Son or Medical Student? Finding Balance With Mom’s Cancer

Spring 1997

I eye up the worn and tattered catcher’s mitt 20 feet ahead. It’s a warm May morning and the elementary school bus is coming down the street in 10 minutes. But, more importantly, baseball season is finally here. Mom is down in the catcher’s stance, “Fire it in here!” she shouts and then grins at me as I start my wind up. I pull my gloved hand up to my face and tuck my right hand in, resting the ball in the heel of the glove. I take a short step to my right and shift my weight slightly over my right foot. I swing my left leg up high and, pushing off my right leg, send everything I’ve got into the pitch, whipping the ball at mom, as she squats in the grass with the mitt held open wide. The ball smacks into the glove’s weathered pocket with a “Crack!” “Isn’t that the best sound, And!?” she exclaims, firing the ball back to me and readying herself again. We have to get 10 pitches in before the bus comes. There is no secret to being good at something. You just have to love to practice. That is her philosophy. Now it is mine too.

January 2011

It’s now junior year of college and my morning routine has shifted away from baseball. Now I get up, eat oatmeal, and review notes before class. Fewer “heaters”, a lot more books, but the same philosophy: love to practice, love to learn. I write frequently in the journal I keep on my computer. So far it is mostly ramblings -- on my dying faith in the Catholic church (what’s the point of God?), on my breakup with my high school girlfriend (what’s the point of love?), on my fascination with cell biology and chemistry (what’s the point of studying anything else but the pure molecular basics of life itself!?)

In this moment, my relationship with cancer is so ordered and neat and sterile. It is a series of PowerPoint presentations in air-conditioned classrooms. A set of logical experiments, producing clear data from which succinct conclusions are drawn. It is graphs and figures and tables and genes and proteins and signaling pathways. I have a poster outlining all the known cellular pathways that contribute to cancer on the wall beside my bed. Cancer biology is what I do, not something I fear.

April 2011

That ordered, neat, sterile, intellectual relationship with cancer collided with the powerful, unpredictable, emotional, force of real life on a beautiful spring morning later that semester.

I am home for the weekend from school, with my mom. Our morning ritual is to have a cup of Irish breakfast tea together. Always with a splash of evaporated milk and a half teaspoon of honey. We started this in high school when she was teaching 9th grade and I would hop a ride to school with her each morning.

I made my cup and walked out to the back porch where she was sitting, her mug beside her, at our small wrought iron table. If that table could talk, it could tell the entire history of our family. It has sat on the cracked slab of concrete we call the back porch ever since we moved in on Evelina Road

“Good morning, Andrew” my mom says as she smiles and looks up at me from the crossword puzzle, looking not quite her usual chipper, enthusiastic self.

 I don’t remember exactly what we talked about at first, but, eventually, she said to me, “I’ve got some news, And. I went to get this thing on my leg checked out and they said I’ve got some bad cells.”

 To me, immersed in a Cancer Biology class, bad cells equal cancer. No need for further description. I just took an exam on this very topic.  How ironic is that? “Bad cells” stop doing their jobs. “Bad cells” disobey orders. “Bad cells” exhibit the 6 characteristics of cancer, which I can hardly remember in this moment.

“What did the path report say?” I ask. “What kind of cells? How fast are they replicating? What stage is it?” In this moment of internal turmoil, I grasp for what is familiar to me – the science and the cells -- rather than looking for what might be helpful for my mom. She recognizes my angst and -- despite the fact that she received the diagnosis, she will receive the treatment, she will be confronted with  her own mortality in the coming weeks-- she opens her heart and comforts me.

June 2011

You would never find mom inside on a sunny day. She’d be ticking off miles walking all over town with her best friend, hitting the tennis ball with a fellow teacher, or kneeling in the garden behind the house, back bent, hands covered in mud, transplanting some black-eyed Susan’s or pulling weeds. But on this “glorious summer day”, as she would most certainly have proclaimed it, there she was, inside. She was curled up with blankets in her bed, her hair, frizzled and wild, pushing out over the covers. She was now a few weeks into interferon treatment for her cancer. On the days of her infusions, she collapses into bed with chills and whole body aches. It’s jarring seeing my mom so visibly weak. She could not help the shivering. She could not bite her lip and just power through the aches. The interferon was pummeling her and I hated the medicine for doing that, even though I knew, theoretically, that it was helping. I went into the room and wrapped my arms around her without anything to say.

Eventually she completed the treatment and the chills and the aches stopped. The scans came back “clean”; but that might have been the easy part: getting cancer off the scans. The real hard part is getting it off your mind. Mom told me that the greatest challenge after treatment is not becoming obsessed that every headache or cold, sharp pain or little rash is a sign that the cancer is back.

For the rest of us, at least superficially, things seemed to be “normal” again. We didn’t really talk about cancer. We didn’t use the term “remission”. We just assumed “cured.”  It was logical. Plain and simple. Mom had cancer. Mom endured the treatment. Mom beat it. Like we knew she would. We could all move ahead with our lives now, thank you very much.

April 2015

Until last spring, April 2015. She went in for her yearly PET scan. She came back with “findings” that needed to be explored with a biopsy. “This really is not happening,” I remember thinking to myself, “Why not?” came an internal reply.  The worst was confirmed: metastatic melanoma, stage IV cancer (“That’s the last stage,” I remember telling my older brother when he asked me how many stages there are).

September 2015

Now I’m in the first year of medical school. Tomorrow we will be talking about melanoma in class. I am doing the reading to prepare and I come across the survival statistics. Odd that I have never actually looked this up myself before. The five-year survival rate for a person with stage IV lung metastases is 17%. I stare at the accompanying figure, a Kaplan-Meier survival curve. Looking out at the 16-month marker on the x-axis: not many survivors. Were all those dots on the chart really someone’s mom or dad, or brother or sister? I keep reading, “Malignant melanoma is the cutaneous neoplasia with the greatest mortality rates and one of the malignancies with the highest potential of dissemination. The prognosis of patients with metastatic melanoma is grim…” Time for a shower, I think,. Enough studying for tonight. I walk down the hall of our dorm in my sandals, head straight to the showers and turn the water on hot. I get in and stand there for a few moments, letting the water pour over me. “The prognosis is grim,” I think to myself, “17% survival at 5 years.” “Shit,” I whisper. I am hit with this longing to see my parents and be with my brothers. I picture my mom’s funeral. My brothers carrying the casket. I picture my dad speaking at the wake, thanking everyone for coming. There’s my mom’s sister and brother. There’s her best friend. There are her nephews waving goodbye to her. I picture my mom on the back porch with a cup of tea, looking toward the sun. The hot water runs over me and I weep. I cover my face, but what is the point? I can’t stop it; the tears flow, falling off my face, joining the water droplets from the shower, crashing into the tile and falling down the drain. I want to follow them down there.

September 2016

I pull a mask over my face, slip a pair of gloves on while I make my way over to the metal table to join my classmates, who are peering over specimens while a pathology resident asks a question: “What do you guys think this person died of?” I pick up the cold tissue in my hands. Definitely a lung, though it is collapsed now, greyish-tan color – bland, lifeless. The tissue is dotted by small dark specks, some as small as a pencil’s tip, others the size of its eraser. I roll these little specks through my fingers. They are smooth, but irregularly shaped. They are hard and stick well to the tissue. They are uniformly black. “Is that from smoking?” a classmate ventures. “No, but good guess!” the resident replies excitedly, “That black stuff isn’t from particulate matter. Think about what cells can make that sort of pigment.” Another student speaks up, “Skin cells. Melanocytes produce pigment!” The resident, who nods in approval, concludes, “Yes, this patient died from metastatic melanoma.” The group shuffles to the adjacent table where diseased kidneys await us. I stand with the melanoma lung in my hands and roll my fingers over the small bumps again and again.

As a medical student, I’ve learned enough to fear diseases like cancer, by studying their pathology, watching tumors excised from abdomens in the operating room, or as I did recently, holding the nodules of metastatic melanoma in my hands.

But as a son, the disease is not so much what I’m afraid of…loss is. The cellular morphology isn’t scary. Even the scans aren’t that scary. The thought of being without someone irreplaceable, like my mom, is what is terrifying.

Sometimes I try to live only as the medical student, sometimes only as a son. This experience, I’m learning requires both, and, as a great poet has said, the only way forward it seems, is to live like the river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.*

* John O’Donohue

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Andrew is a second year medical student at Harvard Medical School.