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.
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We see Dr. Wilson today for a thoracentesis—a procedure to pull fluid out of the thorax.
First thing in the morning, I do some brief alterations of a text the wife of one of our authors has requested. Very little stuff like changing the word house for home.
When she phoned yesterday, she insisted, “Aren’t these better choices!” I replied, “It’s really the client’s call. Both choices are fine. I’ll make whatever changes you wish.”
Changes are a dangerous activity at this stage. They can lead to new errors that obviate previous proofing.
By 9:10, we are waiting in Dr. Wilson’s reception room. I am nervous and frightened. How must Martha feel? Sometimes I hold Martha’s hand, and sometimes she takes mine. Again, I think, “So much time already taken from what had been our lives.” Then, I tell myself, “After metastasized breast cancer, we don’t have ‘lives’ any more!”
What had been our lives no longer seems real. Perhaps what had been our lives will not be our lives again for a long time to come.
It is as if we had entered into a monastic phase, a retreat time. So much has dropped away. We are left with the essence. The bare bones of who we are, of what our relationship is. So much seems dross. Yet our lives will continue to need support—shopping, keeping the wood box full, producing income, going to the transfer station with our trash.
Dressed in green cords and a foresty, flowered, button-down cotton shirt, Dr. Wilson is a small spare woman with short hair and strong delicate hands. Her conversation reveals a pleasant sense of humor, making the seriousness of what she has to say a bit easier.
Sitting on an examination table, I told Dr. Wilson about some of the doctor visits I had had in the past year with my naturopath, Dr. Ackerley, and about some visits with the specialists she referred me to. As I spoke, it suddenly occurred to me that I am a patient. Not Martha, not a subject, but an object.
“I was just not bringing my attention to cancer,” I said.
Dr. Wilson answered, “When a patient comes in with a history of breast cancer, the first place a doctor needs to go to is cancer. You don’t play around with allergies. And these specialists she referred you to! Where was their medical training!”
I asked her if she had the scan from Parkview to show me, and she said yes. She invited us into her office where she brought up both the CT scan and the X-ray, taken last Thursday, the afternoon we spent in the emergency room.
“This is your right lung,” Dr. Wilson said. Clearly visible, on the right side, is a shape the size of a medium potato. “No wonder you are having trouble breathing.” The rest of the cavity was filled with what she said was liquid.
The bones are riddled with irregular shapes and look porous. There are many small non-specific spots on my left lung. She also showed me the X-ray I had taken on January 5th of this year—ten months ago. It shows two clear lungs!
Would my experience of this cancer have been different if Dr. Ackerley had prescribed a CT scan at that point?
Dr. Wilson estimated that there were at least three liters of fluid in the pleura. She could perform a thoracentesis that afternoon to alleviate some of the pressure I was feeling on my lung.
“Can you come back at 1 P.M.?” Dr. Wilson asked.
“Why not? Might as well since we’re in town.”
We ate lunch in a hospital snack bar—a three-bean soup that was surprisingly delicious—and then returned to Dr. Wilson’s office. I was grateful to be able to take what seemed a healing step so soon after my diagnosis of metastasized breast cancer and, of course, very apprehensive. I remember all the poking and piercing and cutting that went on when I had my first occurrence. It assailed my very sense of who I was.
Will it be different this time? Will I be different?