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Randal Droher photo

Room 101 and the Masquerading Marauder
I’ve always been squeamish about anything touching my eyes. During one particularly harsh Northeast Ohio winter, when my eyeglasses fogged up each time I stepped outside, I finally gave in and got fitted for a contact lens. (I’m far-sighted, and the vision in one eye was strong enough that I only needed one contact.) Even after overcoming my fear of placing a foreign object on my eye, I couldn’t tolerate the sensation of something being there. I gave up, went back to wearing my glasses, and never looked back.

And so it was with great apprehension that I sat in the examination chair for the biopsy of my eye. The fog of fear clouded what happened next: it was either the technician who numbed the area with what I assume was Novocain, or I did it after being asked to apply a numbing agent with an eye cup. But I do remember what followed with utter clarity: she had to position a sort of clamp on my eye to keep it open in order to conduct the biopsy, and she struggled to apply the device.

Do you remember the terrifying scene in George Orwell’s 1984, where Winston, taken against his will to Room 101, the torture chamber in the Ministry of Love, must confront his worst fear? In his case, it was rats, and O’Brien affixed a cage of them to Winston’s head. I’m not fond of disgusting rodents either, but that examination room at the Cleveland Clinic—my own Room 101—revealed to me my own particular fear threshold: Someone poking something into my eye. I resisted and squirmed against  the technician’s efforts. She finally gave up, and let her annoyance be known. I felt as though I had let her down. I returned to the doctor’s office an abject failure, unable to complete a crucial task. Not only did I have cancer, I was a coward.

To my surprise, he wasn’t as concerned as I thought he’d be. He must remove the tumor—there was no question of that—it was impinging on my cornea. A pathology report would be done following the operation, revealing the facts about the malignancy. He arranged for his secretary to provide me with the name of a patient who had gone through the same ordeal. I was to call her and, hopefully, gain some comfort from her experience.

Matthew drove me home in the twilight. I remember making more phone calls—one to the former cancer patient. If I ate any dinner, I don’t remember it. I do remember thinking that all I could do now was wait, and prepare for the other surgery scheduled the next day. After all I’d just been through, having my thyroid removed now seemed as though it would be a walk in the park. I was actually looking forward to it—looking forward to being rendered unconscious by anesthesia so I wouldn’t have to think about any of these fears for a while.

Once my dilated pupils returned to their normal state, before going to bed, I did what I imagine anyone does upon receiving a cancer diagnosis: I sat at my computer, logged in, and began Googling “eye cancer.” I suppose I thought that information would be a key weapon in the arsenal I was subconsciously building. I took notes, and am sharing some of them here, with a disclaimer: my research took place in November 2006. It’s completely possible that the statistics have changed. But at the time, this is what I was learning:

Although squamous cell carcinoma of the conjunctiva is rare, it is the most common conjunctival malignancy in the United States. Globally, fewer than three cases per 100,000 people are diagnosed each year. It is also three times more common in men than in women. And it is a chameleon. According to Dr. Christopher DeBacker, a member of the consulting staff in the surgery department of Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, California, its changeable appearance “may pose a diagnostic challenge as a masquerade syndrome.”

I gave the cancer a name of my own. I took to calling it a masquerading marauder.

To be continued …

Part 1: The Baby’s Nightmare
Part 2: The Nightmare Returns

© 2012 Marci Rich
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