My Cancer Summer

The following 1500-word essay will be read by 22 high school students from Western Washington this Friday as part of the Young Writers Workshop of the Puget Sound Writers Project at the University of Washington, as a springboard for discussion and an essay writing exercise.

My Cancer Summer

I can remember Doctor Lisa firmly closing the door behind her as she stepped back into the small consulting room where I was waiting. She seemed to be looking for a pen somewhere behind me. Then I noticed that her eyes were red and wet.

That was my first clue that my life was about to change.

I couldn’t identify the cause of her emotion, because doctors never show emotion, because her emotion couldn’t possibly be linked to me. After all, I’d come in to check on nothing more serious than a persistent tummy ache. I probably just needed a new digestive aid.

The clinic was right across the street from the bookstore where I worked. Making an appointment was easy. Most of the personnel there were bookstore customers. Dr Lisa was a real book-lover. I’d been patiently waiting for her, sitting on the end of an examining table in a skinny, cramped room somewhere in the maze of Hall Health Center. Now she’d come back from the radiologist downstairs, and appeared to be upset.

 “There’s a dark ring around your intestine and I’m very concerned about it,” she told me with urgent sincerity. I don’t remember much more. I went emotionally numb while her mouth continued to move.

I left the office in a daze. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon. I sat on a stone bench behind the building, trying to believe what I’d just been told. I had cancer of the colon. Our family did not get cancer. We had no history of cancer.

Now we did.

My family immediately stepped up to the plate. My parents drove me to appointment after appointment. My estranged brother came to my rescue and paid my swelling medical bills. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the result of the colonoscopy turned out negative. Whatever the dark ring was, it wasn’t cancerous. Another venture into my colon for more biopsies gave the same result. Apparently it wasn’t cancer, but it didn’t seem to be getting any better.

I became sicker and sicker. When I became so dehydrated and weak that I couldn’t get out of bed, I was admitted to the emergency room at University Hospital for nine hours in hell. That was the beginning a four-day stay in which I slowly came back to life. Antibiotics tortured my bowels into agony. When I was finally able to sit up without pain, I had only one thought in mind: how to get home to my cat.

Finally I convinced the doctors I could be an out-patient. They signed my release. I was free. I’d had the most awful scare of my life, but I had survived. No cancer! No cancer! As my parents drove me home from the hospital that glorious August afternoon, the world seemed good again. I had escaped the most devastating sickness I’d ever experienced. I was getting stronger by the hour.

A week later, I was called back to University Hospital for a follow-up. Again my family gathered around me in the waiting room of the Digestive Disease Center. This time, however, when my name was called and my whole family rose to their feet, a nurse told them they would have to wait outside, that the doctor wanted to speak to me alone.

How unexpected! I’d heard the nurses call me “the one with the family.” This time not even my brother could accompany me to take notes.

Dr Tung set down my file and charts on the table. I was looking at the back of his white lab jacket. I noticed he had a very nice haircut. He’s a handsome man, but his face was turned away. He was avoiding looking me in the eyes. “Your test for HIV has come back positive.”

My reaction was a complete blank.

I was stupefied. It was the last thing I expected. I’d always practiced safe sex – well, I guess I actually hadn’t a couple weeks ago, but that was the only time. It couldn’t have just been that once. I couldn’t get a grip on it. Had the doctor pulled the wrong file? Someone inside me who still spoke logically piped up. “But the hospital tests for HIV were negative.”

“Those tests were for antibodies,” he explained. “The infection was so new your body hadn’t begun to make antibodies yet. This test was to measure your actual viral load. It was off the chart.”

I don’t remember anything after that. I remember nodding and agreeing with everything he said, even though it all seemed impossible.

I thought the drama was supposed to be over! This was supposed to be the hospital follow-up to a done deal. I’d never considered the possibility that this could be the beginning of anything. I mean, I was feeling better by the minute. I wanted my cancer summer to have a happy ending. But in one of life’s great ironies, while I was in the hospital for my non-cancerous gut ailment, what was really happening was that I was seroconverting.

The kingdom of HIV had just gained a surprised new citizen.

Unfortunately, I now had my entire family waiting for me in the lobby. I didn’t have long to digest my new situation. At the end of one very short hallway, my mother and father rose from their armchairs looking toward the opening door, my brother and his wife rose to their feet, my niece beside them, all gathered in the office lobby. I had no idea what I was going to say.

I just opened my mouth. The words came out, and then they knew.

They were almost as supportive as they’d been when my diagnosis was cancer. But something was slightly different. Less eye contact, maybe. Slowly I understood. Cancer has no guilt stigma attached to it. HIV does. HIV is almost always due to a moment’s sexual carelessness. Cancer, except for the chain smoker who won’t stop, is not choice driven. HIV is.

As we walked out across the Digestive Disease Center patio, my mother snapped back at me without looking, “You were careless!”

She was right. I had made an impulsive mistake. I thought it couldn’t happen to me. I was over-confident. I wasn’t afraid enough of HIV.

Soon I was well again. I got my strength back, and was working full days. Everything seemed to go back to the way it was.

HIV is no longer a death sentence. Today we have meds. I didn’t need any yet, but they were there for when I did. Sure, there’s the stigma of being HIV-positive, but that can only affect me if I open my big mouth. It doesn’t show. I look as healthy as ever. I know what’s safe and what isn’t safe. I won’t accidentally infect anyone.

Not until six months later did a friend’s sharp outburst of fear wake me up, and make me realize I had truly stepped across an unforgivable line. My wake-up call came in the produce department of a North Seattle QFC, with potatoes and onions on one side and bags of iceberg lettuce and spinach on the other.

I have no memory of what I could possibly have said. The topic must have involved passion, since I was clearly talking too fast and not taking the time to swallow. Because it wasn’t my words that were at issue. It was my delivery.

Now imagine here the face of a friend of over twenty years, clean-shaven, crewcut, pink-cheeked, pushing his two little blond daughters in a shopping cart, a loving father buying groceries, his lips curled back in irritated repulsion.

“Do you realize that you spray when you talk? You should be more careful, now that you have HIV.”

I went quietly into shock. I watched his two little blond daughters playing in the shopping cart. My friend stopped in front of the meat department, and asked what I’d like for dinner.

“You know it’s not transmitted that way, don’t you?” I offered quietly, not looking directly at him. “It dies in the air.”

“Not quickly enough,” he countered. “How about barbequed ribs?”

That was the beginning of these essays. That was the first time I realized the fear and misunderstanding that now exist between me and even the most educated of my friends. Writing these essays was my attempt to bridge the gap, to help all of you uninfected people understand those of us who have crossed that line. But writing has also been my therapy, a chance to take a good look at my life, putting into words what’s really there, what has really happened to me, what I really want, and what a happy and healthy life really means.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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