Enjoy a sample of
Cancer Time Bomb
by Joelle B. Burnette
(This content is intended for an adult audience.)
Lightning Strikes Twice
Waiting for the school day to end, I sat outside my daughter’s classroom expecting the bell to ring at any moment. The door would swing open, and her first-grade teacher would stand in the entryway handing out colorful notes shaped like stars to students who had a good day in class. I hoped Sophie was among those children although it wasn’t always the case.
I had found a shady spot and enjoyed the warm Sonoma County day. I was chatting with another mother when my cell phone rang and displayed “Mom” on the screen.
“Hi, mom.” I answered my phone expecting her usual questions about what I was up to; what had I taught in art at my children’s school that day, and how her grandbabies were doing? Maybe she’d offer news about my dad’s health that has been deteriorating exponentially after years of battling diabetes.
“Joey,” she said through tears.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” Immediately, I assumed dad was in the hospital again, or worse.
At first, she couldn’t speak. Finally, she said, “It’s your sister. She….” I couldn’t hear the end of her sentence because the school bell suddenly shrieked across the campus announcing the end of the school day.
“What? Wait, mom, I can’t hear you. The bell….” I spoke loudly into the phone. The school bell seemed to ring forever. She was talking, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying through all the commotion as the formerly peaceful corridor between the rows of classrooms flooded with children and parents.
“What did you say?” I asked while firmly pressing the mobile phone against my right ear. I held my free hand over my left ear trying to block out the cacophony.
“The cancer is back,” she cried.
“What?” I responded in shock. “But it’s been…,” think, think, “It’s been more than 10 years.” I couldn’t believe this horrible news. My mind was racing, flashing back to my sister’s frail body all those years ago when our family feared she was going to die.
The first time Michelle had breast cancer in 1994, it took forever for her private health insurance to approve any tests and treatments.
At the time, she was only 32. Her health insurance (an HMO) was convinced the lump in her breast was nothing more than fatty tissue; perhaps a cyst. But certainly not breast cancer. She was too young to be struck by the disease.
Yes, the anonymous desk jockey from her insurance company insisted this was the case simply by talking with Michelle over the phone when my sister tried to secure appropriate medical attention and treatment. It seemed they’d rather she drop dead than cover the expense of a mammogram and related tests.
Ladies, you know when you go to the gynecologist’s office, and sitting on the table is that fake boob containing various types of tumors? You’re supposed to feel it, press into the lumps. By doing so, you learn what to detect when carrying out self-exams. My sister had the marble-hard lump. The one you try to squeeze between your fingers as if you’re going to get a prize if it pops out of the gelatinous mass.
I remember that day at my parent’s house when my sister asked if I would feel an unexpected bulge in her breast. She wanted my opinion of whether or not she should be concerned. Upon barely pressing my fingers into her skin, I swiftly recoiled my hand as though I was instinctively protecting myself from getting burned.
“Yes, you need to make an appointment right away,” I told her. “Michelle, that’s precisely what they tell you to look for when you’re feeling your boobs.”
Several months would pass before she received approval for medical attention, and only after having hired an attorney who specialized in this type of “HMO wants to fuck you out of treatment that will save your life” case and threatening lawsuits. By that time, the original tumor in her breast had doubled in size and the cancer metastasized into 14 lymph nodes in her armpit.
Ultimately, she was diagnosed with an aggressive, Stage 3 breast cancer.
The impassive assumption made by her HMO was wrong. By the time she got an appointment to see an oncologist, she was told she’d be lucky to have six months to live. She should put her life in order, make any necessary arrangements. Perhaps, travel.
Michelle’s spirit was beaten down by horrible months filled with chemotherapy treatments accompanied by an onslaught of puking. All the while, our parents refused to allow cancer to kill their daughter, or her spirit; both were tormented by cancer’s dark grip. Ultimately, their determination to keep Michelle alive ensured her survival.
Dark rings bordered my sister’s eyes while her body was repeatedly butchered by surgeries and other forms of torture including a bone marrow transplant: an agonizing, long process that left her body weak and forever after impacted by unforgiving side effects.
Fuck you, doctor doom. Michelle beat the odds and became a breast cancer survivor. Not someone who becomes a warm and fuzzy “I’m going to tell my story at every cancer walk I can find” survivor; simply a woman who survived a process through which no person should have to suffer. (I have nothing against women who tell their story. These stories are necessary to get men off their asses to realize women’s healthcare issues are important and require progressive action. Still, I don’t think my sister’s personality fits the breast cancer poster package.)
Michelle survived so she could continue trying to find her place in the world. She could figure out what to do with a future she thought was being ripped away too early in her already challenging life.
Oh, and thanks to the American healthcare system and all its presumptuous delays, one of the HMO’s parting gifts was the enormous bill she (actually, mostly our parents) had to pay in return for this new gift of life.
Along her cancer journey, she and my parents met ample number of people who weren’t as lucky because they had no money for the expensive medicines required to survive. Those were the people the system left for dead.
Still, after every medical treatment was completed (except radiation; she turned that down) and she survived suffering through each step, the last note of dreadful news came at the end. The doctors’ message was clear. If Michelle’s cancer ever returned, there was nothing more they could do for her.
For years, that message weighed heavily on all of us; heaviest on my parents who already felt guilty about Michelle’s difficult childhood.
Learning disabilities and her demanding temperament had plagued my sister’s youth before she became a generally lonely adult. She’s not the easiest person to get along with. She has a short shelf life when visiting with family who know her well, let alone spending time with others.
Add cancer to that recipe and you wonder why some people get handed one piece of shitty news after another while others rarely deal with any worries.
Once the cancer was sliced away and killed by chemicals, Michelle’s life appeared to be changing for the better. Regardless, my parents quietly planned for the worst and told Michelle to follow her desires: travel abroad, try to get one of her many screenplays produced while she lived in Los Angeles, take some classes, have some fun.
Always, those bucket list items were accompanied by the whispered caveat, “do these things while you still can, before cancer tries to kill you again.”
“Your sister’s cancer can come back at any time,” my mom reinforced every time Michelle found something new she wanted to try. “She’s not going to live that long. Dad and I just want her to have something good in her life while she can.”
Then, the day arrived when the doctor’s death sentence—one that had been handed down more than a decade earlier—appeared imminent.
“But mom, they said if she ever got cancer again…,” I could produce no more words. My head pulsed with pain. I felt I would fall over if I tried to stand.
“I know, Joey. I just wanted to tell you. I think you should start spending more time with your sister. Come down this weekend. Look, I have to go,” she said through more tears; her voice producing a higher pitch as emotions took control of her words. We hung up.
Sophie exited her classroom and approached me with her usual smile. Thankfully, this wasn’t a day the teacher needed to talk to me about her behavior in class.
My older son hadn’t yet walked over from his fifth-grade classroom located down the next parallel corridor. Sophie and I walked to his class where Jesse was still in the room gathering his books and papers. I did what I could to hold in my emotions. Hold it together, at least until we get home.
A friend—another mom whose son was in Jesse’s class—was inside chatting with the teacher. Our boys had known each other since first grade, and our daughters were best friends.
I was trying to rush Jesse along, but Clare finished speaking with the teacher. She looked at me, and when her expression changed, I realized, I must not be concealing my emotions well. She said with concern, “Are you okay?”
That’s all it took. I broke down crying. I felt my face flush red and I couldn’t get any words out. I could only wave my hands about as though that motion would help me to speak.
“I’m sorry,” I could only manage. I began shaking uncontrolla-bly. I tried hiding my face that contorted as I cried. I was glad most everyone had already left the school by then.
“What’s wrong?” Clare and the teacher asked soothingly. They waited to hear what had left me exceedingly upset. Clare gently rubbed my back in a circular motion as though she were comforting a child.
“It’s my sister,” I finally said. “The cancer is back,” I could only whisper.
Another parent entered the room. The teacher left our conversation to provide some privacy while drawing that mother away and over to the other side of the room. Clare remained by my side.
“Oh, no. It’s that sister?” She recalled what I had told her about Michelle’s health. Ironically, she and I had been speaking about my sister’s cancer only a week prior while we were on a field trip with our kids.
“When she had cancer last time, the doctors said they wouldn’t be able to do anything for her if she got it again because of all the chemo and the bone marrow transplant,” I reminded her of my fears.
I can’t lose another sister, became my mind’s mantra. I’ll be all alone. My eldest sister, Renee, had just turned 19 years old when she rode along as a passenger in a Volkswagen Bug belonging to one of her best friends; Renee was killed instantly in a car accident. I was 12 at the time.
The driver survived with a broken bone, but I’ve heard her life was essentially destroyed after that. I’m told she never made it through to the other side of the tragedy and for that, I pity her. Wasting a life is not what Renee would have wanted.
Clare wrapped her arms around me to give me a hug. “Well, then, there’s nothing you can do.” I couldn’t believe she was giving up on my remaining sister’s life so quickly.
Her cold response angered me, but I concealed my reaction by looking down. What a shitty thing to say. This isn’t a pet you can take to the vet and put to sleep. This is a sister, a daughter. Her body was going to be poked and sliced and mutilated again, just to be told, there was nothing more they could do for her.
I listened to Clare’s words that were meant to be supportive. Frustration settled into my brain as my heart ached because people just don’t get it. They don’t realize how horrible it is to lose someone so close and then be forced to face the news you may lose another loved one to a painful, useless death.
It appeared my life was about to be turned upside down again by another sister’s death. I never fully recovered from Renee’s death; and now, my only remaining sibling could be stolen from our family. Regardless of our complicated, difficult relationship, Michelle is still my sister. I couldn’t lose her.
My friend offered kind words after her initial message to submit to death’s bidding, but my head hurt too much and my stomach was too upset to remember anything else she said. I had to get home and talk with my family.
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