The cancer diaries: Smile

On a dark and crisp morning, last November, too early even for the murder of crows that normally hovers over the Ottawa Hospital, my friend Jennette and I joined a steady stream of haggard looking souls padding into the Ottawa Cancer Centre. Some people looked frightened, others simply dazed, and few looked bloody famished.

My soul cried out for coffee, but it seemed rude to slurp a Starbucks in front of the unfortunates who had been fasting for hours. So I just doodled on my iPad and watched the sleepy bunch try to amuse themselves. There we sat, the friends and relatives of the cancer gang, clutching on to our loved ones or trying to be chill, reading Smart Phones, flipping through old magazines, or watching the CBC News with no sound. This was a shitty place to cool your heels.

We all have that memory of our first surgery. Mine was tonsils, pretty pedestrian stuff. But on that morning, my six-year-old memory muscle transported me to the operating halls of the St. Catharines General where a terrifying bunch of masked bandits hovered over me, and applied ether. All these years later, I can still remember that smell and those terrifying masks.

Of course, the operating rooms of today look nothing like the one I remembered from my youth. They are friendly places with nary a Nurse Ratchet in sight.

Still, it's a place where God gives you permission to be frightened. After all, a person could wake up dead.

After a half hour of waiting, Jennette's name was called. The nurse took her back and said she'd come and get me after they'd done some tests. Five minutes later, the same nurse rushed out to say that Jennette had fainted and hit her head in the bathroom.

So instead of having scary cancer surgery, we ended up in the ER while the doctors topped up her fluids.

What a brilliant waste of time.

Two weeks later, two days before Christmas, we resumed the perp walk.

This time, the operation went ahead.

Looking back at that time, I remember vividly how scared I was, and how sad I felt spending Christmas with Jennette in the observation unit surrounded by fake Christmas presents. The smells of Christmas and the sounds of carols were replaced by a waft of alcohol, and the beeping of heart monitors.

There was no turkey dinner, only water, and later pudding and Instant breakfast.

I've had a few shitty Christmases, like the time my husband announced he was leaving me with our three kids, or that other year when my Grandma died just a week before the holidays. But this was absolutely heart-stoppingly terrible.

And I wasn't the person who had surgery.

Little did I know last Christmas that months later I would also be diagnosed with cancer.

Fortunately, mine was not as serious as Jennette's.

I lost part of my ear, she lost half the bottom of her mouth.

It's been a long journey for Jennette since this time last fall. She had to learn to live on mush and goo instead of her beloved ribs and wings. Her life has been an endless pop from one specialist to another, her life made even more difficult for the fact that her father fell terminally ill just weeks after her surgery so she spent most of the winter and spring sitting vigil with him in hospice.

The timing of her father's decline was unfortunate, at least as far as the radiologist was concerned. Radiation was recommended, but Jennette refused it because she needed to spend those precious days with her father. By the time Jim passed, the window for radiation had also passed, which turned out to be a blessing.

You see, Jennette was cancer-free and didn't absolutely, positively, need the radiation which would have left her toothless.

Let me tell you something about my little friend.

Jennette has had a pretty hard life these past years. She looked after her ailing husband through a series of horrific illnesses. She waited on him hand and foot, paid for everything, worked two jobs, motored through two hip replacements and foot surgery. Then she spent her life savings burying Roger and getting her life back together.

Then she got cancer. Then her beloved father got sick.

She's had her setbacks, don't get me wrong. And she almost caved after Jim's death when, in her words "she didn't know who she was anymore."

I have worried myself silly over this nice lady because she couldn't catch a break.

But she never took her eye off the ball.

She survived cancer, she survived the death of her loved ones, she survived all of life's disappointments, but GOD DAMN IT, she was going to have teeth.

So foregoing radiation was just fine by Jennette.

Because, as my grandma used to sing, "all she wanted for Christmas were her two front teeth."

For months, the doctors told Jennette she couldn't, wouldn't have teeth. They talked about the new normal.

Jennette talked about tearing into a rib or a chicken wing.

She wanted teeth. Thanks to her Dad, she had the means to find somebody, anybody to give them to her.

Jennette found a team of dentists who were willing to take on the challenge of making her new teeth, not an easy task considering the cancer surgery had removed her bottom gum and left a weird flap under her tongue.

Trouble was, she couldn't have implants because her surgeon warned they would shatter her jaw.

The first dentist jumped back, said no thank you, ma'am, that's too complicated. The second one said, right on, let's get started.

A few weeks back, I drove Jennette to the dentist for her surgery. I was about to leave and the assistant told me that it wouldn't be long. So I sat down, had a coffee and an hour later she was done.

She walked out like she'd just gone in for a cleaning.

Jennette smiled at me through a bloody gob, but there they were, sure enough: a full set of gleaming choppers. And she looked just great.

I want to admit something. I listened to the doctors, and didn't believe she would ever have teeth. Being a friend, though, I wanted to support Jennette and help her hold on to her hopes and dreams.

I was wrong, and I usually hate being wrong.

Not this time.

I'm telling you this story because every cancer patient needs to hold on to their hopes and dreams, however big or small. They need not accept the first opinion or even the fifth. Nor should they listen to well meaning friends.

The best thing, I learned through this experience is a person has to go with her gut.

And be brave.

Sometimes it doesn't work out, but shouldn't we all hang on to hope, even when things look bleak?

Here she is, the new and improved Jennette Lovie.

Way to go, girl!

By the way, there's nothing stopping Jennette.

She's on to her next project.

She tells me next year she's going for cataract surgery and will no longer need the glasses she's worn since the 60s.



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