Thursday, June 7, 2012

Mortality

Nothing grabs your attention like death, your own most particularly.

And three weeks ago I was pretty sure I was dying. I wasn't pretty sure, I was certain.

Four years ago I quit my job, thinking, “If I die tomorrow, it won’t be doing this.” If I die tomorrow – maybe the universe took me literally.

Ever since I was a kid, I could pick up a medical pamphlet and share all the symptoms of any disease – dementia, diabetes, prostate problems, kidney failure.

What kind of strange, morbid little creature was I back then, I wondered, clicking through the series of cancerous skin lesion images on the internet.

No, mine didn’t look like that or that or that. But here it says, “At the beginning, skin cancer may look innocuous.” Innocuous – oh my god, mine looks innocuous. “It will change in size and shape.” I checked mine hourly. It seemed huge at times, and small at others. ”A patch of skin may be rough or shiny.” Oh, I’m dead meat. Mine is rough. Or shiny. Or roughly shiny.

It was two weeks before the dermatologist could see me. And that’s because, when my back is to the wall and I must seek medical attention, I choose a doctor in the wealthiest zip code in the U.S. The best never say, “The doctor can see you in half an hour,” no, it’s “We’ll call you if we have a cancellation in the next 30 days.”

I had two weeks to get my affairs in order, plus decide who would care for my horse, my dog. I figured no one would take Albert unless a trust fund were involved.

And then, I tried to find something to divert my attention. But nothing poses a legitimate distraction when you’re staring at the great beyond.

The doctor was sweet and handsome, as they all are in this zip code. And within two minutes he said, “This is not a problem.”

I went limp. “You mean, I’m not dying?”

“Ah,” he said, and took my hand. “Let me tell you something. Last week I celebrated a little too well in Seattle. In the middle of the night, I felt ill, and was sure I had pancreatic cancer. I didn’t sleep all night. Let me tell you something else: My brother is a doctor; three times he’s diagnosed himself with an incurable disease, and three times he’s been wrong.”

I wanted to kiss him, and gathered my purse, ready to run out the door. I wasn’t going to die, no, not ever again.

“Of course,” he said, “one day my brother will be right.”

I turned.

“I see six cases of skin cancer every day," he said. "You’re blond, blue-eyed, fair skinned and you live in California – you’re an accident waiting to happen. Next time you see anything suspicious, anything at all, don’t hesitate to call.”

39 comments:

  1. I say I never get a sunburn. I shouldn't be so cavalier.

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  2. Brilliant, as usual. By the time I was 12, I'd struggled with syphilis, gonorrhea, and breast cancer, and the family's Encyclopedia Britannica wasn't much help.

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  3. When I was about 5, a strange hair grew out of my arm. I was sure I was pregnant. I didn't know what that meant but I knew it was bad.

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  4. Great piece! You write so well. I did what we now know to be stupid things when I was young, such as working outside for hours in a bathing suit top and shorts. No hat. Slathering on baby oil. Lots of swimming. So now, I visit a dermatologist annually.

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  5. It's your imagination that makes you such a great writer. I guess this is the downside.

    Congrats on not dying.

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  6. I went to the doctor yesterday for high blood pressure. She increased the dose on the med I've been taking and said, "If this doesn't bring your blood pressure down, I'll refer you to a cardiologist for a stress test."

    By the time I fell asleep last night, I was sure I was going to need a heart transplant.

    Are you sure we're not related?

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  7. I've had those moments... I remember once after I put in my contacts, my vision was blurred... when i looked up, it seemed hazy and the light above seemed to have rings..... well, i got on google which was a mistake as my optomitrist said... TMI and sometimes the wrong TMI....thought I was on the way of having glaucoma... (u can stop laughing).... turned out it was just 'dry eye syndrome'... he told me to get drops like 'refresh'... well $70 bucks later, guess who was looking for those over-the-counter drops!
    as far as u being fair skin- i have a few friends who have to be careful.. when in doubt, stay out of the sun, period.... my daughter has my husband's Irish skin... she can burn easily... her warning sign is when her chinks turn pink, then she KNOWS to jump back under cover...

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  8. I used to have health insurance and I did everything you're supposed to do to stay healthy and ahead of the grim ripper. Then I learned to live without it. Now I don't self-diagnose and think that every little thing is off the charts. Now I feel healthier than I've ever felt - even if maybe I'm not.

    It's good that you're going to stick around a while longer but if Albert ever needs a home I'm sure he and Ranger would be instant best friends. Together they still wouldn't add up to one smart dog but at least they would have a soul mate and that's gotta count for something.

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  9. I guess this was just a dress rehearsal. The doctor I went to a few years ago with a suspicious mole I had on my face didn't hesitate. He excised it right there, in his office. After he told me about all the people he's seen who were horribly disfigured because they hesitated. It turned out to be benign. Oh well. You can't be too careful, I guess. Glad to hear this was 'just' a scare.

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  10. Interesting theory - most overbooked, over priced Doctor you can find in the 90210 zip. I chose my dentist out of the penny saver. Free x-rays and a discount on cleaning.

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  11. You are indeed a gifted writer. I was smiling as I read your piece. I saw myself several times, recalling a similar situation concerning a lump in my breast and my total despair and conviction that this was it. It too turned out to be nothing of concern.
    But your ending packed a punch. The "one day my brother will be right." statement took my smile away and had me nodding silently and acknowledging that life is fragile and we must be ever vigilant. So, here I am a green-eyed redhead with skin so white it glows in the dark and I move to Florida!!

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  12. See a dermatologist every year, but pick one closer to home. I used to go to Dr. Mantell who's office was near Verdugo Hills Hospital. Much easier for you to get to than the westside. But, he's a 91208 doctor so not as nice to look at.

    My dad was fair complected and fought skin cancer all his life. He was a sun worshiper and paid for it. Besides having numerous spots removed from his face, head, and arms, he had radiation therapy on his eye lid and a totally reconstructed lower lip. They basically cut off his lower lip and pulled skin from his mouth and created a new one. He was real ugly until it healed.

    Don't mess with it and I'm glad to hear you'll be around for a while longer.

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  14. I just can't remember if Blogger will post links. (Maybe this means I've got a brain tumor.)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=lkIQ39538Ig

    Anyway, half of my life is in "Annie Hall," the other half is in "Hannah and Her Sisters."

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  15. Great humor in the middle, esp. paragraph 6! Your hallmark. No wonder you have such entertaining readers.

    I'm kind of a hypochondriac, but my inner circle is even more so. I wonder if it's connected to intelligence? And of course, wisdom, compassion, courage . . .

    Because I'm from British-Scottish-honky stock, and older than you, I'm being sent to a dermatologist twice a year, and he always finds something to burn off. I'm his hobby. So I feel your pain and, so-far-knock-wood, your false alarms. Congrats.

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  16. So, has the UCLA medical center contacted you to study your prostate yet? It would be unique, no doubt.

    I know I'm going to die by 70. So I don't worry about anything.

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  17. I had no idea there were so many kindred spirits (except Marjie, she's ever the pragmatist) And I think UCLA wants to talk over Mr. Earl's medical history as well.

    I am sooo glad I didn't talk to you over the weekend, DB.

    K, I was so sure the doctor was going to say, "If you had only come to me one month earlier, maybe we could have done something."

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  18. Stay vigilant, Karin. Skin cancer is best treated early. Regarding the kind of kid you were, adults also need to watch how they phrase things. When I was about six, I got into some poison ivy. I didn't know that at the time; I just knew I had an itchy spot on my arm. So I scratched it. A lot. Later in the day, my mom noticed my arm and showed it to my uncle. He said, "That's poison ivy. Don't scratch it or it'll never go away." Never has a real permanent sound, especially when you're six. I said nothing, but resigned myself to a life of itchy torment.

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  19. When I was 12, I had leprosy on my foot and waited for my toes to fall off one by one. 3 months later, when I dared to tell my father, we bought something that cured a nasty case of athlete's foot.

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  20. My dad had the bottom lip do-over and I've had a couple of places burned off. The last time I went to my dermatologist she said that the places to look out for are usually the ones that don't normally see the sun. I think that mostly, we just get older and our skin can get kinda weird. But it's always a scary moment before the doctor tells you what's what.

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  21. Ah, hysterical. That doctor--worth the fees. He TALKED to you!

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  22. I have a (real) inner ear problem, well-diagnosed (after about 4 years of wondering/researching/trying different doctors), which causes vertigo. Yet each time it happens, such as this week, I'm fairly certain that this time, it's not the inner ear causing the awful vertigo. Rather that I'm having a stroke, and This Is It. Imaginations can sometimes be our undoing, I suppose, but we're definitely better off with them than without them. Wouldn't you say? I'm very glad to hear you will be here, entertaining us with your imagination, for at least awhile longer.

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  23. I had the same scare 6 months ago, convinced a mole on my arm was skin cancer and it was too late to do anything about it. Thankfully I'm still here, at least for now.

    Check out this "cheery little number" by Loudon Wainwright:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0oaYHikVVo

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  24. So fun to read. I remember seeing Ben Casey or Dr. Kildare and then the next day going to the plunge. When I got out of the pool I was sure I had tumor - like the guest star in the TV show. Then I realized my bathing cap sat very tightly on my head.
    Re: sun. So here's a funny fact. Since I'm dark I need to get 15-30 minutes of sun to help me with calcium. Who knew?

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  25. As Jean said, the fertile imagination can be ploughed for good and for bad. {She didn't say that? Was I close?} Always better to be on the safe side, KB. I'm extremely relieved all is well, not the least for Albert. When I see 'Mortality' as a heading for a post at your place, my heart instantly skips a beat in a bad way. {Or wait - is that an arrhythmia?}

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  26. Oh Jeez, I share this totally.

    I used to read Black's medical dictionary as a child, and a had a morbid fascination for the diseases with no prognosis (Black's didn't give a prognosis for terminal illnesses back then – so if it said nothing, you knew you were toast).

    Naturally I developed every symptom of every terminal disease as I read the words.

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  27. When I was about 12, I was convinced I had breast cancer. I finally went to the doctor. I think he tried not to smile when he told me it was part of my rib.

    Glad you're okay.

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  28. You do "a spoonful of sugar" like no other! I was worried, then I laughed, and on Monday I'll make an appointment to get my skin checked, as I fit many of the "accident waiting to happen" criteria. I don't usually worry about my health, but a few years ago after a routine mammogram I got a call saying they needed me to return "immediately!" and booked me for that afternoon. Yikes! Sitting in the waiting room trying to decide who would get all my stuff when I bit the dust, I was approached by a doctor who asked if I would agree to be videotaped for a TV news story on digital mammography, as the other patient backed out. Sure, why not, I'm dying anyway. They didn't film my mammogram (thankfully!), but I answered questions on camera, did a "walk down the hallway with the doctor", etc. Only later when I saw the piece online did I notice that cameraman had filmed the doctor looking at the computer image of my boob (which he of course zoomed in on). The second mammogram was negative, but now I'm worried about my porn star past.

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  29. So glad you're not leaving us yet, you had me worried. Reading the comments has been fun - you've even had an offer to take Albert!

    I'm one of those accidents waiting to happen as my childhood was spent in the tropics in the days when suntan lotion was the kind you put on to increase your tan, and my skin burnt every weekend at the pool or seaside. But I haven't so far found a good dermatologist. One examined me all over with a small instrument that shone light on my skin. I asked him if it showed up the cancerous spots with UV light or something. No, he said, it's just a torch to help me see better.

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  30. Dermatologists now map your skin with photography, I believe. I'm so looking forward to my next visit.

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  31. I can't bend my big toe. Trouble?

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  32. That's probably scurvy, Ken. I've had that.

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  33. Oh, great. Now fair skinned blue eyed me is going to have to obsess over skin cancer. I blame you.

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  34. Katie, I'm not sure your secret is safe with us because that story is just too good.

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  35. I think we're all siblings of different mothers...
    I can soooo relate!!!
    And Katie...I had one of those call backs too...but no movie star status!!!
    I was a sun goddess in my early teens and 20's...even as a blonde, I have dark skin...people ask me where I got my tan in the middle of January when I've been inside every day for months...but when I was a teen, my Girl Scout leader, who was a beautiful exotic woman with dark skin...warned me about too much sun exposure....not regarding skin cancer, but about sun allergy...she had developed an allergic response to the sun, and covered up whenever we were at their beach house (they had the coolest beach house ever...right on Sunset Beach!!!) I didn't stop being in the sun, but I started wearing hats and paying close attention to how much exposure I was getting...soon it was no longer appealing to lay on a towel and fry...

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  36. I am glad you're okay!
    You write so well!
    That happenned to me too...
    As I live in a tropical country (despite I took so little sun) I used to go to a dermatologist every year.
    I'm kind of a hypochondriac, but I am a kind that don't like and fear to take medicine...

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  37. I've learned to panic over little medical problems since I was teeny. Part of it is that two grandparents were dentists, one was an RN...I knew more about medical terms than any child should. Then there was the pesky little item that my uncle died about 5 years before I was born of melanoma. From the time I was too young to remember, I was strip searched frequently to look for spots and told I was probably going to die quickly like he did.

    In hindsight, that was a good thing. in 2006, I noticed a rather icky looking thing on my back that had grown VERY rapidly. I went to the dermatologist and had him look. That spot was nothing, but there *was* another spot that did cause him to say "humnnn, uhhh". Stage III melanoma. I actually almost sighed a sigh of relief, it was finally here and I could stop worrying, sort of.

    Obviously, I've survived. Not without some pretty tough times, but I am still here. My attitude was that I would kick ass and take names. So far, so good and I'm the only one in the family to have survived it yet.

    I do have a few funny stories relating to my Dx though. One night we were on the couch, watching something brainless. My sweetie looked down and saw a brown spot on my leg. I looked and saw it too. I had the oncologist on speeddial and almost called him. But first, I went to rub at it, to see if maybe it was a spot on my eyes or something else. Turns out, it was a drop of chocolate sauce...we breathed a sigh of relief and giggled about our worry. Better to worry and have it be nothing, than think it nothing and then REALLY have to worry.

    Glad you're ok Karin, you certainly make me laugh, which has gotten me thru some pretty tough times.

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  38. The last time I went to the doctor with a problem (one that I had self diagnosed of course), he laughed and told me to stay off the internet...

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