In Nancy Sharp’s new memoir Both Sides Now, she paints a vivid picture of moments she shared with her husband Brett as he received the diagnosis and then battled a life threatening brain tumor. In an excerpt from her book, posted last month on the StandUp2Cancer (SU2C) Website, she pays special consideration to a young neurosurgeon-to-be, Dr. Michael Sisti, now the James G. McMurtry Associate Professor of Clinical Neurosurgery, Radiation Oncology & Otolaryngology and Co-Director of The Center for Radiosurgery here at Columbia.
“I was so stuck by the photo of you and Brett,” says Dr. Sisti in a recent note to Nancy after she shared her book excerpt with him. “Everything came back in flash, in a instant I realized I had forgotten nothing about our first meeting and our subsequent struggles to fight Brett’s cancer. Like you, I never will forget anything about it. The first visceral reaction I had after actually reading the chapter was my recollection that the entire weight of the world was on us that afternoon and I can still feel the pressure at this very moment. I never had any doubt it was as powerful to me as it was to the two of you at that time. The surreal and dislocating nature of “the first contact” with cancer never loses its potent sting, it’s such a cruel disease to everyone it touches. Cancer may be relentless, but so are we, and even though there are no “wins” or “losses,” we struggle on. I believe this is fundamental to the nature of our humanity to fight for what’s really important. Perhaps it’s this terrible struggle that ultimately enables us to heal.”
We have re-printed Nancy Sharp’s book excerpt below:
Relief And The Plastic Brain
By Nancy Sharp
You were so sick and so tired that you almost welcomed the diagnosis. You were relieved to know that you weren’t crazy. We saw the demon tumor ourselves, in vivid contrast, tacked to the fluorescent white board in your surgeon’s office. It was the size of a small rodent. A mouse or a dwarf rat.
No sooner did Dr. Balmaceda break the news to us (life really did combust in that moment), than she escorted us upstairs to the ninth floor, where your young neurosurgeon-to-be, Dr. Michael Sisti, greeted us in his plush office. He had a kind face, a soft voice, and bright blue eyes.
We stood looking at your brain scans as Dr. Sisti explained that the mass was lodged around the lower part of your cerebellum and down into your left medulla. We had no real knowledge of the inner workings of the human brain, how it is made up of over 100 billion nerve cells capable of 1000 trillion connections—all happening in a squishy, three-pound lump the size of a cantaloupe.
Neither one of us had ever seen an MRI of the brain before, and here was yours: black, white and abnormal. What focused our attention was when Dr. Sisti raised the possibility that your tumor could be benign. “You might not need chemotherapy or radiation at all if it’s an ependymoma.”
“Come sit,” he said gently, sensing your physical exhaustion. I remember how you and I hung on those words: it could be benign. Dr. Sisti made no promises; the actual tumor would need to be confirmed by a pathology report, after your surgery, which we scheduled, for the following week.
We sat in matching blue armchairs. You kept staring beyond the good doctor, out the window at the Hudson River. You couldn’t follow the conversation and had a pained look on your face. I was fixated on a pink, plastic, life-size model of a brain on his large mahogany desk, half-listening as he told us about all the intricate cases he had operated on and how he would approach yours. Dr. Sisti tried to reassure us even as he laid out multiple strategies for dealing with tumors in the posterior fossa, wherever that was. Again, he speculated on how the large size and location of your tumor was consistent with ependymomas. “But if it’s malignant, that’s another story.”
I started to take notes since the conversation was so surreal. As clear as the words lesion and fourth ventricle and cranioectomy and chemotherapy looked on paper, I felt disconnected from them, the pen a foreign object in my hand. I forced myself to jot down the words since I would never remember them otherwise.
My foot fell asleep, and as I began to twist it awake, I felt an odd tension within my body—an airy, untethered rustling. Part of me wanted to bolt from Dr. Sisti’s office, to run from this dark curtain he was opening. I wanted to escape back in time, to unwritten scripts. Not youth, so much as possibility.The future with children and a house with a white fence and you mowing the lawn and grilling on weekends and me cooking vegetables grown from our garden. Life had turned for us in this moment, regardless of the outcome of your surgery.
It might have been naïve and vain to feel this way, that life would never cut us unexpectedly (no one deserves terrible things to happen), but, really, we had been lucky up until now. I stayed in that blue chair in Dr. Sisti’s office because at last there was some explanation for your declining health, and he appeared genuine and knowledgeable about how to help you. At some point he told us that he was likely the only neurosurgeon from New Jersey who neither played golf nor liked Bruce Springsteen. “I’ll forgive you,” you said.
Dr. Sisti weighed the variety of possible tumors and treatment protocols, from good to moderate to bad. Under normal circumstances, I’d have drilled down into every perceived scenario. Not this time. I kept looking at the brain on his desk, half-expecting it to run and leap from the window into the Hudson River. Reality was shifting for me in this moment. I couldn’t understand why the plastic brain stayed static or the desk hadn’t budged. Why did the view of the river remain unobstructed? Why, when the earth dropped the way it did for us, was nothing moving?
Counseling gave me an outlet, and for you, balancing work and your intensive treatment schedule was enough. You went for full brain and spine radiation every day for six weeks, where you wore a carbon mask and slid into a cradle that immobilized your head and neck, while shielding the rest of your body from toxic rays. They blasted you with 3,600 shots of radiation to your spine and another 5,400 units to your skull, enough to stunt growth and cause learning difficulties in children.
Brain cancer is impossible to hide. You had a two-inch scar on the back of your head, you were bald and without eyelashes, and much as you loathed to admit it, you needed your cane. “Look at me,” you said one night in front of the bathroom mirror. I kissed your forehead and assured you that I loved you just the same. Yet you didn’t feel loving toward yourself, which was another loss to accept. You never left home without a cap. The hats became your armor, and they gave you strength.
We buried you in your navy blue Olympics cap, the one given to you by my friend, Gwen, a cancer survivor. She bought it at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
How was it that the incision on the back of your head leaked small traces of spinal fluid, but it was my scars that felt raw and exposed? I felt a tightness across my mouth, as if my lips were sewn together. Everywhere I went, kind people commented. “You look tired. You look sad.” Fear was always bobbing in my head, particularly at night, when the recurrent image of a noose around my neck would startle me awake.
I wish that I hadn’t felt so suffocated by your disease. That I might have kept my confidence during that first long year. Rarely, you allowed yourself to think, “What if I’m not cured?”
With the exception of hurting someone you love, there is no right or wrong way to cope with a life-threatening illness. I came to see that you were right to feel the way you did. We go where we need to go. For your own survival you had to leap ahead, to a place beyond the internment of your cancer, where you could live and dream like a healthy man. Was this a form of denial? Perhaps it’s what Susan Sontag meant in Illness as Metaphor, when she wrote:
“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
We go where we need to go.
–Nancy Sharp is a writer, speechwriter, blogger and keynote speaker. She has been published in a variety of national media and frequently speaks to medical groups about courage. Nancy is the author of two blogs – Vivid Living…Life in Full Bloom…Thorns and All and Tasting Life with Nancy Sharp. – both of which can also be seen on the Huffington Post.
To pre-order Both Sides Now see http://www.nancysharp.net/?page_id=447