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Dear 'Normal' People, An Essay for Adolescents with Cancer

Parag Parikh
Last Modified: January 30, 2003

copyright © 1998 Parag Parikh


Can everyone remember Chatty Patty, the girl in English class who liked to "clarify" things?

Then there was Mr. America, varsity athlete in three sports by sophomore year.

And don't forget Miss America, cheerleader and homecoming queen.

And not to be over-looked, Nerd-Man, the pocket-protector-wearing cliche.

Ah yes... the nostalgic memories of high school, chockfull of the most bothersome characters ever to live in one small town. But when you have cancer, even the "normal" people transmogrify into...Witless Woman and Dick Dumb.

As my mom explained to her friend, Witless Woman that I have Hodgkin's Disease, she gathered her information, gleaned from hours of watching soap operas, and asked, "Can he still walk?"

Why wouldn't I walk? Hodgkin's Disease manifests itself as a small bump on my neck. Obviously, this ounce of tumor does wreak havoc with my coordination, causing me to fall down often. But, I think she fell down the steps as a child, along with Dick Dumb.

Dick discovered I needed surgery when he overheard me say,

"I might not be able to run track this year."

Using the combined brainpower of twenty slugs, he thought, "Parag might not be able to run track because of surgery-- You need legs to run."

So, utilizing his Logic Slug, the cannabis leaf-chewer, he deduced, "They're going to amputate Parag's legs!"

Quite proud of themselves for starting an unfounded rumor, Dick and his slugs squirmed in unison.

The worst characters are the Tony Tell-Me's. Their nosiness is only overcome by their foolish phobias. Here is an example of a conversation I actually had with Tony.

Tony asked, "What's catheterization?"

I fumbled, "Well, it lets me go the bathroom."

"No, but how does it work? Huh? Huh?", Tony repeated, like a Scottish terrier barking after finding some garbage.

I answed, "O.K. They stick a tube through my penis all the way up to my bladder."

Tony's face contorts in mock pain as he lovingly massages his groin as he screamed, "Ugh. Gross. That must have hurt! Why did you tell me that?"

I apologized, "I don't know, sorry."

Silently, I thought to myself, "Did I ask you to ask me? Did I want you to ask me? Did I need you to ask me?!"

Ralph Kramden said it right. "One of these days. One of these days, Alice. POW! Right in the kisser!"

Of course, the I Feel So Bad group hits me. The members of this group are fond of saying things like,

"Oh my God, I feel, like, so sorry for you."

I wonder, "Why? Do I have a personal hygiene problem I am not aware of?"

Another favorite of this group is, "Parag, I hope you feel better."

Silently, I think, "So do I. That's understood, unless you're hoping I feel worse."

What about the condescending, "How are you feeling?" They are talking through me to satisfy their humanitarian instinct, they perfunctorily perform their duty, which doesn't include looking at me or waiting for an answer. Off they walk, leaving me to peer at the wall and ask, "Was she talking to me or you?"

Then, Harriet Hospital must inform me of her hospital stories, like when she was six years old, and had to get her tonsils removed, and didn't like the doctor, and was going to get sick when they hooked her up to an IV machine... Or how Harriet's great uncle on her mother's side had some disease and he went to the hospital and he had to be operated on right away but now he's better... As my head lolls to one side in boredom, my eyes glazing over, my mouth hanging agape, I ask God, "Can I please just die so I don't have to listen to this?"

And then God answers, "Y'know I was in the hospital once, and..."

But seriously, as if school weren't enough, I come home to see Thermometer Man! Champion of all overprotecting dads, protector of...well, me! He seeks out point-one-degree fevers. He tries to stick a thermometer in my mouth as many times as possible. I no longer slouch in his presence; any sign of "tiredness" and he pulls out that thing.

He'll say, "Parag, your left eye shut for a moment. Are you feeling all right?"

I answer, "I just blinked, Dad, you know, what an average person does once every thirty seconds."

He answers "Well, just to be safe, why don't I get the thermometer?"

The repeated plunging of a cold metal rod under my tongue irritates me to the point where I am considering purchasing a rectal thermometer, just for variety. Otherwise, someday, in the future, a descendant of mine, will ask, "Mommy, why do we have a little hole under our tongue?" Mommy will then need to explain the story of great-great-great-grandfather Parag.

When my children or grandchildren ask me, "What was it like having cancer as a kid?" my answer won't mention God so much as the attitude of other people. The inexplicable weaving of Clothos, Lachechis and Atropos do not leave me with questions such as "Why did this happen to me?" or "Does God not like me?" Rather, my only question is this, "Why don't people just treat us like normal kids?"

My pal, Jessica, a five-year-old leukemia patient, controls our Oncology Room on Fridays. As Queen, she can cheat at the Candyland game, explore the hospital, or not share her pictures. She only worries about the next day. Up at the hospital, we don't sit and complain about our troubles. Instead we play Legos, build with blocks, read Dr. Seuss books and draw with crayons.

What more in life is there?

Editors Note: Editors Note: Dr. Parikh is currently a resident in Radiation Oncology. To reach him by email send a message to: parikhp@medicine.wustl.edu.