avatarReuben Salsa


Colin — My Cancerous Friend

Image from Adobe Stock

It was your typical doctor's room.

In the corner sat an oversized desk, a behemoth of fake wood tethered to the defunct polar-white wall. It overflowed with important-looking documents and a scattering of family mementos. The odd pencil lay jettisoned to one side, lounging in a tray marked ‘urgent’. Her computer screen flashed intermittently as a red light blinked on her phone.

“Are you there, Bernice?” the Doctor questioned for the fifth time, waiting patiently for my wife to respond. She was away for work, in another city, and couldn’t attend a last-minute face-to-face with the Doc. My mobile, on speaker, was making a mockery of 21st-century technology.

“Yes, yes, please continue,” she stumbled, between sobs, bracing for imminent bad news — worse-case scenarios.

The receptionist had called me earlier in the day. “The Doctor would like to see you for a chat, can I fit you in after surgery.” I could tell by her tone that the chat was anything but friendly. Who gets a call from the doctor asking to see them, after hours, without an appointment? “You may want to bring some support,” she added. “Some support? That can’t be good,” I thought as I stalled for time politely asking if this could wait a week when my wife returned.

Five hours later, I sat opposite a forty-year-old woman with a serious scowl, left hand twirling a pen as she waited patiently for my wife to collect herself.

“The tests have confirmed this as cancer.”

The lump.

A cute little cherub delicately poised on the pinnacle of my face. I lovingly caressed the small mound and named it Colin. It was like a pregnant pause coming to life. A space that had materialized with unformed words. My small mound of weighted disbelief.

I silently watched as Coin grew, wondering, like all stereotyped males in bad 90s romcoms, whether I needed to see a doctor. I asked my wife for a second opinion. Now blessed with the survivor guilt of the ill-informed, she said to me, “Some people are just lumpy. I get lumps all the time,” and dismissed my concerns. To be fair, I didn’t have any concerns. Colin was mildly invasive—a despondent speck seeking a good time. He sat with indifference on my left side, below my ear, and above my jaw.

Months later we happened to be sitting together in the Doctor’s office. Me, the wife, and Colin. A thrupple with no lust or longing. Colin was an afterthought to our visit.

“What do you make of him, eh, the lump? Nothing to be ashamed of?”

“Best get that checked out,” the Doctor replied reaching for my neck. She squeezed around Colin. Pressing and urging the flesh to move. Running her hands around his bulging waist. “It may be cancerous.” Colin blushed.

It was my third double Mojito of the day. My watch stoically refused to budge into the afternoon. Sitting opposite was my Mum and sister eager to know how I was feeling.

“I’m fine. It’s no big deal. Colin is quite amicable once you get to know him.”

But Colin wasn’t making anyone happy. His one-party trick — consuming my face — threatened to derail any good-time vibes. His alarming speed of growth had all the women in my life concerned. My beard attempted to disguise Colin from the world. A natural shield of impenetrable hair greying with age, it certainly helped me to not think about my oversized friend.

It had been over a month since the diagnosis and five since Colin’s birth. My date for surgery was locked in but in the meantime, I was on holiday with the family on board a very large and imposing cruise ship. There was no stopping this boat. A last hurrah before the doom-laden reality of having to deal with a cancerous growth.

“I’m concerned,” cried my Mum, eyeballing Colin, “it’s changed color. It’s bigger.” She likes to make statements in threes. I sipped more alcohol and quietly contemplated another round at the buffet. It was edging closer to lunch and I wanted to beat the rush.

“Colin is fine.”

“Stop saying that. It’s not fine. You have cancer and we should never have boarded this stupid boat.” My wife’s survivor guilt resurfaced despite the fact I was anything but dead. She was still dealing with her poor advice regarding lumps.

By the time I rolled up for an oversized plate stuffed with food I couldn’t eat, I had lost track of two children, one book on the existential dread of 21st-century living, a double gin and tonic, a single slice of chocolate gateaux described by one passenger as a ‘heart-attack on a plate’ and had made three women cry. The morning couldn’t have gone any better.

How was I feeling?

It was a question I continuously asked myself. After the diagnosis, I went to my post-graduate school to inform them of my health. I would need time off for the operation. Time off for further treatment. Time off to deal with the reality of a critical condition.

In another nondescript office, my wife spoke for me. I was in too much shock to get the words out. My lips trembled and my eyes swelled. I could feel my whole world collapsing around me. I struggled to breathe, to say anything. The course leader was incredibly understanding. His wife had gone through breast cancer and survived. He understood what impact a cancer diagnosis has on a person’s mental health.

“Whatever you need. Whatever works for you,” he said, “Don’t hesitate to ask. Take your time, please, we are here for you.”

I met up with friends weeks before the cruise to tell them my news. I hoped I could normalize my condition by talking more about it. I burst into tears several times, leaking water into my coffee, and ugly-crying in public as my friends held my hands. No matter how often I spoke, cancer never became a normal part of my life.

When my Life Insurance paid out for ‘critical condition’, I told my wife what a joke that was.

“This isn’t critical. The survival rate for this type of cancer is very good,” I said with a smile on my face, “I’m not going to die.”

“No, Reuben. This is a critical condition. You can die from this.” She was ever the pragmatic one in the relationship. I’m the optimist or in this case, in complete denial of the nature of my illness.

The children shrugged. They were cool with it. They too had no full comprehension of what a cancer diagnosis truly meant. Unlike my Wife, Mum and Sister, who all Googled the worst-case scenarios, they chose to ignore the internet and continue to live a blissful life of childhood innocence.

I didn’t want to stress the children out. There was too much unknown. We all needed a holiday and the pre-planned, two-years-in-the-making cruise, felt like the perfect opportunity. I chose positivity and further denial.

Colin before I forcibly removed him from my face. Image by author.

The most reassuring conversation I had was with a student surgeon. He was covering for my surgeon who also elected to go on vacation at an inconvenient time. Colin smirked when he heard of the delay to the surgery.

Every five minutes the fill-in surgeon would answer his mobile, apologize about being on call and overworked, before leaving the cubby-hole office to respond to the call. It was hard to have a conversation when there was a pressing need to blurt everything out in five-minute bursts.

“Can we get support?” asked my wife.

“What for?” he replied, looking very confused.

“You know,” he didn’t, “for the cancer?”

He laughed. It was a derisive snort, the type of dismissive haughtiness lecturers would warn about when discussing how to build empathy with the patient. I found it very reassuring.

“No. I don’t think that would be necessary,” he said, as he slowly explained to my wife that counseling is reserved for terminal patients, “You know, people who have had a mastectomy or two months to live.” Not a routine clean and chop. “We see this type of cancer every day. It’s very routine. We simply go in and cut it out.”

We had time to process what he had said as he excused himself to answer yet another call. My overriding emotion was a calm embarrassment. “Routine chop,” I said to my wife with a performative grin. I didn’t feel the stand-in was taking our concerns seriously.

After the surgery, he would pop up again, doing the rounds and practicing his empathy.

“It’s good to see you raise your eyebrows. That’s a positive sign considering,” he said, distracted by a clipboard.

“Considering what?” asked the wife.

“How gnarly it was,” replied the faux-feely guy, “and how deep we had to cut into his face.” He blew out his cheeks to emphasize his point.

Colin — An Orbituary.

My surgery, a parotidectomy with selective neck dissection, was a success.

My malignant friend had one hell of an appetite as he overstayed his welcome, ripping apart the inward workings of my face. The large parotid tumor extended through superficial and deep holes had been removed. The lower division of facial nerves was ‘sacrificed’ thanks to Colin’s outsized growth.

At this point, nine days after surgery, the left side of my face is numb. My lips scrunch to one side in a poor imitation of a pirate. I have a scar running from the top of my ear down to the base of my neck. I look like a shark attack victim in recovery. I drawl when I eat and lisp when I talk.

It’s a two-week wait to hear the outcome from the lab. Here’s hoping Colin, forcibly ejected from the paradise that was my face, hasn’t left a tip.

Goodbye Colin, my cancerous friend.

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Mental Health
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