March 25, 2021

Facing Facts

I have a tumor in my face. It’s been with me for years and most likely benign. But it’s there. I only recently learned what it was. It would’ve probably been in there for a few more years had it not been for a set of circumstances. I started a new job a while back and the health insurance packages weren’t appealing to me. I decided to use my VA benefits for the first time instead. This gave me pause. While I have served honorably, I experience a modicum of impostor syndrome when it comes to the VA. Sure, I’m a veteran, but I’m not a real veteran. I was only in for four years, I never saw combat, and I was never wounded in the service. But there I was. My new doctor is a stern Russian man who greeted me like a father disappointed in his son. He admonished me for failing to have my lab work done before my visit. When I admitted that I drink on the weekends, the glare of disappointment visited his visage once again. I felt like an old Tom Sawyer, still being reprimanded for some whimsical lark after all these years. I sat shirtless on an uncomfortable examination table, the thin paper sticking to my skin in the white sterile room. It was cold. I wondered to myself if this is what it was like to see a doctor back in the old Soviet Union. I liked this guy. He did his job. I was hit with a series of questions.

“Is there anything else I should know?”

“Well, I do have this cyst here next to my jaw.”

He came up close and wiggled it around. “Who told you it was a cyst?”

“A doctor in Los Angeles, back when I lived there maybe four or five years ago.”

“What was his name?”

“I forgot, it was five years ago. It was at a clinic.”

He shot me his signature icy glare and set me up with an appointment for a CT scan. Then, about a week and a half later, I slipped and fell on ice as I walked into work. I broke my ankle. I was out of work for months and was hit with the first feeling of helplessness I’ve ever experienced in my adult life. Up to this point, I’ve been a bull. I work out regularly and maintain a comparatively healthy lifestyle. I was consistently feeling stronger and faster. Hospitals and doctor’s offices have been a foreign land to me. I have been awkward and nervous while navigating this new territory. I don’t want to become accustomed to these places.

I put off the CT scan for a while so I could deal with the glut of appointments the broken ankle had brought upon me. I couldn’t drive. I had to rely on rides and I just didn’t want to ask more people to take me to more places. For a while I thought I would just forget the whole thing. It was just some stupid cyst I’ve been living with for years. The doctor was doing his due diligence, which I appreciated, but maybe now was not the time. Then one morning I looked in the mirror and could tell that whatever is on my jaw has been growing. It was noticeable. It looked wrong. This thing had to come out.

So I went in for the CT scan. I worried about the radiation from the machine and wondered if it was worth the risk just to find out something I thought I already knew. I was instructed to not eat anything past 11:00pm the night before. It was 3:00pm by the time they were able to see me. Then the surprises came. I thought they were going to make me drink some kind of concoction. Turns out, it’s going straight into my veins. I didn’t know they could even intravenously inject dye into a human body while it was alive, but they can. I was informed of this as I lay down on the machine, ready to have my head blasted with radiation. My vein was tapped and I went in. It soon became apparent that there was some sort of problem. Another tech walked out onto the floor. The guy who put the tube in my arm forgot to turn on the IV. “Oh, whoops,” he said, and turned it on. I soon felt a warm rush into my veins and down into my crotch. I felt as if I were pissing myself as my head was scanned yet again. More radiation blasts to the head.

A couple days later, I was contacted by my doctor. He was vague about the results and I didn’t press him about it. I was given an appointment with a surgeon. He stressed to me that it’s important and not to cancel. So I showed up. In true VA fashion, I sat in the waiting room for an absurd amount of time. I wondered if they were going to go ahead and cut the thing out right then and there. I wasn’t quite ready for that. I wanted to grab something to eat. After hours of hunger and overthinking, I was called into a small doctor’s office. A doctor in a white coat with white hair sticking out the sides of his head introduced himself to me and said in a very serious tone, “You have a parotid tumor.” A nurse had wheeled an ultrasound machine into the room. It was never used. I felt a ringing in my ears and was barely paying attention to anything that was being told to me. I kept staring at the ultrasound machine. I saw people’s mouths move and I heard sounds, but not much registered. I was told I would have a dent in my cheek from the removal of the gland. There was also a slim chance I could lose facial control on my right side due to the fact that an important facial nerve sits right in the middle of this gland. The doctor recommended it be taken out and I agreed. A date was set and I left the place with scrambled eggs for brains.

I spent the following week indisposed. I learned that a parotid gland is a salivary gland on the side of the mouth. I wondered if I would be able to produce enough spit without one of them. Apparently I can. I watched every parotidectomy I could find on YouTube. I memorized the procedure. I watched and read testimonies from people who have dealt with this before. Every so often, I find myself staring off into space, thinking about being put under and having my face cut open. I think about waking up with it mangled and numb. It’s been difficult to accept the fact that I am going to have to relinquish control to someone I don’t know and to trust them not to mess me up. I naturally researched my surgeon and was greatly relieved to find out how many of these he’s done and the wealth of experience he has. The thought of being in the VA’s care unnerves me, given how frequently they drop the ball. But it helps to know I have a good surgeon. An added anxiety about my employment status creeps in every hour or so, as this operation will come less than a month after I’m fully able to return to work from my injury and will immediately put me out for at least three weeks.

I find myself thinking back to all the years I had this thing living with me and they’re tainted with regret. I curse myself for not being proactive about getting a second opinion. If I’m being honest, I wanted to believe it was a cyst and I caved in to magical thinking. I didn’t want to deal with it. Life was happening. I was busy buying cars, going to parties, writing, putting videos together, getting lost in books, driving across the country, saying goodbye to California and moving to Massachusetts, spending time with the old man, traveling to Europe, starting new jobs, finding places to live, reconnecting with old friends, flying around the country, rediscovering New England, concentrating on my job, nurturing my relationship, working out, and doing all I can to stick to a routine. I was so caught up with the anxieties and euphoria of life that I damn near forgot about about the thing growing in my face.

The complications involved with the surgery sometimes keep me up at night. Sometimes I look in the mirror and try to imagine what my face would look like with half of it paralyzed. Some warped and distorted visage. The shell of something familiar. They’re taking out the entire parotid gland, which is going to leave a divot in the side of my face and I obsess over what that’s going to look like. I read the words, “facial deformity” and that messed with me for about a week straight. It still does. I have more than a month to sit and wonder what the new normal will be for me. I wake up every morning staring down into the abyss and imagining all sorts of horrors. Many others have gone through much worse and sometimes I wonder if I’m making this out to be a bigger deal than it really is.

I have been doing my damnedest to pull myself together and greet this head on. I have resolved to face this bravely. I will own my scars and whatever else this thing does to me and I will do it with as much grace as I can muster. I’ve been through hell before and I always made it out. I’m very lucky to have a wonderful and supportive girlfriend who has been there for me through all of this. She was a saint during the months I was out during the ankle break, driving me everywhere and putting up with the stink that comes with a fracture boot. I would’ve been a mess without her. I’ve also been extremely fortunate to have my grandfather around. He has been an invaluable source of guidance, wisdom and much needed comic relief through all of this. My support system is solid. That’s more than I could ever ask for. I am very fortuitous to have such a beautiful life, despite its pitfalls and challenges. I will embrace this test that life has given me and I will face it with the courage I know I posses. That’s all there is left.

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About Ryan Fabian

New England writer and lover of knowledge.

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