Charlene

A few weeks ago, my daughter Helena brought home a tiny goldfish from her school’s Relay for Life celebration. The event is a big one at our kids’ school, and everybody turns out to fundraise by selling food, running games, and peddling small items–including, it seems, fish.

Helena walked in the door with her new pet in a plastic bag filled with water, and soon Charlene was swimming around in a tiny bowl. Darting side to side, exploring her surroundings, rising to the surface for a flake of food.

In just a short time, we’d gotten used to seeing Charlene. We’d even begun singing to her–“Charlene, Charlene, Charlene,” to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

A couple of days ago, though, Charlene started to look a tad droopy, and yesterday she passed on to the big pond in the sky. Helena and Bruce laid her to rest in the back garden, and Helena said she was going to miss her friend.

“Hey, can I get another fish?” she asked a few minutes later.

Maybe we can actually name this one Jolene.

Normal

My oncologist’s nurse called this afternoon with the results of my brain MRI. Everything looked normal, so my symptoms appear to be nothing more than the result of stress.

My brother’s situation is also back to normal, as normal as his life gets. He turned himself in back in our hometown, owning up to the multiple charges he’s been facing since fleeing Illinois. Joe is headed to court on May 16 to face a judge and his fate will be determined then.

Thanks to those of you who sent encouraging words my way following yesterday’s post. Thanks, too, to my best friend Tanya who’s been playing amateur sleuth to help me figure out what’s going on with my bro.

Brains

Today, I underwent a brain MRI.

During the past several weeks, I’ve been experiencing a pulsating sound in my left ear. At first, the sound reminded me of ocean waves, a kind of swooshing. But the noise gradually turned to pounding in beat to my heart. I’ve been losing sleep and have become gradually more concerned that what I’m experiencing might amount to more than tinnitus.

Both my oncologist and ENT recommended that I have a brain scan to rule out one of three more dangerous underlying causes: cancer metastasis to the brain, a brain tumor, or a restricted blood vessel. While I feel pretty normal aside from the pounding, I learned a long time ago–when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29–not to dismiss the possibility of an unexpected, and statistically unlikely, health crisis.

A less frightening possibility, my doctors tell me, is that I am having a physical reaction to extreme stress. The past few months have been difficult, between issues with my brother and my parents’ medical challenges. Plus, my oldest is leaving for college next year, and though she’ll be attending the same university where my husband and I teach, her high school graduation marks a major milestone that’s filled with equal amounts of joy and sadness.

As I lay motionless in the MRI machine for 40 minutes today, being careful not to shift my head, my mind drifted in two directions.

I murmured several Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s, and just talked to God about bringing me to this point. At 29, following my cancer diagnosis, I wasn’t sure I would live a full life. I was petrified and felt completely isolated from those my age who were living healthy, normal lives. A lot has changed since then, and I’ve come to understand cancer as just one aspect of who I am and what I was meant to do with my time on earth: to write about the experience of facing a serious illness and to do all I can to help others facing the disease.

I also thought about Woody Allen’s movie Hannah and Her Sisters. In the film, Woody plays a character who experiences a sudden hearing loss in one ear. His doctors send him for one test after another, and Woody leaps to the conclusion that he must have a brain tumor. He panics.

Even when the doctor reports that he’s absolutely fine, that nothing serious has caused the hearing loss, Woody’s character suffers an identity crisis. Who is he, and what will happen to him when, one day, his life does end? I’ll leave the outcome of his search for meaning to readers who want to watch the film. As the noise surrounded me inside the MRI tube, though, I thought back to the questions posed in the movie–and the humor that came out of the experience. Hey, 40 minutes is a long time to hang out in a noisy receptacle!

Every unknown is a little bit scary. There’s something different about the possibility of the unknown affecting your brain, though. Maybe it’s just that I think and write for a living–I’m an academic through and through–but I feel as though I might lose my soul if something were to happen to my brain.

Life expectancy and the color line

An interesting story in today’s New York Times reports that the life expectancy gap between whites and blacks is lessening: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/09/health/blacks-see-gains-in-life-expectancy.html?emc=edit_th_20160509&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

While the change is due in part to positive changes in health behaviors among African Americans, for instance, a decline in smoking rates, it’s also attributable to worsening health outcomes among whites, due to trends like increases in opioid use.

The story also introduced me to a book that I’m going to check out: Wailoo’s How Cancer Crossed the Cancer Line. It sounds like a must-read.

Small towns

This story on msn.com cracked me up: http://www.msn.com/en-us/lifestyle/smart-living/22-things-you-only-understand-if-youre-from-a-small-town-so-many-parking-lot-hangs/ss-BBs47ph

The authors got it right. Almost everything they listed as “things you only understand if you’re from a small town” was something I could relate to.

One exception, of course:

In my hometown of Clinton, Illinois, our favorite high school pastime/sign of coolness was cruising the town square. In hindsight, it was pretty ridiculous. We’d get together with friends on a weekend night and drive in circles, never actually going anywhere but feeling seen while seeing everyone else from school

No wonder my dad had a fit about the waste of mileage, and time!

Surviving, in context

In August, I’ll be traveling to Poland to interview both urban and rural cancer survivors. Specifically, I’ll be examining how the environment in which Poles live and their ages (as in, did or didn’t they live through Communism) influence their responses to a cancer diagnosis and their expectations for treatment.

One of the places I’ll visit is Mielec. The city now has a population of more than 60,000 and is known for its aviation industry. The history of Mielec, though, is bleak.

During WWII, thousands of Jewish citizens in Mielec were enslaved in a factory building German bombers, while others were sent to concentration camps or massacred on the streets. By the conclusion of the war, few living Jews remained in Mielec, and none were left unscarred by the atrocities they witnessed. Today, there are monuments to those who suffered and markers designating mass graves where Jewish bodies were discarded by the Nazis.

As I’ve learned more about the history of this place, I’ve found myself questioning how much one’s history matters when diagnosed with cancer. Survivors whose lives are rooted in struggle surely face cancer from a different perspective than those whose existence pre-cancer is characterized by relative peacefulness.

Certainly, I have seen how Edwina’s lived experience of poverty, abuse and racism has made breast cancer one among many challenges she has endured. For me, the disease represents a dramatic turning point in my life, one of the first situations, at age 29, no less, in which I had no control to make things right.

I am anxious about visiting a place like Mielec, where so much pain and suffering has occurred. At the same time, I want to know more about how these experiences equip cancer survivors for another difficult journey.

Missing persons

My brother is missing.

He left Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania four weeks ago with a wad of cash (courtesy of Social Security) and an intent to head to Illinois to pay my parents a visit. He never made it there and hasn’t been seen since.

I started getting phone calls a couple of weeks ago, first from a health care representative who wanted to know if I’d heard from Joe. It seems that he is required to check in with the facility since he’s been treated there, and he has done so consistently, until recently.

The last place Joe was seen, Bethesda Mission, had to send back one of his checks from Social Security since he hasn’t checked in to leave a forwarding address or to retrieve it. I’ve known my brother for 52 years, and there’s no way he wouldn’t seek out money intended for him.

Joe could be anywhere: beat up in an alley, lying dead from an overdose in a hotel room, partying with new friends, plotting to hurt family members who have turned on him for “no reason.” I want, need closure, so I’ve put in a phone call to the police department in Harrisburg, PA to file a missing persons report and am waiting for a return call. The officer on duty grilled me about Joe’s residence.

“What’s his address?” he asked me.

“He was at Bethesda Mission, but he’s basically homeless.” I told him.

His response? That it will be hard to track down a homeless person.

No kidding.