I’m in Love with My Plastic Surgeon

I’m in love with my plastic surgeon. Well, maybe not in love, but something verging on wanting to eat dinner with him every night, and if that’s not love, what is?

Sure he’s older than me … by a lot. How old? If we must get technical, he’s old enough to be my father. That is, if he knocked my mom up in college. (Not pre-med college. Pre-med would have gotten me out of the, “weird, he’s too old zone.” But if I were a medical school knock-up baby.)

I picture dating him. We’re in his car, and it’s no doubt fancy and made in Europe. This is when the age difference becomes a problem. (Even in my fantasies I allow reality to sneak in.) I point out he’s driving too slow, or that he can cut in front of that car ahead. I ask him for medical advice. He tells me to make an appointment to see a doctor. I remind him he is a doctor.

Why do I love him? Could it be his Spanish accent? Perhaps the way he oozes class? Is it how he examines my body so intensely that I can practically see the artistic wheels of his brain turning? His eyebrows dart up, and an expression that he just witnessed something extraordinary flashes across his face.

It’s none of those things that make me love him, though they do help make the visits more bearable. You see, he is giving me back something that was taken away. Four days after my 40th birthday I was told I had invasive cancer in my right breast. The angry tumor had infiltrated blood vessels, all the while encouraging other cells to start multiplying in different areas.

Mastectomies are amputations of sorts, and how very fortunate we are that (if a candidate) our breasts can be reconstructed right away.  Before we even wake from the anesthesia initially given to use for the breast removal, plastic surgeons slip into the operating room and take over.

This does not make the process any less traumatic, though. The day before my mastectomy, I said farewell to my right breast. I apologized for wanting it larger in junior high and high school. I thanked it for nursing my two children when they were infants. It did its job and served me well. It was a fine little breast, and now it was sick and needed to be removed before it made the rest of me sicker.

The first time I met with my plastic surgeon, I wept gulping messy sobs. All of the biopsies, tests, and other doctor visits I could detach from, but not this. As he showed me where my breast would be removed and what he would do, panic set in.

“But I like my breast,” I said weakly (as if that would change the course of events, as if that would make him say, “Never mind then! Let’s call this whole cancer thing off!”).

“I understand,” he said. “But it has cancer.”

We sat in silence as I digested this, until I was ready to gather myself and listen.

Then he started measuring my shoulders, chest, and my other breast. His eyes lit up. He got that look he gets. He told me how he would take skin from one part of my body and use it. He was confident, and his confidence made me feel confident. I went from despair to hope.

It has been three weeks since my mastectomy. Seeing my body for the first time after was unsettling. I looked lopsided and unfamiliar. I felt less feminine. I still feel less feminine. But my plastic surgeon understands this, and he quickly fills the uncomfortable contraption inserted under my muscle and skin with saline. I watch in fascination as a new breast is formed right before my eyes. I look at him and we smile.

Cancer tries to steal dreams. It tries to infest our healthy body parts with its angry, jealous cells. But we can fight back just as viciously. And we can fight back beautifully and artistically, something cancer cannot do.

My plastic surgeon’s work is pristine and I am overwhelmed. I tell him he is a magician and he agrees (he does not lack pride in his artisanship). It was then I realized I loved him. Not that kind of love, but a love of gratefulness and appreciation.

But I’d still have dinner with him every night, too.

 

 

 

Kale Causes Cancer

Kale causes cancer. Well, not yet. But it will. It’s only a matter of time before a national study reveals that this esteemed leafy green vegetable is wreaking havoc on our bodies. Just look at fish! For decades we have been told to “eat more fish!”, “fish is good for you!”, “fish has healthy oils for your brain!” Then along comes this pesky neurotoxin called mercury – which has apparently infested our fish.

It’ll be no surprise when kale is considered deadly. First, it has a rough, rubbery texture, which is nature’s way of saying, “hands off!” Second, it’s bitter. An acquired taste? Or similar to the bad taste that bugs excrete to keep predators from devouring them? Lastly, it has an ornamental look to it, implying it should surround our steak and potatoes, not be in lieu of them.

People are very proud when they eat kale, as though they have just saved someone from drowning. Smoothie establishments offer drink concoctions that contain kale as a main ingredient. Women – wearing yoga pants – brandish these smoothies in their hands, feeling good about themselves, when in reality it looks like they are drinking the contents of someones’s stomach after an intestinal virus. These smoothies also contain a variety of other fruits and vegetables, which are supposed to add to the smoothies’ nutritional content. But we all know what is really going on: they’re just trying to cover up the taste of the kale.

Facebook and Pinterest are full of kale recipes. Soon there will be kale coffee and kale cupcakes. That is, until it is announced that kale causes cancer. Then everyone will breathe a sigh of relief and admit they never liked the vegetable, that they always found it bitter and disgusting – how they pretended to like it because it was cool. They never should have dressed little Sophia up as a kale leaf for Halloween, or made Simon eat dried kale chips for snack everyday.

Support groups will form, and not because kale has given so many people cancer, but because there is now a vacant spot – a rift – in their lives.

“It’s that feeling I miss … the pride of having something so healthy in my grocery cart. Nothing quite matches the euphoria of another grocery shopper glancing at my groceries and seeing my kale, while they were buying nothing but cheese doodles and soda.”

“Mmmm … I hear what you’re saying. And how about you, Sue? What are you feeling right now?”

“It made me feel smart. Like, I was playing a trick on someone. Why else would I eat something so awful? But I knew it was supposed to be good for me. So I ate it. But without kale, I’m just boring. I’m like everyone else.”

“Those are very strong feelings, Sue. Thank you for sharing them. How about you, Stephanie?”

“I’m really regretting naming my daughter Kale. I should have gone with Emma.”

People will wander around the produce section of grocery stores. Spinach may gain some new attention, like an ex girlfriend who suddenly seems appealing again. Others may briefly try broccolini, only to find it’s been around too long, they’re familiar with its taste, it doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything.

In time, another vegetable will be heralded as the “nutrient packed”, “immune-boosting”, “cancer fighting” food that kale was once considered to be (before it was discovered that it causes cancer). Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief and rush to ingest that plant. Until, of course, it is announced it causes heart disease.

Is It Cancer?

You notice a pain in your left elbow. Now that you think about it, the pain has actually been there for a few days. Maybe even weeks. You don’t remember hitting your elbow, or doing anything to injure it. What could be going on?

You Google “pain in left elbow” during your lunch break. The selection of websites that flash on your computer screen are overwhelming. You had no idea the subject of elbow pain was so important. You click on a link, one that has the word “medicine” in its web address. According to this website, your elbow pain could be due to anything from bumping your elbow, to arthritis, to cancer.

Cancer? Your fingers freeze, suspended over the keyboard. You are absolutely certain you did not bump your elbow. In fact, now that you think about it, you’re very careful with your elbows: tucking them in when you walk through doorways, never resting your hands on your hips so your elbows aren’t protruding like wings. And arthritis? Bah! Just yesterday you carried a laundry basket overflowing with dirty clothes up the stairs and never broke a sweat. You’re in your prime.

It must be cancer. You can’t recall anyone in your family history battling elbow cancer, but isn’t everyone getting cancer these days? Because of the food we’re eating … or not eating. And doesn’t cancer spread? You sit back in your chair. Maybe your elbow cancer has spread to your shoulder and now you have shoulder cancer. All at once your left shoulder seems achy.

You need to have this elbow (and now shoulder) examined immediately. You call your doctor to schedule an appointment. After listening to the options in the prerecorded message, you accidentally hit the wrong option and get the medical records department instead of the scheduling department. The medical records person transfers you, only you’re disconnected and need to call back and start all over again.

After choosing the correct option you are put on hold, though a friendly recorded voice reassures you that your call is very important to them. (So important that you are made to wait several minutes.) Finally, your call is answered. You inform the receptionist that you need to see your doctor as soon as possible for serious elbow pain. She tells you that your doctor’s schedule is booked. You feel that making an appointment with your doctor is some sort of race and you have lost.

The receptionist manages to “squeeze” you into your doctor’s busy schedule, making it sound as if it’s a favor and you should be grateful. You are, because since you’ve been on hold your elbow pain has grown worse.

The two weeks until you see your doctor seem endless. Mentally, you have decided who will inherit your most valuable assest. You wonder if you should make amends with the cranky neighbor you haven’t spoken to for three years. Or better yet, wait until he reads your obituary. How you died from elbow cancer. Won’t he feel bad then!

When you finally see your doctor, he seems rushed.  You remind yourself that you were inconveniently fit into his schedule, after all.

“Does it hurt when I do this?” he asks, bending your arm at a ninety degree angle.

“No,” you say sheepishly.

But it had hurt when you did this same movement five hundred times the past two weeks to verify if the pain was still there.

“How about when I do this?” he asks, moving your arm in a different direction.

“That’s okay too.”

“Everything seems alright to me. I don’t see anything to be concerned with. Maybe you just whacked it.”

“I’m certain I didn’t hit it,” you say.

But he’s not listening. He has written in your chart and left the room to see a patient who was not squeezed into his schedule.

That night you tell your friend about your elbow pain, and how you fear it is cancer that has now spread to your brain. She commiserates, and recommends you see her doctor. But her doctor is a holistic doctor, not a medical doctor.

Your friend’s holistic doctor answers the phone on the first ring. Not only are there no phone trees or being put on hold, the holistic doctor will see you first thing in the morning. When you arrive at her office, there is music playing. She smells of patchouli oil. The holistic doctor takes your elbow pain very, very seriously. She explains that discomfort in any part of the body indicates inner pain … as well as a deficiency of vitamins and minerals.

When you leave her office, you have spent two hundred dollars on a monthly supply of vitamins and minerals. You have also bought a manual that will guide you towards inner peace, and a packet of tea bags whose name you can’t pronounce. The holistic doctor promises that, in time, these will heal your elbow and shoulder pain.

As you drive to work, you think about your elbow and how it used to not hurt. Then suddenly you realize it is no longer hurting, as you remember hitting it on the banister while you were carrying that load of dirty laundry up the stairs, without breaking a sweat.

 

I Want To Go Home

Her name was Mary and she was dying. I was the social work intern, fumbling my way through situations I had mistakenly assumed I could handle.

“I want to go home,” Mary told me during our first visit.

She resembled an Auschwitz victim. The cancer had ravaged her body, leaving her nothing more than soft skin hanging from delicate bones. She looked small and vulnerable in the hospital bed. Her frame barely made a dent in the mattress.

I knew Mary could never go home. She wasn’t strong enough to stand unassisted, let alone walk. Plus, there was no one to care for her even if she could return home. The only family she had was a son who lived in the mid-west. She would have to remain in the hospital until the end.

“Tell me about your home,” I said.

Briefly, Mary’s eyes brightened. She spoke of the small brick cape she had worked so hard to save for and buy. In that house she raised her son, alone. Her husband left her early in their marriage for someone else.

“I was a single mom,” she said, the expression on her face pained from the memory of her husband’s betrayal and not the cancer, “It was so hard.”

Her lips twitched into a smile, “But Robert went to medical school. He’s a surgeon now.” Her smile reflected a mother’s pride.

Later that afternoon I attempted to reach Mary’s son. I left messages with the receptionist at his office, and then tried his nurse. When he never returned my calls, I phoned his house. Robert’s wife answered.

“We’re so sad about Mary,” she said.

“Robert needs to see her … soon. She is failing.” I explained.

“But he can’t,” she said, “He is too busy.” She paused briefly before continuing, “And he doesn’t want to see her like that.”

I knew this was a social worker’s golden opportunity. This was my chance to use the questions and tactics I had learned to explore Robert’s fear of seeing his dying mother. I had read countless of pages on avoidant behavior. I should have known exactly how to respond.

But words escaped me. Instead, I grieved for Mary – lying alone in her hospital bed with only the hospital staff and Hospice workers to bring her comfort.

“He may never see her again alive,” I said bluntly.

Robert’s wife promised to relay my message.

The following day a friend of mine and I were walking to class. I spotted an array of colorful autumn leaves covering the ground. I remembered Mary saying she loved the fall and missed the foliage it brought. Her window in the hospital looked out at the concrete of a neighboring building.

Frantically, I started gathering leaves. My friend paused.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“My patient,” I said, “She misses the color of fall.”

“That’s the saddest thing I have ever heard.” My friend began to pick up leaves. “Here. Here is a yellow one. And red. She has to have a red leaf.”

The next morning I brought my armful of leaves to Mary. Her lids were closed and when I whispered her name, she struggled to lift them.

“Mary, look,” I whispered, holding the leaves up, “I brought Autumn to you.”

Slowly, Mary smiled and I took her hand in mine. Together we sat in silence, and looked at the colors of fall.