Talking to Cancer22 min read
I was eight years old the first time I spoke to cancer.
It had metastasized, and my mother’s belly was swollen with tumors. I took care of her because she needed me and I needed her, and also because Father was always at work or visiting his friends or Aunt Diane.
I tried to feed my mother. I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or sometimes tuna because I wasn’t allowed to use the stove. She rarely ate more than a bite or two. I used an old halfway-working electric tea kettle, bright copper sparks flashing through its frayed cord, to make cups of tea.
I cleaned up vomit and washed soiled clothes. When my mother cried, curled into a cocoon of pain in sweaty sheets, I cried, too. When the pain meds sucked her into the void of nothingness, I experienced relief.
I saved my mother’s life.
She lay still as a tombstone in her bed, skin ashen and gray, with chapped lips pulled tight across teeth too expansive for her gaunt face. Her chest rose and fell, uneven and infrequent, to inhale fruitless breaths. My father was there, a sad shadow in the periphery, offering nothing of comfort or solace. We thought she would die that day.
“Layla, darling, come speak to your mother.” The hospice nurse extended a warm hand to me. “See to it that she leaves the world hearing your sweet voice.” I didn’t believe my mother could hear me, but I spoke to her anyway.
I lay my head on the pillow next to hers. She smelled like Dove soap and baby powder and sour sickness. I cried until my tears soaked through the pillowcase. I begged, “Cancer, please don’t kill my mother.”
My first patient of the day, Hiba, arrived at nine o’clock. I offered her a seat across from me at my desk. She wore a gray dress with white flowers, too large for her shrunken, angular frame. Like many veteran cancer patients, Hiba didn’t bother with a wig and bravely sported a clean scalp.
Everyone who comes to me is desperate. Everyone who comes to me has run out of treatments, or doctors, or hope, or all three. They come to me because either they or someone they know, have seen my thirty-minute infomercial. It comes on channel fifty-five at 3 a.m., three days a week. I do what their doctors cannot. And I do it for $99.99.
I can stop the cancer from killing. Any cancer. In any part of the body. Regardless of what stage it is in.
My patients have usually tried several cancer treatments before coming to me. Enough treatments to know that nothing else is likely to work. Hiba’s cancer had outsmarted three different chemotherapy regimens, so her doctor suggested she come to me.
“Dr. James said that at this stage,” she paused to cough into cupped hands, “I have nothing to lose … except the rest of my life. Right, Doctor?” She laughed pitifully.
I smiled back at her.
“I’m not a doctor.” People always made that mistake.
“Not a doctor,” I said pointing to the degrees and accompanying licenses on the wall behind me. “I’m an Advanced Practice Nurse.”
“But you treat cancer. You’re licensed to give chemo.” Her ghost thin brows furrowed. “Aren’t you?”
Despite the infomercial, where I explain exactly what I do, people’s expectations still never quite align with reality.
“I do not give chemotherapy, Hiba. May I call you Hiba?” She nodded. “In fact, I will not give you any type of medicine.”
I guided Hiba to a curtained area on the other side of the room, my hand on the small of her back. I felt her vertebrae and her ribcage beneath the thin fabric of her dress. While she disrobed, I returned to my desk.
“Do you really think you can help me?” Her voice was hopeful.
She pulled back the curtain and stood there, drawn and cachectic in an overlarge hospital gown. “And you’ll do this just by talking to my cancer?”
I helped her onto the exam table, braced my arm across her shoulders, and eased her head down onto the pillow.
“Well,” I said as I warmed the bell of my stethoscope between my palms, “it really is quite straightforward, though difficult for many to believe. I will simply ask your cancer to stop. And it will.”
“Then why an exam?”
She kept her big brown eyes focused on me the entire time she questioned me. I found it difficult to meet them, though I couldn’t at the time express why. I wasn’t uncomfortable under her gaze. It’s just that I felt an odd distaste for the woman behind it.
“I’m a nurse, Hiba. I take care of the whole patient. Once the cancer has stopped, you’ll still have much recovering to do. I’ll help you do that.”
Hiba nodded, the invisible veil of doubt lifting.
I placed the bell of the stethoscope over the right side of her chest. “Please take a deep breath.”
I was twenty years old and in a biology class the first time I actually saw cancer. It was also the first time I met Moody. We shared a microscope, and together we studied the cancer cells. I was enamored with them both.
The cancer cells were irregularly spherical, with protrusions like the deformed arms of a lover refusing to relinquish her dysfunctional hold on her beloved. Stained blue and glowing bright in the ocular light of the scope, I recall thinking that, while they were unwholesome, they were beautiful the way they clumped together.
And Moody? He was so young then, only twenty-three, tall and slight as a bamboo stalk. He moved awkwardly, as if unused to his own limbs. Even then, he was a serious and somber soul, but there was a light in his dark eyes and he always smiled when he was with me.
Everyone, at some point in their life, has a cancer growing in their body. A group of badly behaving, mutating cells on the verge of getting out of hand. Our immune systems kick in and destroy these misguided cells before they can do any damage. Usually.
Everyone wants to kill cancer for the way it sequesters organs, hollows out spaces and lives. Can you blame them? Cancer takes over and takes apart without warning or explanation or even a thank you when it has taken all that it wants. But I knew from that first day, gazing through the eyepiece of the microscope, that cancer was misunderstood. A victim of cruel personification, cancer is viewed as malicious. This could not be further from the truth.
Moody was not as taken with cancer as I was. Never has been, especially not now. But he was once very taken with me. We married three months later.
Hiba returned to my office the next evening. I don’t typically see patients after five, but her case was different. Her cancer had responded sluggishly to my pleas at our first meeting. This had happened before, so I wasn’t worried. I planned to try again.
Hiba leaned heavily upon a cane this time, and though she shivered, sweat beaded her forehead. She struggled for each shallow breath. Her cancer radiated a bright, hungry energy and I heard its whisper at the edges of my mind. I helped her to a chair and checked her vitals. Her pulse was too high. Her oxygen saturation too low. She told me through gritted teeth that her pain was five on a scale of one to ten, which I suspected was an underrepresentation.
I helped Hiba take an oxy for the breakthrough pain and a Compazine for the nausea it caused. I managed to get her comfortable on the couch in my small three-room office. I pulled a blanket over her and dimmed the lights. She moaned fitfully in half-sleep.
Dim light glinted off a charm dangling from the necklace she wore. I stood to get a better look. The charm was of a little golden elephant with emerald eyes. I’d seen that elephant before. I grasped the arm of a chair and lowered myself onto its cushions just as my knees gave way.
A year ago, my mother-in-law requested a copy of a video of Moody, Abe, and me from the summer we went to Disneyland. I had scrolled through a list of videos stored on our family PC. What I found instead still loops in my mind, as fresh as that day. If I could scrub it from my memory, oh, God … I would do anything to scrub it from my mind.
Any fucking thing.
The clip was fifty-three seconds. Fifty-three seconds is a lifetime when you’re watching your husband make love to another woman.
Moody memorialized their tryst using the video camera I bought him for his birthday. He had said he wanted to take up amateur filmmaking. There was more than just the one video. The idiot downloaded the files into the shared folder on our family PC instead of his private folder. The idea that Abe could just as easily have come across them made me sick enough to retch.
Her lurid moans echoed in my memory. And what I witnessed, eyes flashing in ecstasy, dimpled cheeks, her mischievous smile as she ground her hips against my husband, tiny toenails painted evergreen, a little golden elephant dangling between brown bouncing breasts, are emblazoned on my brain like a brand.
There is no way to measure the loathing I felt for her and my husband. But Moody swore that he and Hiba were done. He begged for forgiveness I’ve still yet to achieve. To his shock, I didn’t ask for a divorce or separation. I told him to stay. Every day we remained together, he was afraid.
In the early years of our marriage, Moody and I struggled with finances, but we were happy. He never finished school and took a job with the city as a bus driver once we married. I finished nursing school and gave birth to our first child, Abe, soon after. We lived in a small apartment on the fourth floor of an infested old building destined for demolition. The elevator never worked, and the stairwell smelled of urine.
Our neighbor Marc smoked so much we could smell it through the walls. He owned an energetic bullmastiff whose barks kept us awake for hours. Marc never walked the dog. Instead, he let it race up and down the hallway at night and it regularly deposited abundant black mounds in front of our door.
“Can’t stop a dog from being a dog, can you?” he would joke. And our landlord wasn’t getting enough money from us in rent to be bothered with our complaints.
Sleep-deprived and near tears, I held my screaming son against my breast as I paced the floor one morning at 2 a.m. I heard the dog’s snorting chuffs at my door and Marc’s cigarette-roughened laughter.
“I wish that bastard would just fucking die,” I hissed.
“Layla?” Moody had never heard me talk that way before. He reached for Abe. “Let me have him. You go rest.”
“Keep smoking those cigarettes and you’ll get lung cancer,” I screamed startling the baby just as he was drifting off.
“They say a person knows when death is close,” Hiba said.
I didn’t respond. Her cancer had proved to be more than sluggish, and truth be told, I had stopped trying to talk to it. Hiba had become considerably weaker. With each visit, she was more desperate, more serious, more intent than the previous one.
Now, she just sounded resigned.
“I used to think it was an old wives’ tale,” she said, starting to cough.
I reached into the small refrigerator behind my desk for a bottle of water. An image returned to me.
Brown skin damp with sweat. Moody’s brow furrowed, and his eyes closed tight in carnal intoxication.
I closed the refrigerator without retrieving the bottle and waited for her to finish coughing.
“But it’s true, you know? It’s like there is an aura around me. I can smell it. I’m not saying I can see the ghosts of dead ancestors or anything, but—” She erupted into another fit.
Hiba wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and blew her nose. “I don’t have much more time. The treatments, this thing you do, this asking the cancer to stop,” she inhaled, and I could hear the fluid in her lungs rattle a little, “isn’t really working, is it?”
Marc had knocked on my door shortly after noon. I let him in mostly out of curiosity. He brought a box of fresh donuts from Beamon’s and a stuffed bear for Abe. His eyes were puffy and red, but he’d shaved and combed his oily blond hair into a neat ponytail. He wore a clean but faded blue-checked shirt and he didn’t smell like cigarettes.
“What can I do for you?” I set a cup of coffee on the table in front of Marc and took a seat across from him.
Marc didn’t say anything for a long time. He clasped his trembling hands on the table and closed his eyes like he was meditating. “I need medical advice, and since you’re a doctor …”
“I’m not a doctor.”
“But I thought …”
“I know. It’s the lab coat. I’m a nurse.”
“Oh.” His shoulders sank.
My curiosity redoubled, but an icy thread of unease climbed my vertebrae and spread across my scalp like a swarm of ants. “What’d you need advice about? Maybe I can help anyway.”
“The doctors said there was nothing they could do,” he said after a long time.
“Do?” I heard my heart beating hard in my ears.
“They say it’s met—mestat—”
“Metastasized?” I finished.
He nodded. “Yeah. It’s spread all over.” He pulled a tissue from his breast pocket and coughed into it. I saw pink streaks on the paper.
I knew, then, what I had done.
I started the conversation with my mother by mentioning the weather. The fact that Abe was having trouble with math. The new engine recently installed in my old GMC, and how I probably should’ve just bought a new car. I talked about how I planned to repaint our dining room walls canary yellow.
We sat beneath a floral-printed umbrella on her patio, the brisk evening breeze reminding us that spring was still young. Mother flipped through a magazine and didn’t seem to be listening, but I knew she was. I needed to work through my anxiety, so she let me. When I’d finished, she closed the magazine and lit a cigarette. I glared at her.
“What?” Cancer would never take my mother because I had asked it not to, but I had no such sway with other diseases or with time. “Can you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t smoke?”
“How about me?”
“Good reason,” she said, chuckling. She crushed the cigarette out in an ashtray next to a pink hydrangea.
“So, what’s really up?” Mother trapped me with her gaze.
“I think I’ve done something wrong.”
She was quiet for a long time.
Though still without wrinkles, her age showed in the way her amber skin relaxed around her mouth and jawline. Her dark eyes narrowed, and she pinched her full lips into a straight line. She was figuring and reading me.
“The last time you told me that … well, that was when you had that unfortunate situation with Marc.”
Mother’s hands trembled, but she still managed to relight her cigarette, sprinkling ash down the front of the faded Mickey Mouse sweatshirt I’d given her some time ago.
I told her about everything, including the evergreen toenails and the tiny, golden elephant. I was wrong to think that talking would make me feel better. I was wrong to think there would be ready answers.
When I told Moody what I’d done to Marc, he laughed. He reached for me and pulled me into his arms. “I think it’s sweet that you feel so guilty about a single moment of anger that you actually believe you caused that man’s disease.” He squeezed me tightly and kissed my forehead.
“But you heard what I said. I said he’d get lung cancer, and now he does.”
“It’s unfortunate, but I’m not surprised. He smokes like a chimney.”
I decided to prove my point. I forced Moody to trap a mouse. We kept it in an old mayonnaise jar with holes punched into the lid. We fed the mouse cubes of cheese, the yolks of our boiled eggs, droppers full of milk.
Moody named it Sam.
Within a couple of days, patches of Sam’s gray-brown fur were falling out and hard, festering nodules erupted in the bald areas. A day after that, Sam stopped eating. By the end of the week, Sam was dead.
We caught and I cancered three more mice before Moody believed me. He didn’t name those. He wanted me to try to talk Marc’s cancer down. Moody didn’t know that I’d been trying to do that since the day Marc sat at our kitchen table, but his cancer did not seem to be listening.
When off from work, I would visit with Marc, make sure he ate a hot meal, took his meds, and that he was hooked up to a fresh oxygen tank before he went to bed at night. He didn’t have anyone else.
My marriage was also dying. It’s difficult to trust someone as dangerous as I am. Lack of trust can strangle love.
Hiba’s continued visits to my office were pointless. I could do nothing for her, the single opportunity to communicate with her disease having been claimed when we were both unaware. Besides, hard as I tried, I didn’t have the will. Despite this, I continued to schedule the appointments. I allowed her to hope. Forced her to confront her mortality. I also forced Hiba to face me.
I didn’t tell her that I was her lover’s wife, though part of me wanted to. I wouldn’t have been capable of suffering her contrition if she had any. And if instead, she was full of bitter pride, my hurt would be multiplied, and I’d be powerless to do anything worse to her than I’d already done.
I would be lying if I denied deriving satisfaction from causing her to relive the same disappointment at the end of each visit, when I told her that, again, her cancer was unmoved by my efforts. Part of me looked forward to that.
When Hiba did not arrive for her next appointment, I called her cell. When she didn’t answer I entered her address into my GPS and got into my car. It turns out that she didn’t live very far from me. I could have walked the five blocks from my home to hers any day.
Her lavender and white single-story house was surrounded by flowers and sculpted shrubbery, like a fairy tale cottage fashioned of cake and icing. It fit like an irregular puzzle piece between two larger, newer houses. Like her presence in my life, it just didn’t belong.
But that wasn’t quite true. I’d come to need the object of my bitterness, the simulacrum of my grief. And more, it was through witnessing the fragility of humanity in her that I learned that forgiveness was almost always possible, though I had no idea the path to reach it. Though I seemed enslaved by my hatred, I just as desperately wanted to forgive, or at least release.
The man who answered the door was as damp and crumpled as a used tissue. Had we not been married for the past seventeen years, I would not have recognized him, too stunned to think of an excuse for being at her bedside after promising he’d never see her again.
“She dead?” My mouth was dry with fear and hope. I wanted her to still be alive. I wanted Moody to watch her die, for him to suffer, too.
I wanted not to want those things.
Moody shook his head, a fresh wave of tears wet his face. I restrained the urge to wipe them away, to slap his cheek, to pull him into my arms, to comfort and simultaneously maim him. He was my husband, whatever I was to him, whatever she was to him, whatever we all were to each other.
“She’s holding on.” Moody reached for me. “You’ve come to help?” His voice was tentative.
“Help?” That might have been my intention, though not conscious, but seeing his hopeful expectancy clouded out any good will on my part. If I somehow managed to save her, what would this leave me, except alone? I shoved Moody’s hands away. “Why should I?”
“She’s going to die.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Don’t we all?”
Moody grabbed my wrists and held them up so that my clenched fists were at eye level. He glared at them as if, like some comic book superhero, my power would shoot out of my fingertips like lightning.
“Prove this thing you have is more than a curse,” he demanded.
I wrenched my hands away. “I prove that every single day.” I headed back to my car.
“Why did you come?” he called after me. “If you hate her so much, what are you doing here?”
I stopped but did not respond.
“I thought you would save her. I told her you could.” Moody’s voice quavered.
“Cancer will only listen once. I can’t stop it once it’s been set in motion.”
Realization came to us simultaneously, but I spoke first.
“You sent her to me? Not Dr. James.” The tremors started deep in my gut and worked their way out in rippling waves. “She knows who I am, what I am to you?” I said, myself unsure what that was.
“You caused her cancer?” he said, each word a separate accusation.
“I must have. I can’t think of another reason her cancer wouldn’t respond.”
“You did this, again?”
“What’s done is done,” I said, not caring if it sounded trite.
“But you save everyone else. Why not her?”
I thought of Marc. I hadn’t saved him.
Moody held me fast, his chest against my back, his breath warm in my ear. There was a time when such a gesture made me want to dissolve into him. I felt him tremble against me. More tears.
“Why couldn’t you save her?”
Hungry hands grasping a zaftig hip. Eager lips pressed against the sweep of a neck. Soft, lusty laughter.
“Why couldn’t you save her?”
I reached out and felt the live energy of his healthy cells. They would do as I asked if I asked. The next moment belonged to me alone, and though it was brief, mere seconds, I contemplated doing a lifetime of damage.
“Abe still needs a dad, even if flawed. And in the end, I’d hate myself more than I want to hate him now,” I said, unaware I was speaking aloud until I heard Moody gasp. Wide-eyed, he slowly backed away from me with hands held out as if to show that he meant no harm.
“You made a promise, Moody. You said you’d never see her again. Perhaps you should go home. I’m sure Abe would love to spend time with his father.”
I expected local oncologists to shun me when I first opened my clinic. I knew that I would be ridiculed in private and that some would even publicly deride my efforts. I also knew that once the secret of my skill became public, I’d learn who among my friends were true.
I’d be accused of preying on the desperation of dying cancer patients. I’d be called a quack and a shyster. There would be efforts to shut down my clinic.
I have since proven my ability. My successes are many, measurable and provable. Now, local oncologists freely send their worst cases to me.
What I hadn’t expected was Moody’s reaction.
“Everyone will know. We’ll be a laughingstock.”
I couldn’t interpret what I saw in Moody’s face. In hindsight, I realize it was fear and disgust. He’d felt that way since Marc. I can understand how frightening it could be to live with someone capable of both curing and causing a cancer, but I would not have harmed him.
“Haven’t you ever wished you could do something good?” I massaged my temples against a growing headache. “I want to pay it forward.”
“Can’t you find a less public way?”
My headache spiked. I was tired of being on the defensive, of always being agreeable. Since Marc, I’d been, in a sense, begging Moody’s forgiveness. I’d spent so long apologizing for my gift before I began to understand. I didn’t create my skill any more than I created Moody’s eighteen months of unemployment.
“How’s the job search?” I asked.
“Layla, you know I’m still looking.”
“I know, but we still have a mortgage and a child to feed. Unless you have another idea, this clinic will help us do that.”
We never spoke about it again.
My mother blew smoke out of the corner of her mouth as she paced the short length of her porch. “There has got to be a way to undo this.” She paused to flick the tip of burning ash into an ashtray. “Maybe,” she said, face naked with hope, “the trick is forgiveness.”
I shook my head. “Forgiveness isn’t the answer,” I said without addressing the fact that I was as unsure of my ability to forgive as I was about my certainty that I was prepared to do so.
“How do you know?”
“It didn’t help Marc.”
She took my hand and coaxed me from the balustrade I’d been sitting on. “Maybe it will help you.”
With our hands intertwined, my mother and I walked down the driveway to my car. Her hand felt warmer and firmer than she appeared to me these days. This buoyed me in the belief, whether true or false, that my seventy-one-year-old mother had many more years ahead.
“Why do you care if I fix this, Mom?”
“Because I care about you.” My mother smiled wanly. “You won’t always hurt because of what happened with Moody and Hiba, but the responsibility for her death will always haunt you.”
“Did you ever forgive Dad for Aunt Diane?”
I saw my mother’s eyes dim as she thought back to that time. “I did, but not soon enough.”
“Soon enough for whom?”
“For me. Who else?”
Marc had a crooked smile on his face when I told him about his cancer as if he expected me to reveal the punchline to a joke. His eyes were red-rimmed and the sclera were yellow. When I didn’t reveal the punchline, he studied my face for a long time and I forced myself not to look away.
“Don’t be foolish, Layla. No one can create cancer just by saying it.”
“Impossible.” He ran his fingers through his hair. His jugular, blue and ropey beneath his pale skin, pulsed in quick, rolling bursts. “People can’t do that.”
I lowered myself onto the chair next to his bed. We sat that way, considering each other in wary silence for a long time. I was prepared to suffer his anger and hatred at the ugly injustice of it all. I needed to.
I told him about that night, the noise, my exhaustion, and the fitful baby. “I said it in anger. I didn’t mean it. I would never wish cancer on someone.” Those words sounded staggeringly inadequate to my ears. “I’ve always been able to talk to cancer, to make it stop. Stop, you see? I didn’t know I could make it do the opposite.”
“Hell of a way to find out.” Marc chuckled mirthlessly. “Too bad it was me and not something more useful like mass extermination of the mice. Right?” He laughed some more and this time it was genuine and robust. He reached for my hand and I took it between both of mine. His fingers were cold and dry. “You’ve got to be the most dangerous woman in the world. I’m just glad you’re my friend.”
“Glad? I’ve killed you. You should hate me, Marc.”
“No.” Marc shook his head. “I’m actually grateful. At least, I think I am. This could very well be delusional thinking on my part, brought on by not getting enough oxygen to the brain.” Marc laughed until he was out of breath and started to cough. I offered him the breathing mask when I noticed his lips were purple-tinged, but he pushed my hands away. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, his gaunt cheeks puffing out like balloons.
“I was so lonely before. Now I’m not.” He squeezed my hand. “Because of you, I am dying, but at least I’m not doing it alone.”
How many songs and poems exist that posit real love is about surrender? Too damned many. But they’re right. I can’t deny that. Don’t take this to mean that I was willing to give up my husband to another woman with the hope that he’d realize his error and eventually return to me. I’m not longsuffering, or desperate. I understood and accepted that I had probably lost Moody the moment he learned what I could do.
I returned to Hiba’s house. Her mother, a stout, pretty woman, welcomed me inside without hesitation.
“I’d know you anywhere.” She hugged me as if we’d been long-time friends and guided me to Hiba’s bedroom. “You’re prettier in person than in your commercials.”
I stood just inside the bedroom door, arrested by how much Hiba had changed since I’d last seen her. She barely made an impression in the bed. Her slow breathing rattled with the inevitable. And there was that mildly sour sick smell just beneath the scent of baby powder. The time when my mother had cancer came back to me. It choked out the remnants of my anger.
You’d think that I would be at ease with the subject of death. I’m not. It terrifies me.
Hiba’s mother encouraged me to sit in the room’s only chair, positioned next to the bed. I sat and took Hiba’s cool, limp hand in mine. I stroked her arm.
She turned her head toward me and her dark eyes fluttered open just a moment before they closed again. Her brow furrowed a bit and she mouthed something I couldn’t hear or interpret.
“She hasn’t spoken for the last couple of days,” her mother said from the doorway. “But she can hear you and maybe even understand what you’re saying. So, if you’ve come to say goodbye—”
I leaned forward, my insides shuddering with memories of my mother when she had been sick with cancer, of Marc and how I had failed him, and with fear for myself. “You are stronger than your anger. You are greater than your pain. Let your gift define you, not the stupid trespasses of others,” my mother had said before I backed out of her driveway. Those words had become my mantra. I repeated them aloud on the drive to Hiba’s. I let them fuel my strength. I closed my eyes and reached out until I felt the quiet, electric hum that symbolized my connection with her cancer cells.
“Sweetheart,” her mother crooned, “she’s not long for this world. If ever there was a time to talk to her, this is it.”
“I haven’t come to talk to Hiba,” I said. My own voice sounded so far away. “I’ve come to talk to her cancer.”