After my first cancer surgery, I woke up hungry. Ravenously hungry. Give-me-something-to-eat-now-or-else hungry. The way my stomach was growling, you would think that I had been fasting for weeks, and not just since midnight the night before being admitted to the hospital.
But now it was after 5 pm, I was out of recovery and back in my room. By my count that meant two whole meals missed. Clearly, I felt compelled to make up for lost time. That explains why, when a nurse walked by my room nibbling on a bag of vending machine cookies, I wasn’t shy about asking for what I needed.
Your dinner tray has been ordered, she said. You really should wait for it to arrive.
Well, that answer just wasn’t good enough for me. (As post-op patients go, I know I can be very pushy. And on occasion, incredibly persuasive. Even when it’s not in my best interests).
Maybe you can guess what happened next.
Two chocolate chip cookies later, I projectile vomited the full length of my hospital bed. Hurled with gusto, as if puking were an Olympic event – coating myself and the bedcovers with an indescribably nasty mess in the process.
Oh my God, look at me. I’m pathetic, I sobbed, all the while trying in vain to help the nurse clean up the soiled bedding. Forgive me. I’m so sorry. Things can’t get much worse than this…
In CancerLand, when you hit your lowest point, just like that old saying goes, the only direction left to go is up.
And at that terrible moment, sometimes the Universe sends a signal that lights your path, and offers you a faint glimmer of hope. (Other times you just wade through a sea of clichés to get there: things will turn around, this is just a bump in the road, nothing more than a temporary setback, you will get through this, yada yada yada…).
But sometimes a cancer survivor’s story of their lowest point is human in a way I’ve never heard before. Maybe that’s why the excerpt below resonates so powerfully for me. Cancer survivor Michael Burt’s experience is guaranteed to make you smile. Or your money back.
The Cancer Monologue Project (edited by Tanya Taylor & Paula Thompson)
CA: MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 2002.
I was treated for an aggressive form of lymphoma; high doses of chemotherapy and high doses of radiation were followed by a bone marrow transplant. Typical side effects are fatigue, infection, nausea, mouth sores, vomiting and hair loss. More serious side effects can be fatal.
One day in particular I vomited from morning until night. I had something called breakthrough vomiting that no medication could control. I sat in the middle of my hospital room, vomiting into a pan on the floor. I remember feeling that if I threw up just once more, my skeleton would turn inside out; a little like those old cartoons where the cat eats the fish and then pulls the skeleton out of his mouth.
Now, here is the picture: I am practically doubled over in a chair with my head close to the pan. I am ashen and bald, with several pumps on my IV pole pushing anti-nausea drugs into the catheter dangling from my chest. There is vomit on one of my Birkenstocks.
And then, one of the floor nurses comes in to untangle my IV lines. I am so sick and weak, I can barely raise my head, but I manage. And from how I am doubled over, I am staring at one of the most beautiful asses I’ve ever seen — an ass shapely and perfect as a nectarine made personally by God Herself.
The nurse finishes untangling the lines, resets the computers and walks out. I never saw her face. What touched me when I was so sick? What reached me in a way no prayer ever has? I think it was grace — oddly, the grace of a beautiful ass and right in my face.
I knew from that moment I was going to be OK.