Three weeks after my partner Randy died of metastatic cancer, I called the oncology resident who had been his on-call doctor. I remember exactly how long it took me to make that call because I was in a place of noticing how long things took, with mild interest, like: when will I feel hungry? When will the best part of every day stop being when I’m asleep?
It took me three weeks to work up to hearing Randy’s doctor’s voice on the phone and simultaneously make words in English.There was something I wanted to ask her or, more accurately, something I wanted to make her say.
“If you’d known how much time he had left,” I said, standing on our tiny back deck, looking over the early-spring woods, “would you still have given him chemo?”
What I remember is that she paused very briefly, and then she sounded choked up. That satisfied me, as if she were my enemy showing overdue weakness. “No.” she said, “Not if I’d known how long he had, no.”
“Thank you.” I said. We exchanged some version of “Nice working with you” and then hung up. I had wanted exactly what I got: an admission, maybe of having fucked up, maybe of the possibility that she’d act differently in the future. That next time she would acknowledge what she couldn’t fix. Show some respect, next time, for the monster: a rare and unbeatable cancer, the oncoming death of a still-young man.
Not long after that, the hospital called me. They were inquiring after the outstanding 10% of his bill not covered by his insurance, the first job benefits he’d ever had. That 10% of the bill for seven weeks of cancer treatment came to $300,000 and change. Randy had had a very rare cancer, a carcinoma of unknown primary origin: the original tumor had been shrunk to nothing by his immune system, but not before the cancer cells mutated and slipped into his bloodstream. So “poorly defined” cancer cells were spread throughout his body, with no point of origin, no tumor to be cut out or site to be irradiated.
In Randy’s case, by the time he was diagnosed he had cancer in his blood and in his bone marrow.