By Ronnell Kay Gibson
“At least we caught it early.” I offer a box of tissues to Renee Halloway as we stand outside her son’s hospital room. When she doesn’t grab it, her husband John takes the box instead.
I hate giving bad news. It wrenches my stomach every time I have to say cancer. And though I don’t want to give false hope, every parent—every patient—needs at least a little.
“It’s one small thing to be thankful for,” I continue.
Renee nods as she wipes the tears streaming down her face with the back of her hand. “I don’t know how this happened. We just brought Jonny in here with a twisted ankle.” She looks up at me with pinched brows. “He had no other symptoms. Are you sure?”
I’ve experienced this conversation enough to know she doesn’t mean her words to sound accusatory. She’s just trying to make sense of a senseless situation.
I nod. I’m sure.
But I don’t ever tell them the truth of how I’m sure. It’s not just the blood test, scans, or biopsy results.
I can hear the cancer.
It reverberates from deep inside the patient and, as crazy as it sounds, mimics the host’s favorite pastime. Fishing, shopping, playing, sometimes reliving favorite memories or even movies.
In Jonny’s case, his cancer sounds like little league baseball.
I was doing my rotation in the ER when Jonny came in with his folks. When I touched his ankle to inspect the damage, I heard the whack of a ball connecting with a bat, then cheering.
I’ve trained myself to not react. But I immediately ordered some bloodwork, telling the parents it was routine.
I first heard cancer in high school when I began working in the hospital cafeteria. I would pick up random sounds, voices, occasionally even whole conversations that weren’t there. But they came and went, sometimes loud, sometimes only whispers.
As time went on—and after my own extensive round of testing—I was able to trace a specific set of noises back to certain people, and later, what all those people had in common. Cancer diagnoses.
The louder the sounds, the more aggressive the cancer. It’s why I became a doctor.
John takes a deep breath and wraps his arms around his chest, the tissue box getting trapped in his beefy arms. “How do we proceed?”
I give them my usual rundown. Treatment options, chemotherapy side effects. I hand them a folder stuffed with brochures and flyers—including one on how to rest a sprained ankle—set them up with a follow-up appointment, then send them on their way.
I’m exhausted, and it’s not even noon.
I grab the next patient’s chart, and Mozart’s piano concerto no. 21 blares throughout the ER. I want to cover my ears; the music is so loud as an orderly pushes an elderly lady in a wheelchair. Her husband trails behind carrying her purse in his hands and hope in his eyes. They’re still yards away, but I know. There’s not much hope. It’s stage four, and she doesn’t have long to live.
Some days, the noises are constant, and I can’t escape them. It takes all my energy to stay focused, to stay positive, to keep showing up to work. But if I can help a family like Jonny’s—give them better odds—then it’s worth the mental and emotional strain.
Home is my only sanctuary. My family, my haven.
When I arrive after work, the house is dark and quiet, everyone already in bed.
I’m about to pick at the plate of leftovers in the fridge when I hear a small cough from behind me. I turn to see my three-year-old daughter, Maisy, staring up at me. Her blonde curls are smushed in warped angles, and she holds her favorite stuffed bunny in the crook of her neck. “Hello, Daddy.”
“Maisy Mae, why aren’t you in bed?”
“A voice woke me up.”
Maybe my wife is still awake. “Mommy’s voice?”
“Nope. It was a crazy voice.”
I smile and pick her up. “What did the crazy voice sound like?”
Before she can respond, I hear it too. Echoing from her chest—children giggling, clinking of plastic cups, “More tea!” the voice cries.
“A tea party!” Maisy beams. Her favorite playtime.
Cold rushes throughout my veins as my muscles constrict. No! Not Maisy. Not my daughter.
As my heart vises, one thought reverberates through my mind. How arrogant I’ve been. In this moment, there are no words of comfort. There is nothing to ease the weight that has slammed against my lungs and squeezed them until I can’t breathe.
Maisy tilts her head and gazes into my eyes. Her grin fades into a frown.
The tea party grows louder.
I’m sure. Neuroblastoma, a rare and deadly form.
I struggle for breath.
She puts her soft, little hands on my face and grins. I feel confidence radiate from her crooked smile. “It’s okay, Daddy. At least we caught it early.”
Even in the dimly lit kitchen, I can see hope swell her blue eyes.
There’s always hope. There has to be. Otherwise, why would I have this gift?
And why would Maisy?
Ronnell’s story, “The Voice of Cancer” was inspired by her friend, Peter Halper, who is currently running across America to raise money to end childhood cancer. If you would like to read more about Neuroblastoma, Peter’s amazing adventure, or what you can do to help, please visit the Thunder Run website.