by Donna M. Brown
Fear’s icy fingers gripped my throat when the nurse’s aide pointed down a long, long corridor at the Huntsman Cancer Center toward my destination. It meant walking reverently through a waiting room where bald-headed little people sat wrapped in blankets and gowns wavering as if at any minute they might fall.
So much suffering, so much pain, so much looming death and heartache. It did not occur to me at the time to think, “So much healing going on here.”
In the Beginning
Just weeks ago I went to my eye doctor to drain an irritating sty on my left eye. It had been there for at least six months. I noticed it growing and decided it was time for this thing to go. He referred me to another doctor to have it surgically removed because “sometimes these things get harder if you wait too long.” His referral may very well have been a life-saving measure.
The ophthalmologist/surgeon poked and prodded just a little. “Yup, you’re in the right place,” he said slapping his knee. We can take care of this right now, or we can have you come back another time.
I said, “Git ‘er done.”
“Wow. This is an impressive cyst. It’s very large,” he said when he began cutting as I lay in terror gripping the handles of the chair with both hands. I could see the scalpel come toward my eye and immediately regretted my decision.
I heard him tell his assistant, “Put this in a sample dish. I’m going to send it to a pathologist.”
My mind, frozen with fear of the needle headed toward my eyelid, I remember registering his statement. “A pathologist? Give me a break. Why would he send that to a pathologist?”
Six stitches later I was out the door and finally free of that obnoxious little white bump that had begun to scrape my actual eyeball. It healed quickly. I returned to have the stitches removed. My daughter rode along with me. It was the first time I had heard him utter the C-word.
“This looks good. It looks really good,” he said. I agreed, he had done a wonderful job of repairing a sizeable slice from my bottom eyelid. Then he said it, “I’ve been waiting to see what the pathologist comes back with about this – whether or not it’s cancerous.”
If there is one thing I know how to do, it’s play it cool. My exterior was saying, “Hmmm. Cancer, you really think that’s a possibility, huh?”
On the inside I was screaming, “What the hell are you talking about? Cancer?”
He nonchalantly commented, “The pathologist has forwarded it on to a specialist. Now, I don’t want you to think that means it’s cancer. We just have to wait and see. Two weeks, at the most.”
Again, with my unruly insides, “Two fucking weeks?” (Let me apologize now. There are simply times when no other word will do.) “You want me to sit around wondering for two fucking weeks if I have CANCER?”
I politely thanked him and left.
I rationalized the fact that he was being overly cautious. Cancer was not even a possibility. Who gets cancer in their eyelid for Christsake? I let it go.
I was somewhere near Blackfoot Idaho when his phone call came. I was on my way to a fun-filled adventure with my daughter in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this … “
“You SUCK,” was my outward response. I spent another five minutes explaining that he didn’t really suck, it was just that …
He texted the words with which I was about to become intimately familiar: “sebaceous/miebomian gland carcinoma.”
I was driving across a reservation and whirled into the nearest casino where I promptly dumped $100 cold hard cash into the Wheel of Fortune – you know, the “WHEEL of FORTUNE” slot machine (as if somehow that would teach him for telling ME I had cancer). I pondered exactly what that meant. My next move was to copy and paste the foreign words into my smart phone’s Google search engine.
“Sebaceous gland carcinoma (SGC) is a HIGHLY MALIGNANT AND POTENTIALLY LETHAL TUMOR that arises from meibomian glands of the tarsal plate, from glands of Zeis or from sebaceous glands of the caruncle, eye brow or facial skin (1). SGC arises from sebaceous material secreting glands and are known to be occasionally multicentric. These tumors are reported to behave aggressively with the tendency to metastasize early with higher mortality rates especially if there is a delay in the diagnosis … “
“Oh,” I thought, “you mean like when you think you have a damn STY in your eye and ignore it for six months?”
And so it Begins
Within a week I was sitting in the office of Dr. Bhupendra Patel, M.D., chief of oculoplasty at the University of Utah Medical Center and the Moran Eye Center.
“No sweat. We’ll run on over to the St. George Surgical Center and carve this problem away,” I told myself. But, no.
I would need surgery, sooner than later, at the University of Utah Medical Center, the Huntsman Cancer Center AND the Moran Eye Center.
“This is not the time when I call my colleagues and politely ask them to work you in,” he explained to me and my brother, Doug, who had accompanied me to the visit for moral support. “This is the time when I get out my big professor stick and say, ‘Get this done.’”
My head began spinning.
Because the cancer is very rare, Dr. Patel explained, “Anyone within 1,500 miles of here who has this kind of cancer will eventually end up at my doorstep.” Somehow I had ended up in a small Utah office with one of the world’s leaders in oculoplasty surgery. Somehow, it still did not exactly feel like my luck day.
Consultation is Not Comforting
My sweet daughter-in-law Brandi accompanied me to my first consultation at the Huntsman Cancer Center. We laughed and joked and had dinner together the night before; but, the moment we stepped through the doors, “Shit got real.”
The kindness and consideration at this world-class facility conveniently located in my own home state was overwhelming. In the examination room I was instructed to put on a gown. I was feeling pretty solid until a nice nurse’s aide offered, “Would you like a blanket?” I declined and she stepped out.
“Oh. My. God. Brandi, they are treating me like a cancer patient. I am going to die.”
I arrived home late that night and I had clearly moved straight from the “denial” stage of grief to “anger.” I lashed out at my children, my life and even the laundry piled on my bed. The next few days were a blur of anger, defeat, pure fear and resentment. It was nobody’s fault and that did not help.
Worst Decade Ever
I am 52 years old. I have successfully survived five decades and I can say without reservation that this decade has been the worst. It began with the sudden, unexpected death of my sister in 2007. Not long after, I suffered a bitter divorce ending 22 years of marriage. My ex-husband (a police officer) found my best childhood friend dead in her car on the side of the road. My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died three weeks later. I’m grateful for that because I am not sure he would have survived the death of my 5-year-old nephew who was hit and killed by a slow-rolling truck as his young mother helplessly lunged for him. Six months later, my younger brother shot himself in the head. My mother lost her mind and dementia set in. I had to sell her home and move her in with me.
For 3.5 years I worked in a highly political and controversial position for my local Chamber of Commerce. I was Utah’s Chamber of Commerce President. I spent the year after my sister’s death and during my divorce arranging for 220 people to travel to China for 10 days on an international business trip. I was tired.
It was during a local chamber luncheon that I first heard God speak to me. The lights were low and I sat at a round, crowded table fighting to keep my head from falling into my salad. The mayor was speaking and suddenly everything went silent and I clearly heard:
“It’s time. You take care of your family and I will take care of you.”
That day, I knew I had received a commandment and a promise. I did not dare ignore either. I gave a 30-day notice with no inkling of how I would survive or help take care of my four growing children.
I had no idea the Lord was preparing me for the deaths and struggles that were to follow.
I moved to my family’s farm home in the middle of the Utah Western Desert and retreated. No money. No energy. No gumption to move forward. I survived and that is all.
Wherefore Didst Thou Doubt?
On the day my niece’s little darling Kole was killed, I was panicked to just get to my family gathering hundreds of miles away. I drove 45 miles to Cedar City, pulled into a turning lane on 200 North and Main when my car’s transmission literally dropped.
I got the car moved to safety and walked to a car lot. I prayed for two blocks. I had to buy a car and I had to have one fast. The nice men at the car lot were sorry – but there was no way in hell anyone would give me a loan. I borrowed a dear friend’s car for a day. The ignition switch broke just after I parked it in front of my home in Enterprise (I had moved there from Beryl when our family property’s well dried up leaving my beautiful vegetable garden to wilt and turn to dust). Another expense and still no way to reach my grieving family.
A young, tender teenage boy and one of my daughter’s closest friends died at the same time we lost or little Kole. Liberty and I went to the local funeral together in my friend’s freshly-repaired car. As we sat and waited for the teenage boy’s funeral to begin, the weight of my world and everyone else’s crashed in on me. I had to get to my family hundreds of miles away in the Utah Basin. I left the church, climbed in to my friend’s car and headed up the canyon on State Route 18. I was frantic, crying, screaming. I was done.
I watched trees swoosh by me through watery eyes when suddenly I began to think of a bible story and calmness overcame me. It was one of my favorites when Christ’s disciples were on the boat in the sea and the angry wind blew crashing waves against their vessel. Christ appeared to them on the water and they were afraid.
Christ shouted to them, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
Peter asked the Lord to take him onto the water. The faithful disciple took a step. “But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, ‘Oh ye of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind stopped … “
I heard the words, loud and clear, “Wherefore dost thou doubt?”
I remembered then that the Lord had made a promise to me. I was trying with every ounce of strength I could muster to care for my family – my whole family through a deep, dark period of grief. I knew what I had to give was meager, but that I was giving all I had. I turned my car around and returned to our young friend’s funeral.
As I climbed the steps to the churchhouse I received a call: “We have decided we can work out financing for your new car.” I reached my family in our horrible time of grieving the loss of yet another tiny soul we adored.
‘Now I Remember, Lord’
The past week has been a roller coaster of emotion. To face one’s own mortality is a grave event and I cannot say I was handling it with grace and finesse.
On Sunday I was wringing my hands and silently praying when I was reminded in no uncertain terms of the promise the Lord made to me the day I left the only world I had ever known and stepped into the deep abyss: “You take care of your family, and I WILL take care of you.”
I felt a loving poke and heard it again, this time a soft whisper, “Wherefore dost thou doubt?”
Tomorrow I will embark on a journey I would have never sought to take. On Thursday they will inject nuclear dye into my face to help them track any wandering cancer cells that might have begun to wiggle their way to a final resting place in some dark chasm of my body. On Friday they will remove lymph nodes from my face, carve off my eyelid and attempt to repair the damage.
Today, I do not doubt. I know without one shred of uncertainty that I have fulfilled my promise to the Lord and he remembers the promise he made to me.