August 29th, 2002


Walled Garden

We live in walled gardens. And within these walls, you do a round of shots with your buddies, wax philosophical about Brook Burke’s ass, and gossip about coworkers during lunch. All the while you’re blissfully unaware of the things that lurk on the other side of those walls. ‘Cause that’s what the walls are for.

After we took our baby sister home from the hospital, things seemed relatively peachy. She looked and felt a lot better than a week ago. And except for a mild fever, her condition seemed steady. All that was left was the surgery, which was scheduled for Tuesday morning. Soon, this would be all over.

Up to this point, the doctors still didn’t have an exact idea of what the fuck that thing was. That thing which was growing inside of her and possessed this amazing knack for turning our lives upside down. This meant they wouldn’t know for certain whether the ovarian mass was malignant or benign until the surgery.

But the odds were highly likely that it was benign, because of 1) her age, 2) her family cancer history (or lack thereof), and 3) her ethnicity. It’s strange calling a melon-sized cyst "benign," but that’s because you’re comparing the thing to cancer, in which case Bin Laden would be considered "benign."

So everybody was optimistic, especially me. I was Mr. Happy Sunshine. Singing to blue birds and all that Zippity-Doo-Da shit. I even allowed myself to have one of those typical weekends. I ate a small herd of kalbi at Brie’s barbeque. I took Jeff Garcia with my first pick in our friends’ fantasy football draft. I drank myself excessively stupid at Karnak. And for those couple of days, life in the walled garden returned to normal.

It was back to the hospital for my baby sister and my family. By now, I could drive there with my eyes closed. The nurses had to prepare her for the surgery, and the doctor was going to go over the details of surgery with us.

Then he let us have it.

"The test results aren’t conclusive, and they never really are," he said. "But based on what I know, it’s very likely that she has ovarian cancer."

For a second, my body lost awareness of here and now. In my mind, I was punching a hole into a wall.

I looked at my sister. Her expression hadn’t changed. She’d gone numb. And then I looked at the doctor again, because he was still talking.

"During the surgery, we’re going to remove the mass," he continued. "And then a pathologist will study the tissue to determine whether or not it’s malignant. We must also make sure that we remove as much cancerous tissue as possible."

This part of the surgery is called debulking. They go from organ to organ to see if the cancer had spread. If they find it, they cut it out. In my sister’s case, they’d start with the affected ovary.

"I’ve known many women who’ve had this operation, and gone on to have many, many children," he said. A small smile appeared on his face to let us know that this was the happy part of his story. But the story kept going.

They’d check the other ovary to see if the cancer had spread there. More often than not, they end up removing it too. And just as often, they remove the uterus. Because at this point, it’s not about having children. It’s about surviving.

After that, there’s a sheath of fat that covers your abdomen called the omentum. It’s loaded with blood vessels, making it an easy target for cancer. So out with the omentum. Finally, it’s possible they’ll have to take out sections of the small and large intestines as well.

He stopped there. Just plain ran out of organs, I guess. Then there was just silence. My mom jumped in with a question.

"But it’s not cancer for sure, right?" she asked.

"Yes," he replied. "There is a very small chance it’s not."

I asked my baby sister how she was feeling. She said she was scared. Her reaction wasn’t "The Doctor Just Told Me I Probably Have Cancer" kind of scared. More like "I’m About To Go On A Large Roller Coaster" kind of scared. Because at this point she was doing exactly what the rest of us were doing. It was the only thing we’ve been able to do so far. And that was to assume that, in the end, everything would turn out okay.

After a while, we had to leave. I asked her what kind of stuffed animal she wanted when I visited tomorrow.

"A dolphin," she said.

When I got home, I went online. The last time I did this kind of research, I intentionally avoided the C-word. But I couldn’t do that now. For several hours, I read Web page after Web page about ovarian cancer.

This was the worst few hours of the day for me. In fact, I’d easily rank it up there as one of the worst moments of my life. Because you look for reassurance and hope, but instead you come across words like "mortality", "survival rate," and "death." I won’t go into detailed statistics or descriptions, but they basically stated that women who had the same type of symptoms as my baby sister were typically in the advanced stages of ovarian cancer. By then, the cancer had often spread beyond the ovary to other parts of the body. Even with surgery and intensive treatment, the 5-year survival rate was 35-47%. With some ovarian tumors, it was closer to 0%.

I kept digging through all that, looking for small shreds of hope here and there. Like the descriptions of cysts that are often misdiagnosed as ovarian cancer. Or a letter from a 27-year-old woman named Betsy, who had a Stage I germ cell tumor when she was 17 and went on to have two kids. Because if the cancer was detected early and hadn’t spread, the cure rate was 95%.

But eventually the fear tightly coiled around me like a snake, and for several minutes I was sucking in air like a constricted animal. I was grateful that my baby sister didn’t have Web access at the hospital, because the Internet was fucking evil.

Lying there in bed, I continued praying. From the moment I left the hospital, I found myself saying, "Please God, don’t let it be cancer." Over and over again. While eating dinner. While on the Internet. And now. My barely Christian ass was like the Rain Man of prayer.

But you gotta figure, the guy probably hears that all the time from everyone all over the world. Wouldn’t be surprised if he started zoning it out. So I said something different this time…

ME: Listen, I’ll make you a deal. You spare my sister from cancer, and you can give it to me.

GOD: Give you ovarian cancer?

ME: Very funny. No I’m being serious. You can’t do this to her, she’s too young. I’ve lived a pretty good life, I think you should trade.

GOD: Sorry bud, but I don’t make deals. That’s more Mr. Satan’s modus operandi. How’d you think that Anna Nicole chick got her TV show?

ME: Oh c’mon. You know I can’t go to Satan. My mom would kill me. There’s got to be some other way…

GOD: Just keep praying.

ME: Are you serious? But sometimes I get the feeling that this whole praying business is more therapeutic than anything. You’re telling me it actually works?

GOD: Trust me on this one. Keep praying.