I’m being watched, tracked, followed. Prostate, thyroid, dry eyes. My heart and sludgy arteries, my deaf ear, (the hearing gone suddenly one winter morning when I was 49) and now the skin, the very architecture of my body –- the café-au-lait birthmark that maps the terrain of my left arm and chest, which has birthed two melanomas, the second one larger than the first.
It’s always on my left side that things go wrong — left eye (dry), left hip (shattered in a car accident when I was 5), left forearm (sliced deep in another childhood accident) and now a suspicious mole — one of many, but this one hidden, stealthy, the melanoma embedded in one of a hundred moles on that arm, layered on the birthmark that encircles my biceps and triceps.
After two rounds of melanoma 15 years apart, twice blessed as they were caught early by the same specialist, I lay face up in a long tube, the rectangular lens pressed in so close that I’m convinced it will bore into my face, shoulder, upper arm. The machine zaps and sputters, snapping pics, tracing potential pathways into my lymph nodes.
I hope to come up clear, to dodge another bullet despite my redhead’s complexion, my “Jewish-Irish” skin. Freckles I’d ignored until my early 40s morph, blend and darken. I do not trust the surface of my own body. My skin is too light, permeable, transparent, without the protective shell of coloration.
The left side is my history, a map of accidents, disease, a human jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces missing. I wear that history on my body. Meanwhile, my right side marches forward stoically as the left veers off course. I lurch this way and that and try to maintain my balance, to ignore the wear and tear of sixty years, to deny what my body is trying to tell me.
I am an antique, a 1957 Studebaker, long out of warranty, no longer in production. I need service, repair, a patch job. But the manufacturer makes no promises; many of my contemporaries are no longer on the road, replaced by newer, sleeker models with smooth skin, flawless bodies, shiny coats.
In my 20s, 35 seemed middle-aged, 45 almost elderly. Today, I’ve stretched the upper limit to 65, but now I’m pushing up against that glass ceiling, one I don’t want to shatter.
Still, it beats the alternative.
Living through a pandemic, there are constant reminders that life is tenuous, uncertain, not to be taken for granted. Those reminders gibe with this moment, when I find myself rolling toward the OR in Mass General Hospital’s Lunder Cancer Building for something called a “wide excision” of the melanoma, that tiny mole on my left arm –- which will leave me with a six-inch long scar, a snaky line –- and removal of several lymph nodes, to see if the cancer has spread inside my body.
I come through the surgery, emerging from the general anesthesia three hours after I went under, encased in gauze, numb. The next week is hazy, a blur, as I move gingerly from one room to the next in my apartment, relying on my good right arm to wash up, get dressed, feed the cat.
Before surgery, the oncologist tells me I have 90/10 odds –- just a 10% chance that the cancer has reached my lymph nodes. Still, I wonder how I would handle living with active cancer, of moving from Stage 1 to Stage 3, the countdown clock ticking ever louder in my bad ears.
A week later, I call his office to discuss my symptoms. The doctor is out of town, so I ask his nurse-practitioner when I might get my biopsy results.
“I’m looking at your report now,” she says. “It’s all good — your lymph nodes are clear.”
Four weeks post-surgery, my arm aches, blood has pooled inside my armpit, I have minor complications. A two-time skin cancer survivor, I must be vigilant –- another condition to watch.
Still, I’m alive and relatively healthy. That’s good enough for now.