“Me and Mom.”

Me. Mom. Ferry to Ikea. NYC, Spring, 2011.

“Cancer? That’s hiLARious!” Part Three

One of the things you learn really fast when you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer is how many other people out there have cancer, or know someone (or, more tragically, a few someones) who does.

There are lots of ’em.  Like, shitloads.

Literally, there are hundreds of thousands of people in the United States alone – all ages, races, genders, and types – who are suffering and fighting and succumbing together against this disease (hell, any number of diseases).  And if they all have this thing

— like, if they’re all packed aboard this ginormous boat that’s been hit by some giant cancerous iceberg, and the ship is going down faster for some than others, but everyone is hoping chemo or radiation or some clinical trial or even reiki and herbs can at least slow the proverbial  sinking the Titanic, if not melt the evil iceberg completely —

— then there are hundreds of thousands of other people who desperately love them (or, hopefully, at least like them) who will end up taking care of them and be ravaged in all sorts of profound ways of their own.

Hundreds and hundreds of thousands people, we’re talking about. Millions of human beings across the planet.  The National Cancer Institute estimates that approximately 8 million people in the United States alone have had the disease. (on a website that could use some help, by the way, but here: http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/all.html).

As of the 2009 census, there are roughly 8, 392,000 people living in the five boroughs of New York City http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/census/popcur.shtml .   As a visualization trick,  the next time you’re walking the streets of any borough in NYC, as a resident or a visitor, imagine that each and every person you see has cancer of one kind or another, and will directly affect the lives of someone (or, often, many someones around them) as they fight their cancer.  It’s then that it starts to hit you how vast an epidemic this really is.

The entire population of New York City.

That’s.  Fucked.  Up.

Seriously!   Not only is it crazy tragic, it’s so fucking wrong.

I’ve had close friends who have had cancer. Family. Peers.  Some who have lived with it,  some who have conquered it, and some who have died from it.  I have friends who have lost parents, children, mates, and close friends of theirs a to the disease, and whose lives are now permanently transformed by the entire experience.  And yet, somehow, it never really struck me how pervasive it was, until mom’s diagnosis.

When I first started taking mom to Memorial Sloan-Kettering, a research hospital devoted entirely to cancer care and study, and its outpatient chemotherapy center, I could not get over just how many people on too many floors were fighting some variation of the disease, alone or surrounded by visitors full of well-meaning gifts and words of hope (or doom, depending on who you spoke too). Nor could I get over the number of doctors, nurses, clinicians, and support staff it took to take care of all of us, and the millions of dollars of real estate we were collectively filling. All that energy, intellect, love, and  brick and mortar devoted to one devastating word and all it entails. Madness. http://www.mskcc.org/

Within minutes of posting my first blog entry, I got two dozen replies across various media platforms and nearly all of them had a similar story to share: someone they knew and loved (and for too many, several someones) have or had cancer.

I blather on like this, over and over, hitting the same beats on the head simply to point out: when it comes to contracting and managing cancer, or helping someone who has, I’m not special. Or unique. Neither is mom.

As a matter of fact, our plight is tragically common. Everyday.  Normal, even. She’s just one more woman with lung cancer. I’m one more man suddenly thrust into the roll of caretaker.. This happens all the time, every day of the week.

And that’s horrible on just about every level I can think of.

That just shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be “normal” or “common” (unless biology has determined that it should be, and I’m not so convinced that it’s just biology driving these numbers).  And if it is normal, and every day, and cancer is just an accepted part of day to day living in the modern world, and if we’re so generally immune to its affects until it touches us not just personally but really personally – then I’d argue something is terribly wrong with us as a people (and even a species).

I mean, I know I’m narcissistic and self-involved — I just started a blog, for chrissakes — but to think that I’ve been so dismissive of something so huge for so long even when it’s touched me tangentially suggests I really have to rethink my priorities and channel my energies differently, in a more meaningful and humane way.

I’m sure I’ll tackle the ins-and-outs of universal health care and environment and smoking and the impact of industry and  media and marketing and lifestyle and what-have-you on our health in other posts, but more than anything, what I really hope any who are reading this now do is just think about the numbers above and contemplate what they mean for all of us, as a society, and a collection of communities connected to each other by geography, if nothing else (and that’s doesn’t even begin to tackle the numbers of folks with other diseases, like diabetes or AIDS).

Because when  you hear doctors tell your mother that she’s got lung cancer, and that it’s bad — that it’s spread throughout her torso into her gland, and skeleton, and breast — and you really let that sink in –

— and then you watch your mother, who’s taken care of you and  loved you your whole life, more than you imagined anyone ever could — hear the diagnosis, barely processing the words that have just hit her like a freight train before breaking down in the wheelchair she’s been confined to for weeks because she can’t breathe– well, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the truth of the matter.

Certainly I couldn’t, anyway.

(Thank god I’m good with an iPhone notepad. Kept me busy and focused during the diagnosis, and the strong, efficient hand mom needed right then and there.  I’m good in a crisis that way).

“Cancer? That’s hiLARious!” Part Two

So, lung cancer.

Lung cancer is awful.  It’s painful and aggressive and moves through the body like lightning. Left unchecked, it can metastasize into other tissues and other parts of the body (like, say, the adrenal glands, the skeleton, and the breast – or worst of all, the brain).    Late stage cancer can’t be cured, although it can be treated with operations, chemotherapy, and radiation — although not always. Over 1.3 million people die each year from lung cancer, and those deaths are often painful, undignified, and tragically fast: the average prognosis for life span from diagnosis to death of a Stage 4 lung cancer patient is 8 months.

Lung cancer sucks.

According to the Center for Disease Control, more women die of lung cancer than of any other type of cancer, including breast or uteran cancer.  In the United States alone, over 93,000 women a year are diagnosed with lung cancer. That’s roughly 254 women a day, or 21 an hour.

I was trying to figure out how to frame that in a way that would make sense to anyone, especially  me (I am an avowed narcissist, and it’s my blog, after all!).  Something that would provide a visual in my head for quick/easy comparison, especially since math has never been my strong suit (as my poor accountant knows this all too well).

On average, I have about 18 students per semester per course in the classes I teach at the School of Visual Arts in NYC.  Applying the above statistics to my enrollment numbers, that means that once class of students an hour could be diagnosed with lung cancer and I’d still come up a couple short to meet the national average.

That is some sick shit.

Smoking cigarettes remains the number one (let’s say that again, but loudly – THE NUMBER ONE) cause of lung cancer, although non-smokers have contracted it and died from it.  It’s the carcinogens in cigarettes and the nicotine, which suppresses the immune system, that triggers the cancer in those that get it.

Once more, with feeling: lung cancer SUCKS.

To be continued.

“Cancer? That’s hiLARious!” Part One

“So wait — let me make sure I understand this.  The cancer’s in her lung, her lymph node, her adrenal gland, skeleton, her left breast — and her skin?”

I’m not sure that’s exactly what I asked but it was definitely something like that –a string of words naming bits and pieces of human anatomy spoken in clear, moderated tones, enunciated crisply to make sure I got it all down correctly and I that had, indeed, understood precisely what they said  (and, probably, with some underlying desire to impress the two oncologists mom and I had met, probably ten minutes before, with what, exactly, I’m not sure – except maybe my unexceptional ability to type notes on necrosis and rigid bronchoscopies at great speed on an iPhone).

But it is surreal, and grim, and almost indescribably horrible, to hear those words, no matter what Jerri Blank says (I’ll explain later), especially when they’re unexpected (and they’re probably almost always unexpected, right?).

And when they’re spoken to your mom, about your mom, in front of you. (who, by the way, is the undisputed winner of the “Best Goddamn Mom” award 41 consecutive years in a row).

And when your kind, well-meaning physicians realize your mom is hearing the news for the first time, even though she should have been given the diagnosis by other physicians a week earlier, but hadn’t – so they get to witness the shock and emotional breakdown of the poor woman, now wheelchair-bound and barely able to express her grief with more than a few tears because she’s literally breathless thanks to her collapsed lung.

And then to have kind, well-meaning, physicians stare at you and say, “do you have any questions?” when, of course, your mind has just gone all fuzzy, like bad TV reception in the 70’s, or like when you’re lying in a fetal position on the bathroom floor an hour after you’ve pounded four large margaritas (with extra shots), because the cold white tile against your cheek is waaaay more soothing than your queen size bed and the only question you can seem to muster is…

Nuthin. Nada. Zip. ‘cause all that’s going through your mind is “ohpleaseGodmakeit stopspinningohpleaseGodpleaseIswearIwon’tdoitagain.Just this once.  Please God. Please,” as you do everything in your power to keep your face pressed to that cold tile floor ‘til tomorrow morning.

Or that the words the doctor just reiterated to you so you could diligently record them down in your iPhone notepad couldn’t possibly be true.

END PART ONE.

She used to be, um… *who,* exactly?

For the past several years I’ve received  inquiries from numerous fans in the comic book industry about a blog, and requests for all sorts of content on any blog I might start.  But, as anyone who follows my Facebook or Twitter feeds knows, many of my tweets/posts  are not about comic books or the industry I’ve live and breathed for 20 years  (although when “Wonder Woman” ends up as trending as a topic, I can lose whole days to that glorious debate).

I’m interested in so much — and find so much interesting in the world — that it’s been nearly impossible for me to narrow the scope of my Tweeting and Facebook and social media-ing to merely “the job.”  Indeed,  there are so many in the business with really excellent Twitter feeds and blogs (and far more nuanced writing skills) tackling the likes of Batman or The Young Avengers  that I figured my “angle” online would simply be to chat about anything I found interesting on that day.   Invariably, that’s a lot.

I’ve covered a lot of bases in my few thousand tweets, from art, politics, and religion to plenty of  humorous stuff, too (and yes, on comic books and super-heroes  — just enough to get me in trouble, at least!).   But I’ve never really posted much cancer.  Not  comprehensively, anyway.

Until now.

My mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in October of this year, just a few days after her 68th birthday.  The diagnosis was devastating for multiple reasons: Stage 4 lung cancer is inoperable and terminal;  the cancer, now spreading to multiple organs and tissues throughout her body, causes my mother incredible, debilitating pain;  a vibrant woman, someone I happen to like a lot, was quickly stripped of nearly everything she’d fought so hard in the past five years to obtain (most notably her independence); and maybe, most selfishly, because I dig my mom, and, I adore the woman she’s become in the past five years. I just adore her.

Now, I don’t think my mother would object to me telling untold zillions in the blogosphere that she wasn’t always this woman (although there’s plenty that she might object too, if she knew I was telling the world).  Indeed, she was a very different woman when I was growing up, and an even different woman before than, from the tales people tale.  She used to be someone else entirely. And, thanks to the lung cancer, she’s going to become someone else before she dies, far too soon.

So that’s really when it struck me, how I might focus this blog, this “thing” I’ve been concocting for years now.  While I’d like it to be about a lot of things — ’cause I love a lot of things, and the world fascinates me no end, I’m going to star by focusing on my mom. Who she was. Who she became.  And what her story’s meant to her, and to me (and how her stories have shaped my approach to stories, and what I like to say with them).

So that means some family history, and some American history.  Lots of stuff on gender and its politics through the decades.  Personal observations about my mom and her tumultuous, often far too difficult personal history, and how that shaped her approach to raising me (and raising me well, I might add).  And then, of course, cancer, caretaking, and life and death.

Pretty standard blog territory, right?

(I’ll try to throw in polls, too, ’cause folks *love* answering polls!)

Obviously, I’ll  tackle other stuff, too, since forums like this tends to grow organically (and there are a bazillion blogs on cancer, and I want this to be more than just that).  And I’ll try to blog regularly, but please be patient if I disappear now and then.  Taking care of my little spitfire of a mother is a full time job, even moreso than drawing comic pages (especially those hospital visits!).

Now, I’m not sure I’ll use enough “key words” to make me a Google top 10 hit, or if I’ll include enough tips about cancer caretaking to make it a “must-read” for Sloan Kettering docs or their patients.  My guess is that hardcore Cyclops and Wolverine fans won’t necessarily give a shit either, unless I’m actually talking about Cyclops and/or Wolverine — although I’m told my “voice” is so distinct that anyone reading my stuff knows it’s me instantly, so that might intrigue some comic fans to stick with it for a little while, at least (I’m sure my left-0f-center observations on the industry will bring some back, too — and drive others far, far way).

But ultimately, my hope is that enough people will come back to this I’m making, while I take care of my dying mom, to keep interesting, interactive, educational, informative, touching, and meaningful.  If nothing else, my mom (her name is Pam!, by the way — I’ll explain the exclamation point later) will have her story — what I can get of it — recorded for posterity, if not eternity.  It’s really quite an extraordinary story, and worth knowing, I think.

(And, just ’cause  it’s gnawing at me, like a wounded animal (no, I don’t mean mom!) — does that “Until now” up there seem false, and irritatingly over dramatic? (could you hear the “dum dum DUM” as you read it?).  I mean, I love a cliche as much as the next guy that loves a cliche, and I thought it worked quite well there, but…well, let me know if it was too much or not, and I’ll adjust appropriately as we head toward the future together.  Maybe. 😉

P.S. You’ll find I love a good non sequitur, too!)

And this was *before* the collapsed lung!

So, I’ll get to upgrading and customizing this blog soon enough, adding pictures and links and opening up questions and comments after I’m done gnawing on Thanksgiving turkey wrapped in bacon (yes, I just said that — turkey AND bacon, and I’m just fine with that, quite frankly) while helping mom manage her pain levels and get through her first six weeks of chemo.

While whipping up this blog, several friends suggested I should begin “officially” with a letter I wrote several close friends and coworkers about mom soon after her diagnosis to fill them in on everything.  This was, of course, before we’d discovered her lung had actually collapsed several weeks earlier (the doctors originally diagnosed her with walking pneumonia if you can believe that!),  or the whole thing might have been very different, tonally (although probably not).

We’ll talk about the lung collapse later.  In the mean time,  this is me, sharing, in an effort to catch you all up and introduce you to some of the key players of this story:

Pardon the mass e-mail but in this day and age of Jetsons flying cars and double bladed light sabers (oh, wait —  that’s only the future in movies! We’re living in the age of Occupy Wall Street! and Tweets about last night’s lasagna), it seemed to be the easiest way to get in touch with all of you, and update you on some recent developments in the Peterson/Jimenez/Hosking household…

As most of you have heard, mom (Joe and I affectionately call her Pam! — with the exclamation point) was diagnosed a few weeks back with lung cancer.  It came on fast and hard, as such cancers do, and she was debilitated pretty quickly. I essentially moved in with her about four weeks ago to take care of her (although my hope is that this is temporary –!) and while there ain’t shit to do up in Inwood (the original Indians of Manahatta could still live up here and half the island wouldn’t know it), it has allowed me to focus on taking care of her.  We both agree that, despite all her pain and anxiety, it’s actually been great to spend the time with each other and I’m grateful that she actually lives so close (and I’m REAL grateful for 666-6666! — Sometimes I call them just to take me home at night. *).
So…it turns out that not only does Pam! have cancer, but she, like, really, really, REALLY has cancer!  Through the auspices of her former employers, we were able to get her in to see an incredibly well respected oncologist at Sloan-Kettering on East 53rd (a particularly nice hospital, I must say).  After numerous CAT, PET, MRI, and any other number of acronym scans, we found out that not only does Pam! have lung cancer, but that’s spread to her lymph nodes, her adrenal gland, her left breast, her skeleton, and to her skin (she’s getting painful nodules of cancer tissue in her arms!).  Seriously, she went for it. She was like, “if I’m gonna get cancer, I want it everywhere, because why the hell not? I can finally fit into a size 4 for the first time since I was 11!”   Oh, mom.  Such a poor, misguided thing.  I told her the Zumba classes would be easier, but she never was one for exercise — and the Lucille Roberts by her office was kind of a dump, anyway.
Breast cancer?  Seriously?  Skin cancer? Cancer in the skeleton? Lordy.  Apparently, this is quite common with lung cancer; it’s aggressive, it spread fast, and it gets everywhere. If you smoke, quit — seriously.  Almost all cases of lung cancer and its problems are directly related to smoking.  I’m learning more about cancer than I ever expected, but the overriding thing I’ve come to believe is this: smoking really DOES kill. It’s insidious, it’s bad, and it has horrible consequences for the people that do it and the people that love them.
(Off the soap box now).
On the plus side, the cancer has not spread to Pam’s! brain, and our expert oncologist Dr. Azzoli is not ready to put her in hospice yet. He says she’s right on the border, so we’re going to be starting weekly chemo treatments as of next Tuesday, to hopefully slow the spread of the cancer and get some of these tumors from growing.  Apparently, she has a good chance of getting some degree of normalcy back into her life if this works, and I might actually get to sleep in my bed again before the end of the year. In the meantime, I’m working at both my studio and on her kitchen table — it’s kind of like being a 16 year old again, making home made comics and prepping my portfolio for San Diego Comic Con and college! (in all honesty, I prefer my studio, especially now that I have such a fun gig).
It must be noted contributions Joe has made in the past few weeks cannot be undersold.  Joe is like an angel in human form — he’s been so incredibly helpful and supportive it’s actually kind of annoying. There’s NO way I could take care of Pam! this way without him.  If you guys keep Pam! in your thoughts, make sure to keep him in your thoughts, too; he’s going through quite a bit with his own family and *still*he finds a way to be the most awesome son-in-law ever.  Make sure to send him a nice note — to Joe@ BeaEmme. com (just kidding — that’s his drag name!  ; )) But do keep him in your kind thoughts; he deserves them, more than any body!
I must say, I never expected this to happen to Pam!  I truly thought she’d die in her 90’s, choking on food she was wolfing down at some restaurant while trying to talk and eavesdrop on the table next to her at the same time. Lung cancer is terminal; there’s no cure, but the hope is that at least she gets a few good months (maybe even some extra years), and finally gets her ass on that Mediterranean cruise she was supposed to go on before Hurricane whatshername derailed her trip in September.  Any one want to plan a trip to Venice, Italy, next year, to meet mom at the Peggy Guggenheim museum there? She’d get a big kick out of that, I think. 🙂
So that’s the update!  Pam!’ll  probably lose most of her hair in the next six weeks, but it’s not like she had that much any way, so creative thoughts on givin’ the old lady some new ‘do’s would be mightily appreciated (Shelly, I think you might have a few ideas!).  I’m not sure what her schedule will be like or when or how she’ll “receive” visitors — (I kind’a like the idea of setting her up like an old British Queen in bed, and having her anoint us with her royal staff (most likely picked up on sale on the JC Penny website — along with her linens and velour matching sweatsuit).
Pam has been nothing but a trooper through all this, with very few tears, and a whole lot of fight.  As someone who knew my mother to cry almost every day of my childhood, I’m awed at how she’s set the tears aside, and found the anger to fight what’s going on in her body.  It’s impressive and inspiring.  I’m not sure what the future holds, and we’re taking it a day at a time.  But if there’s one thing I know, which I’ve totally come to believe in my heart, it’s this:
The bitch TOTALLY ruined Christmas.
🙂
xoxoxo, everyone!

*666-6666 is a local car service with really cheesy TV ads featuring several young women intoning in their sultry best  about how much they love their Carmel drivers. One closes the commercial when she suggestively says, “Sometimes, I call him just to take me home at night!” and all the girls laugh this ridiculous, knowing laugh. It’s absurd, and vaguely offensive, but memorable (perhaps a good sign when it comes to a potent advertisement). Anyway, a bit of regional humor that might have gotten lost on those out of NYC, otherwise. 🙂