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My Oncologist Smoked a Pipe, I Swear I'm not Making this up! Chapter 3 of Suck it Up and Deal

There was no other way around it, I had to have a year of chemotherapy, even after they amputated my leg. People hear the word "chemotherapy" and they know that it is bad. Yet I think most people don't understand what it really is and what it does to people. I bring up chemotherapy, and maybe it is because of my profession, teaching, that I have a keen eye for catching that glazed look of vague, abstract understanding.

No worries, this is what I do; as a teacher my other super power is that I explain things well.

Chemotherapy is poison. It is like injecting raid or arsenic or hemlock, into the human body on purpose.

Cancer is so nasty that one round of poison doesn't kill it. As fast as your body can heal from the poison, the aggressive Cancers must be hit again, and again, and again.

I was told, at thirteen, that the life of a cancer cell is like a game of monopoly. At different points of a cancer cell's life, it can be killed by a different poison. So at Marvin gardens, one poison will kill it. At St. Charles place, another poison will kill it. Doctors from all over the country write and re-write the protocol of what drug goes where in the monopoly game. They were the architects of the fight against cancer in its many forms, and they had paid dearly for all they learned.

It was the pediatric oncologists among them who chose the most sacred of paths, as children had to be warriors in the face of cancer, and were armed with so little to defend themselves.

My oncologist was my keeper of the board, and helped so many children to beat the cancer that fought back with a immoral disregard for whosoever it killed. In my mind, my doctor asked for a broken heart of the worst kind again, and again. Who would chose this kind of life? I remember years later talking to him about his early years in the profession: when he lost so many children. How did you keep going? I imagined he said then, "We learned."

In 1984, though, Dr. Dickerman must have been in his late 40's or early 50's. Tall, thin, with a professorial look, salt and pepper hair, a big smile, and yes, a smelly pipe. The irony of this was beyond my mother's appreciation of the ironic, and she found him a bumper sticker in florescent orange that said "CANCER CURES SMOKING," and put it up on the wall his clinic space to give him the hint.

On every visit, Dr. Dickerman greeted us all warmly and in his own way, "Jessie, Jessie, Jessie.... how are you my dear?" His warm, affectionate manner was so comforting, and you couldn't help loving his fatherly charm. Yet, he wasn't Santa Claus, he was a doctor who had lost a lot of patients over the years to cancer, and his patients were kids. He was a fierce leader, and he told everything to you straight out. There was no beating around the bush, and no holding back. Sure, he would take my hand, call me by this nickname no one had ever used with me, but in the end, he knew his job and he always had a plan.

"Jessie, we are going to give you a Hickman catheter in your chest. It is a tube that we can give you your treatments into so that your veins will get a rest..." I listened the best I could to every word. He would skillfully ask if I had questions, and he would wait as I struggled... "No Jessie, don't worry, it won't come out. You could hang from the window with it and it wouldn't rip out." I remember him saying that because I could just see some kid dangling from a tube in his chest saying "Look Mom, no hands!"

Looking back, he was the first doctor who looked me in the eye, touched me in support and comfort and told me exactly what was going on. I didn't realize they weren't doing that in Boston, as I spent a lot of the time there on pain medication from my amputation. I didn't even realize it when it was happening because he just drew me in with his way, and I trusted him completely. Unfortunately, it wasn't so easy for my mother to love and trust my new doctor.

Up to that point, Ma had been the master and commander of our crusade before. As a nurse, she was always our family medical translator; she explained everything to me, acting as a buffer between myself and my doctors. Needless to say, she was surprised by the ways of Dr. Dickerman, as in her experience, Doctors didn't talk directly to children. With smaller kids, it was a bit similar, as he talked to the children and the parents together, pulling parents aside at times. But the children had to be part of it, he insisted. That was understandable, but I was thirteen, and I wasn't a child in my Doctor's eyes. I was a teenager to him, and he felt that was when you needed to talk to the teen, first and directly. He knew each teen needed to have real ownership in their own care, as an adult would. It worked, and doesn't seem as different now as it was then.

Yet, everyone crumbled when in the face of Dr. Dickerman, and my mother was no exception. One day, frustrated and losing it, my mother stormed out to the hallway. My doctor followed her out and put his arm around her while he talked to her frankly about his methods of working with me. That was it, they were friends and real allies now. They had such a respectful, caring, repore that I believe he inspired my Mom in her own professional life. My mother would eventually go back to school and become a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner- more education then any of us in the family.

Even my stalwart, strong and stoic Grandmother, who would come with us sometimes, fell for the ways of Dr. Joe Dickerman. She would always bring his favorite treat: her homemade peanut brittle. He was as much charmed by Grandma Frieda's brittle as we all were with him. He would have this child-like stance, hands clenched in excitement like a child at Christmas. He would take the peanut brittle in one hand, deftly open the container and give its creator a hug in one or two graceful moves.

For weeks, then months, then years after our fight, I would return to Burlington to get a checkup and a hug from my hero. "Jessie, Jessie, is that my Jessie?!" Hugging me with the love of a father for the daughter he hasn't seen for awhile. "Jessie you look good," he would say as he hugged me, so proud that I was there, that I was healthy, that I was alive.

I wouldn't let go for awhile, and neither would he.

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