A No-Frills Article
March First. thump, thump. March First. thump, thump.
It’s that time of year again. The day I dread.
March First. thump, thump.
The date runs through my head like a broken record, and my heart pounds harder and harder as the day approaches.
I flash back to the pain in my mouth all those year’s ago. I thought I was biting my tongue at night, and the dentist agreed. He shaved down my teeth, which helped for a short time, and then he sent me to the oral surgeon when the pain was too much. The oral surgeon took one look, said “it’s an ulcer; nothing to worry about. I’ll take it out right here and we’ll send it out for testing. Just to be safe.”
I’d wanted to believe him. I prayed that he was right, but I knew. The look of worry in the assistant’s eye that day was too telling. So were the unspoken conversations between staff members around me. So was the omniscient pain from the impromptu surgery, which hit like a ton of bricks while driving home alone. I sat in the pharmacy chairs, tears rolling down my face, as I waited for the pain meds to be filled. The pharmacist so worried that she offered me a cup of water to take the medication at the counter.
It didn’t help. The pain was too far ahead of the meds. I went home and screamed into pillows. Wailed from pain. If I had had the strength or someone to drive me, I would have gone to the emergency room. It was that strong. And I wouldn’t feel that pain again until Sean was born and the epidural wore off and he tore, literally, into this world.
And almost 2 week’s later I sat in the waiting room for just a little too long. The staff brought me into his office for the follow-up, rather than a regular examination room. I listened to his footsteps approach the office door and he removed my chart hanging there. I heard him sigh, and before he even pushed open that door, I knew he would tell me I had tongue Cancer.
Most people would have broken down crying when their doctor told them. They may have been hysterical or uncontrollable or any of those other Hollywood images that come to your mind. I sat there, said “oh, okay” while he explained what my next steps were. He stopped several times and asked me “are you understanding this?”; “do you understand the severity of this.”; “this is really important, are you getting this?”. And each time I would answer “yes”, I got it, but since I already knew what he was going to say, I’d already accepted the inevitable. I drove back to work, told my boss the news, then drove home to wait for Jim. This wasn’t news to tell him over the phone. He wanted to go out and do something, but I begged him to please come home instead, which he did.
When we sat on the couch and I told him, he just stared at me. When he started to break down, I told him I needed him to be strong for me, because I didn’t have it in me to be strong for both of us. From that day forward, I never saw the emotional impact this took on him, though I know it was there. He did what I asked and he took care of me for several long months, and of course for many more years.
This all goes through my head, several times a day, as March First approaches each year. If someone off-handedly mentions the date, my breath catches and my heart stops. Then again it starts. Thump, thump.
I could give you the details of the surgeries, the radiation, and the recovery. I could go into detail about the hurtful comments from people saying “well, at least it was just radiation and not chemotherapy.” I could tell you about the unending days being unable to speak, eat, or even drink. Of standing in my kitchen, grasping in white-knuckled pain to the counter top while I drank another Ensure….what I lived on for months after my taste buds were burned off. Or of the burns and welts on my face, though I was lucky….at least mine didn’t weep and ooze. After all, it was “just radiation,” right?
I used to take March First off every year. I’d do something new for myself, something outside of my comfort zone that I normally wouldn’t do. I do entire spa-days, an impromptu trip to Niagra Falls, even a tattoo of my Cancer ribbon. But I have children now, and Mothers don’t take days off.
So instead, I’m writing to you and imploring you to please make sure you get yourselves checked out for anything abnormal in your bodies. If it’s lasting more than 2 weeks, then something may be up. Please don’t think the worst, though….it’s not something until the doctors tell you it’s something. So just go. Be the adult and go.
Your dentist should be giving you oral cancer screening tests at EVERY visit. If s/he is not, you should demand one and then find another dentist immediately.
Head and neck cancers can be caused by several reasons. Obviously smoking and chewing tobacco is one of them. Heredity is one possible cause. HPV is yet another cause. You have heard about HPV causing cervical cancer in young women and the vaccine that is available to them. There is also a vaccine approved for boys, who are rapidly gaining ground in the cancer world for cancers in the base of the tongue and neck as a result of HPV.
Are you a parent that is dating? You’re at risk, too. Your health care provider can appeal to your insurance company, explaining why you want, noneed the vaccine. There are programs available to those without insurance to reduce or eliminate the vaccine’s cost, which is less than $400 for the series.
But I promise the cost of cancer care, even with insurance, will be far more than $400. I also promise that as hard as it was for me to go through this, it’s a hell of a lot harder to watch your child go through it. So, please, please educate yourself properly and strongly consider getting this vaccine for your child, boy or girl, insurance coverage or not. We are all touched by Cancer in one way or another, but please don’t let your child’s diagnosis be the reason it touches your life.
Find out more the vaccine and HPV here http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/hpv/vac-faqs.htm
Find out more about head and neck cancers here: http://oralcancerfoundation.org/