Yesterday was my first speaking engagement as a Cancer Person. NYU was holding a skin cancer awareness event, which is annual. Dr. P picks a patient to speak every year, and my turn came up this year. It felt like being named Valedictorian, or something. There was a sort of graduation vibe to my being there, enhanced by the (very random) presence of an entire class of high school seniors who beefed up the audience by at least 200% (and significantly lowered the median age of attendees). What J and I didn’t know was… there was a free lunch.
Free lunch will bring people out for any sort of event, but a skin cancer event carries the threat of very grisly slides before you get access to the free lunch. Having been to two of these events now, I can say that I realize dermatologists and surgical oncologists do not show these images for sport. But neither do they consider their audiences, general audiences, who, when they see skin retracted by two little metal forks, will think, “hey, those look like snail forks, why are they using them for surgery?” It is distracting to the underlying intention, which presumably is to scare audience members off their tanning salon habits (although that certainly isn’t the culprit in my case) and get them to use sunscreen. The only slide that was truly fascinating to me (even while being truly disgusting) was an image of a stained sentinel lymph node being extracted for biopsy. My fingers were over my eyes, but I couldn’t look away, because that’s how mine must have looked, glowing blue there among the… viscera. I can’t link it, sorry. You can find a photo if you really, really want to.
I was the last speaker before the Q&A period and then the free lunch. So I sat and listened to the dermatologist (and her gross slides), the surgeon (and his gross slides), and then Dr. P, who gave a similar presentation to the one I’d seen her give a couple weeks ago. They were followed by the social worker from the cancer center, whom I’d met with a couple of times back when I was getting infusions. She gave a very quick overview of her important work, and then I was surprised to hear her introducing me.
I had been asked a couple weeks in advance to give this talk. I had started assembling a PowerPoint so I could be just like the docs, but without the gross slides. But I only had ten minutes. The night before the talk, I lay in bed and started a stopwatch and tried to speak extemporaneously. After the fourteenth or fifteenth “ummm,” I decided I had better write my talk down. It’s going to be posted on YouTube, so rather than posting the text here, I’ll just let you see it, whenever they get around to posting it. It felt good to be speaking to an audience again, something I missed from my academic librarian days. My only quibble with the audience yesterday was, they didn’t laugh at many of my jokes.
But the most exciting moment of the day, by far, though, was while Dr. P was speaking. She was talking about the amazing recent advances in melanoma treatment, and she indicated that one of her patients would be speaking later on. And she said that I was in long-term remission.
I was stunned. I’d been wondering for ages what to say about myself. Are you a survivor if you still take pills every day? (My feeling has been, No, you’re not.) I was familiar with the term remission. I just didn’t know it could ever actually apply to me. It was like I was Valedictorian and then they announced from the stage that I’d won some coveted award, too. It had never occurred to me to ask Dr. P what I could label myself. (In my speech, I said that from now on, I’d call myself a “long-term remitter.” That did get laughs.)
Of course, the problem with melanoma, and the reason that notions of survivorship are still so much in flux for it, is that melanoma does not behave like other cancers. It can reactivate at any time. It doesn’t give credit for time served, or time survived. People have tumors which go dormant for decades and then are suddenly newly alive. Again here, my insistence on not thinking too far ahead in life has served me well. It’s been two years since my brain tumors showed up? That’s awesome. Do I get another two years without any new cancer bullshit? I hope so. But I’m much more focused on next week, next month. On what to make for dinner tonight.
So I gave the talk, and sat on the stage during the Q&A (stupidly, because of course no one had questions for me!) but was glad because I heard Dr. P answer the question of how she’d decided to be an oncologist by saying that she had seen an illustration of a cancer cell in the Weekly Reader when she was in third grade… and decided then and there that she would be a cancer doctor when she grew up. Her mother told her she’d change her mind. I’m so glad she never did.
We went out to the hallway and got our free lunch. One of the smattering of elderly people had set her many plastic bags down at our table. She was flitting between the table and the buffet, not eating, but wrapping up lots and lots and LOTS of food to take with her. I remember this sort of thing from my time in academia — people who have made a profession out of finding and attending any events with free food and drink. This woman was congenial, though, and the only one of the food gatherers who thanked me for my talk and asked whether J and I knew each other and how long we’d been married, etc etc. It’s a nice, weird place, the conference wing of the hospital. I’d like to spend more time there, less in the CT suite.
J and I took the crosstown bus together, and he went back to work. I felt like you do after graduations, vaguely happy and ready for the future (after a nap). I got on the subway and transferred at Union Square. The train was mostly empty. A young guy sat across from me. I didn’t really notice more than that. When the train came out from underground to cross the bridge, which affords riders rare cellular service, he started making phone calls. He sounded distressed but I mostly ignored him and looked at my own phone. But when he started telling the person on the other end that he was going to pick up his children at school, and he mentioned a funeral home, and a police sergeant… I started listening. There had been a murder, and it sounded like it was the mother of the children he was going to pick up.
When we got back underground, he got off the phone and was sobbing, head in his hands. I got his attention and handed him the rest of a pack of tissues. I really, really didn’t want to engage or pry. No one else seemed to be getting involved. I told him I was sorry for his loss. When I was nearly at my stop, I asked whether he needed any money. I only had about $10 cash, so I gave it to him. He thanked me and gave me his name. I wasn’t sure why he did that. I walked home, closed the door, and cried and cried.
Later on, a friend suggested that it might have been a scam. If it was a scam, that was some gamble he made, getting himself all worked up like that, and not even being sure if he’d get any money out of it. A bravura performance. He certainly didn’t ask me for money. I offered it. Perhaps that was his art. I can’t and won’t know.
I was pretty wrung out by evening. Extremes of elation and horror will do that, especially when you live life with a constant undercurrent of imminent mortality. The sum total of what I’ve done today is, go to the gym, eat kale, and write this. Baby steps.