WRITTEN BY JOHN
No one is exactly sure how cancer came to be named. But, as with most things Western-medical, it is supposed to have originated with Hippocrates. Hippocrates apparently called the disease karkinos, the Greek word for “crab,” because of the crab-like tenacity of the tumor, the pain these masses caused (like the pinch of a crab), and the tumor’s hard, shell-like consistency. Later on the Roman-era Greek doctor Galen Romanized the name to “cancer” and speculated it was called that because of the crab-like shape of tumors he saw in his practice.
But crab also has taken on yet another meaning in our culture: orneriness. And—in spite of all the other cancer happenings—that is actually the meaning that’s been predominant in our household this summer. Sure, Nina’s got metastatic cancer, but she’s a whole lot less crabby than Benny, who is striving hard to achieve new levels of irritability and vernal indolence. In other words: don’t ask him to do anything if you don’t want to see The Crab!
The kid comes by his crabbiness honestly. He was born on July 13th, right in the heart of the zodiac sign of, you guessed it: Cancer. The other day we were reading horoscope typologies and one of the websites I visited generously described Benny’s temperament as “changeable and moody, overemotional and touchy, clinging and unable to let go.” I might have added “irrational, unhinged, and demanding,” but yeah, something like that. Let’s just say it suits him.
Summer is hard. It’s hard for kids, who have to adjust to a totally new schedule and paradigm. It’s hard for adults, who have to deal with kids who are not in school and acting like it. And this summer has been even harder than some. Nina has been in and out of radiation treatment. Before the summer, we were teetering on the edge of a relatively restful cancerous state, but, as with all things cancer, ultimately restive. And then there was cancer again, burrowing its crustaceous little claws into her hips, where she’s got tumors in both iliac bones. It’s been a weird time. Neither here nor there. Not long term treatment plan has taken shape yet, but there’s a vague allure of clinical trials. No major interventions (surgeries, chemo) but heavy duty radiation and the side effects of that, plus the cumulative wear and tear of cancer and life with cancer.
Then, just the other day, a familiar twinge. Like reaching into the shallow part of a summer beach where the water and sand are inextricable and feeling the sharp reminder that this is not just a place to play. Hermit crabs, green crabs, and lot of other pinchy creatures make that silty area their home. This time it’s pain in the back. Not where Nina previously broke her vertabra (the L2, we’ve become spinal experts!), but the spot her doctors had previously identified as “maybe something/maybe nothing” that we were waiting and seeing about. It’s near her T12, still the lower back but higher up.
Nina has developed an uncanny ability to know exactly where her cancer has gone. She knew she had a lump in her breast even when imaging could barely discern it. She knew she had a tumor in her back when it was still confounding x-rays and doctors alike. She had identified the very place where the cancer was in her hip while her doctor was still puzzling over whether or not it was worth doing additional imaging in that area. So when she homed in, pincer like, on the T12, I guess we both knew we had to go have it checked out. But we still called Duke to make sure we weren’t rushing off to the ER for nothing. The triage line at Duke has become a sort of oceanic sink hole for Nina. She calls. She waits. Sometimes they call back. Sometimes they don’t. But this time, the nurse listens eagerly, responds quite quickly that Nina’s oncologist, wants her to go to the ER stat.
We do. I leave work, we load the kids into the car. We have decided to go to the local ER, avoiding the time consuming and more exhausting trek to Durham. The triage nurse enthusiastically endorsed this idea. It pays dividends. Nina gets through the ER process in Greensboro in record time. The doctor is very kind and has a sort of general existential lassitude that’s somehow comforting. Like he’s been giving people bad news that they’re expecting for a long time. He examines her, sends her for imaging. Comes back and tells us the MRI shows that there’s a tumor at the T12, right in the very spot where she said she was hurting.
So now we have to wait and follow up with Duke. Nina will likely do additional radiation sooner rather than later, for both her other hip (the left one was treated, but not the right) and the new spot on her spine. They were already planning to restage her and maybe trying to get her into an immunotherapy trial. That should all be clearer in a week, when she sees the oncologist. No idea where this puts us. Does Nina stop working? Spend every second doing only exactly what she wants or must do? Do I take time off from work? Can we travel? How much time do we have? What will it be like? And the million other questions that I know I’m not supposed to be asking (live in the moment has never been my strong suit). Blargh.
When we leave the ER, we collect the boys from Pete, who’s probably taken care of them more than we have this summer. Benny wouldn’t eat anything in his stir fry except the meat. Carefully picking out green onions, fried rice, and veggies, Pete reports. We get home. Benny lies and says he’s brushed his teeth, then later forgets the lie and says he can’t find his toothbrush. He fights with his brother over Pokemon. He fights with us about being quiet at bedtime, about changing into clean underwear, about teeth brushing again. Every step forward is a step back, or maybe sideways. We put on some Scandanvian TV and try to fall asleep. No one sleeps. Nina’s in pain and emotionally overwrought. I have low blood sugar and am emotionally dysfunctional. Freddy has a restless night and is up several times. Except Benny. He sleeps the whole night through and wakes up as intransigent and uncooperative as ever. He refuses to clear his cereal bowl, then drops it while shuffling awkwardly across the kitchen carrying too many things. He angrily, reluctantly agrees to brush his teeth (Again?!!! I just did it last night!!!).
But he also comes in and out of our room several times, with an utter lack of sheepishness given his awful behavior moments before that may be unique to him and a special breed of sociopath, just to tell us (and particularly Nina, who is unequivocally the astrological, cosmological, and ontological center of his world) how nuzzly we are and how much he loves us, and, oh by the way did we know that the Pokemon Rhyperior has both lightening rod and solid rock abilities? Then he wants a cuddle. He sidles up to Nina’s side of the bed, squeezes himself up against her while continuing unabated with another Pokemon peroration (there is no oration, just an endless stream of discursive introduction into the world of Pokemon) and enjoys the fruits of summer vacation: no firm bedtime, unlimited Pokemon, and a mother who adores him despite his sometimes hard outer shell, pincers and distasteful, nipping behavior. I have to admit, it’s pretty adorable. Like the bath temperature water on the littoral, it makes the shoreline exploration worth the risk of crab bites. Benny. The Crab. This is our summer.