me alone on a table, with a wand up my ass, during the X-ray process.
After day two I asked for lorazepam. A lot of it. And lubrication. Prior to this diagnosis, I wasn't accustomed to having objects shoved up my ass, so the process was... unpleasant.
This is now my reference point when considering ongoing cancer treatments or any diagnostic measures. "Do you have to shove anything up my ass?" I ask. If not, whatever they have in store for me doesn't seem so bad.
At the time, internal radiation therapy was new for rectal cancer. The research came from McGill University in Canada. I was the 16th person in the United States to receive it. I need to pause here to remember, with love and gratitude, Ricky, who found the trial and forwarded it to me. I met Ricky through my blog back in 2012. She too was diagnosed with breast cancer and like me, was disfigured by "Dick Dock," Memorial Sloan Kettering's chief plastic surgeon. Sadly, Ricky lost her battle with cancer in 2017.
The tumor was undetectable after the radiation but I elected to go ahead with the surgery so they could prove I had a complete pathological response. It also gave me peace of mind. But if I could do it all over, I would have elected not to have 18 inches of my large intestines, including the sigmoid section of my colon and rectum, removed. It also meant I would be sporting a stoma (and the dreaded "bag") for 9 months until my chemotherapy treatment was complete. Once recovered, I'd be back for another surgery, this time they would use part of my colon to create a faux rectum. What they didn't focus on (or I blocked from my memory), was quality of life issues - a condition known as LARS (lower anterior resection syndrome) - that I would face for the rest of my life. For more information on LARS feel free to Google, but trust me when I tell you, I am a high-stakes gambler every time I pull on a pair of white pants.
Because how we react to situations shows the true spirit and character of someone, this is one of those situations I am most proud of. After tossing my husband (whom I loved very much) out of the house for his online fantasy infidelity, and after surgery left me with a stoma and an underlying, bulbous hernia that I called, "my baby head," I was one chemo treatment in when I traveled to New Orleans with my daughter, two of her friends, and my best monkey friend, to celebrate Halloween. I wore a black pleather, naughty nurse outfit with snaps down the front. Underneath, I spirit-glued grotesque, faux scars over my real mastectomy scars, and wore black Spanx boy shorts to cover my dreaded bag. All night long I ripped open my dress and watched people gawk at my mangled breasts. I was also pushing the arrest button, knowing it is illegal to expose your breasts in New Orleans if you are a woman and if (this is the important part) you have nipples. But my nipples are also faux, as is my areola, so I'm free to taunt my faux foobs up and down Bourbon Street.
Mr. Jones continues to text and call during my time at Fells Point. Noticeably absent is Airport Man.
"They postponed my PET scan," I text Airport Man.
"It's back on for 3:00 pm," I update him hours later.
When the procedure finally begins, I text him a picture of the radioactive vile of glucose being injected into my arm.
Still no response.
This is the first time I recognize a pattern. If things get heavy, he disappears - reappearing 24 to 48 hours later with an upbeat, obnoxiously positive text that avoids the situation altogether.
"How is the weather there?" He asks the following day.
As hard and illogical as it is for me to admit, I need him. I need him to distract me from my cancer. Even with the tenderness sent my way by Mr. Jones, it's Airport Man I want.
"Listen, Sweetheart, you're going to marry me," Mr. Jones announces over the phone after the PET scan is over. "You're going to be fine. I'll make sure of it. You'll get the best treatment available and I'll never leave your side."
"I can't marry you," I tell him, "I'm dating someone."
"He doesn't count," Mr. Jones counters, "He's already married!" I have been honest with Mr. Jones from the beginning, and he has been completely transparent with me.
Ling and Pete do their best to keep me focused on having fun and I am grateful for the love, dedication, and support they show me.
We have a long, liquid lunch at the outdoor bar at Sagamore Pendry - a luxurious, recently restored, 1914 building that is now a five-star hotel in the heart of downtown Baltimore's, Recreation Pier.
"You don't need a man, Mama. You have us," Ling reminds me.
"Mr. Jones asked me to marry him," I tell her.
"You can't marry him!" she insists.
Maybe we will get married here, I imagine, letting my Calgon Moment take me away.
To be continued...