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Monday, October 28, 2013

Birthdays & Ass Cancer

Today is Julia Robert's birthday.  And mine.  We were born during "the week of intensity" according to an astrology book I once read.  I'd have to agree with that.

I recently found a hard little bump while showering.  No, it wasn't a breast mass.  It was an ass mass.  How humiliating.  My first thought was of Farrah Fawcett and her long agonizing death, how Michael Jackson stole her thunder by dying of mysterious causes on the same day.

My second thought was that I had to see this mass up close so yes, I took a picture of it with my cell phone.  Then I Googled "anal cancer", saved and compared photos.  Then I called Dr. Gerald Bailey, a colon/rectal doctor who shares an office with...wait for it...Horace Butts.  Seriously.

I've had every disease and cancer imaginable.  In my mind.  But this time felt different, like every time does.  Still, while you're convinced you may have ass cancer, you think about how things will go.  I wondered what my hair would be like when or if it returned after chemotherapy.  I nonchalantly asked my hair dresser about her cancer patients' hair and she said, "Their hair is never the same.  It's coarse and thinner.  So sad."

My vanity kicked in and I panicked.  I'd age thirty years after all the stress, chemicals, radiation and weight loss.  I'd be suddenly old.  With ass cancer. 

The day of my appointment with Dr. Bailey, I packed an extra pair of socks.  I badly needed a pedicure and didn't want him to see my dry heels.  Where were my priorities?  He'd be looking at my anus and I was worried about my feet?

Anyway, as I drove in gridlocked traffic to the Houston, Texas medical center, I watched trailers of Farrah Fawcett's Playboy video, All of Me. I'd never seen the video but heard about how ditzy she'd seemed during filming.  She had a beautiful body though, at fifty, no less.  In one scene she covers her entire naked body in brown paint and rolls gleefully on a giant canvas.  She bounces on the canvas, her painted butt leaving a chain of brown smeared ovals.  This was a few years before her cancer diagnosis and I wondered if, as she created this legacy on canvas of her rear end, her cancer was already growing.

I drove up eleven stories in the parking garage before finally finding a spot.  I'd worn my favorite orange shirt and brought my journalI was prepared to chronicle the beginning of my cancer journey.

Wanda the nurse took my blood pressure not long after I arrived on the 23rd floor of the Smith Towers building. She sat me in an office to wait for Dr. Bailey.  There was nothing in his office except a desk, three chairs, and a creepy painting on the floor (a red, faceless, naked human perched atop a sand-colored staircase leading to an infinite ocean).  There was also a drawing hung on the wall, an image of a 19th century doctor sitting beside a dying little girl, her distraught mother weeping, her head down on a wooden table.

In addition to a computer on Dr. Bailey's L-shaped desk, there was a telephone and a book titled The ASCRS Textbook of Colon & Rectal Surgery.  A fake ivy sat beside the window.

Because the office was so bare, I suspected he had either just moved in or was soon to move out.  That, or he just didn't care.

Maybe he was depressed, or young and fresh out of residency.  Or maybe he was older and bounced from job to job in an attempt to stay ahead of a dark past.

When Dr. Bailey entered, I immediately asked, "Is this really your office?"

It wasn't, thankfully, and he promised to show me his real office after the exam.  Then I told him I had pictures to show him, certain I was one of his rare proactive patients.  "Do many patients take pictures of their masses?"

"You'd be surprised," he answered while typing something into his computer, eyebrows raised.  He was an older man, white hair and enough wrinkles that I trusted him.  I stood with my cell phone to show him the pictures, enlarging the image with my thumb and forefinger when necessary.  He thanked me, cool and calm, then looked back at his computer screen and began to type again.  I was just another asshole, but that was okay.  He seemed intelligent, experienced, and had a far less depressing office somewhere.

In the exam room Wanda asked me to kneel on what looked like a church kneeler.  "You don't have to take your clothes off, just kneel, pull your pants down and bend over."

I waited for her to leave the room so I could have some privacy, but she just stood there.  Apparently, Dr. Bailey was outside the room and ready to get started.  So I quickly moved to the gray vinyl kneeler, got on my knees, and pulled my pants down mid-thigh.  I immediately thought of Sister Christian at Holy Name Catholic School, her long thick paddle, the thwack of the wood against my plaid uniform.

Wanda covered me with something the size of a Bounty paper towel.  It fell to the floor just as Dr. Bailey walked in.  He joined Wanda behind me, which made me feel like anyone would feel with their pants down and two strangers standing behind them.  Then I felt the warmth of a bright light just before I heard the sound of air being pumped into me.  It felt like a tire up  my butt.

"It looks healthy in here," said Dr. Bailey, the first human to thoroughly investigate my interior terminus.  "I think you have a little hemorrhoid with a blood clot.  I'm really not worried.  Just take a few hot baths and it'll be gone."

I was still bent over, my arms and face resting on gray vinyl in this gray-walled room.  But I was seeing color again, even as the doctor scraped my little bump for biopsy.  "I guess I can stop Googling Farrah Fawcett now," I said.

"Yes, you can."

Dr. Bailey's actual office was full of credentials, family photos and owl figurines.  I'd liked him immediately, even in the dreary first office, but now I adored him.  I figured he was old enough to be retired by the time I was old enough to really worry about ass cancer.  Therefore this was the last time we would see each other under these particular circumstances.  It wasn't a sad thought, just one of those stops you know you'll never make again.  Then he said, "You know, you'll need a colonoscopy when you turn fifty next year."

Another reminder that I'm getting, we're all getting, older.

Even so, I am especially grateful on this birthday to know that now is not the time to die.  I will not have to shamefully explain to anyone where my cancer was, lose my hair or age thirty years in six weeks, not yet at least.  I can plan for another year, schedule that colonoscopy, celebrate not having yet another illness.  This gratitude is best described in the following poem, which is about all bliss.  Enjoy, and live fully.

Oh, and Happy Birthday Julia.

The feeling is an acoustic guitar and a wooden porch, a crisp spring blue and nowhere to be.

It's a hammock swaying in the steady center of the world.

The mood is lavender in a breeze, laughter like dandelion puffs caught in playful currents.

It's a road without stops, a giant gulp of air, a birthday cake two hundred stories high.

Your heart is wrapped in other hearts, clear skies and eternities.

You were born today.