A Milkshake and Metastatic Cancer

A man with breast cancer recalls his introduction to cancer as a child.

The word “cancer” can trigger a flood of memories, reactions and fears in many of us. I know I’ve experienced a wide range of feelings since my diagnosis of male breast cancer in 2014.

Children in particular can struggle with the emotions of having a parent or sibling with cancer, and while I have no kids of my own, I would personally want my children to understand as much as possible about my disease, within the framework of their own capacity to process it. While I can’t speak as a parent, I can certainly recall as a child how and where the word “cancer” bumped into my life—more than 64 years before I would discover the disease in my own body.

I’ll be 71 years old this month, but my earliest experience in the world of cancer is imprinted in my brain as though it had happened this very morning. Completely preserved in my five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and even taste. I can recall it vividly as I write these words.

It started with a phone call.

I was a kid sitting at the breakfast table with my parents, brother and two sisters when the phone rang. My father didn’t say much as I recall, except to thank the person at the other end for taking the time to ring him up.

We sat for a while in silence until my father spoke.“Your Uncle Carroll died this morning.”

The year was 1957 and I was seven years old. My father had just one sibling, his brother, who lived in Walnut Creek, California. We lived in Anaheim, just a stone’s throw away from the fantastical new magic kingdom called Disneyland.

My Uncle Carroll seemed special to me in many ways, though I rarely saw him.My uncle was tall like my father. He was lanky, mischievous, animated and active.He had a mustache like Walt Disney and a sense of childlike playfulness that always made me happy to see him.

A few weeks before that somber phone call, my mother and father and I were in his hospital room. I have no memory of the long drive to central California. I don’t know why my brother and two sisters were not with us on this journey, and the days before and after our trip to visit him are lost from my memory.

But in my imagination, I can see the room where he lay in bed as clearly as if I was standing in it now. I can smell the pungent aromas of iodine and alcohol, and I can visualize the single window with a view of a park and busy streets below.

I was drawn toward that window, most likely by the light outside. I remember people walking their dogs and kids playing on swings. There was running and laughing and sunshine out there.

But in the room where we had gathered I sensed a somberness from my parents, while in the big bed, my grinning uncle beckoned me to his bedside. He told me that he had a sickness in his stomach and that parts of a calves stomach might be put inside him to help him feel better.

I can recall trying to picture that in my mind, but there were so many new thoughts to deal with for a seven-year-old brain. “But what would happen to the cow?” I asked, according the recollections of my parents. At that moment, a nurse walked in to check on him and I was pulled away from his bed.

Uncle Carroll suddenly sat up in the bed with a look of delight on his face and exclaimed, “Nurse, bring this young man a chocolate milkshake!”

She left the room and returned awhile later with the sweet treat that had somehow been quickly concocted in the hospital kitchen.

Those were that last words I remember him speaking, and in the ensuing years my thoughts about cancer were in many ways conflicted. On one hand I cherished a happy memory of a good uncle, but for a long time I carried an adolescent anger over a role model taken away by a sinister disease that I didn’t understand. But that simple act of kindness from a dying man remains a gift that prepared me for my own cancer experience.

After the terror of knowing I had breast cancer began to fade, the memories of a spirit that transcends the challenges of a cancer diagnosis began to grow. Thanks to Uncle Carroll, I’ve learned to deflect the immediate trepidation of living and/or dying from a life-threatening disease by shifting my attention to helping someone else; of volunteering as a male breast cancer advocate and by offering those who are newly diagnosed a proverbial chocolate milkshake—or perhaps just a handshake or a hug.

At the end of the day, indeed at the end of a life, small things may offer big opportunities for us to leave lasting memories in unexpected ways.

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