Birthday! Birthday! It’s my birthday. Astrologically I’m a cancer and recently this little crab has been weathering a bit of a storm. The namesake of my zodiac sign has made an unwanted and unwelcomed appearance in my life, promising to make this summer a memorable one.
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I like smoking. I like the smell of it, I like the taste of it and I like the ritual of it. For many years I rolled my own cigarettes and I very much enjoyed the process of arranging the rolling paper, placing the tobacco and filter just right, rolling it up and licking it shut. I enjoy the act of filling my lungs with smoke and then pushing that smoke back into the world.
I like smoking.
But I am no longer a smoker. I was about a pack a day smoker for for about a decade, but then I did that thing that you do when you get older and wiser and cheaper and more scared of dying and I stopped smoking cigarettes.
Then I moved to Asia. Cigarettes were cheap, a lot of people smoked and my job was stressful. These things combined created a smoker. But I wasn’t a smoker like I had been before, I didn’t have the same cravings or urges, I was a casual smoker, a few sticks a day. Eventually deciding to quit those few stick, because there comes a time in life when we all must kill our darlings and my darling cigarettes were snuffed from mine.
But on Friday June 16th of 2017 I bought myself a pack of cigarettes. I wanted a cigarette and I allowed myself to have a cigarette, because on that day, on Friday June 16th, I found out that I have cancer. And clearly the thing to do when one discovers that they have cancer is to go out and partake in a thing that gives you more cancer. Because once you’ve got the cancer you might as well live it up, right?
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While living in Asia my healthcare coverage had been less than ideal, but it wasn’t really a problem, my only real health issue during that time had been my throat. Six times I had gotten strep throat-slash-tonsillitis while overseas, but each time I took medicine, rested and recovered. No muss no fuss.
About 9 months ago I moved to Chicago and found a job with a nonprofit organization that has some bomb-ass health insurance and I decided to maximize that shit and do all the fun doctoring I hadn’t been able to do while I was abroad. During my physical, my doctor, with his sensitive and dexterous fingers, felt an enraged lymph node on the left side of my neck. He asked if I felt sick and I told him no, but I generally always had a sore throat and scratchy ears and had a tumulus history with strep throat-slash-tonsillitis. He prescribed some antibiotics and also referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist and the ENT said the lymph node had more than likely set up a kind of triage center to fight off the constant infections from my shitty tonsils and would remain enlarged until the shitty tonsils were removed. This was not the first time I had heard this, medical professionals in South Korea, Mongolia and Burma had all told me the same thing. But adult tonsillectomy is not a procedure done lightly, because it sucks. It sucks so much. I know this because my bomb-ass Chicago based nonprofit health insurance allowed me to have my adult tonsils removed.
After recovering from the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experience that is an adult tonsillectomy my lymph node had not changed, it was still big. It was biopsied, nothing was found and it was declared a Branchial Cleft Cyst. A somewhat rare, benign genetic oddity, no big deal. Cool. But it needed to come out because it was just gonna keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger until it turned goiter-ous. Not cool.
I had the node/growth removed. When they cut open your neck to remove things like lymph nodes or salivary glands it’s called a neck dissection. After my neck had been dissected the doctor said he was a tad concerned. He was hesitant to even mention it, but thyroid cancer was a very, very slight possibility. The doctor said the growth was much deeper and more complex than they were expecting and they really had to stretch my neck muscles back to get the whole thing out. This neck stretching became quite evident to me during the recovery, after the anesthesia of the surgery had completely worn off.
The days after the procedure were spent anxiously obsessing over the slight possibility of having cancer, mostly because I’ve got some pretty big life changes in the works at the moment. The move back to the USA has prompted a change of career and during the past couple of months I’ve applied and been accepted into a graduate school program that starts in the fall and I’ve recently given notice at my job. Life happenings are in full swing.
The summer of 2017 is a summer of weddings for me, I have 4 weddings invitations on the docket, 2 in country and 2 out of country. The two overseas weddings are both in July, one in Israel and one in Indonesia, about 2 weeks apart. I decided to turn it into a 3 week, 3 country pre-grad school summer adventure. The same day that I tendered my resignation at the Chicago based nonprofit job with the bomb-ass health insurance I went home and booked a one way flight out to Israel.
The plan was to have the weird benign thing removed from my neck, finish my job the first week of July, fly out on adventure, come back to Chicago August 1st and get down to business.
Look at me living life to the fullest.
A week after surgery, on Friday June 16, I waited in the doctor’s office for my follow up appointment and as soon as my doctor walked in the door I knew the results weren’t good. Turns out it’s not a rare Branchial Cleft Cyst, turns out it’s thyroid cancer. Mother fucking thyroid cancer.
On my way into the doctor’s office I had grabbed an Entertainment Weekly magazine from the waiting room. Full disclosure: I am a waiting room magazine thief. I love magazines. And I love stealing them from waiting rooms. This is an activity that combines my love of reading with my love of stickin’ it to the man.
I love reading magazines. When I was growing up my parents had a subscription to Newsweek and I would devour that thing every week. Even before I could actually read I would look at every picture on every page. I read magazines front to back, every article and every bit of text. I love to read them, I love to deface them by drawing mustaches and squiggles on the pictures and I love to cut them up and make ridiculous collages out of them. I use every part of the magazine, not a page gone to waste. As there is honor amongst thieves, I generally only steal waiting room magazines that are at least a month old. I won’t jack a current, up to date issue, unless I’m in the middle of a really good article, and then I will in fact roll that shit up and discreetly stick it into my bag.
After the cancer talk the doctor wanted to walk me out to the front desk to make appointments for more testing. This left me with no way to subtly slip the Entertainment Weekly into my backpack. So I held up the magazine and asked, “Can I steal this waiting room magazine?”
Head tilt from the doctor, “…hmmm, I don’t know..um…yeah, I suppose..?”
I looked at him, “You just told me I have cancer. You have to let me take this magazine.”
I took the magazine, but I have not yet read it, defaced it or cut it up. My cancer magazine sits on my coffee table waiting for me.
* * *
The morning after I was given the official diagnosis of Papillary Carcinoma, my particular brand of thyroid cancer, I had a dentist appointment scheduled. Remember, I was attempting to maximize my bomb-ass Chicago based nonprofit health insurance and had made the appointment well before this cancer business came into play, intending to get a good teeth cleaning before heading off to the international weddings. But I was not feeling it that morning. All I could think was, “I don’t want to go to the dentist! I have cancer! Why am I even going to the dentist??”
Because what’s worse than cancer? Going to the dentist.
But I did go to the dentist. It was a new dentist so I had to fill out paperwork and there were two questions that gave me a touch of trouble.
I stared at the first question, ‘Do you have any major health issues?’
I have cancer…I guess. I’ve probably had cancer for some time now, but I didn’t know about it until some 20 hours before.
The next question, ‘Are you a smoker?’
I wasn’t sure.
Was I smoker again? I had a pack of cigarettes at home and I had smoked 2 cigarettes the night before. Did that qualify me as a smoker? I answered no, I am not a smoker. And maybe that will turn out to be a lie; maybe the cancer will drive me to become a regular smoker again. Maybe it won’t. We shall see. But even if my cancer and my smoking habits are in flux at the moment there’s one thing will never change.
After my teeth had been cleaned I thanked the dentist, went out to the waiting room, said goodbye to the receptionist and discretely slipped 2 People magazines into my bag before walking out the door.