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Telling the Children About Cancer

Draining the Cancer from the Pleura

Martha Blowen, my partner in life and in work, died on August 18, 2008, from metastasized breast cancer. The following is from collated excerpts of journals we both kept at the time. (Before she passed away, she gave me permission to share her entries.)

The memoir is called My Eye Fell Into the Soup, after a dream in which one of her eyes fell into a cauldron. She later interpreted this to mean she was not paying attention to her health. (This is written about elsewhere.) As with most people, I suppose, the cancer diagnosis was a shock. The italicized excerpts are hers: the others, mine.

Other excerpts from My Eye Fell Into the Soup are available here.


We did not wait long before Martha went in for the thoracentesis. After draining the cancer from the pleura Dr. Wilson drew will send a sample of the fluid to be analyzed. Dr. Wilson is very serious—yes, of course, she is serious. This is terribly serious.

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She had drawn three-quarters of a liter of fluid when Martha’s color changed (it was a frightening sight to see the color disappear from her face) and she began to gasp.

The procedure wasn’t bad until it was very bad and suddenly I couldn’t breathe without coughing and the lung felt like it had collapsed.

The doctor stopped the procedure. “There’s more in there, but I’m not going to go back in. Until the cancer is dealt with, the fluid will only keep coming back, but this should relieve some of the pain.”

“What do you mean it will only come back?” Martha asked. It was not something either of us wanted to hear.

“The pleura has filled due to the cancer there,” Dr. Wilson explained. As long as the cancer is present, the pleura would seek to protect itself from the cancer with fluid. If the cancer shrank, the lung would expand and the amount of fluid retract. “Until you do chemo to reduce the cancer, you will have fluid returning to the lung.”

Dr. Wilson adds that she will call the radiology department to ascertain Dr. Wyman’s order for the Thursday scan. “I’m sure Dr. Samuels will want a full body scan when she sees you on Friday.”


Dr. Wilson was straightforward and did not minimize the seriousness of my metastasis. She performed the thoracentesis on her lunch hour. I got very tired. The procedure of draining the cancer itself was exhausting—my struggle to breathe after what seemed like the collapse of my lung sapped a lot of energy—and then there had been the hanging out at the hospital—which is draining in itself. Stale, recycled air. Muzak. The noise. The forms to fill out—hadn’t I already filled these or others similar to them several times? Sitting in a mostly-unattractive room filled with sick people. And their worried mates and families.

We were in the hospital from 9 to 2 today. I am exhausted. The real question I have is, “Do I have the energy to pull together enough resistance to survive? Wouldn’t it be easier to surrender?” As we were walking out of the hospital, I felt tired and discouraged. This whole cancer thing is so uninteresting. Draining the cancer proved difficult. My life feels like it has stopped, as if it has been hijacked. I thought, “To give in would be to be able to rest. Would that be so bad?”

I tip over frequently into a kind of panic attack where I feel emotionally like my collapsed lung. “To give in would be to be able to rest. Would that be so bad?”I keep asking myself and I feel that I can’t share it with D. He is full of what he calls “warrior energy.”

“Others have pulled through,” he insists. “You have to believe you can, too.”

Hopeful aphorisms.

Of course, his world is in the process of being shattered, too, and he is dealing with the assault of cancer on his life in his way.

Can I go through what I did in 1992? I pulled it off then. Only, this time, it appears that the cancer will be more demanding of me!

What purpose does cancer serve?

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