Archive | September, 2011

Halloween Costumes for Mothers of College Students

15 Sep


I’d been doing a pretty good job of concealing my ill state of health from the nuns who ran my dorm. Nobody noticed when I fainted in my room one morning, falling straight back like a log and striking my head on the wooden armoire before landing in the floor.  I was lucky – if my hair hadn’t been pulled back in a bun, I’d have cracked my head open.  As it was, it took me a solid 15 minutes to get out of the floor and drag myself back to bed.  Luckily for me, the nun who lived in the room next to mine was the one who served breakfast every morning, so she wasn’t there to hear me crash into the wall we shared.

The nuns also didn’t notice that I was having increasingly intense headaches, although some of my classmates in Hebrew and my choir director did.

I ended up being incredibly lucky – the tumors in my brain were growing radically out of control and causing too much pressure to build up inside my skull.  The day I finally had an appointment with the oncologist at the hospital, I was on Skype with my stepfather and incredibly sleepy.  He managed to keep me awake until it was time for me to leave, although I wasn’t strong enough to pull off my pajamas and put on my clothes.  So I pulled on my enormous, black, head-to-toe down-filled coat nicknamed the “Bibendum coat” by my friends since they thought it made me look like the Michelin man; then I made the five-minute downhill walk to the hospital where my doctor was waiting for me at the receptionist’s desk and dragged me immediately to the ER.

I was in and out of consciousness for a long time after that, but I do remember vomiting over the side of the bed and into the ER floor several times (at which point the nurses asked me, “Sweetheart, could you try not to throw up in the floor?”).  Then I remember my adopted Swiss family coming to my bedside, and my Swiss Mom’s blissfully cool hands rubbing the back of my neck.  From what I could hear, the staff tried to keep her husband from coming in, asking him, “Who are you?”  “I’m her PCP!”  he answered in a booming voice, and they let him pass.

After that everything went dark until I felt a sharp pain in my left hand and noticed that I was really warm.  I remembered from my kidney surgery over the summer that the anesthesiology room in the hospital was particularly warm, so I briefly wondered Am I going into surgery? before passing out again.

Later I awakened in a dark room in the middle of the night with an intense pain in my right jaw.  I began rubbing it, thinking that I had been clenching my teeth and that I needed to relax my jaw muscles, but the nurses quickly stopped me.  “Don’t touch,” they said, “You’ve had surgery.”  I quickly discovered the large, padded bandage around my head, not yet realizing that a piece of skull the size of the palm of my hand was missing underneath it.

The nurses were moving down the row of beds one by one, asking everyone if they knew where they were.  When they got to me, I said, “Well, I guess if they’re all in the hospital, I am, too.”  Then they asked me what day it was, which wasn’t fair since they hadn’t asked anyone else.  I was two days off, thinking it was October 26th instead of October 28th.  When they asked me if I had noticed anything unusual since I’d awakened, I told them I saw a heart floating in my right eye.  “Well, given the season,” they said, “you’re lucky it’s not a ghost!”

Mom arrived later that day and snuck in the dorm — not to avoid paying, but to avoid having to answer any inconvenient questions.   She offered to pay Sister Jessie for the week when she arrived, but Sister Jessie said, “Shhh!  Soeur Odile doesn’t know you’re here!  We’ll wait and tell her later.”  Mom was going to be staying with me for a while, so we needed to figure out how to announce her presence without worrying anyone (the last time she was there, Soeur Odile had tried to make me go back to the States with her after I got out of the hospital).

I decided that since it was Halloween, she should announce her presence by dressing up as the elephant in my room.


Emergency Brain Surgery

14 Sep


It really isn’t as bad as it sounds. Especially when you don’t know that it’s going to happen to you and you wake up completely oblivious after the fact.  I had fought the doctors long and hard against having the surgery, but my body made the final decision for me.  It seems that I had surgery on a Thursday morning (I say “it seems” because all I remember are Wednesday and Friday). I guess that was a pretty good excuse for missing the Hebrew exam I had the Monday afterward. All things considered, I would rather have been there to take the exam, but I wasn’t too concerned – I had the material down pretty well and thought I’d be able to get back to class quickly.

At any rate, after the surgery I was able to get up and walk around the hospital, and I was in a better cognitive state than most of the men in my ward. The man in the bed next to mine, who was a translator and who had forgotten all of his foreign languages, could only say, “I, I, I” and couldn’t move the left side of his body.  The man all the way on the other end of the room had been shot in the head, and the bullet was inoperable, so he was bed-bound and relied on a portable television with his own personal speakers for entertainment. The last man in our ward was very confused about where he was and what day it was, even though it had been explained to him several times. He kept thinking that he was in France, which I suppose was normal given that he was actually from France.  He kept trying to escape down the hall to the “kitchen”, insisting that his hospital bed was not his own.  The nurses finally had to call security to deal with him and find him a new room.

I had no trouble with the date – I read the New York Times online every day and kept up that way.  The nurses were required to ask us four times a day whether we knew the date and where we were, and I got a great opportunity to play a brilliant trick on them one night.  They had gone around asking all my other wardmates what day it was, and they had responded that it was the 31st.  I was the last person they came to, and the clock had just flipped to 12:01 am.  So when they asked me what day it was, I told them that it was the 1st.  They were quite concerned until I pointed out the time, and then we all had a good laugh.  You have to find a way to mess around with them a little bit – getting asked the date and time four times a day can begin to wear on your nerves.

So, nobody needed to worry about me.  I was decently clothed and moderately coherent. My head bandage and bruises just made me look like a rock star who’d had the heck beaten out of her. It was quite bruised and swollen, and my neck and ankle were pretty tender. But if my neck and my ankle were all I had to complain about after brain surgery, I guess that wasn’t so bad.

‘Roid Rage

13 Sep


We all hear about it in the news when it comes to misbehaving sports stars.  Well, it’s not just a made-up defense – it’s real, y’all.  It is a darn good thing that cancer made me too weak and ill to actually hurt someone, because if I had been able-bodied, I would probably have been jailed. I was so tempted to grab the old Swiss bastard who deliberately ran me into a wall and crack his skull open against said wall.

That was not the first time I had seriously contemplated hurting someone.  I was also tempted to go after the African kid who cut in front of a little old lady in the checkout line at the local Migros grocery store.  I felt like grabbing the soda he wanted to buy and throwing it across the store, yelling “Go fetch!”

It’s quite scary, actually, having thoughts like that. The problem is that cancer patients often have to stay on steroids — in fact, they tried taking my dosage down by a milligram, but that was too much of a reduction and I had debilitating headaches because the swelling around the tumors in my brain was crushing my brain against my skull. So we had to boost up the steroids until the extra fluid drained off, then bring them down to their previous level.

I needed a fenced-in yard with a sign reading “Beware of cancer patient”.

Standard Time

12 Sep


Exhaustion.  That would be the best word to characterize what I was feeling during the first fall of my trek through the wilderness that is cancer.  I had become a morning person during my short career as a proofreader, but I was beginning to hit the snooze button on the alarm clock more and more often as the fall went on, eventually putting myself in danger of being late to work on a regular basis.

As a general rule, the day the clocks switch back to standard time is my least favorite day of the year.  I am not a fan of having the sun go down early – it’s depressing.  And in Geneva, the sun can go down as early as 4 pm in the winter.  But that particular year, though, I found myself looking forward to it —  it’s hard to convince your body to get out of bed when it’s dark at 7am.  And 7:30.  And 7:45.

And let’s face it — I could really have used the extra hour of sleep that night.  Never before in my life have I needed sleep the way I needed it then.  Not during all the “hell weeks” at the community theater, when we would rehearse late into the night and then get up bright and early in the morning to do homework and go to school.  Not when I pulled all-nighters during my freshman year at college.  Not even on the day when my roommate and I were so tired that the only thing it seemed reasonable to do was to translate VeggieTales’ “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything” into French… backwards.  I was tired.

The dorm director came in during breakfast that morning and made a Formal Announcement about setting the clock back at midnight.  (As though we were unable to take responsibility for that ourselves.  I mean, after all, even if you do forget, nowadays computer and phone clocks reset themselves automatically.)  I wasn’t planning on being awake at midnight to do that, so I set my watch back early, and decided to take care of the rest of the clocks in the morning, whenever it was I happened to wake up.  I did not set an alarm.  And that felt good.

Sometimes You Have to Stare at them Incredulously

11 Sep


As a general rule, I liked my insurance company in Geneva.  I only paid 60 francs a month for coverage and my deductible was only a few hundred francs a year, then I got 100% coverage for doctor, hospital, medical exams, and most prescription medications.  Every once in a while, though, they could do things that made me cross my eyes in disbelief.  Take one month’s insurance bill, for example: it included a flyer about how to obtain a neutral second opinion before opting for surgery (translation mine).

Second Opinion: Un second avis médical neutre

Second Opinion : An unbiased medical second opinion

Une prestation de services gratuite pour [nos] assurés.

A free service for our clients.

Les informations facilitent la décision

Information to help with the decision-making process

Un second avis médical ou Second Opinion est une appréciation du cas portée par un médecin non impliqué jusqu’ici et donc neutre avant une intervention chirurgicale.  Cette prestation de services vous aide à prendre une décision pour ou contre une opération.

A second opinion is a judgment made by a doctor who, until present, has not been involved in a patient’s care and thus has an unbiased opinion before a surgical procedure.  This service helps you decide whether or not to have surgery.

Let’s see.  I had a doctor that I knew well and trusted 100%.  He told me that I had a large tumor on my kidney that, given the lesions that were showing up on my lungs, was most likely cancerous and needed to come out NOW.  Do you think would actually waste time calling my insurance company to ask them to provide me with an “unbiased second opinion” from one of their doctors before having surgery?

Nah, not so much.

The Standout

10 Sep


When you’re converting to a new religion, you like to stick out as little as possible.  After all, the point is to learn to do things exactly like everyone else does.  It’s not such a big deal in Christianity, where adherence to the religion is mostly theology-based, but it matters in Judaism, where adherence is mostly action-based.

When you have cancer, not sticking out is easier said than done.  Fasting for Yom Kippur?  That’s a no-go.  I had strict (Jewish!) doctor’s orders to drink water and eat a sandwich at lunch.  Giving up leather shoes?  That also wasn’t going to happen.  When you’re on chemo, cuts and sores don’t heal properly (it’s the whole “chemo attacks rapidly dividing cells” thing).  They get gross and inflamed and infected and… well, you get the picture.  I couldn’t afford to have that happen to my feet (they were still trying to heal from the previous round of chemo), and the only shoes I had that didn’t make sores were my athletic shoes, made out of leather.

Then, two days before Yom Kippur, I got an email saying DON’T FORGET YOUR TALLIT.  Yeah, I didn’t have any yet.  I hadn’t yet learned the rules about when and how to wear them properly because nobody had taught me.  I wished I had been given a hair more advance warning, given that I was going to be standing up and singing in front of the entire community (and thus very visible).

As I recounted this to my longest friend afterward, she cracked up.  “Since when are you NOT the one who’s different?!” she exclaimed.

She had a point there – I’ve been told my entire life that I go against the grain.  Ever since I was a newborn in the hospital nursery, demanding to be at the center of all the action, crying out “WAAAAH!  WAAAAH!” in a very distinctive low voice that sounded nothing like the other newborns’.  Now I still go against the grain – after all, who would look at the statistics for kidney cancer and pick me out as a likely patient?


9 Sep


I find that new cancer patients’ biggest pitfall is overestimating what their abilities will be once they begin to follow a course of treatment.  I’ve seen it in friends who thought they would be able to continue teaching school or working at the library, and even I fell in the trap.

I suppose it’s natural – after all, it is helpful for cancer patients to stick to a routine of sorts during their treatment.  It lets you keep track of time, get out of the house a little bit and have a sense of purpose in life.

For the six weeks after my cancer diagnosis, I was working a 20-hour week, taking Hebrew classes at the university, researching and writing my thesis and singing in the synagogue choir.  Many people told me how amazing it was that I was taking this whole cancer business in stride and staying upbeat and positive.  While I was handling myself fairly well, I do have to admit that I was really grumpy at the time.  Mostly because I overdid it at Rosh Hashanah, so I hadn’t been getting the rest I needed.  Not to mention that we’d been holding all sorts of extra activities to prepare for Yom Kippur.

I should have known I was taking on too much when my oncologist remarked, “Wow, you participate in even more activities than I do!”  My reply was that that should be normal, since he worked 80-hour weeks and I only worked 20-hour weeks.  But in truth, I was pushing myself too hard to be normal and succeed, and I was ignoring my failing health.  I started having low-grade headaches at the base of my skull, and soon they would become serious enough to land me in the ER.