Mr. Chatterbox

By staff December 1, 2004

The most awful thing has happened. I got cancer! Well, not really cancer. It's more like skin cancer, and the survival rate is something like 105%, but still . . . I haven't been this upset since my hair plugs fell out.

And it was discovered in the strangest way, through vanity. There I was at the plastic surgeon's, pricing cosmetic procedures.

I was pondering which of my many blemishes and imperfections to get rid of first when I pointed to a little tiny white dot about the size of the period at the end of my sentence. It was really bugging me. I would pick it off and it would always reappear. How much? I asked. The doctor stared at it. Then he switched to another position and stared at it some more. "Maybe we should get this biopsied," he said at last. "Does that cost extra?" I asked.

I was so unconcerned about this matter that when the doctor called a couple of days later I had trouble remembering exactly who he was. Then he told me the news. I had squamous cell skin cancer, and unfortunately squamous cell was not the one that everyone got (basal cell); it was the one in the middle, the one before melanoma, the real bad one. Squamous cells spread and do all sorts of terrible things. Once it gets in those lymph nodes . . .

I thought I handled it pretty well. Never once did I ask, "Why me?" I knew exactly why me. I had never worn a hat in my life. Sun block was a product unknown to me. I have lived in Florida 20 years, and my parents had the gall to raise me in the tropics to begin with. And if you look inside my genes you'll see too much Northern blood, including a strong strain of Lapp. As far as risk factors go, I should have been dead long ago. Why me, indeed.

I was scheduled for Mohs surgery, named after a Dr. Mohs, which I had never heard of before but which turns out to be the best way to handle what the doctor was calling, rather tactlessly, I felt, "a tumor of this sort." Dr. Mohs should also be writing suspense thrillers, as his surgery guarantees mounting life-or-death suspense. The gimmick is that they remove "it," then take it in the next room and biopsy "it," and if they're not positive they got "it" all, they go back and do it again. They have gone back as many as eight times; and doesn't it seem to you that the fewer times they have to go back, the higher your survival rate is going to be? It sure seemed that way to me.

They give you a little booklet so you know just what is going to happen; but still, there are a couple of things the booklet doesn't tell you. Like, "bring a pocket flask of martinis." The first time they do the procedure is no problem. They draw a little diagram on your forehead, give you various local anesthetics, then do something with a knife that you thankfully can't see.

Then, with a bandage over your head, you go and sit in the waiting room. The other people there are undergoing some similar procedure or waiting with someone who is; and I must say it is touching to see those elderly Sarasota couples one sees in doctors' waiting rooms, the well one taking care of the sick one, although the word "well" is a very relative term here. You really begin to appreciate that "til death do us part" section of the wedding vows.

An air of quiet despair fills the room. How many times? Will I be one of the lucky ones, who doesn't have to go back at all because my cancer is so tiny and insignificant that they got it all the first try? Or will I be one of the others? Like that old man who's been here all morning, his bandage getting progressively larger-

The nurse appeared in the doorway and called my name. I followed her down twisting corridors to the little room. My glance fell on a tray of surgical instruments, brand-new fresh ones just laid out, plus the little plastic dish for the malignancy; and my heart sank. Oh, well. I must be brave, I told myself.

In fact, from then on I became very quiet indeed. I went back to the waiting room. Everybody had gone. Even the old man had gone. Oh, God. Was I the new old man? I picked up a SARASOTA magazine to distract myself. There was my column. How silly it seemed now. How trivial. On the other hand, it did provide me with catastrophic health insurance. I hugged the magazine to my breast.

The nurse appeared. Once again I followed her. It was like walking in slow motion. The fluorescent lights glowed with unnatural brightness, and the voices and sounds seemed to be coming from far, far away. She led me to the little room. I entered and the first thing I saw was a fresh set of instruments. I began to hyperventilate. No, no, I kept thinking. This can't be happening.

"Whoops, I put you in the wrong room," the nurse said. I followed her next door. There were no instruments, no instruments at all. My knees grew rubbery and I said a prayer of thanks.

Well, that's almost the end of the story. The rest has to do with the reconstruction of my face. It turns out that the dermatologist doesn't do this; you have to go back to the plastic surgeon. He pulled off the bandage and oohed and aahed over what a good job the other doctor had done and asked me if I wanted to see. Sure, I said, so I looked in the mirror and screamed. There, right in the middle of my forehead, was what looked exactly like a bullet hole-perfectly round and quite deep, and you could see all sorts of tissue and blood. It was like looking at an autopsy photo of yourself after you'd been shot in the head.

But the doctor did a wonderful job of cauterizing it and sewing it up, although the smell of human flesh was a little distracting. One of the side effects of the surgery is that I've ended up with a mini face lift, and my right eye has a tautness and a youthfulness that it hasn't had since my college days, Unfortunately my left eye looks the same as it did last month, but the doctor says that in no time at all the right will start to sag and then I'll look just like I used to.

As you all know, I'm a very private person; and for me to go public with something like this is quite out of character. But I figure if I can save just one other person, then it will all be worth it. So please-pass the sun block.

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