Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

A Note from the Editor

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

A Note from the Editor

Article excerpt

AN UNWELCOME PHONE CALL: MY OWN CANCER STORY

In July of 1997, I had what was supposed to be routine surgery to have what everyone assumed to be a fatty cyst removed from underneath the skin on the back of my head. It was outpatient surgery and was performed by a highly recommended plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Brown. My greatest fear at the time was that the hair around the incision would have to be shaved, and that when it grew back it would be some odd color. As it turned out, the surgeon did not have to shave anything at all.

About a week after the surgery, I was sitting here in my office doing some task that I don't even remember when I got a phone call. It was Dr. Brown. He said that he was afraid he had some bad news; my "fatty cyst" was instead a malignant tumor. It had tested strongly for melanoma, skin cancer, a form of cancer that is being increasingly diagnosed among baby-boom sun-worshippers (yet a sun-worshipper I definitely had never been).

It is hard to describe the reaction I had to the doctor's words. Stunned disbelief probably would sum it up best, followed by a gut-dropping terror and depression. You see, I had just watched a good friend die of lung cancer, and not a year before another friend had died of the same thing. One was a smoker; one had never touched a cigarette. My wife's mother had also recently died of breast cancer, and we were pretty sick of hearing about this disease. At the time of the call, I was forty years old. I had never smoked (other than a very brief period of pretentious grad-school pipe-puffing), exercised regularly, and could count on the fingers of one hand the times in my life I had been badly sunburned. The news that I received that day was totally unexpected.

The next few days were a blur -- having to make all the "calls," especially the one to my wife, was the worst part, along with the nightly terror and the tremendous sense of the unfairness of it all. The visit to the surgeon to talk about what was next certainly did not help us feel any better, and in fact only added to the puzzlement. He informed me that this lump, because it was under the skin, had to be considered metastatic melanoma, because it generally only gets under the skin after it has first begun on the surface. The thing was, after a thorough examination of every square inch of my body, he could find no originating site. Dr. Brown said that melanoma was one of the oddest forms of cancer in some ways, and that in about 5 percent of cases, an origin is never found, as proved to be the case with mine. But that still did not change his opinion that its being under the skin was very bad.

The next step was the surgery. I was to have a wide patch of skin removed from the area surrounding the now-excised lump, and a skin graft from my hip placed there. That meant that I would never have any hair on the back of my head again -- so much for my worry that it would come back some odd color. In addition, I was to have what is known as a radical neck dissection, where the lymph nodes in the left side of my neck and left shoulder would be removed and sent off for testing. Needless to say, none of this news made me or my wife happy at all.

Thus it was that in the summer of 1997, instead of enjoying the Phi Kappa Phi Centennial Celebration in New Orleans, I was lying on a hospital bed in a drugged stupor, literally unable to lift my head except by picking it up with my right arm, with my back cramping severely from lying in the same position, catheterized, and pretty much unhappy with everything. The only positive thing was that the surgery was over. During the neck dissection, three nerves had to be cut and moved, as well as a muscle removed completely; to this day, I have no feeling in much of the left side of my head and neck, as well as on the top of my left shoulder. The shoulder itself fatigues more easily because of the missing muscle.

About the third day in the hospital, when I was feeling much better, most of the tubes had been removed from various parts of my anatomy, I was finally able to go to the bathroom, and friends were even beginning to make cautious jokes about the tales I could make up to explain the mess that was the back of my head, we received the first good news that we had had in the whole process: No other melanoma had been found in the surrounding tissue or in any of the lymph nodes that had been removed. …

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