Until I was around 14 or so, my family and my dad’s sister’s family (including her parents-in-law) went to North Myrtle Beach together during the third week of July every summer. When they were in high school, my older cousins each brought a friend as well, so I remember several years when there were 13 to 15 of us in a three bedroom condo.
Every morning the living room was a minefield of air mattresses and snoring teenagers, and to this day, these weeks remain my favorite vacations ever. They’re probably the reason why I feel like a road trip feels incomplete without at least five or six people with me.
During these beach trips, my brother and I spent the majority of our days submerged in chlorinated water until our skin shriveled to the point where even a prune would be like, “Damn…” Attempts to keep us properly sunscreened proved futile, and our fair, freckled skin turned angry pink in just the first day. Eventually, mine settled into a reddish brown with extra freckles.
Sometimes we’d see other kids in the pool playing Marco Polo — a game that never interested me. Who wants to be the one kid standing alone, eyes closed, flailing about in desperation to tag someone else who stays just out of reach and then disappears only to pop up again behind him or beside him?
Just don’t get tagged, you might say. But sometimes you slip up. Perhaps you lose your footing on the bottom of the pool and fall within reach. Perhaps the “Marco” ends up being faster than you. Sometimes, getting tagged is just a matter of time.
I find the game as sick and twisted as Dad’s lymphoma. At the beginning of January, the doctors sent out all their Marco calls in the form of scans and tests and nothing answered, so they said Dad was in remission — except there was this pain that had started in his hip, like his sciatic nerve had started acting up.
Then the pain was in his back, and last Friday he ended up in the ER with a bunch of jackasses who had less compassion than a drill sergeant. Dad had an MRI, and despite not having done a spinal tap yet, one of the a-hole doctors swaggered over to him announced that the lymphoma had moved to his spine.
Unfortunately, the spinal tap did show lymphoma in his central nervous system, in the blood-bone barrier — a hiding place that would not have shown up on any scan or bone marrow test. Polo…
The Leukemia and Lymphoma society predicted that almost 70,000 Americans would be diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2013. For ease of math, (which I’ll still be doing with a calculator because… English major) we’ll say 70,000. Of those 70,000, five to ten percent will receive a diagnosis of mantle cell lymphoma, the type of lymphoma Dad has. Some statistics say it’s closer to four to six percent, but let’s be generous and say it’s ten percent.
Then 7,000 people should have gotten the mantle cell lymphoma diagnosis. Of these 7,000, LESS THAN FOUR PERCENT of them will have their lymphoma move to their central nervous system. We’ll be generous again and give it an even four percent calculation, which equals 280. Two hundred and eighty people will wind up with their lymphoma moving to their central nervous system, and Dad is one of them. How sick and twisted is that?
If my advanced math skills hadn’t vanished after my first semester of college or if I had the patience, I might try and figure what the odds of this occurrence would be, but I’m not attempting those calculations because they don’t do anything to change our new reality.
The new reality is that he has to have weekly chemo shots into his spine along with a daily dose of a new drug approved by the FDA in November. The new reality is that the doctor is not as optimistic about remission; however, this new drug in its trials reduced or eradicated the cancer in 66 percent of the participants.
While we knew the chance of relapse was present, we hoped that we’d have more time to enjoy the good news. Instead, the road has narrowed and lengthened and developed potholes that make this nightmare of a journey tougher to handle.
However, Thursday morning as I sat and listened to the TV on ESPN at work, I heard Curt Schilling’s statement regarding his cancer announcement, and despite talk of him being the occasional a-hole himself1, I found comfort in the following statement:
Tough times don’t last, tough people do.
And if there’s anyone who’s tough enough to outlast this lymphoma (or a rousing game of Marco Polo), it’s my dad.
1 — With the exception of the Atlanta Braves in the early ’90s, I’ve never been a huge MLB follower.