Thursday, April 21, 2016

Carry on Baggage

The airplane was crowded.

Travel out of Newwark was complicated by a fire in the B terminal the night before and snowfall in the midwest.  I patiently worked my way through the plane, locating my seat by the window.  As I settled in and pulled out my book, the man next to me inquired if I often traveled on American Airlines.  He was looking for a way to plug in his phone.  My companion proved to be quite chatty, unusual in an age when most travelers bury themselves in their electronics. Maybe this interaction was fueled by desperation, stemming from his dead electronic.

My head was full, traveling last minute to surprise Gabby for her birthday.  Her friends had organized a dinner in the city after she met with Intervention Radiology at MSKCC, to map out her next biopsy. She battles stage 4 breast cancer and as a mutant, there was suspicion for lymphoma in addition to metastatic breast cancer. Double primary is a tough road, one that Brent has flirted with. It is a daunting path that other friends of mine have been on, and successfully navigated.  But it is sure nice to have company.  

The mutants came for me in January, when Brent first relapsed.  I am glad to be the friend who shows up for once.  So many of my relationships feel lopsided lately. I always seem to be the one needing support.  Cancer will do this I suppose, but within the mutant community, it somehow feels more balanced.

I tried to have a normal conversation with my fellow traveler, which takes cancer off of the table for a subject.  I found this to be more difficult than I imagined over the two hour flight.  I have not been in 'polite society' for some time.  Answering simple questions has become difficult, and speaking without mentioning cancer now boarders on dishonest.

What brings you to NYC?  "I was visiting a friend for her birthday."  This doesn't begin to explain how wonderful it was to surprise Gabby.  It doesn't address how much I needed to step away from the madness of pediatric hospital life, and pour out my soul to folks that really truly understand. It was a last minute decision which was only possible because my son's PET MRI and bone marrow biopsy were mostly clear.

Do you work?   No.  (My new answer will be:  "I am a project manager working with physicians, researchers and others within the medical industry."  I will be sure to mention that I do this work pro-bono)

Newark/La Guardia/JFK?  It was awkward to indicate that I usually fly into Teeterboro or White Plains (which are small, corporate airports) when I travel to NYC.  I had just indicated that I do not work.  Angel Flight is a wonderful and generous organization that provided our travel for Brent's care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. I was trying not to mention cancer.  I recognized that I was not making sense to this man.

We chatted almost exclusively about parenting, and my oldest son who is going off to college next year.  I became uncomfortably aware that increasingly, it sounded like I had a favorite child. "You have raised a son that you have reason to be proud of."  I am proud of all of my kids, but without mentioning cancer, half of them are really tough to talk about.

As we touched down in Chicago, I turned on my phone.  I saw a posting from a mutant friend who is in a clinical trial in Europe.  She has a similar tumor to the kind that Lauren has.  After being desperately ill last summer, spending over a week in a coma, my friend rallied and entered a clinical trial. She failed on her first one but entered a second trial. I read her happy news, that both of her brain tumors are shrinking.

I looked out the airplane window as we taxied and wept, not just for my friend, but for my daughter. I find comfort reading about new treatments which are more effective and less toxic, hoping to never need them. We are currently looking at a surgical trial for Lauren, using glowing tumor paint, derived from scorpion venom. For real.

They announced that our flight would be delayed for fifteen minutes more on the tarmac. Unable to contain myself any longer, I turned to my new friend Frank and shared the encouraging news from Europe, and in a thumbnail, how it relates to my other children.  As we finally parted ways in the terminal, I hugged this bewildered stranger, who promised to pray for my family.

At the end of the day, I suppose that if I am going to make sense to people at all, I will have to talk about cancer, even in polite company.  Like it or not, it has become part of who I am.


  1. I know how you feel. Once cancer enters the story it is hard to relate to polite conversation. I like the project manager answer. I hope that it works for you.

  2. I suppose at some point, you just want to hear the I'm sorry's anymore. I have been traveling a cancer journey with a friend, and although it is not my personal or family journey, it is hard not to feel a part of it. She, my friend, was diagnosed a little over a year ago with stage 4 breast cancer, lung cancer, bone cancer, brain cancer and it is also in her lymph glands. Now I understand that it started in her breast, so they consider it breast cancer. She also has genetic markers. Her mother as well as a few aunts have battled and lost to this disease. But one year later, Nancy {my friend} is in remission, and all of the tumors are shrinking. I think it is important to say that she has not had chemo in almost 6 mos and they are still shrinking. I pray that you find success in your treatments, and that you will find some normal conversation. God bless you and your family

    1. My apologies - in the first sentence I meant to say DON'T want to hear the I'm sorry's....