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Host spent more than a year trying to figure out the source of pain that began during her third pregnancy, but no one in her Boulder, CO, medical community seemed on a track that made sense to her. Scans, X-rays, blood tests, and trips to Minnesota's famed Mayo Clinic finally brought it all into focus: cancer. Host's slow-growing yet rare and generally lethal carcinoid tumors were treated via a lengthy surgery. She describes her ordeal as being in a boat caught up in a rushing river, constantly being tossed about and pulled under. A writer by trade, Host continues her river metaphor throughout and as such brings her trial to readers' consciousness and recognition. With her youngest child now five, Host is still at the oar, still working vigilantly to stay afloat. A beautifully written memoir for all audiences. (Host will be featured in a panel of first-time authors at the 2009 American Library Association conference in Chicago.)
Hardly any other word leaves us as numb or as frozen in time as cancer. That six-letter word, paired with the phrase "you have" is like being emotionally trampled by elephants. It's been a year and a half since those words were directed to me. Also, it's been a lifetime.
So this is the beginning of my journey with cancer. That single word took a split second to change my life and a lot longer to write in that last sentence, the writer in me too afraid to put the word cancer on paper, for fear that seeing it in my own handwriting might make the humming in my head even more real.
Oncologist is a captivating word that tumbles carelessly out of our mouths until we are using it in regard to our own situation. Then we finally meet the oncologist whose job it is to deliver the most frightening news and who, in so doing, instantly becomes the grim reaper. This doctor is the first person on the scene who we know we don't want to see again but to whom we are going to become intimately tied. This is the person you run from in your nightmare, the one who keeps showing up at every turn with a disturbingly calm demeanor.
Tumor board? Who coined the term tumor board, I wonder? But what othertitle couldbe assignedto the group of oncologists andradiolo-gists who meet to evaluate your medical case? They sort through all of your various scans, X-rays, blood work and tests, and then collectively decide the course of treatment that should be proposed to you, the patient.
They "stage" your cancer and then they write the script, the script in which you are billed as the main character. They hand it over to that guy you keep running from in the nightmare. He will show up at the head of the table in his conference room. This room has a ceiling that is too low and getting lower every minute. The thick medical reference books and journals are packed too tightly on the crammed bookshelves at one end. There are windows on both sides of the room, but they don't open. Half of them separate you from the hall of the clinic, and the other half allow you a treetop view. You notice all of this while you wait for him to say something. He taps the stack of paper like a deck of cards, making sure the edges are neat. This will be his only prop and will also serve as his silent defense against your certain denial.
He already knows how to deliver the lines. He's had a lot of practice. This makes you like him less. He's the kid in fifth grade who sits in front of you and has done all of his homework. Yet because he sits up so nice and straight, he protects you from the teacher's scanning eyes. Ironically, he will now protect you again.
He knows a lot more than you do about the condition of your body, and this is disturbing beyond words. Because he's spent so many years in medical school, and so many more actually being a doctor, he has learned to dish this up on one of those compartmentalized trays, keeping the parts separate while still putting it all on your plate.
He will begin to recite directly from your medical file. You will wish he would stop and say, "My mistake, this isn't you. You can go now," but he doesn't. He will turn a page and lift his chin slightly, slowly breathing in through his nose and looking up at you appraisingly. He is checking to see if your bags are packed for the trip he is about to send you on. You pretend to be looking in his eyes. Actually you are staring at the mountains in the distance, reflected in the excruciatingly clean lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses. Just like that, you have stepped onto the platform and are heading toward the train you are about to board. You will hear the ticking of your watch, even though it's digital.
A nurse wearing a happy-puppy shirt will walk by the other side of the glass window, her stethoscope draped around her neck, her clipboard in hand. She does not look your way, because she already knows what you are doing here. She's the person in that same nightmare to whom you keep shouting for help, but she can't hear you. She is on the other side of the glass, on her way to someone in more immediate need. She will see you later.
The oncologist continues to read the lines in front of him. " the octreotide scans lit up in these areas the bulkof the carcinoidis there are metastases to the liver tumor onthe left lung it has completely covered the omentum wall and the peritoneum " Wait! Stop! I can't breathe.
I consider myself a word person and there are already three words that I don't understand. Each probably has a whole textbook to define it. I keep looking out the hallway window for the nurse in the puppy shirt to save me. He stops reading. He is finished describing you in the medical terms that the tumor board has agreed upon. You realize that a description this big and complex took a group of doctors to write. You want to hit delete and go back to the old description of yourself, the one without the medical terms mixed in. You can't. He is waiting for you to say something. You can tell this because he has set down his script in a neat stack and his back has now come in contact with the rest of his chair. He has far too much compassion in his eyes. He is not going away. He waits. You are speechless.
He asks my husband and me if we have any questions. We have, but we only ask those with answers we think we can swallow without choking. "Which surgeon do you recommend?.How did this start? What is a low-fiber diet?" We leave.
Without exchanging a word, my husband and I take the elevator down three floors and walk out. I know that my legs are there, but I can't feel them. I move my body forward, down the eight steps to the sidewalk. My senses are smacked by the crisp November air. I want to take in a deep breath, but find I am only taking shallow sips. The familiar scent of the coming snow in the mountain air, full of pine, is suddenly too bold and full of life for me to bear.
My eyes well up at all the questions still running through my head that we didn't ask. "How long do I have? Will I have Thanksgiving in my sister's cabin, orwill Ibetoo sickto make the four-hour drive? Will I miss the baby's first birthday, December I7? Will I make it home for Christmas with the kids? Will I make it through the surgery?"
Having been told that I should have the surgery immediately is more than enough information on how fast this train is moving. We find we are holding hands, my mitten in the clasp of his glove, walking silently toward St. John's Church on Pine Street. For my problem, I figure that I probably need the big church but it's locked, so we naturally cross the courtyard to the chapel. I'm grateful to enter the dim light and for the wooden pew that holds the five tons of lead that have filled my body.
My gaze is resting on the stone floor, the colors from the stained-glass strewn unevenly across it. I let the tears come. I just sit there and cry. I'm crying in a way that I don't recognize. At forty, these are tears that are coming from somewhere I don't feel ready to know about. My husband cries right beside me. I've never heard such sadness emerge from him before. We hold on to each other as only two people who might be separated forever do.
You will hear the wind for the first time, as you never have before.
Hear it whipping around outside of the chapel. Hear its delicate whistle through the highest branches. You will hear those branches click and rattle softly. Through tear-rimmed eyes, you will notice its cold breath whispering in under the heavy wooden doors, stirring a dried and dead autumn leaf into a slow dance across the vestibule.
Time passes. How much, I'm not certain. I stand and walk to the candles in their rows. Some are lit—each, I imagine, with a whispered prayer. The wooden matches tremble in their box under my shaking hand. I take one out and light three candles, one for each of my children.
The sound of my own fear, a noise which I have never heard before, arises from deep within, shaking my body with all the possibilities of loss. The sound of a mother sobbing at the threat of being taken from her children, the most unbearable sound in the world, reduces me to stone.
Thank you for this chapel where I can fall apart. Help me find my way through this maze. Please don't take me from my children. They need me. I want to see my baby grow up. I'm not ready to let go of his little hand. Help me, please, I'm so afraid. I'm so heartbroken.
This might be the first time you find yourself praying. You may wonder to whom you are praying, or you might already know. Either way, you might become more familiar with this part of yourself as the train departs. You will mentally wave goodbye to loved ones as it slowly chugs out of the station. The people you love can't come with you. You will have to ride this train by yourself. You know this, and you are so scared that you can feel every nerve standing at attention. You are acutely aware that this is your train.
Then you turn to take your seat on that train and you are relieved to find that there are others, lots of others who are already here. Their knowing glances tell you that you'll have company for the ride. This may be the single most important thing to know during your journey. You may be scared, but you are not alone.* * *
Cancer is like that. At first, you can't believe thatyou are in the waiting room of a cancer center. It's not like the waiting room anywhere else, because all of these people are in some way affected by cancer. You don't want to be one of these people. You don't want to believe this. It's the person next to you in that waiting room, looking like he is doing well, who helps you see thefirstpiece of tangible evidence that there are people who survive this. One moment you are spiraling down, sure that you are utterly alone, and then circumstances reveal that you are not. This is where hope comes and puts an arm around you.
Once on the train, you might reflect on how you first arrived at the station. Each of us approaches the station in a different way. This is how I showed up. It is the quintessential October day in Boulder, Colorado: a dazzling blue sky, autumn at the peak of her glory, a nip in the air. Suddenly, during lunch with my friend Kirsten, the pain that had launched me into the emergency room in agony exactly one year before comes creeping back into my stomach. I'm setting my fork down after the first bite. I know this pain. I know right where it started and where it will end up.
My friend is multitasking. She is catching me up on her recent trip to New York to find a showroom for her jewelry line, filling me in on her latest love interest, and taking a few calls on her cell phone. She looks effervescent compared to me.
I observe her animated energy in amazement, thinking that I don't know how she keeps up with herself. I'm also thinking this used to be me before I was pregnant with my third child: glowing, energetic, in shape, and able to whip any situation under control with one hand tied behind my back.
"I feel sick to my stomach," I'm saying. I know something is wrong. As soon as the pain begins to radiate around to my back, I push my plate across the table to join her side salad, positive that I cannot eat. Too busy to answer me, she answers her cell phone and begins to sample the delicious dish in front of her. I place an ear on her phone call, as she is motioning me to do, between a sip of her wine and a bite of my entree, a mischievous look in her eyes. I strain to focus on the distant voice coming over the line. Instead, I hear the loud one in my head, which is shouting, "This isn't about your lunch, and you are in trouble." She's finished the call and picking up where we left off.
"I wouldn't worry about it. We all hold our tension there." I hear her saying in the distance, her delayed reaction to the pain in my stomach. I want her to be right, but I know that this is different. With my seven-mile-stare straight over her shoulder, looking blankly at Walnut Street, I absently watch her take three more calls. I watch her gracefully polish off my asparagus omelet with hollan-daise as she spins a business deal with the person on the line. Since I am mentally answering the pain that is besieging me, I am actually grateful for her distraction. I am no longer present. We wrap up and pay the tab.
Driving up Broadway, I head home, popping Tums, hoping the pain will go away as suddenly as it appeared.
October 9, 2003
Just about eighteen hours later, at 5:30 a.m., this mysterious pain does just that: it vanishes without a trace. My husband and I are both delighted and relieved that I am suddenly fine after a long night. He leaves at 6:30 a.m. for work and ten minutes later I drive the kids down the road to meet the school bus at 6:45 a.m. A surprise awaits me back at home. No sooner do I step into the front hall than the pain which had totally vanished hits my abdomen like a prize-fighter. It knocks me to my knees, my ten-month-old baby still in my arms. I gently lay him down on the rug beneath us, turning my face away so as not to scare him with my contorted expression. I try to breathe.
I hear the phone ring once and stop. It's my neighbor, Sara, giving me the "one ring" to let me know she will be leaving for a run in five minutes with her two dogs if I want to join her; it's our usual morning routine. I consider trying to crawl to the kitchen to return her call and ask her for a ride to the hospital. Instead, I am immobilized by pain that is off the charts.
Posted October 7, 2009
Carrie Host shares her painful experience of living with cancer in her book, "Between Me and the River". Since my own mother is dealing with her second bout of cancer, I can truly relate with what Ms. Host has written. Her honest and heartrending story is an inspiration and I had to put the book down quite a few times because I could not read because of my tears. I recommend this book whole-heartedly.
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Posted August 13, 2009
To describe this book as a cancer memoir sells it short. It's beautiful literature, engaging philosophy, practical advice, and a character-driven story all in one. It may change your life. It will stay with you. Riveting. Touching. A memorable book you won't be able to put down.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 13, 2010
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Posted October 18, 2009
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