Knife Fight

Battling the cancer came naturally. Surrendering to my surgeon — that was another story.

By Wanda E. Fleming
Washington Post Sunday Magazine

Three days before he cuts my throat, I dream my surgeon defuses a bomb in my basement. Removing his mask, he ascends the stairsScalpels to the kitchen, where he’s met with thunderous applause.

I don’t share this reverie with him as I sit in his office. Behind me, invisible, he presses the tumor. He holds my neck in a gentle choke. Thump-thump, tap-tap.

Soon, my throat will meet his scalpel. It’s a gamble: He may extract the malignancy with ease or fall into a whirlpool of mishaps, among the worst being an errant nick that severs a vocal cord.

Thump-thump. Tap-tap. “Thyroid cancer is typically slow-growing,” he pronounces. “It’s small; we’ll get it.”

Thump. “Good. Swallow again.”

As he palpates my neck, he chitchats about cookies a patient baked and a recent excursion to Africa, but all I hear is double chocolate chip and tuberculosis shots. I’m too busy focusing on submitting to the judgment of a man I barely know and a procedure he assures me is vital.

Surgery requires surrender and a bow to fate. For me, these demands are unsavory. Most nights, I go down reluctantly then only half-sleep for spinning the next day’s to-do list. I distrust anesthetics for their theft of awareness; never mind the prospect of having my throat slit.

“You’ll be fine! You can fight this,” he proclaims.

Fight? Enter the double-edged mantra.

After the diagnosis, I girded myself. When my family slept, I stole to the basement and surfed medical Web sites. I gobbled up articles like warm cinema popcorn. Downloading reams of data, I filled binders, two big ones.

Then the unexpected happened. I stumbled upon a survivors’ forum and into a vigilant crowd.

“Whatever you do,” one woman typed, “DO NOT LET THEM take out your thyroid!”

“I’m fat now,” a second chimed in.

“And always tired,” a third lamented. “My hands stay permanently cold.”

Feverishly, they championed and warned me, the neophyte newly diagnosed. Their voices swelled to cacophony. And now with my surgeon’s face mere inches from my own, it’s their siren call I hear. I wrestle for a ledge. I try to get a grip, to deliver my life to his hands.

“The scar will be fairly small,” he assures, tracing his finger below my clavicle.

Foraging for confidence, I peer at him. His eyeglasses sparkle back. Absent the lint and specks that plague other wearers, they reflect a wall of credentials and honors. I turn and scan the details: the Latin-scrawled medical degree, the consecutive years’ mention on a magazine’s Best Doctors list. I grant him four stars for the former, a blue ribbon for the latter.

A polished plaque lists him as head of the hospital’s otolaryngology department. And just that morning, the receptionist who typed the pre-admittance form beamed when I stated his name. Her cubicle mate grinned and chimed, “Oh, wow — him.” I grab and lump these signs, anything that says: This guy with the scalpel? Relax. He’s deft and roundly adored.

The afternoon of the operation, the nurse hands me a plastic bag that smells of formaldehyde and new baby dolls. I dump in my sparse belongings and don the hospital gown. I sign off on forms that absolve my caretakers of any unpleasant surprises — if my watch is stolen, if the anesthesia triggers convulsions, if I stop breathing.

In the operating room, the lights flood and blind. A mini ant colony of staff scurries about. Metal instruments clang as arctic air blows from seemingly every wall. I rub my eyes and shiver.

“I know it’s chilly in here, hon, but we’ll have you warmed up in a jiffy,” a nurse offers. With the pep and verve of one freshly on shift, she shouts out, “Anyone call Doc down yet?”

She leads me to the operating table then suddenly whispers in a perfectly audible voice, “Oh, no! Why do you still have your bra on?” The attendants laugh, all three of them. Clueless, I join in.

She unhooks the back with the ease of a seasoned lingerie fitter. The confiscated item is pink with white lace, frilly and hopeful like something one might wear the night of a milestone anniversary. I clutch the back of my hospital gown and lie atop the table.

“He’s coming,” someone announces. “He’s on his way down.”

A warm insulated blanket descends upon me. The lights beam down and dare me to blink. Half-clad, tucked in, I do.

“Now we’re going to sleep,” I hear him say. “Just relax and count back from 100.”

Refusing to avert my gaze, I stare into his masked face, a cotton rectangle, no mouth. Under the blanket, I clinch my hands. Tremulous and still cold: They close and open, then close again. By “91,” they tire and slump. Giving in, I slip under, somehow convinced I’ve triumphed in Round 1.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


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