Six months ago, learning I had a spot of skin cancer on my arm, I freaked. More than freaked: I was absolutely outraged. How could this happen? Why me? How could this happen to me?
Never mind that I’ve been expecting skin cancer’s arrival most of my life. Whiter than white, that’s my gene pool. Skin cancer’s more common in my extended family than healthy relationships. My mom fought an ugly battle with it all the way to melanoma’s threshold. It would’ve won if ovarian cancer hadn’t gotten to her first. My sister has almost no melanin in her skin. Ever the outdoors-woman, her skin goes from white to red to white again, never getting even getting close to beige. Both of us have had solar keratoses burned off our faces and necks for years. And in case we missed the point, our grandmother’s maiden name – she was born on the West Coast of Ireland – roughly translates from the Gaelic to "the tall pasty people".
Add to the genetics the fistfuls of meds I take to keep my borrowed liver from rejecting, each with a Day-Glo warning label screaming, “stay out of the sun!” plus regular reminders from the dermatologists that it’s when I get skin cancer not if, and a spot of basal cell carcinoma should come as no surprise to me at all.
It didn’t. Except it did.
How could I have a new disease? I moaned. Wasn’t liver cancer, a transplant, a weird and rare hepatitis outbreak, two hernia operations, the unexpected arrival of two autoimmune diseases – another gift from the family genes – wasn’t that enough?
Yes yes. Stupid question. But for two days stupid questions were the only ones I could ask, intelligent ones being drowned out by the moans and whines of “oh poor me, oh poor Eddie”.
A week later, back to my normal self (and what the hell might that be?) I returned to the dermatologist, had the half-dime-sized spot burned off my arm, hurried off to yoga, grabbed lunch, picked up Otto, and drove to McLaren Park where we went on a long walk, me taking pictures and Otto sniffing and peeing. Shock and anger and whining? Over a dot of skin cancer? Please. I’d assimilated my latest disease.
Yet the question does creep into my mind: how much is enough? How much is too much? How much can my body take? More to the point, how much can my mind?
Last week I broke two ribs. Nobody can figure out how or why. I did not fall, I had no accident, did not black out. I was shocked and it hurt like hell, but no outrage broke through, no self pity. The three weeks before that were devoted to the misery of a hideous sinus infection which scared the hell out of me when it moved into my eyes (!) puffing them out until I became a scary-movie version of the Pillsbury dough boy. Then there were miserable reactions to the antibiotic used to knock the infection out. I ended last week with an MRI of my liver, ordered by the docs to see if there’s something they can blame for rising liver enzyme counts and began this one by getting an overdue blood draw on Labor Day.
I forget how awful this all is until I see it reflected in others.
The friend who drove me to the MRI appointment – and who has ferried me about the last week because of the awesomely painful broken ribs – asked why I was having the scan. I think he assumed it was for the ribs, but you can never be sure with me. I told him about my problematic no-longer-new liver and then, in his eyes, I saw how heavy a burden all this is, how impossible it is to imagine living my life as one ailment piles on top of another over and again until there seems no human way to cope with it all. I hate seeing that look in others. I dread the times I feel the burden myself.
Poor Eddie didn’t freak out over the skin cancer. He panicked. Panicked wondering how I could possibly cope with one more problem.
I expend more energy fighting to keep my mind and emotions in some sort of balance than I do trying to keep my deteriorating body intact. I suspect this is essential, the only way I can stay alive.