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The Sixth Grade and the Big 'C'

by John Riddick, Jr.

The year was 1982...In North Carolina schools at that time, they allowed corporal punishment, and I was also forewarned Mr. Ambrose was a heavy hitter. Math had never been one of my strong subjects, but I was a fairly "bright" kid and somewhat of a smart-alec, something Mr. Ambrose was very quick to take note. But he was different with me, I think he liked me, and was more constructive than embarrassing when I came up short on an assignment. He must have seen potential or something, although at the time I would have much rather thought I was too "smart" for him. A few weeks after school started, he had sent home a progress report. He said that he noticed I seemed tired in class, sometimes nodding and holding my head to the side. My mom had also noticed I had a small lump on my neck. Not too long after that, out of the blue, I had a nosebleed... a very bad nosebleed, not very cool in the sixth grade. I had never had a nosebleed before. To make matters worse, it would not stop! They got paper towels and I dripped all the way to the school nurse's office. Drip, drip, drip. My grandmother came to school, and took me home. A little more than an hour later...drip, drip, drip.

Grandma tried every remedy she knew. First, it was the common sense idea to lie on my back. Problem solved. SIKE! The blood was so profuse that even though a clot would begin to form every few minutes, it would somehow get dislodged and I'd have to spit it out. So then she tore a piece of a paper bag and put it in my mouth, under my tongue to be precise...drip, drip, drip. Then she took her keys, yes her car keys and proceeded to drop them down the back of my shirt several times. Tickled a little, but still didn't stop that leaky nose o' mine. Now my nose has been bleeding on and off for about 2 and a half hours by the time my mom gets off work. We go straight to the doctor's office. Of course he can't explain what's going on, but after he takes a look, he says my nose needs to be packed. I don't know if you've ever had your nose packed, but imagine a piece of gauze about as wide as an extension cord, four feet long...stuck up your nostril. OUCH! He says that should take care of me for now, and come in for a follow-up three days later on Monday.

After that most memorable event, we return home thinking everything will be fine. My mom, grandmother and I had eaten dinner and were recapping the day's drama. It couldn't have been more than a couple of hours and my nose began to bleed through the packing! I was thinking "Oh God, not again, and my Mom was thoroughly peeved. She called the doctor up at home and told him to meet us at his office and that he was going to do it right this time. Deja vu, except this time it had to have been about six feet of gauze. It hurt about that much more. The good news was, it did last all weekend, AND I didn't have to go to school on Monday. The bad news was I had to go to the doctor to get the packing removed. I can now confirm that the only thing worse than having six feet of gauze stuck up your nose is (drum roll please) HAVING SIX FEET OF GAUZE REMOVED FROM YOUR NOSE! This doctor was merciless. I could have sworn he was yanking it out of my nose like he was like a kid pulling on a roll of toilet paper. After he got all the gauze out and took a look to try and figure out what caused this nasal eruption, you'll never guess what happened...drip, drip, drip. Sigh. But this doctor said he could cauterize the offending vein. So he did, and that was that. Finally, no more nosebleed, but he didn't know what caused it in the first place. So of course we went to a specialist, an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor, that's an Otolaryngologist for all you potential MENSA candidates. Dr. Gelot was an Indian man (a real Indian from India, not a misnomered Native American) that stood about five foot two or so.

"Good afternoon Mister Riddick. I am going to pull out your tongue and look into your mouth." Life is full of change, right? "Say, 'eeeeeeeeeeeee'" Despite the initial impressions, this guy knew his stuff. He took a look into my nose with a pair of forceps/long nose pliers and he actually saw a small TUMOR had developed. I think that was the first time I had heard the word, so I had no idea what it meant. He showed it to my mom, and she seemed kind of sad, but she was a strong woman, so when she took her seat, the doctor explained it to me. Dr. Gelot referred us to The Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters, a unit of Sentara General, then Norfolk General Hospital. I saw some doctors and they ran some tests, took some blood, none of which really made sense to me. They confirmed what we already knew. I had a malignant growth attached to a lymph node in my neck. The doctor said that because we were fortunate enough to have caught this so early and because of the location. I did have the option of chemotherapy OR radiation treatment. Okay, remember I'm twelve years old.

I go, "So, what's the difference?"

The doctor responds, "Well, with chemotherapy you have to take a lot of medicine and your hair may fall out."

My eyes got really big, and I gulped. I ask, "What happens with radiation therapy?"

"Well, we will mark your face up with magic markers and you have to lie on a table, while they give you radiation." He says.

Now I'm confused. "What's radiation?"

"Radiation is like a bunch of sunlight, and they can give it to you and burn the cancer out."

"Will it hurt?"

Looking like he's thinking really hard, "A little...sometimes."

I'm thinking. Hmmm, I don't have to take anything, I just lay there and they mark my face up with magic markers...I do that at Halloween anyway.

One more question. "Umm, with radiation, will my hair fall out?"

He says, "Probably not, but I can't guarantee that it won't because everybody responds differently to radiation treatment."

"I want my hair! I'll take radiation." Wow, that was easy, or so I thought.

A few days later I was admitted into the hospital while they ran more tests. Biopsy, angiogram, more blood, more doctors poking and prodding with their various cold metal tools. More interns staring with their heads turned to the side like puppies while they scribble in their notebooks. I was in the hospital for two weeks. The funny thing was that I had never been in the hospital before, so I figured since I'd be "staying" for a couple of weeks I should pack my clothes. I have no idea how I managed to slip my two suitcases by my mom. After the first week of tests which required sedation, I was up and about...and getting dressed, like I was in a hotel or something. There was a playroom on my floor, and I would go there when I got tired of staying in my room. I used to wonder why every day I went in there, the nurses and the other kids would ask "Are you going home today?" I just shrugged my shoulders !and answered "I dunno...maybe."

When we did finish the tests, we went home to Murfreesboro and I went back to school for a few days. My nose had been cauterized a couple of times, but I carried a dry washcloth in a ziplock bag just in case. My mom said if I should have another nosebleed, or if my neck starts to bother me, wet the washcloth with cold water and place it on my neck. While I was out, my mom had informed my teachers of what was to come, and that I may be out for the rest of the year. I had been out of school for 2 weeks. I didn't have to go back to school before starting my radiation treatment, but I missed my friends. In my first couple of days I was back in school, one of my teachers decided to explain my condition to the class, and I entertained their questions, what little I actually understood anyway. I thought things were the same, but I was wrong. I had not realized that because of the lump in my neck (which is now noticeably bigger) I was holding my head to the side, when I walked and when I sat at my desk because it was painful to hold my head up straight.

One day, while I was in Mr. Ambrose's class, my nose started bleeding again. I got a little angry because I was a pretty neat kid and this blood dripping on my new clothes is not cool, so I jump up. When I get in the hallway, I realize that the restroom is all the way at the other end of the hallway, and the water fountain is midway. I know I SHOULD go to the restroom, but I know (more of) my clothes will be ruined in the process, not to mention a trail of drops down the hall. I figure it's the middle of class, and nobody will see me. So I go to the water fountain and begin to wet the washcloth. It couldn't have been more than 10 seconds and this girl comes in the hall and sees me. She points and screams like on "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" when an alien spotted a human. She said something like Cancer boy is rinsing his washrag at the fountain. I was crushed, but that was only the beginning.

The next day in homeroom, my teacher had a discussion with the class, explaining that you cannot get cancer by touching someone or if they cough near you. It seems like the episode at the water fountain had escalated to a rumor...don't touch him, or you'll get sick. I hadn't even begun my treatment. I can only imagine what a child with HIV or some other condition goes through while attending school nowadays.

An author, graphic designer, publisher and cancer survivor, John Riddick has written two children's books, a poetry compilation and an autobiography, in addition to having published several articles and poems in print and electronic magazines and e- zines. Mr. Riddick is also President of Sadorian Publishing and Consulting Service, specializing in publishing, graphic design and consulting services and publishing literature for adults and children. Learn more about Mr. Riddick and his works at www.SadorianOnline.com or www.rhapsodymagazine.com