So cancer is eating my mother’s family. I know it’s prevalent and awful, but my maternal line really does seem to have more than its share. Her father was one of 11 children to live to adulthood, and they all (I think. Maybe not Jenny, but I can’t remember) had some kind of cancer. Ovarian, uterine, brain, prostate, colon, stomach…at least ten of eleven siblings. That seems excessive, doesn’t it? And now cancer seems to have not skipped a generation, but is just moving on. My Uncle John died early this century after cancer took one leg and then came back for the other. My beautiful Aunt Sharon succumbed to a rare form of nasal cancer in 2009. This February, Auntie Bev died the day after doctors found cancer in various locations. I think she chose to get out while the getting was not so awful.
When I lay these all out side by side, it gets a little overwhelming, I know. But that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing this for one of my students this semester. He’s a veteran of deployments in Iraq and Kuwait; almost every semester I have 3 or 4 veterans, sometimes more. In February he came up to my desk and showed me his tongue, which he claimed to have chewed on in his sleep. It hurt, and he asked for advice. I told him to rinse with warm salt water and consider seeing his doctor, since most people don’t make themselves bleed in their sleep.
So he did. They found evidence of both grand mal and petit mal seizure activity. Not the best news, but he was glad to know there was an explanation and he wasn’t subconsciously trying to gnaw off his whole tongue.
You know where this is going, because you’ve read the title and you read the first paragraph. Doctors found a tumor on his hypothalamus. It’s the size of a jellybean, with tentacles. It is causing his seizures. It is too deep in his brain for surgery. The plan now is to wait for three months, try to control the seizures, then check to see if the tumor has grown. Then, maybe chemo. It’s possible it’s benign. Though it seems to me something benign would not have tentacles near or in your hypothalamus.
I should add that he shared his story with the whole class, and I’ve heard him speaking of it in the hallways, so I’m not worried about betraying a confidence.
I’m telling you these two things, because though I am clearly familiar with cancer, though it is not a new or particularly startling thing to me, my 24 year old student will find no comfort in my experience. I can offer him nothing but directions to the counselling center. My heart hurts for his family, and for him, a kid just back from deployment, trying to plan for a future he’s no longer certain will come. On Friday, he came to my office and just sat for half an hour. We talked about his nieces and nephews, and his mom, and his roommate’s dog, who can sense the seizures before they happen. I told him he would get at least a B in my class, but I wanted him to do his final project anyway, because he needs something else to think about. He agreed. He assured me he has good people fighting to get him the care he needs, both through the VA and elsewhere, and I believe him. We joked about jellybeans, especially ones with tentacles.
As we enter the final month of the semester, I’m reposting a poem I wrote in 2007. Because I wouldn’t wish a brain tumor on anyone, but damn if it’s not a fine excuse indeed.
One Good Reason
Dozens of dead grandmothers
Broken down cars
Make me wish for just one solid, unusual excuse.
Mandatory trip to Graceland
3 pound hairball
curled at the bottom of her stomach
so thick she threw up
for days before it was diagnosed
Or some heavenly, otherworldly vision.
Just once, I want
A stigmata-ed student,
Bloody hands outstretched,
Asking for just a few more days.