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A few days after a 13 1/2 hour surgery to her face, I sat on the edge of my wife’s hospital bed, staring at a woman I’d known and loved for over half a century. Her face was a map of surgical cuts. Her lips were drawn down into a rictus on one side. It was but one of a range of ravages cancer would impose on her. When I kissed her, she thanked me for it. “It has always been a privilege,” I said.

cancer surgery

Karen had been sick for months before we arrived at that moment. At first we thought she just had a sinus infection, but after it continued to resist remedies for a couple months, we made an appointment with an Ear, Nose & Throat specialist who ordered a CT scan that revealed a growth he thought to be an “inverted papilloma.” The swelling had become visible on her right cheek, but the doctor said it wasn’t likely to be malignant. Still, he referred us to a surgeon in Sacramento who agreed that my wife’s increasingly unpleasant growth was either the aforementioned inverted papilloma or, more probably, a “fungal ball.” In either case, he said, there wasn’t much cause for alarm. The surgery to remove whatever was there would last about an hour and a half, with an easy recovery.

As a precaution, however, the surgeon took a specimen while the operation was in progress and sent it to the lab for a biopsy. Halfway through the removal of the “fungal ball,” the lab called and told the surgeon to stop. They’d found squamous cell cancer, and the operation that would be necessary to remove it might be compromised by the procedure he was currently performing; it might weaken vital bone tissue that showed signs of cancer cells.

Still wearing scrubs, the grave-faced surgeon delivered the bad news in a barren consultation room.

That grim conversation took place at UC Davis Med Center on January 29th of this year. Things immediately began to speed up. A date for surgery was hastily arranged, a surgical team assembled.

That grim conversation took place at UC Davis Med Center on January 29th of this year. Things immediately began to speed up. A date for surgery was hastily arranged, a surgical team assembled. There would also be six weeks of daily radiation treatments some weeks after surgery. She would lose a piece of her upper palate and her jaw, and it might be necessary to take her right eye.

Surgery was scheduled. Our older daughter, Sionann, would join us from her home in France. Because my younger daughter, Kelly, lives conveniently close to the UC Davis Med Center, I would stay at her house, as would her sister, throughout the ten days of post-op, and then during further recovery after Karen was released from the hospital.

I left home in Magalia to join my wife and daughter in Sacramento on Sunday afternoon of the 12th. They’d left earlier in the day, missing the Oroville Dam evacuation that I found myself caught in. As a result, it took more than eight hours to make that two-hour journey. I got to my daughter’s house at 12:30 a.m., just five hours before we were to check Karen into the hospital for pre-op prep.

Sionann flew in to San Francisco later that morning, retrieved from the airport by my wife’s sister. Kelly and I had already begun what was to be the beginning of lots of waiting room hours, on that day and on subsequent days throughout the year thus far. Alone or together, my daughters and I would sit with other anxious families, flipping through magazines, dozing off, or sharing experiences with people like ourselves, living the nightmare.

Every good day of my life there had been people beyond counting, huddled in waiting rooms in hospitals around the world, people I never thought about, worried sick about loved ones undergoing terrifying surgeries with uncertain outcomes. Such pained and anxious people are in such rooms today, and every day.

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I spent much of time Karen was under the knife fretfully imagining her face being sliced beneath her eye and down the side of her nose, the flesh peeled back to allow the surgeon access to the cancer cells that pocked the tissue and bone beneath. I envisioned the cut to her calf where they would take the bone and flesh that would replace what would be taken from her mouth. I thought of the teeth that would be lost to this woman who had always been as assiduous about her dental care as the most obsessive dental hygienist. I worried about the ravages of the surgery, not only of her appearance, but also the assault on her psyche. And I worried how shallow I might still be on matters of my wife’s looks. She was lovely from Day One, so I’d taken that for granted since I was 19 years old.

Just as they were administering the anesthetic to begin the operation, she took the surgeon’s hand and said, “If you can’t save my eye, I don’t want to come out of this.” She vividly remembers the blue eyes of the surgeon, the look of understanding and compassion she saw there.

Six weeks elapsed after the surgery, and then the radiation treatments began, a new hell that included the extra misery of making her feel gradually worse each day. It also brought new (albeit temporary) additional disfigurement and damage to nerves and tissue.

Now, more than two months after the radiation treatments ended, we await a full-body scan scheduled for the end of this month, a scan we’re told will reveal whether she remains cancer-free. If that proves true, we will then embark on further recovery (mostly from the treatments, not the cancer). Though she did not lose her eye, she has lost a third of her body weight. Regaining that weight and her strength is on the agenda, as is the ongoing challenge of accepting the things we cannot change, but struggling daily to change what we can.

Karen’s particular cancer was quite rare, especially for women, but there is hardly a person on the planet who has not been touched by cancer of some kind. If you don’t believe it, just try telling nearly anyone that you have a loved one battling cancer and they’ll tell you about a father, mother, sister, brother or dear friend who either died from the disease, or had a desperate battle with it.

Our particular ordeal has been going on throughout the months Donald Trump and the Republicans have been doing everything possible to dismantle the health care delivery system, tinkering with one-sixth of the U.S. economy and the peace of mind of millions upon millions of Americans, sick and well, even though they clearly had no plan for anything better. On the contrary, they have been busy trying to send untold numbers of desperately sick people back to emergency room care for last-minute attention when things have become critical for them, relegated to a kind of medical treatment never intended to be used in that way, care that is more expensive and far less likely to be efficacious. Trump, Ryan, McConnell, and nearly the entire gang of Republicans on the insurance companies’ payrolls are apparently unconcerned about consequences for people in the direst of dire straits, when the last thing they need to worry about is being thrown off coverage because the obscenely wealthy insurance company executives have concocted profit-enhancing exemptions and exclusions.

This country is way overdue to join the civilized world and adopt a single-payer system, a Medicare-for-all plan that is both cheaper, saner, and more merciful than the greed-driven scheme we now suffer under, one that provides gold-plated coverage for politicians who vote so consistently to deny it to others.

Sooner or later, you will get sick, guaranteed, and you don’t want to be at the mercy of politicians, drug companies, or those vastly rich insurance company CEOS. They’ll all tell you that we can’t afford what other less wealthy countries have, but the truth is that we can’t afford what we have now, which is an exploitative and predatory system that costs us far more, usually for less, than what people pay in other countries.

My wife and I were lucky. We had Medicare, plus an expensive supplementary insurance policy. Without it, this nightmare would have been unimaginably worse.

Karen’s face isn’t the face I first kissed more than a half century ago, but it’s still beautiful to me, and kissing her is still a privilege, a privilege I would not have were it not for health insurance Republicans are working hard to dismantle, insurance many people still don’t have. They would have such insurance (and reassurance) if we could find our way to the decent and more economical single-payer healthcare which is the obvious solution to this long and divisive debate, a squabble that serves the interests of insurance company profits before it serves anyone or anything else.

jaime oneill

Jaime O'Neill
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