I’d been living with a scar-tissue stain on my hand from a tumor that was not cancerous for six months before I started obsessing: It reminded me of the cancer in remission in my mother’s body, and the cancer that took my best friend’s father. It reminded me of my own mortality, my aging body, my limitations. It reminded me of everything that is not flawless: It reminded me of my frustration in trying to create something beautiful with my flawed hands.
The mass that I had tried to pick at and freeze off with an over-the-counter treatment did not, as I had hoped, shrink or fall off or disappear in the middle of the night. Pretending it was just a persistent wart did not improve the situation, so I scheduled an appointment with a doctor, and he scheduled an appointment for surgery. The mass needed to be removed as soon as possible. Though it looked benign, it could become cancerous. I wanted to know where it came from, why it crept up on my body, but the doctor explained that the cause of soft tissue tumors is unknown, and they always have the potential to metastasize or become malignant.
I had first learned the word “malignant” when my grandfather was diagnosed with skin cancer and needed to have some moles removed. But I had learned the word “cancer” years before. It was 2006 in El Dorado Hills, California. A hot day, like most days. It was summer. My mother called me and my brother into her bedroom. I ran in and rolled up onto the Ralph Lauren bedspread. Nathaniel walked in and sat down on the bed. How did the conversation go? She said “leukemia” and my first association was the movie “A Walk to Remember” with Mandy Moore– she was young and beautiful and dying. And wasn’t my mother the same– young and beautiful and-– I was dizzy but didn’t cry, though she did. Dad stood by with his arms crossed, and explained that she needed treatment soon. Nathaniel didn’t seem to understand; maybe he was too young, or too effective at hiding his fear.
I clenched my jaw and pretended not to be afraid, lying on the operating table six months after the seemingly overnight debut of the mass. I couldn’t look, so I stared over the head of the white haired doctor to the white wall of the room. As the scalpel met my hand between my index finger and my thumb, I sensed pain but did not feel it, and then I smelled the burning of my own flesh as the incision was sealed up. Afterwards, I met my mother in the waiting room, and as I showed her my stitched-up hand, the floss-like threads of the suture seemed to indicate that the worst was over.
A few weeks after the surgery, I learned the results of the biopsy: a benign spindle cell tumor. A bundle of cells, spindle shaped, long and slender— strange and unwanted. But not cancerous. It was a relief, but still unsettling; I didn’t understand why it had been a part of my body. I began researching soft-tissue tumors and retraced the signs over the last few months. The tumor began with some mild inflammation, at first no different than a bug bite— a small, somewhat itchy, bump. But then it grew, slowly, changing color, shape, and rising above the rest of my skin. I covered it with band-aids so no one would see. I bought Freeze Off, thinking it must be a wart, but nothing changed. My concern increased until I felt like I would do anything to have it removed; I considered trying to file it off with a nail file, dig it out with tweezers, scoop it out with– all these possibilities sounded messy, and if it isn’t already abundantly obvious, I wouldn’t really have known what to do.
What Mom had to do was abundantly clear: she needed to get treatment. After she broke the news to us, she and Dad went to Texas so that she could get treatment and my brother and I went to friends’ houses. I stayed with Alisha Woods’ family on their sleeper sofa in their stucco house that was much like ours, but with one more child, and their mom wasn’t sick. When we found out my mother’s lethargy was due to chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), she became fragile, and the radiation made her even more tired. I was too scared to ask questions about her treatment, and I’ve never offered to go with her– it is not something I can see. By the time I was in college, her cancer was in remission, and then I stopped thinking about CLL.
After my surgery, I tried to keep the wound clean, but I wasn’t quite careful enough. I could not avoid using my hands or avoid the infection that followed: milky yellow pus in a valley of deep red flesh. If I looked intently enough, could I see my tendons, my veins, the grain of the muscle? I went back to the doctor, but the damage was done even after the antibiotics were applied: the skin left puckered, pitted, unnaturally smooth with undertones of green beneath the red of scarring. I started thinking about cancer.
I started thinking about my mom’s cancer, and what it meant that she has chronic lymphocytic leukemia. While she’s read probably hundreds of pages on CLL since being diagnosed, I hadn’t read anything. But as I changed the gauze on my healing hand, I figured it was about time I learned some things about it. I don’t need to give you all the facts on CLL here, you can look them up yourself. But what resonated with me was this: CLL begins in the bone marrow, randomly, an acquired mutation. Each year, one-quarter of new diagnoses of leukemia are cases of CLL, it is the most common type of leukemia in adults, there are no known risk factors, the average age of diagnosis is seventy-one, and the average survival rate (tracked-over five years) is 83.5 percent. I know I wrote that you could look these things up yourself, but people need to know them. I didn’t know them, and my mother is part of these statistics.
With the cancer in remission, at least that part of her life is stable. But the cancer will never really go away, it cannot be cured, it can recur. Her immune system is shot. She should not be in hospitals with dying friends and relatives, or near me and my brother when an outbreak of the flu or meningitis is sweeping our college campuses, in any number of daily situations. But these things still happen; they need to happen because they’re a part of what it means to live. She cannot sit still, she cannot give up: she doesn’t know how to: she will go out fighting, and so will I, because of her.
After my surgery, we sat in the parking garage of the hospital and Mom gave me a bracelet from the gift shop, saying:
Here is something for you to wear, it will show that you overcame this.
But it will draw attention to the scar.
It’s not something to be ashamed of. The scar will fade.
I sure hope so.
But if it doesn’t, you’ll still have something nice to wear.
Well, thank you.
I forgot to say thank you at first because all I could think about was the large white bandage on my hand: everyone would see the scar and ask questions, and no one would notice my hands anymore for their long fingers or slender wrists, but for the scar. It’s turned out to be true that everyone notices the scar, and they ask questions, and I’ve learned it’s nothing to be ashamed of– even though I sometimes answer “It’s just a burn” to cut a conversation short when dealing with strangers.
My first reaction to my mother’s gift was selfish: I can’t wear this because it will draw unwanted attention. My second reaction was not. I didn’t feel like I deserved the bracelet; the small tumor on my hand was nothing in comparison to the mutated cells in her body, coursing through her bloodstream, I never gave her anything after her therapy or check-ups: but what do you give someone after all that?
In the week before the biopsy results came in, I felt on a small scale how she must feel, waiting for results after each checkup. I am more sympathetic now, more willing to help her around the house even if she doesn’t need me to. I am more in awe of cancer, the sometimes visible, the sometimes invisible— the mutated cells of the surface, or soaking up the insides.