Back when I was a new mom, I remember having a conversation with my husband’s grandmother about the days of yore, when her firstborn was just a baby. She recalled how Georgie liked to suck his thumb, which was considered the lowest of socially unacceptable behaviors in her day. She knew she needed to put an end to this bad habit, and pronto. The popular fix for thumb-sucking, back in 1927? Metal mittens. Metal mittens! Which kept Georgie’s digits out of his mouth, but also kept my future father-in-law from touching anything with his hands, from figuring out how his fingers worked, from crawling, from who knows what else? And yet, our matriarch harbored no qualms. “Oh, Georgie loved banging those metal mittens together. He made quite a little racket!” she told me, smiling at the memory.
That story always made me wonder what I was doing that would go down as crazy parenting in retrospect. Ferberizing, hmm…would that make me seem like a nutty mother of the 1990s? Truth be told, I was never good at leaving a crying child in a crib, but I did give my little ones plenty of opportunities to fall asleep on their own, without counting on me to be their transitional object. Probably my most flagrantly bad parenting choice was ignoring the just-gaining-traction evidence that a backward facing infant carseat in the front passenger side was a recipe for disaster. But then, I also remember pulling over to retrieve a pacifier from the back seat floor, and forgetting shift into park, and having the car start to roll away, with me outside and my second-born encased within. Keeping the baby and binkie within easy reach seemed like a safer tradeoff. I assured myself that whatever I was doing, it had to be less risky than my own early car-riding days, rolling around in the way-back of our family station wagons, breathing my mom’s second-hand cigarette smoke, and getting squished against the wheel well as we banked around the curves.
Lately I’ve having those same sorts of thoughts about my cancer treatment—thoughts around which elements of my current regime will seem utterly barbaric, a few years down the road. What am I doing in the name of modern medicine that will harken trips to the barber to get a tooth pulled, or applying leeches to cure the grippe? As I read about the future of switching the DNA makeup of cells, turning on and off genetic markers, and the discovery of methods for starving malignant tumors without damaging healthy tissue, I can only wonder—how many years too soon have I shown up for this party? How long before there will be cures that are matched and coded, to the slay the cancer and save the patient, simultaneously? Because the truth of the matter is that getting sliced open, and poisoned, and nuked…well, it all seems a bit old school, not much evolved from the treatments my younger sister got, thirty years ago. Okay, tweaked for sure, less lethal and with far fewer side effects, but still.
I know I’m being a bit of a crybaby here. What I’ve been through so far was a four-dose chemo cakewalk, spread out over two and a half months. I never threw up. I never even got a tummy ache. Worst problems I’ve encountered, beyond a general weariness, have been metallic mouth, a twitchy eyelid, and tingling fingers and toes. Not exactly lethal concerns. My sister had chemo—deadly doses of which could have knocked out an elephant—every single Monday, for six months. She had nausea, mouth sores, complete hair loss (I’m still sporting my comb-over, she even lost her eyelashes) and horrible downward spikes in her white blood counts. The cure could easily have killed her. It was a miracle that she withstood it, and a gift, that she lived as long as she did. It may have been barbaric, but it worked.
So, I’m working on the premise that what I’m going through is measured and reasonable. It’s the best plan available, given the imperfect nature of the information we have to go on. Adding chemo to my treatment plan would have been a best guess just a few years ago; today it’s at least a more carefully considered result of genetic testing, which revealed some evidence around whether what I’ve got would respond to the wonders of medical oncology. That said, my results were in the gray zone (might help, can’t be ruled out…) of the current oncotype testing. I’m told that in another year or so, that test will be more refined, with less gray space to fall into in the middle range. Again…too early to this party.
That’s the thing. Not only do none of us choose to show up at this shindig, we don’t get to decide when we start the do-si-do of treatment. Having arrived in the here and now, I count myself lucky on several counts. We found it early. I have good insurance. My kids are in college, not looking for rides to baseball practice or help with homework or sandwiches with the crusts cut off. My husband, bless him, is a hero at bringing home takeout meals and eating leftovers and emptying the dishwasher without being asked. My job right now is to heal myself. Do some reading, pull off the occasional writing project, divvy up the family Red Sox tickets, weigh in on my beloved’s course description draft, keep some bills paid, check in on some family members, keep a couple of charitable efforts afloat. The jobs I have, beyond getting better, are mostly a pleasant distraction from the job this blog is about.
Still, I’m hoping that before too long, what I’ve been through will be not just in my rearview mirror, but in everyone’s. Like iron lungs and chicken pox, slide rules and busy signals. All the way into the way-back machine, along with those horrid metal mittens.