Today, after having postponed this appointment three times, I finally went for my annual checkup with the oncologist.


I like my oncologist. He’s a very pleasant, easy-going, friendly guy. Low key. Not an alarmist. Sensitive and sensible. But, in the end, he’s the one who will tell me if I have cancer. Again.

So, as much as I like the guy, I’m not eager to see him. Too much history.

I’ve been doing well. I’ve got more energy than I used to, probably because of all the heart surgery a couple of years ago and having a pump that actually is delivering oxygen to my body. I think my breast bone has finally knitted. I no longer hear it grinding when I move.

Fake breasts

My double round of breast cancer is now 5-1/2 years past. This makes me an official survivor. I have no symptoms, no lumps, no nothing. I have exactly the same chance of getting some (new) kind of cancer as anyone. Maybe a little higher because it runs in my family, but basically, I am (finally) regular folks.

If you think of “refresh” as that thing you do on your computer monitor to clear up garbage and update your open apps? Today was my “refresh.”

I’m clean. My panel of tests are spot on normal. The lab lady found a live vein on the first stab, too!

It doesn’t get better than this.


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I was just out of the hospital having had a bi-lateral mastectomy. I came home in pain, shock, full of drains and swathed in bandages. I felt I had been bludgeoned and the world was upside down.

coffee vanilla

My best friend was staying with me. She had stayed with me in the hospital too. The very definition of friendship is that one person who will sleep in a chair in your hospital room for three nights to make sure you’re okay. They don’t give medals for it, but they should.


I didn’t recover quickly. It wasn’t just the physical changes or pain. Breast cancer requires a revision of a woman’s sense of self and womanhood. There’s no such thing as “simple healing” when one loses significant pieces of ones body, especially those pieces which are specifically identified as “feminine” and without which … well … it’s different.

I was not a happy camper, but I was alive. I had a family, my friend, and a few good computers. There was food to eat, coffee to drink. More slowly than I imagined possible, I got better.

72-Kitchen Floor_01

Until the coffee machine died. One morning, I slunk into the kitchen and there was water everywhere. The Mellita machine we’d had for a  few years sprung a leak. Its life ended in a giant puddle on the kitchen floor. It’s actually quite remarkable how much more water 12 cups is when it escapes its carafe and takes up residence on the floor.

We tossed the Melitta in the trash and realized we were in the midst of a major life crisis. We most urgently, desperately and immediately needed a new coffee machine.

Garry and Cherrie went to the local Walmart — literally the only shop in town and it isn’t even our town, it’s two towns over — and ended up buying a Black and Decker. It was a 12-cup machine and came with a reusable filter. It seemed a sensible choice. Without further ado, the new machine was set up and put into service. We were saved. There would be coffee.


We are a coffee-loving family. Coffee is the start of the day. No coffee? No way! The household went into emergency mode.

Within 48 hours of getting the new coffee machine, we all began to lose our taste for coffee. No one wanted a second cup. We weren’t even finishing the first cup. A 12-cup machine was previously not big enough for all of us and we had to make a second batch. Now, one pot was more than adequate. We had leftover coffee.

One morning, Cherrie said she thought maybe she’d like some tea. Garry decided he didn’t really need coffee and I didn’t want any either.

Suddenly, I knew. It had to be the coffee machine. Until we’d gotten the Black and Decker, everyone loved coffee. A week later, no one was interested. Cherrie wanted tea? Cherrie?

I sent Garry out with instructions to come back with a Mr. Coffee. It may not be the best machine on the market, but it makes consistently good coffee.


Out went the Black and Decker, in came Mr. Coffee … and coffee was back. I eventually surmised that the Black and Decker fed the water through the grounds too fast to produce the right flavor … and there was something weird about that metal basket (we went back to paper filters). Also, the water was the wrong temperature.

The years have come and gone and we are one more Mr. Coffee down the road.

We are happy. There is coffee. It is good and hot. It is the smell and taste of morning, the one single thing I can’t imagine giving up. Take away everything, but do not take away my coffee. Or Mr. Coffee. When you have a good thing going, you don’t mess with it.

Mr. Coffee. Accept no substitute.


This is the “giving season.” Not only does Christmas make many people feel they should give whatever they can afford to those less fortunate, but it is the end of the year. If you are going to donate money as a tax deduction, now is the time.


Giving is good and worthy, but be careful to whom you donate. There are a huge number of charity scams, some legal, many not. They call on the phone, they send emails. They may solicit you on the street. What’s the real story?

I got a call a couple of months ago from a group supposedly collecting money to help women who have breast cancer. Specifically, this group purports to help woman by giving them money to cover the not-inconsiderable expenses connected with cancer. Any cancer, but breast cancer is currently in vogue. I ought to be on a list somewhere. Probably several lists given the breadth and diversity of my physical issues.

“Our goal,” said the collector, “is to assist women with breast cancer who are financially struggling.”

I asked her if she was offering to give me money or asking me to give them money. Because if she was asking me to give them money, she was calling the wrong woman. But if she was offering to help me out, I would be very grateful for any assistance.

Fake breasts

Nice tee-shirt. No part of the price went to charity, no matter what it says

She seemed confused by my question, so I explained that I am a breast cancer victim. I’m in persistent financial straits, so I should be exactly the type of individual for whom her organization is collecting funds. So, if the goal is to help woman with cancer who need money and they’re offering to give me some, I’d be delighted to give them my address so they could send a check. They already have my phone number. I’d be expecting your check. Not.

She told me to have a good day and hung up.


So — for whom are they collecting the money? No one ever called to find out if I need help. She did insist they were collecting money for women just like me. I was obviously not on their “to be helped” list — and I’ve never heard of the organization.

No doubt they will use the money they raise to raise more money. Which they will use to line their own pockets. No one will ever benefit from it except the fundraisers. Another scam.

"Direct cash" is what they really give to someone other than themselves.

“Direct cash aid” is what really goes to support causes — about 5%.

Which is how these things seem to work. Have you ever heard of anyone actually getting any help from one of these groups? Ever? Even a rumor of someone who knew someone who heard about someone who was helped by such an organization? I haven’t. Not one person anywhere ever.

Tee shirts: I have a few breast cancer tee shirts. Some were gifts. One I bought because it made me laugh. Do not assume that any part of the money these transactions goes to charity. It doesn’t. Tee shirt makers’ personal bank accounts are the only cause they support.

I got a note from a friend of mine recently. She asked:

This may seem irrational, but …

I have some bitter feelings about ACS, left over from when my Mom was dying of multiple myeloma (think Geraldine Ferraro) back in the early 1980s, when there really was no treatment for that devastating disease. As her caretaker (and single parent, low-income but employed), I was feeling desperate and alone one time so I called the local chapter. The person who answered the phone day was curt and dismissive, telling me that the only way they could help was by giving us rolled bandages — which my Mom didn’t need. I like to think it would be different now, but ever since that phone call (just a fluke?) I have taken a dim view of ACS.

Not surprisingly, The Charity Navigator, a group that rates charities and how much of the money they collect actually gets to someone other than themselves, rates the American Cancer Society poorly. Two out of five stars.

I answered her as follows (this is my actual answer, with identifying information omitted for privacy reasons):

To the best of my knowledge, this is not an organization that has ever helped anyone. Ever. I called them when Jeff had cancer and they were just as helpful to me as they were to you. This is one of many “charitable organizations” that seems to exist to collect funds so they can collect more funds. And pay their CEO a princely salary (more than a million dollars annually). As far as I’m concerned, they’re a legal scam. They don’t help anyone.

Exactly who does get the money? Good question. Worth asking. When you get fundraising calls, it’s normal to want to give, if you can. After all, it’s for charity. Isn’t it?

worst charities

Most of the money ends up supporting the fundraisers.

Maybe. Maybe not. Before you open your checkbook, find out who they help. Where the money goes. Many “legitimate” groups — the bigger and better known especially — give almost nothing to help anyone or anything except themselves.

Typically, the percentage that goes to “serving those in need” is less than 5% of the total funds collected. If you gave $10, that’s 50 cents. Not much of a return on your investment. This doesn’t take into account the actual scams of which there are a frightening and rapidly growing number.

If you give to one of them, you have thrown your money away. For nothing and no one. How people can use other people’s suffering to enrich themselves? I don’t know, but, it’s done all the time. By many people.


A word about the Salvation Army. Although they do some good stuff, they charge high prices for donated items. I have seen clothing I donated tagged at prices so high that I couldn’t afford to buy it back. I no longer donate to them. Instead, I find groups who give clothing and other necessities to those who need it — free. Our church collects coats and other warm clothing, as do most churches in cold winter areas. There is also Planet World and other groups.


Catholic Charities of USA and associated local chapters support food pantries, free clinics, emergency programs for anyone who needs help regardless of religious affiliation. The American Kennel Club helps dogs, all kinds of dogs, purebred and not. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) provides legal assistance. Whether or not the work they do is something you choose to support is a different issue, but they do live up to their charter.

On the negative side, there’s the United Fund which exists to collect money to support its efforts to collect money. PETA doesn’t give anything to anyone except maybe each other. The American Breast Cancer Association (zero out of four stars) is a legal scam as is the Breast Cancer Prevention Fund  (one star) and there are many more.


Your local church, synagogue, or mosque is a far better investment. Local religious groups do a lot of good in their communities, quietly, without fanfare. Usually behind the scenes and for free.

Direct charity is always a great choice. If you have a friends who having a hard time, help them. At least you will know your money went where it’s genuinely needed.

Bigger is not necessarily better, especially when you’re talking about charities. Big publicity campaigns mean that big money is being spent and not on helping people or doing research.

Most national charities have local chapters — and they do the real work. Local chapters need to raise funds themselves to continue their work because the national groups keeps the money for their own purposes — usually raising more money and paying high salaries to executives.

Donate to local groups rather than the national organizations.


Finally, lots of charities have similar names. You need to know the precise legal name of the group. Scams and legitimate groups sound the same when spoken quickly by a solicitor on the phone. Don’t donate to street collectors or telephone solicitors unless you personally know the group and what they do.

Ask for literature. If they don’t have any, it’s a scam. Even the smallest groups have a leaflet of some kind. Do not assume a website means anything. You know how easy it is to create a website … fake address and all.

Old South Church steeple

Ask questions. Do your homework. For many of us, finding a little money to donate to anyone is a stretch, so before you give, know to whom it’s going.

Otherwise — I’m serious about this — give the money to someone who is struggling. At least you will know your gift helped someone. It won’t be tax-deductible, but that’s not the point, is it?


It took me five months to see an oncologist from Fallon who ran my 2013 Medicare Advantage plan. In 2014, I switched to Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Value Advantage PPO. It came as a blast of clean air. Life has been so much better ever since. Not perfect, but better.

Still, this is a story worth retelling because although the names change, the same situations recur. Right now, I’m going through a similar snafu with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It has me convinced that my state is run by morons. Garry says I’m being unfair to morons.


This story had a beginning and an end. It started when, in November 2012 I gave up my expensive Humana Medigap policy and joined Fallon’s Senior Medicare Advantage plan. It sounded okay on paper.

The customer service person who signed me up assured me Dana-Farber in Milford was covered by Fallon. Untrue. It left me without an oncologist. I was not too upset. I could see my Dana-Farber doctor once more and get a referral from him.


Wrong. My oncologist didn’t know anyone at UMass in Worcester which is Fallon’s only cancer care facility in the county.

Even this didn’t faze me. I’m in the maintenance phase. I go for checkups and blood tests. Nonetheless, cancer runs in my family. Mother. Brother. Both maternal grandparents. I’ve had cancer twice. It’s too soon to stop monitoring.

My Dana Farber oncologist said the UMass facility is good, but he couldn’t help me find a new doctor. He told me to call the HMO and ask them who they have in medical oncology with a specialty in breast cancer. I already knew my PCP couldn’t give me a referral.

I called Fallon.

She said — this is a quote: “We do not list our doctors by specialty.”

“What,” I asked, “Do you list them by? Alphabetically?”

I mean, seriously, if you don’t list doctors by specialty, how can anyone get an appropriate referral? This is senior health care . It’s cancer — not rare among the senior set. Not rare among any set.

Dana Farber lobby

I explained I needed a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer. Cancer doctors are specialized and it did make a difference. No, there’s no such thing as “just an oncologist.” If ignorance was bliss, this was a happy woman.

I explained (again) it would not be okay to send me to “just any” oncologist. I needed a doctor who knew my cancer.

I spent an hour or two being told I needed to go to my primary care doctor for a referral. It was like talking to a robot. Another 45 minutes passed until I was transferred to a supervisor. I retold the story. She said she would “research the problem” and get back to me.

I called my doctor’s office, explained that I hadn’t been able to get a referral from the oncologist at the Dana-Farber, nor could I get a referral from Fallon who seemed to think my PCP should send me to the right doctor. Even though I told them that Dr. S. didn’t know the doctors at UMass, Worcester. I needed help.

A few hours later, my doctor’s office called back and gave me a name, an appointment, and a phone number. The appointment was for just a few days hence, also my birthday. I didn’t want an oncology appointment on my birthday. I called the office.

I got transferred, then transferred again. I ended up talking to Lisa, the administrator for the Breast Cancer Care department. It turned out the doctor with whom I’d been booked was a surgeon Also, they couldn’t do anything without my medical records — scattered through 3 hospitals and a doctor’s office.

Lisa said not to worry, she would take care of it. She did.

She changed the appointment, booked me with a doctor who specialized in my type of cancer, called the various offices and ordered my medical records sent to UMass. Said if I had any kind of problem, give her a call and she’d fix it. Women with cancer didn’t need extra problems. What a difference she made!

My PCP’s assistant called to ask why I’d cancelled the appointment she’d made. I explained that doctor was a surgeon. I’d already been surged. I needed a different doctor. She was pissed because it hadn’t been easy to get that appointment. She could not grasp the difference between a medical oncologist and a surgeon.


I explained again I didn’t need a surgeon. I have no breasts. I did need my medical records. She said yes, Lisa from UMass had called, but she wasn’t sure where to send them.

“Didn’t Lisa tell you where to send them?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Then … why don’t you send them where she told you to send them?”

“But you cancelled the appointment I made!” she said.

“I changed the appointment. Actually, Lisa changed it. Because the doctor to which you were sending me was the wrong doctor. Now I have an appointment with the right doctor. I’m not blaming you. Why are you mad at me?” I reassured her I truly appreciated her efforts.

“Oh,” she said. Not “I’m sorry.” Just “oh.”

“Right,” I said.

I subsequently got many calls from Fallon, all wanting to explain again why I was unhappy with their customer service. I said a patient should be able to call and get names of appropriate doctors and basic information about the doctor. This is fundamental to medical care.

Everyone agreed with me, but I was sure nothing would change. Inertia always wins.

The day was only half over; I was not done.

When I finished the marathon calls to Fallon, I got a call from Humana to remind me I hadn’t made a payment this month.

I hadn’t made the payment because I had cancelled the insurance when I switched to a Medicare Advantage (HMO) program. At the end of November, I had signed up with Fallon, then called Humana to cancel my policy as of the first of the year. I was told that as soon as my new program kicked in, the old policy would be automatically cancelled. There was nothing for me to do.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” I was told.

In was the middle of March. Humana was harassing me for money. When they called again, I got a person on the phone,  pointed out I’d cancelled the plan.

The representative said that he could see in his records I’d called to cancel. I’d been given incorrect information. I had to send them a letter. I could not cancel by phone. I said I signed up by phone. Why did I have to write a letter to cancel?

“Those are the rules,” he said.

“I want to speak to your manager,” I said. He explained that the manager would tell me the same thing. I pointed out that I didn’t care, I wanted to talk to a manager. I didn’t owe them any money.

He said I’d have to file a dispute to not pay them. Although it was their fault and they could see I called to cancel the policy, I would have to fix the problem, though they caused it.

I thought my head would explode.


The manager reiterated indeed they’d given me incorrect information, but it was my problem. Tough luck lady. I hung up, steam coming out of my ears.

I took a breath, called their other customer service department.

The lady I spoke to looked it up, agreed they had given me erroneous information, contacted the cancellation department and assured me it was fixed. I have a name and a number in case it isn’t. I pointed out they had burned a whole year of good will in an hour. And any further harassment and I’d call the Attorney General and report them for sharp business practices.

It had grown dark while all this was going on and as the day had gone from morning to evening.

How come so many incompetent people have jobs? Why are they working when so many more intelligent and better qualified people are out of work? It’s a mystery.




A mere two years after a double mastectomy, I’m facing another medical crisis. I’m not handling it gracefully. Too many crises. Dozens of surgeries. I can’t bore you with details; I have, thankfully, forgotten them.

Fake breasts

I’ve spent more time in the hospital than most interns. I’m a professional patient with the scars to prove it. When I die, they should stuff me. Put me in some kind of museum proving with enough medical attention, even the totally unfit can survive. Each doctor who redesigned some portion of me can tattoo his signature along the appropriate scar, assuming all the doctors are still alive. Probably they aren’t because I started my career on the wrong side of medicine while still a teenager and apparently am not due for retirement anytime soon.

I need a new mitral valve. I used to joke and laugh, saying the only major system in my body that continues to work is my heart. I laughed too soon. Probably jinxed myself.

I go into each surgery with fear and resignation. I know how I’m going to feel when I wake up from the anaesthesia. I will hurt. I will be sick and disoriented. I will realize I must have survived because I’m aware how totally miserable I am. Again.

Last time I woke up and the first thing I did was look down at my chest to see if I had a semblance of breasts. I did. Lumpy, not flat. Though I knew they weren’t original equipment, I was comforted by the familiarity of the landscape. With all the pain, drains and anger at my body for betraying me, it was nice to know I would at least appear — on the surface — female.


View of Boston and Fenway Park from the Baptist Hospital

That was when I said: “Never again. I’m never going through this again.”

I should just shut up. How stupid am I? I can’t remember how many times I’ve woken from that weird deathlike anaesthesia sleep and have fought my way back up to the light. Each time, just a little weaker, a bit less sure of the future — but alive. Hanging on.

Lobby of the Dana-Farber in Milford

Lobby of the Dana-Farber in Milford

It’s too soon. I’m not ready. Maybe this time the magic won’t work. My first husband died following complications of mitral valve replacement surgery. I watched him die. After the surgical accident that killed his brain, he remained technically alive, but in a vegetative state for 9 long months. I took care of something that looked like him, but whose eyes were empty. When finally he passed completely, I and the rest of his friends gratefully wished him well on a journey he should have taken nearly a year before.

Probably no surprise that this particular surgery holds a special terror for me.

Less than two years since I vowed “Never again,”  again has come. I suppose I’ve already made the choice to let them fix me, or try anyhow (does “or die trying” sound too ghoulish?). The alternative — slowly dying while my heart becomes less and less able to pump blood — doesn’t sound attractive. An attractive option does not seem to be available. But, there’s no advantage in waiting. I won’t get younger or healthier. The older I get, the more dangerous surgery is.


Glass shaft at the Dana-Farber.

I gave myself a little gift of time. I put off my appointment with the surgeon until the beginning of September. I need to get my head into a better space, to settle down emotionally. A few weeks of denial before I tackle another scary reality.

So for the next three weeks If you ask me, I will tell you. I’m just fine. Thanks for asking.


I originally wrote this six years ago. I’ve rewritten it many times since. Some day, I’ll get it right. It does seem appropriate for this topic. The deeper meaning, such as it is, is obvious: all us are haunted by someone or something, an evil shadow of what we were and never want to be again.

– – –

Twelve years ago, I lost 160 pounds, an entire full-grown person. I have gained some during the past two years as a side effect of anti-hormone therapy following breast cancer, but I’m still more than 100 pounds less than I was before the story began.


Every since the initial weight loss, there has been a Fat Lady following me. She is me, or more accurately, she is the me I used to be. She is invisible to everyone else, but I can see and hear her clearly. She waddles after me wherever I go. She talks to me, nags me, teases me. She sits with me at meals, whispering in my ear. She’s my co-pilot while I drive. Worst of all, she goes shopping with me.

While I try to decide whether or not to buy the size that looks great and fits just right … or play it safe and get the bigger size … she is there taunting me. This is probably why I have a half closet of clothing that’s too big. Always is the terrible whispering voice of the Fat Lady saying: “Yes, but what if you gain weight … what if you need bigger sizes? What will you do with this little stuff?”

The Fat Lady never shuts up. “You know, your feet might swell. You’ll never fit into those narrow little shoes.” Panic. What if my feet really DO swell? It hasn’t happened in more than 10 years, but still I expect it any day.

What if this is all some kind of weird dream? If suddenly I wake to discover I’m big? Every time I try on a garment, that Fat Lady is there, doing commentary.

Ah! The terror and triumph of shopping; the sheer exhilaration of sliding comfortably into skinny jeans … until the Fat Lady says. “You’ll never get into those pants.”.

“I am wearing them,” you point out.

“So,” she says, “what about tomorrow, eh? You could gain more weight. They might not fit tomorrow. Then what’ll you do? All you have is LITTLE clothing.”

“I’m going to stay little,” you reply, trying to hold firm.

“SURE you are,” she says. “Just like all those other times before …”

There’s no getting away from her. I have to run to the bathroom scale to confirm that I am not, in fact, fat. I stand in front of the mirror and stare at this body looking for signs of creeping obesity. I press my hands hard against my belly.

My belly is flat. Although I’m not longer all bone, I’m normal. Not bad at all for a gal of my age with a lot of miles on her. Perky breasts, too, since the nasty ones with the cancer were replaced with firm, youthful silicon implants.

I can feel the Fat Lady breathing in my ear. “See that flab?” she mocks. “That’s your old fat self. It’s just waiting for you.”

“It’s loose skin from all the surgeries.”


“Hah,” she says. “We both know better, don’t we.”

I have a theory about fat. It’s connected with the concept in physics that matter and energy is interchangeable and that the actual amount of matter and energy in the universe never changes. It just converts back and forth from energy to matter and around and around.

I lost 160 pounds.

That fat went somewhere. It’s in the ether waiting.

My lost fat transformed into a Fat Energy Field. Not only my fat, but all the fat anyone ever lost is hanging in the atmosphere, huge, amorphous, invisible … waiting for some unsuspecting person to cross its path. Then … WHAPPO ZAPPO. The Fat Energy Field transforms back into Fat Matter. Hips become huge, bellies grow pendulous and thighs and buttocks fill with blubber.

How many times have you … or someone you know said “I don’t know what happened. All of a sudden, I just put on 40 pounds. I don’t understand. I didn’t eat more than usual. It just happened.”

That poor soul intersected with a Fat Energy Field. It could be his or her very OWN Fat Energy Field, if he or she recently lost weight, or it could be mine or someone else’s.
So after all is said and done, it really isn’t your fault when you gain weight. You were engulfed in a Fat Energy Field.

All of which brings me back to my shadow, the Fat Lady. She is me, but she isn’t either. She is my shadow, a demon-self sent to discourage and frighten me. Somewhere, deep in my psyche, I know her. Me as my Fat Lady was comfortable and safe in those folds of fat. I sent her away but she wants to come home so she won’t have to remain amorphous, without a true body.

The Fat Lady wants my body back.

I spend a lot of time looking in mirrors. Vanity? No. I look in mirrors for reassurance. I have to keep checking to make sure that I am the “now” me, not the “old” version. I check that mirrored image for signs of bloat, for hints I will be who I was and who I do not wish to be ever again.

There was a movie called “Charly” that starred Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom, based on a short story called “Flowers for Algernon” written by Daniel Keyes.

Released in 1968, it told the story of Charly, a retarded adult transformed by a miracle of medicine into a brilliant scientist  but ultimately, the miracle fails and he returns to his former state of retarded man-child. He knows, before it happens, that it will happen.

How terrifying must that be? How terrified am I? (Note: These days I have lots of stuff to be scared of and regaining lost weight has dropped from my number 1 fear to around number 4 … but it’s still way up there on the worry chart.)

I feel his fear, the gnawing anxiety that he would have felt knowing he would lose all that he had gained. I live with that fright. I am scared to eat, even when I’m hungry. I’m afraid to buy clothing that really fits because I may not fit into it tomorrow morning or even later today.

Life in a new body is a daily adrenaline rush of mixed joy and panic, an endless roller coaster ride that CYCLONE-ahauls me up then drops me in a screaming rush then whips me around a curve only to drag me up again.

Fortunately, I love roller coasters, the bigger, faster and scarier, the better. If you are going to completely alter your physical self, you need to like living on the edge because you are on it for life. That roller coaster becomes life.

Life is to be lived and excitement, change, and danger make life interesting. We take risks because we want our lives to be edgy. We deny it, claim all we want peace, but we don’t really seek peace. We are ambivalent, wanting safety yet craving excitement.

They say that you stay young by constantly learning. I think you stay young by continuing to take risks. It may not always be smart, but sometimes, smart isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

Prompts for the Promptless – Ep. 9 – Gallows Humor: Dying Is Easy (Comedy Is Hard)

After I was told I had cancer in not one, but both breasts — they were having a two-for-one special at the Dana-Farber — I had them removed and replaced by silicon Hollywood quality implants. I stopped short of adding the fake nipples. Previous surgeries had left me with no naval, so now lacking both naval and nipples, I think maybe I’m an alien walking the earth.

I have a tee-shirt that says “Yes, they are FAKE. My real ones tried to kill me.” It makes people laugh. It’s the high point of my cancer experience.

Unfortunately, cancer tends to enter your life and like a guest that long over-stays his or her welcome, you just can’t get rid of it. After I gave up my Medigap policy and signed on with Fallon Senior Medicare Advantage plan, it took me five months to get an appointment with an oncologist. It began last November and isn’t over yet.

Dying is easy 1

To get started on the wrong foot, the customer service person who signed me up in the beginning gave me incorrect information, having assured me Dana-Farber in Milford was covered by Fallon. This turned out to be untrue and left me without an oncologist. I was annoyed, but they said I could see my Dana-Farber oncologist once more and I figured I’d get a referral from him.

My oncologist didn’t know anyone at UMass in Worcester which is Fallon’s only cancer care facility in Worcester County. I remained calm. I’m past surgery and chemo, in the maintenance phase of care, the part where they do their best to ignore you. Failing that, they do the least they can. Unless you obviously grow a new cancer in a location they can see and feel, they tell you you’re fine. Not to worry. Smile. It’s just cancer.

At Dana-Farber, I had been going for quarterly check-ups, feeling for lumps, taking blood, checking for weird symptoms that could indicate something growing somewhere it shouldn’t. Annually they run a scan to take a look around the property, aka my body. I’d had to go to war for the scan. Their plan was to do nothing at all unless I had symptoms. Does death count? I felt their plan was insufficient while they felt running a scan was a frivolous waste of taxpayer’s money. My life didn’t come into the equation.

My former oncologist couldn’t help me find a new doctor. He suggested I call the HMO and ask them to refer me to a medical oncologist with a speciality in breast cancer. I knew my PCP wouldn’t be able to refer me because she had already said so. She had suggested I get the referral from my oncologist. Full circle.

I called Fallon Senior Heath Plan.


The customer service rep sounded about 12-years-old, but knew even less than her years suggested. She didn’t understand the concept of different kinds of oncologists. After explaining for perhaps the dozenth time, I began to sink into the slough of despond. It was like talking to a smiling plastic doll who will recite one of 3 pre-recorded phrases. Pull the string, get an answer.

I got transferred to a supervisor and retold the story. She said she would “research the problem” and get back to me. Research the problem? Sounded like a kiss-off to me.

I called my doctor’s office, explained I hadn’t been able to get a referral from my oncologist or from Fallon where they kept saying my family doctor should send me to the right doctor even though I told them Dr. S. didn’t know the doctors in oncology at UMass, Worcester.

HELP, I said. Please!

I did my little song and dance, explaining I needed a Medical Oncologist with a specialty in Breast Cancer. Since breast cancer is frightfully common, it shouldn’t be that hard to find someone.

A few hours later, my doctor’s office called back, gave me a name, an appointment, a phone number. The appointment was for a few days hence, also my birthday. I didn’t want an oncology appointment on my birthday. Nor did I need an appointment immediately. I had just had my annual scan. So I called the doctor’s number to change the appointment to something more sensible.

I got transferred, transferred, and wound up talking to Lisa, the administrator for the Breast Care department. The doctor with whom I’d was booked is a surgeon and they need my medical records before they can continue. The records are all over the Commonwealth, scattered between 4 hospitals.

Lisa said not to worry, she would take care of it. She did. She changed the appointment, booked me with an appropriate doctor, called the various offices and ordered my records. Said if I had any kind of problem, give her a call and she’d fix it because women with cancer shouldn’t have additional problems because they already had quite enough. My feeling precisely!

Shortly thereafter, my doctor’s assistant called asking why I’d cancelled the appointment she had made for me. She was furious. After all the effort she’d made making that phone call on my behalf, I’d had the gall to CANCEL the appointment. I explained she’d booked me with a surgeon — pointless since I’ve already been thoroughly surged. I needed a different doctor.

She was pissed because it hadn’t been easy to get that wrong appointment and seemed unable to grasp the difference between a medical oncologist and a surgeon. I explained — again — that a surgeon would not be able to help me because I don’t need breast surgery. I have no breasts. But I do need my medical records sent to UMass. She said Lisa from UMass had called about it but she wasn’t sure where to send them.

“Did Lisa tell you where to send them?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Then … why don’t you send them there?” Duh.

“But you cancelled the appointment I made!” she whined, still pissed off.

“I changed the appointment. To be accurate, Lisa changed it because the doctor to which you were sending me was the wrong doctor. NOW I have an appointment with the right doctor.” We went back and forth for a while until she grudgingly accepted my apology for not needing a breast surgeon. I assured her that I truly appreciated her futile efforts.

“I’m so sorry to upset you,” I repeated.

Yesterday I got a note in the mail (not email, the regular mail) from UMass cancelling my appointment with the oncologist and suggesting I call to make a new one.

Maybe I don’t really need an oncologist. Dying is easy; comedy is hard.

Dying is easy