At 2 a.m. I lie in bed wondering why my throat feels raw. I don’t have a cold, but I have drainage. I don’t have chills. I don’t have a fever. But it’s gotten worse the past few nights. All which brings me to the obvious question: Do I have cancer?
Cancer is like a family member. Not the drunk uncle who regales everyone with tales of passing a drug test with a homeless woman’s pee. Or the crazy aunt who gives you a pair of men’s socks and a packet of cucumber seeds at Christmas. More like the distant cousin who’s serving time for something the family only whispers about. Every year or so he calls on a relative. He called my grandfather. He called my grandmother. He called my Aunt Betty. He called my mom. Soon after they all disappeared.
Despite how much I guarded my phone number, he’s already left me a message. I escaped with a scar on my nose from skin cancer, but at the time I feared losing my whole face.
My neurosis is compounded by my on-again-off-again relationship with little Mr. C, the cigarette. You notice I make them both male because they are the source of evil.
As a courtesan to little Mr. C, the threat of cancer hovers like the foul smell of smoke after every puff. I’ve broken up with him for days, months, even years. But in my darkest moments, he’s that little kiss of death that I cling to like a best friend. And in better spirits, he’s that forbidden lover that gets a late-night booty call after a beer.
Though lung cancer would be the obvious child of that relationship, I google throat cancer on my phone because losing my ability to talk is worse than death.
The symptoms: Difficulty swallowing. I swallow and my saliva goes down like goo. Check.
Sore throat. I feel an increased rawness.
Swollen lymph nodes. Mine are sore to the touch.
Sudden weight loss. Hmmm. No. Quite the opposite. My arms are like sausages the size of which could feed a family of five for a year. Muffin top? Make that Portobello mushroom top. And the back boobs. Geeze, without a shirt, you can’t tell if I’m coming or going.
Maybe I still have the cancer and my weight gain is due to an additional thyroid disease, or maybe the tumor is so big that it weighs 20 pounds. Maybe it has spread, and I have multiple tumors. That could explain a lot, e.g. the sausage arms, the gut, the turkey wattle.
Should I wake my husband James and tell him? I don’t want to worry him, but he needs to be prepared.
“Hey, hey. Wake up?”
“What is it?”
“I think I have throat cancer.”
“My throat’s a little sore and it’s not like a cold. It’s… I don’t know. It’s just different. So, I was reading about what it could be and throat cancer came up.”
“Oh, it just came up, huh?”
“Well, yeah and I have the symptoms.” I think of the weight loss. “Well, most of them.”
“You know why this is happening, don’t you?”
I know what he’s going to say. Oh, I guess I should have told you this. A month ago, my best friend’s husband was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer after having lingering laryngitis.
I don’t give James time to say it.
“I know. It’s just in my head because of Marty. But that’s exactly what you said when I thought I had skin cancer after your sister-in-law had it. And I did have skin cancer! I almost lost my fucking nose!”
Silence. Then a snore.
I struggle to swallow as I read cancer articles, the tenderness in my throat increasing with each one.
Sandy, my dog daughter, follows my every step, lays on my feet as I brush my teeth. She knows I have the cancer. Hey, I read “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” Dogs know these things.
She will mourn me when I’m gone. Maybe James can find a dog therapist. Oh, God. He will probably start dating and eventually marry again. Sandy will take up with the other woman!
I make a doctor’s appointment.
A sweltering day of purveying the vintage wares at a Rock n’ Roll swap meet leaves no time to lament my swollen lymph nodes. It’s dinner before I realize that I haven’t had any trouble swallowing all day. I start to wonder if maybe the sore throat had been from a recent Mr. C booty-call-binge. But as I lie in bed I feel a burning in my chest. I twist and turn. Sandy spoons me because again, she knows. Or maybe I have a heart problem. Could I be having a heart attack? I mean they say people can have them and not realize it’s a heart attack. I google heart attack.
Symptom: Pain in the left arm. The muscles in my right arm are sore. Could it be the other arm in some people?
Risks: Smoking. Oh, God.
Family history of heart attack. Mom.
High blood pressure. No. Hmmm.
Here goes. Google lung cancer.
Symptoms: Difficulty breathing. Well, I was so out of breath I almost passed out on a mountain hike in Oregon. I chalked it up to altitude sickness. Yeah, right. I know. But maybe . . . Just maybe.
Pain in chest. Yes, and burning more with each minute.
Unexplained weight loss. Nope. Again, my fat ass saved me from the dreaded big C diagnosis. That is unless I have some rare fat cancer. Could there be such a thing? Better google that.
I get to the doctor’s office 30 minutes early, breaking a lifelong record of tardiness.
This being America where insurance only covers “a routine physical,” I remind myself to only answer the Doc’s questions; doctor visits for specific medical problems come with a charge.
But first step on the scale, please.
Holy shit. I’ve gained 12 pounds! Can a tumor weigh that much?
By the time the good doctor steps into the room, I’ve forgotten medical bills. I point out that my throat is sore, my lymph nodes feel swollen, I have mucus in my throat, that a few nights prior I had a burning in my chest to the point I couldn’t sleep.
What did you eat for dinner? He asks.
“Well, I had a black bean burrito and a couple of beers.”
After listening to my heart, having me take deep breaths and doing all the other cursory checks docs do, he looks at my chart again.
“You’ve gained weight since I saw you last year,” he says. “And you had gained 10 pounds then. Let’s do your blood work and make sure your thyroid is healthy. Your throat appears allergy related. Take some over-the-counter allergy meds. The burning in your chest sounds like you may have acid reflux. Losing five or ten pounds can make a difference with that.”
So, I don’t have cancer. I’m just fat.
It’s not until bedtime that I realize I’ve had no trouble swallowing since my doctor’s visit. The chest pain disappeared. Despite the relief, I can’t resist googling acid reflux.
Causes: Weight gain.
Symptom: Burning in chest that worsens at night when lying down. Yep.
Dangers: Left untreated, it can lead to esophageal cancer. Cancer!
I join a gym and hire a personal trainer. After a series of squats, push-ups, crunches, lunges, medicine ball throws and other self-mutilations, I waddle home to a dinner of fresh spinach, two boiled eggs and two measured tablespoons of lite vinaigrette.
Just shoot me.
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