Marco Polo and Cancer Can Bite Me

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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.

swimming poolDuring 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.

Who asked for a barf bag? I didn’t ask for a barf bag.

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From The Daily Post

Long before I made it out of elementary school, I rode a rinky dink kiddie roller coaster at a shady amusement park in North Myrtle Beach. My brother and I both rode it together actually. The coaster, which was a first for both of us, could not have been much longer than a 100-foot oval, and it had its share of ups and downs but we were determined to ride. So my parents shelled over the money (or tickets… it was a long time ago), and a sketchy ride operator latched us side-by-side onto the metal seat and then threw the lever to send us round and round.

And just like the song by Ratt, I did not find it a rockin’ experience. In fact, I was terrified and spent the entire time screaming at a level that would have banshees covering their ears. My brother, on the other hand, held up a solitary index finger every time we passed the ride operator — asking for one more lap.

nauseaMy relationship with amusement park rides never really improved, although I actually had more luck with contraptions that seemed the least safe. I had no problems circling up to oxygen depriving heights on a ferris wheel or being slung around in circles tethered by just two chains on the swings, but if anything dropped me by more than a few feet, my stomach was like, “Everything. Must. Go. Right now.”

Fast forward to July 2004, when my 32-year-old self stepped onto an airplane for the first time. The Husband and I were flying to Chicago so I could go to the Pampered Chef National Convention. When I purchased the tickets, I made sure I got a nonstop flight. Since motion sickness is my destiny, I damn sure wasn’t going to go through it more than once in one morning.

Because the flight went directly from Greenville-Spartanburg to O’Hare, the plane had only 50 seats — 12 rows of 4 seats and a 13th half row with 2 seats next to the bathroom. On the online diagram, I chose seats closer to the middle. A couple of weeks before the flight while talking to my parents about the trip, I told them about my seat selection. Dad says, “Now, Carla, don’t stress yourself out worrying that the plane is going to crash.”

“I’m not worrying about that, Dad,” I said.

“Of course, if it does crash, they say you should…”

That father of mine… Ever the optimist.

On the morning of the flight, I skipped breakfast on purpose, not knowing how my digestive system would react to a rapid incline to several thousand feet. Mom drove us to the airport. We checked in, and even though I chose seats in the middle, something about us apparently screamed, “Let’s put this couple in the very back row.” Because that’s what they did. There we were in lucky row 13, right next to the lavatory. Awesome…

For those of you who have never flown and therefore don’t know what it’s like to experience the joy of riding in the back of a plane, let me tell you that there is no joy to experience. It’s pretty much like riding in the back of the school bus, every dip, wobble, and turn is magnified — so… yay!

But I didn’t know that before takeoff. We got settled in our seats. The Husband gave me the window seat. (Pause for “awwww”s) And then, upon seeing there were no barf bags tucked into the seats in front of us, he asked our flight attendant where the motion sickness bags were.

A blend of perfume, aftershave, and hair products greeted me as the air generated from 48 other heads whipping around made its way to the back of the plane. If I were able to hear others’ thoughts, I’m sure the “Oh shit, we’ve got a puker on the plane!” would have been deafening.

The flight attendant reached into the overhead compartment and handed us two barf bags, and The Husband said, “I mean, she’s never flown, so I wanted to get one just in case.” Our flight attendant gave us a smile that said, “Sure, I’m just gonna go up to the front of the plane and avoid this row until at least halfway through the flight.”

I definitely don’t begrudge The Husband for having the forethought to get the bags before takeoff. It’s just that no one really wants to be one of THOSE PEOPLE — the parent with screaming kids, the self-centered asshole, the person with motion sickness. No one wants to be the person who makes fellow travelers get off the plane and tell their friends later, “You would not BELIEVE the person on the plane with me today/this week/last month/this one time.” That’s just not the impression one wants to leave.

Thankfully, despite being in the last row and experiencing every bump with extra feeling, I never even reached for the barf bag.

But two months later, a quirky, little show called Lost premiered, and as we watched the crash scene, I looked at The Husband and said, “You better be glad we’ve already gone to Chicago, because I would be in the office right now canceling our reservations.”

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Another reason to avoid the back of the plane…