Thursday, July 30, 2015


This essay should rightly be published the first week in September, which will be the 20th anniversary of my successful surgery for cancer. Living cancer-free for 20 years is no small accomplishment. But it would never have happened—or perhaps I should say, it is unlikely that it would have happened—if it were not for two men.

The first was Dr. Graham, a gynecologist practicing in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I was referred to him by my primary care physician for symptoms outside the general practice of medicine. Within three months, Dr. Graham did a biopsy and a few days after that he gave me the results: I had cancer; it was the same kind that had taken my mother’s life when I was 15 years old.
I expected Dr. Graham to tell me I should consult a surgeon in his large gynecology practice. Instead, he said he wanted to send me to a colleague of his in Indianapolis. From my house to Indianapolis is between two and three hours, depending on traffic, construction zones on the Interstate, and the general attitude of the driver. I was the driver, and my general attitude was one of fear and trembling, alternating with anger and self-pity.
The second man in this story was the surgeon, Dr. Geisler, who had been in med school with Dr. Graham. I liked Dr. Geisler right away: he was not very tall, had a quiet manner, explained everything in words I could understand, and though he never said how sorry he was to have me go through this, I felt it in his manner. I was on the receiving end of true compassion.
After my appointment in Indianapolis I drove home “in a state,” as my grandmother would’ve said. Fortunately I knew how to get home, because the car had very little assistance from me; I drove on autopilot.
Basically what I had learned was:
A.      I had cancer; it was in the early stages. (We didn’t number them in those days)
B.      The prognosis was good that surgery would take care of it.
C.      I was asked to schedule a date for surgery. (I had the audacity—or maybe the foresight, who knows—to ask if I could go ahead with my vacation, already planned and paid for, and have the surgery after I got back. The answer was yes, and we settled on September 7.)
My vacation trip was to Seattle, a city I’ve always liked. Pike Place Market—featured in the movie Sleepless in Seattle—was a wondrous place to explore: fresh fruit and vegetables and seafood, baked goods like none I’d ever experienced. I walked the city streets, up and down disastrously steep hills; and when the walks got too strenuous, I rode a cable car. A favorite coffee place was the Buena Vista at the end of the cable car line (sadly, I hear the Buena Vista is gone now). But the cable cars are back in business after a lengthy cessation of service.
I won’t say I had a wonderful vacation, though I loved the city and the things I did there; it was a welcome break in my work life, and gave me something sweet to hold onto after I came home and began to prepare for surgery and the time off work following. Surgery was never far from my thoughts.
Eventually the big day arrived. A friend drove me to Indianapolis; my youngest daughter followed us in my car. The other children, their dad, my best bud from college, and my pastor all arrived at different times.

If you’ve ever had major surgery, especially in a large hospital, you know the basic drill: sign in, get undressed and then dress again in one of those goofy hospital gowns, answer 42 questions, let them snap a bracelet on your arm so you don’t forget who you are, hop onto a gurney, and you’re in their clutches. In a little prep room, I was given some meds, then my 8-person cheering section was allowed in to wish me well. (I trust none of them thought of it as good-bye forever.) As I began to lose altitude from the injection, medical personnel stopped by to ask me who I was, why I was there, who my doctor was. So long as I could answer them, I passed the test.
Next I went to a place I call the holding pen—it was a long, long, long room, with gurneys like mine lined up as far as the eye could see. In my dopey state, it reminded me of a warehouse.
A male nurse came by, said he’d be taking me up to the OR pretty soon; asked the same questions everyone else had asked (they don’t share information in hospitals); told me I was doing fine and I was going to do okay because I wasn’t very heavy. I was alert enough, despite my meds, to tell him he was a liar. He said, no-no, most of the ladies who have to have the surgery you’re having are a lot heavier. From that moment I loved him. But I never saw him again.
The time came for me to mosey on up, or out, to the OR. The nurse pushed the gurney along. We stopped in a corridor (there’s no rhyme or reason to hospital corridors if you’re doped up), and my surgeon, Dr. Geisler, stopped us, asked how I was (I was still sort-of alert), and asked if I’d like him to pray with me. I said yes. He held my hand and recited the Lord’s Prayer—rattling it off at a great rate, and ending with “deliver us from evil,” in the Roman Catholic way. I was greatly comforted.
Dr. Geisler’s philosophy about gynecological surgery was fairly simple: Remove everything that isn’t vital, and that might possibly harbor cancer cells. This included organs, soft tissue, and lymph nodes. Maybe other stuff, but those are the ones I remember. Because of his approach (which I believe he pioneered), I needed no chemotherapy, no radiation, and suffered no side effects after surgery. I had pain meds if I needed them. My only reaction was to the anesthetic; I felt mentally ‘way out there for about six months before things began to settle down and I could do my job as efficiently as I had before surgery.
I saw Dr. Geisler every year for five years, at which time he congratulated me and discharged me from his care. His knowledge, his skill, had given me back my life. He would’ve said, it’s my job, not in a put-down way, but matter-of-fact.
Yes, it was his job, but it was a transformation for me. During my convalescence I did a lot of soul searching. Why, I wondered, was I spared? What was I supposed to do with this new life I’d been given?
Those questions still plague me, but I’m more comfortable with them now that I’ve lived with them for 20 years. It’s doubtful that I’ll ever know the why of the equation. Why me, why not someone else? But what I’m supposed to do with my life—that’s something I work on every day. I’m grateful I was allowed to live cancer-free. I’m thankful for people like Dr. Graham and Dr. Geisler who made a huge contribution to my life. And I salute the young male nurse who kept my spirits from plunging to the sub-basement.
Huge gifts, for which I can never repay anyone. But I can search for ways to help other people in whatever way I can. We may never know if we’ve given someone back a life they’d thought was lost, but we can trust any efforts in the right direction will work for good.

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