CoffeeBeer >> Warts & All >> Moon In Cancer

July-November 1992

The First Call

I'm still not quite used to this new role that's been thrust upon me. The power my inner organs appear to have on those people closest to me seems very strange. I've never even seen my inner organs before—never touched them, never fondled them directly. And yet everybody I know well has been thinking about them.

Saturday Week 1:

This sequence of events started today at 10:30am. M and I had moved to Seattle two years earlier. I was overdue for a gynecological exam, but neither M nor I had been to a doctor in Seattle or knew of one. I just happened to get a good recommendation for a gynecologist from my upstairs neighbour, and I finally made an appointment. I was looking forward to my usual quick pap and pelvic and my resulting peace of mind and easing of guilt.

Friday Week 2:

My mother-in-law flew up for a short visit today. It was my half-birthday and we were all going to a play in the evening. The phone rang in the early afternoon as my mother-in-law was falling asleep reading a book I'd written. I answered the phone and it was my gynecologist's nurse saying that my pap smear had been abnormal, Class II, and that I should come in for a colposcopy. I took the next appointment available which was in a week.

I drove my mother-in-law to the University District and we had lattes and talked to a friend of hers at the Folk Art Museum and walked around the University of Washington. Then we picked up M at work, had dinner in Capitol Hill, and went to the play. At some point in the car I quickly mentioned my abnormal pap smear to M.

My mother-in-law flew back home on Sunday night. My temping agency phoned me on Monday for a job which would last Wednesday through Friday. I agreed to take it if I could have a two-hour lunch for my Friday appointment. On Wednesday I left for the job at 11:30am. M arrived home for lunch at 1:00pm to hear what he thought was someone running out of our kitchen. The kitchen door was wide open. That evening we discovered that a burglar managed to break in through a kitchen window and steal all of our cash: $140 in my nightstand, about $30 worth of change in M's nightstand, and a $2 bill and some silver dollars in a musicbox. Fortunately whoever it was didn't take anything else.

The Colposcopy

Friday Week 3:

I felt rather nervous at my job on Thursday. M stayed home most of the day changing the door locks and installing better window locks. Thursday slipped into Friday and I became more nervous about my appointment. I took the four Ibuprofens I had been told to take before my appointment. I left at 10:45am and caught a bus to the hospital. It wasn't a long walk, but it was about 95 degrees outside and muggy and I didn't want to arrive for my mysterious procedure all sweaty from the heat.

I sat in the waiting room for a few minutes feeling rather numb and sickly from the Ibuprofen. It was the first time I'd ever taken Ibuprofen. The nurse showed me into a room with an examining table and told me to put on a gown. In the room there was a desk with a chair and nothing on the desk but a telephone and a box of tissues. Oh great, I thought to myself. This is the room in which they give people bad news. "I'm sorry, but according to your pap smear it looks like we'll have to remove the entire lower half of your body." I looked over at the counter and saw some cutting tools like small scalpels all ready to be used along with a couple of large bandages and a glass of clear liquid. Are those for me? I wondered. Just what does she need to cut, anyway? And what in my cervix is there to put a bandage on, anyway?

Doctor H came in and told me that my pap smear had indicated that some terribly abnormal cells, precancerous cells, appeared to be in my cervix. She stuck the colposcopy device up between my legs to have a look. It felt no worse than a pap smear. Then she told me that my cervix was pretty long and narrow and hard to reach, so as she couldn't see anything with the naked eye she was going to take a few little biopsies. Suddenly I felt as if she were wiping her hiking boots on the surface of my insides, way up where I'd never been conscious of any feeling before. It was as if someone had reached inside my body and was prodding my liver with hot pokers: I had awareness of a part of my body I'd never had awareness of before and of which I didn't particularly want to have awareness.

Doctor H kept apologising with every scrape of her Vibram heels. Finally it was over and I sat up. Instantly I felt like vomiting and fainting and I lay back down in a sweat. The nurse came in and put a cold towel on my forehead and said it was common for people to react this way. After a half hour I finally got dressed and walked back to my job. Feeling slightly faint and weird, I had no desire to climb onto an enclosed bus, choosing instead to be in control of my own movements.

Back at the building in which I was working, I had a half hour left to have some lunch. I didn't feel very hungry but I had that low-blood-sugar feeling from nearly having fainted, so I forced down half a bagel and a pint of orange juice.

Waiting for Surgery

Sunday Week 4:

In the morning I was busy cleaning house for our friend L who was arriving Monday for a visit. We received a phone call from an Australian friend, Y, who had just come into town on a Greyhound bus. We drove downtown and picked her up and showed her some of the city. She spent the night with us Sunday, and then Monday I picked up L. Y left for British Columbia on Tuesday morning.

Wednesday Week 4:

As L and I were finishing breakfast and starting our day I received a phone call from Doctor H. She said that the biopsies she had taken came back showing that there was some precancerous activity going on up inside my cervix. If it had been on the outside of my cervix, they could have done an office procedure—freezing or microwaving or sautéing lightly with a laser—which would remove all the nasty cells. Unfortunately they needed to do a cone biopsy, which required me to go into the hospital and go under a general anesthetic. So let's get it over with, I said. Then I realised that my period was due to start at some point in the next week, and she said they'd have to wait until it was completely over and schedule the surgery in a couple of weeks. I knew I couldn't live that long with the stress of anticipating surgery. I started crying and hung up. A little while later the nurse phoned me back and said they could do the surgery Friday afternoon. I felt very relieved somehow.

Thursday Week 4:

I phoned my parents in Oregon to let them know I was having surgery. Their message machine wasn't on and there was no answer. I was afraid they had just left for their other home in California and I wouldn't be able to reach them until after the surgery. And boy, would my mother be angry about that. I finally tried their house in California, and they had just arrived the night before, so I was able to tell my mother the news.

I gingerly and slowly sipped an early beer, and then M and L and I went out to try to find some place to have dinner where I could eat something unsalty and unspicy and uninteresting. I was not allowed to have food or water after midnight that night. I wasn't concerned about not being able to eat, but the thought of no water was making me avoid anything that could possibly make me thirsty or dehydrate me or make my mouth taste bad the next morning. It was difficult. I had a little bit of a tostada with no salsa. I ate bland food in a Mexican restaurant. Me. I ate bland food in a Mexican restaurant!

We met our friend B at Green Lake for the Hiroshima/Nagasaki Day celebration. How appropriate, I thought to myself. We watched people set little candle-lit lanterns afloat onto extremely windy Green Lake. It was cold and I'd forgotten to dress warmly, being in rather a blur of a state.

The Cone Biopsy and D&C

Friday Week 4:

M awoke early and took L to the airport. I tried to stay unconscious for as long as I could so I wouldn't have to worry about being hungry or thirsty. Unfortunately I was too nervous to sleep.

M drove me to the Day Surgery Center at noon. On the 5th floor a woman took me into a room and asked me boring questions and typed the answers into a computer. She told me to leave my wallet and valuables with M. Then a nurse took me into another room and banged on my veins and nearly broke my arms off with a tourniquet trying to find a vein out of which to take blood. “You have really thin veins!” she kept saying. “I know!” I kept screaming back in pain.

I sat with M in the waiting room for awhile watching a small group of women eat cookies. The nurse gave me a folder with some papers in it and told me to go up to the 6th floor. M came with me. A very friendly nurse told me to go to the toilet and she told M where to wait and when he'd be called. M and I kissed good-bye and I was taken into a room where the nurse asked me more questions. Then she gave me a gown and some unusual socks with treads on the soles and a really heavy bathrobe and a garment bag. She told me to put all of my clothes into the garment bag and to put on the gown and socks and bathrobe. Then she weighed me and checked my pulse and blood pressure in a waiting room where a couple who didn't speak English were watching a soap opera on TV.

The nurse then led me to a reclining chair in the corner and draped me with heated blankets. “Your hands are so cold!” she said. A technician came in and hooked me up to a machine and took an electrocardiogram. “My, your hands are cold,” she commented. The anesthesiologist came in and explained in a quiet mumbling voice what he was going to do. “Your hands are really cold,” he added. (By this time I was feeling overly warm.)

I was scheduled to be operated on at 2:00pm. At 1:55 Doctor H walked in and told me they were going to do not only a cone biopsy but also a D&C because they had found some seriously abnormal cells way up in my cervix and they wanted to check everything and cure everything and it could mean that I'd just have to be checked every three months or I might be looking at a simple hysterectomy or even a radical hysterectomy. I asked her what the difference was between a simple and a radical hysterectomy. She said we could talk about that Monday or Tuesday when she got the lab results back. Whammo.

I walked into the operating room and was told to lie down on the operating table. A nurse hooked up a blood pressure cuff to my left arm while the anesthesiologist started beating on my right arm while trying to break it off with a tourniquet. He finally managed to get a needle into my thin vein when Doctor H appeared over me in a surgical mask. She said, “You're going on a vacation!” Suddenly my head filled with intense sickeningness and I exclaimed, “I'm so dizzy!”

Time passes differently when you're under an anesthetic. Normally when you go to sleep you basically go to sleep and then you wake up, and the only thing in between is your dreams. It's a compression of time. Being under an anesthetic, on the other hand, is like when I was in deep shock after I fell down some stairs and cracked my head open a few years ago. Time isn't compressed. It still passes. It's just that you happen to be experiencing nothingness while it passes. When I awoke in the recovery room I probably could have estimated what time it was if I'd been wearing a watch to check myself. But, of course, being in nothingness I wouldn't know what a watch was.

I awoke in the recovery room at about 3:15pm. There was an IV bag attached to the vein in my right arm, a blood pressure cuff on my left arm, a pulse meter clamped tightly to my right index finger, and an oxygen tube stuck in my nose. I was surprised how much pain I was in. The first thing I asked the nurse was for something for my pain, so she put something into my IV.

A man next to me was waking up at the same time from scrotal surgery. He recovered fairly fast, ate some crackers, and left. The nurses wanted to make sure he had a scrotal support tress at home. A year earlier when I was doing a temp job for a medical insurance company, I had typed in coverage information for "scrotal support tresses" and was amused. I laughed quietly inside my head to myself as I asked for more pain medicine.

After a while they said they could give me more pain pills if I could eat. So I sat up a bit and drank a little juice and ate a couple of crackers. The nurse gave me a Tylox. Suddenly I thought I was going to vomit, so they flattened me out again and put something into my IV to relieve the nausea.

A few minutes later they brought M in to see me. Fortunately the oxygen tube was out of my nose by that time, but poor sensitive M had to see me lying in a hospital bed with an IV attached. He sat down and read the machine that was monitoring my pulse and blood pressure. My blood pressure was 90 over 38 or something like that.

Eventually all the nurses went home except for Nurse D. Nurse D was an older nurse, a little slow and strange. I decided I really wanted to recover enough to get out of there and get home, so I made a real effort not to be nauseated. My back was killing me from lying on it all afternoon. I seriously hoped I wouldn't have to have more surgery because I didn't think my back could take it.

D finally walked me over to a chair. M sat beside me. Nurse D was trying to be friendly by making idle talk while she tidied the place up a bit. M and I were both getting antsy. Finally Nurse D took my blood pressure. It was quite a bit higher than it had been, about 100 over 80. She started taking the IV needle out of my vein. I looked away and saw M staring at the needle, looking distressed. I told him not to look at it. He looked away and started crying. I could tell the whole experience was getting to him. The last time the two of us had been in a hospital together was when his father died.

D noticed M was crying and suggested he go out and bring the car around. By the time he left I was crying, too.

Nurse D led me into the bathroom so I could urinate and get dressed. She insisted on looking in the toilet before I flushed it to make sure I wasn't hemorrhaging or anything. “Okay! That looks fine!” I guess having nurses check your pee before you flush is just one of many degrading things that can happen to you in a hospital.

She wheeled me down to where M was waiting with the car. She gave me two paper bags with plastic bags inside them. “Barf bags,” she explained. I sincerely hoped that M wasn't going to be driving that erratically on the way home.

At home I sprawled out on the bed and took an Ibuprofen. My mother phoned and talked to me, followed by L who had just visited, and then my best friend E phoned. I don't remember if anybody else phoned. I was in pretty good spirits because I was no longer in the hospital.

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