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I’ve always figured my father would eventually die of heart disease sometime in his 80s. It’s a morbid thing to think about it, but it’s the logical conclusion I came to a while back.
He had a heart attack a week before I turned 12. In the 22 years since, there have been pacemakers, stents and scares, but there have been far more birthdays, rounds of golf and favorite country songs. (Seriously, how does a man from Brownsville, Brooklyn, become such a huge contemporary country music fan?)
Nothing could have surprised me more than the phone call I got from my parents in August 2010. They were both crying, which, as you may imagine, wasn’t the standard. I immediately knew I was going to hear bad medical news, but it wasn’t what I expected.
My father, then 68, had gone to his otolaryngologist (ear/nose/throat doctor) to get the wax cleaned out of his ears -- something he did whenever it would build up badly enough to affect his hearing (basically whenever my mother could yell “Norm!” from two feet away and he couldn’t hear her). When the doctor casually asked him if there was anything else bothering him, Dad mentioned that his throat had been sore for a couple of weeks. Moments later, the source of the soreness was identified as a mass.
Tests confirmed that my father had Stage IV throat cancer.
We all cried on the phone for a few minutes. I think my parents didn’t want to pain themselves even more by telling me in person -- we were living only a few miles apart in South Florida at the time.
Naturally, we assumed that this had been caused by years of smoking. He had quit right after the heart attack in 1991, but everyone’s heard about damage being done and cancer showing up years later. A few days after his diagnosis, Michael Douglas announced that he, too, had throat cancer, which he believed had been caused by his own smoking and drinking. Dad joked about being the handsomer of the two Jewish sexagenarian throat-cancer patients.
We talked about best cases and worst cases. There was a possibility he’d lose his tongue, and he semi-jokingly said he’d “go to the garage” if that happened. Knowing that his two favorite things were eating and talking, my mother and I knew he was more serious than joking, and we accepted that. Even if he kept his tongue, his doctor said he would probably never taste food the same way after the radiation treatments he’d be getting.
Then, a week later, the doctor gave us some interesting information about his biopsy.
His cancer had been caused not by smoking, but by HPV that had been lying dormant for decades -- something that happens in about 10% of HPV cases.
HPV is best-known (worst-known?) for causing cervical cancer, but it can cause cancer in virtually any orifice involved in boot knocking. It didn’t take me long to figure out my father had gone down on someone with the virus in the early 1970s. Forty years later, that oral sex was threatening to kill him.
Not even a year earlier, I’d had my own precancerous-cell scare after a routine OBGYN checkup. Suddenly, that seemed both much more real -- wow, it really can turn into something terrible -- and much less significant -- I’m fine and Dad’s not.
Dad said he thinks he got it from the woman he dated right before my mother. I’d actually heard of this pre-Mom girlfriend before; I was raped in college, and when I expressed to my parents that I was worried about the possibilities of STDs, my father told me that this woman had given him “something” back in the ‘70s, but not to worry too much because it “went away.” Or not.
I admit, I asked my mom if Dad had been with any men back then, because I hadn’t heard a woman could pass it to a man through cunnilingus, but it turns out that most definitely can happen.
Forgive me for using the technical term. If I was talking about anyone else, I’d probably use cruder words, but c’mon -- this is my dad. No one wants to think about that shit. And I’m pretty lucky that my brain puts up a fingers-in-the-ears “I can’t hear youuuuuuu” force field whenever this topic comes up, putting the smack down on involuntary imagination responses.
I’m guessing, though, that it must have made for a pretty awkward conversation with my half-sister, Diane, after not speaking to her for eight years. A really stupid argument about Sarah Michelle Gellar caused their estrangement (that’s an entirely different story), but as is often the case, serious illness brought our family back together.
Over the next few months, my father’s treatment got pretty brutal. In addition to radiation, he was also taking Erbitux, a chemo alternative that allowed him to keep his hair (which there was a lot of for a 68-year-old) but lose his facial hair (which I think he found kind of convenient).
He lost a lot of weight, largely because his throat became very raw, so he had to start being fed through a tube that went directly into his stomach, which would occasionally slide out of place and cause a shitload of pain. The closest he got to tasting anything during this time was a lucky belch after a feeding of the vanilla-flavored nutritional liquid my mother would empty into the tube. (For the life of me, I do not understand why anything going directly into a stomach would need to be anything-flavored.)
I really don’t know how Mom did it. She not only took excellent care of my father, but she did it without complaining about her fibromyalgia, which was undoubtedly flaring up from the stress of the experience -- and without once voicing self-focused concern that maybe she had contracted that strain of HPV at some point in their marriage and that it might someday make her as sick.
Dad came through his treatment with the best possible outcome. He not only kept his tongue, he can taste virtually every food he always loved -- and some new ones. He found out about whipped-cream-flavored vodka while he had his feeding tube, and he eagerly made it one of the first things he tasted when he could. He also likes fish more than he used to. OMG THE JOKE IS SO OBVIOUS, but it’s totally true.
Now 71, he’s still enjoying golf and country music (Diane developed a love for it while they were estranged, too -- I do not understand). I’m guessing he and Mom, who will be celebrating their 38th anniversary later this year, are probably still “close,” but there will be no thinking about that on my part.
Last month, he sent Diane and me this text message:
Throat cancer caused by HPV -- even Stage IV -- has the potential to take a serious toll on a person, but its sufferers usually survive. Not all thrive and return to a life almost identical to their pre-cancer existence like he has. But it still scares the hell out of me. I almost lost my dad way earlier than I expected, and in a way I definitely never expected.
I’m not saying we should all stop going down on each other, but my father’s ordeal can serve as a reminder for women to get tested. Unless men are showing symptoms, they can’t really be tested for HPV; and unless you’re a cold-hearted bitch, it’s up to you to make sure you’re not going to pass something that could cause cancer on to your partner. This isn’t 1973, folks.