To Be Upright and Moving


The night of October 4, 2007, I posted a blog on MySpace and BlogSpot. Lisa Moore, beloved character of Tom Batiuk’s comic strip Funky Winkerbean, had lost her battle with breast cancer. While this story arc was playing out my own wife Tamara was finishing up a year-long ordeal of chemo, more chemo, surgery, radiation, pills, needles, biopsies, blood, nausea and fear. At the time we were looking forward to when we could celebrate the one-year anniversary of her successful treatment being completed. Better yet, we looked ahead to the day five years would pass, indicating that her cancer was once and for all gone and that Tammy had beaten it.

She didn’t get that first year. It came back in her spine meaning that while Tammy can continue to be treated she’ll never be cured unless a scientific breakthrough happens in time. That said, in a couple days Tammy is going to hit a five-year mark after all. Five years since we went to our appointed doctor visit to get scan results and her Oncologist gave her the bad news over the Goddamn phone from the other side of town.

Five years of the same treatment working longer than it normally does. Five years where the cancer lesions regressed to where it’s currently NED [No Evidence of Disease]. Five years of blessing that followed what’s often considered a death sentence.

***

Breast cancer took one of my friends yesterday. Took her from her husband and four children. Took her from all her friends and family. Took her well before her time. I only knew Sarah for a little under two years but it seemed I knew her forever. Another friend accurately described her as “awesome, a rare mix of strong will and consistently good temper.”

I went to see Sarah last week. She smiled when I came into her home and reached her hand up to mine. She was tired and weak. Her sentences were rarely finished, and her voice was so low I missed most of what she was trying to say. I wanted to avoid asking Sarah to repeat herself. She asked how Tammy’s health was. She asked that twice from her hospice bed.

But her grip on my hand was strong, stronger than everything else about her indicated, and she did not let go for the 45 minutes I was there. When I had to leave she pulled me towards her in what was our last hug. I said I’d come back in a couple days and she smiled at that. But the couple days got delayed and finally never happened.

As I drove home that night I noticed I forgot to bring them their Christmas card. It was still on my front seat. I suspected that despite every intention this would be the last time I saw her. I only knew that experience one other time, a 98-year-old Great-Great-Aunt unconscious in ICU, but I wasn’t close to her, hadn’t spent many Sunday afternoons with a cup of coffee discussing kids and fundraisers and families and vacations and plans.

***

As far as having incurable Stage IV cancer goes my wife’s doing great. On the cancer front at least. Her current cancer stats are the best they can be, in fact better than can often be expected in her circumstance. She’s doing well considering the situation. Sarah’s family don’t get to have that. And I know others who didn’t get to have it either, yet I know others still who not only have it but have it even better than Tammy and I. The randomness of who gets it and how any treatment will go doesn’t make sense.

One high school friend, Matt, just celebrated 25 years of kicking cancer’s ass back when we were kids. Another, Amy, died two months into chemo when she was only 22. Selena, who had been a guest in our home, didn’t last many more months after her visit. While Scott’s mom beat cancer the first time, then when it cruelly came back on the five-year anniversary beat it again.

I have no choice but to know that someday a new treatment for Tammy will be necessary. Do we get another five years before then? Or better yet, fifteen so that when new women get diagnosed they can be told “I know someone in your place who’s been going strong for twenty years.”

***

My Funky Winkerbean post is inaccessible in it’s original locations. MySpace blogs have been excised that website while my old RDOS blog has been retired and set to private. Rather than link to a dead or blocked address I’m pasting it here for those interested.

Originally posted October 4, 2007

We knew this day was coming, in the last couple weeks we knew specifically it would be today.

Lisa Moore, one of the central characters for Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean series, succumbed to breast cancer this morning. She had beaten it the first time around in ’99 after having a mastectomy and going through treatment. Since that time she became a mom and lawyer, and then right after the five years that cancer patients have to wait to see if they’re clear it came back, more invasive than before. She stopped treatment when she realized it was only postponing the inevitable.

In a way I understand why some people are upset with Batiuk, I couldn’t help read each day’s strip without worrying that someday this would be me and Tammy. There’s only a two year approximate age difference between her and Lisa’s character when she was first diagnosed.

When the first news reports came out about the direction Batiuk was taking the story I started logging into the Seattle P-I each day to read it, having only been a casual reader until then. Without any initial investment in the characters I got drawn into it, to the point where I wanted Batiuk to come up with a miracle cure or for Les to wake up from a nightmare. At the same time I knew he couldn’t do that and ultimately I agree.

There are many who disagree, their reasons are various. Those who take it hard because they’ve been through it, either as a current patient, a survivor or a family member, I can at least understand. But there are other objections which I don’t have much patience for.

The first is Comics should be funny, or There’s too much hurt and depression in this world, I need some place I can escape from it.

First of all, comics were originally used as political or social commentary. Often hard-hitting, biting, sometimes offensive, and always with the punches never pulled. If you need somewhere to escape first of all don’t pick up a paper. There’s a war going on. Teenagers crash cars. Taxes are rising. And if you’ll look in the obits people are dying, sometimes of cancer.

But kids shouldn’t be seeing this, they’ll be grown up soon, let them stay innocent.

Bullshit. Just because Danny Thomas is gone doesn’t mean kids don’t get cancer anymore. Kids with cancer, or any disease even when it’s not communicable are often teased or ostracized by peers, some out of meanness but most out of ignorance. Their ignorance concerning Cancer, or HIV, or Cystic Fibrosis might not be so prevalent if adults didn’t try to shelter them (an impossible task)

What if a pre-teen, long since accustomed to being modest, notices a lump on their body and doesn’t know to ask their parents to have a doctor check it out?

Which brings up another objection. That’s an inappropriate subject matter. The illustrations were obscene and not necessary. Kids shouldn’t be seeing this.

Actually one of the first things a kid should ever see in their life is a breast literally shoved in their face. It’s as much your fault as the media’s that breasts are reduced to sexual objects, so much so that the United States goes into a panic and forgets that the White House is full of criminals when Janet Jackson pops out.

It’s this idea that breasts are evil and something shameful that is helping to kill 43,000 women every year. People are already avoiding the subject of cancer but when the titillating breasts are included they really go into denial. She has cancer? Don’t talk about it. It’s in her breast? Don’t talk about it. She needs a mastectomy? Don’t talk about it and don’t think her capable of sexuality or in need of sensuality. She’s losing her hair? Don’t talk, don’t stare, don’t even make eye contact for conversation. It came back, she’s going to die? Run away. Look back after she’s gone and tell yourself you did everything for her during her final months.

A lot of people in denial will say that we’ve come a long way in cancer treatments. They are absolutely correct. But that does not mean it’s a walk in the park. You don’t have a line of smiling patients taking generic medication without side affects going on their merry way and being cured by the end of the week. There’s nausea and queasiness. Shots, blood and surgeries. Amputations. Fatigue, intense bone pain. Susceptibility to sunlight, lowered immune systems. There’s constant dosages of poison, with added chemicals designed to counter the toxicity enough not to kill you. There’s hair loss, even if you’re a woman who doesn’t want to be bald. There’s liver damage, irreparable heart damage.

Sometimes there’s the frustration that the treatment isn’t working, and sometimes there’s the indelible knowledge that nothing can be done and these are your final weeks.

Sometimes your family and friends can’t understand what you’re going through. Sometimes even the doctors and nurses refuse to believe it’s as bad as you’re saying. It becomes impossible to balance work and doctor appointments without one eroding the other away. Medical bills, Insurance hassles, Less hours and less income, Savings depleted, Planned future destroyed. Even when you beat it.

When people don’t understand that it becomes easier for Congress to redirect their funds to something more fun like Iraq. When people don’t understand then they’re less likely to donate a buck when stores are handing out pink ribbons for Cancer Awareness Month. If it takes the death of a popular fictional character in a widely-read comic strip to slap that understanding into their heads then so be it.

I actually first saw the strip last night: it was the photo with a newspaper article that went online early. Right before I had gotten on the computer I peeked in on Tammy, thinking she was still awake. She had already crashed, her book closed on the bed in front of her. She was lying on her side faced away from me. Just like the final panel that I would soon be seeing. Her hair, which is coming along nicely, is still only somewhat longer than Lisa’s was.

Just because there’s no doubt she’s beating it, just because her treatments have come along as scheduled with few road bumps to speak of, just because she didn’t lose her hair during the second batch of chemo, just because she didn’t need a mastectomy, doesn’t mean that this whole ordeal has been nothing at all for her. Or for me. Both of us do a great job going on with our lives, not making every breathing moment something cancer-related, but we don’t ignore it either. We can’t. Recurrence isn’t impossible.

And if it does come back I wouldn’t want people complaining that she’s ruining their pleasant sheltered morning.

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