The Night That Changed Everything: Cancer at 20

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” —Pema Chödrön

A few weeks ago, I was up in the redwoods outside Santa Cruz in Northern California, leading workshops at a fabulous retreat, Camp Fireheart. One of the other facilitators, Paula Lindquist, led us all in a shamanic soul retrieval ritual in which we were guided to recover a part of our soul that had been lost due to a traumatic event in our lives. For me, it was easy to find that part. I have already spent the better part of this year in search of ways to identify and heal residual wounds from having survived cancer when I was 20 years old. In a session with one of my healers, I broke down and sobbed at the realization of the innocence that was lost on the night that I sat in the emergency room and received the news that I had cancer. Now months later, I had an opportunity to reconnect with that young woman whose life was changed forever in that moment, reunite with her, and reintegrate her into my soul. It was all very poetic, moving, and I wasn’t at all sure what it meant in a real sense.

The day returned home from Camp Fireheart, I received a message from the doctor who treated me in the emergency room that night. We had reconnected a couple of years ago through Facebook and he was now coming out to California for a conference, and we are going to meet for dinner. The last time I saw him was exactly 33 years ago, and he was the very last person to witness my pre-diagnosis self. In a way that my native New Yorker-self rolls her eyes at, while my California Spiritualist-self feels in her bones, he is coming to return that piece of me that was lost that night.

Here is the story:

I have been dancing with Kali my whole life. She is the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, but also liberation because the sword she carries cuts through that which we choose to not see, leaving us face-to-face with the truth of what is so. She is the dark mother, fiercely protective of her children, and a willing practitioner of “tough love”. And though I wasn’t familiar with yet by name, she arrived unannounced in the Fall semester of my Junior year at University of Pennsylvania. Sword in hand, and prepared to settle in for a while, she sliced through veils of illusion in fits and starts, pausing just long enough for my human mind to process the truth. The slicing of the veils was like the ripping of a Band Aid—sudden, shocking, and painful. She’d swaddle me in her arms as the initial trauma subsided and as soon as she could feel me relax into the new landscape of truth, she’d pull out her sword and do it again. If I had to describe the essence of this episode of my life story, it would be a tangible sense that the universe was simultaneously knocking me down and taking care of me in the process.

It was election night, Tuesday, November 6, 1984, and Ronald Reagan was predictably defeating Walter Mondale. It’s not that I was a passionate supporter of Mondale, but he was a legacy of the great Jimmy Carter and he had a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, on the ticket for the first time in U.S. history. Most of all, he was distinctly not Reagan. I took a break from watching the TV coverage and wandered over to my friend Arnd’s room. He was typing a research paper on his early-issue word processer and I offered to type for a while. He showed his gratitude by massaging my shoulders as I worked.

“What’s this funny bone I can move around?” he asked in his unmistakable German accent as his fingertips explored a pea-sized lump, rubbing it back and forth over my left collarbone.

I had had a cold the week prior and my first thought was, “Oh shit. I probably have mono and it’s going to ruin my semester.”

The following day, I had a full schedule of classes. Afterwards, I ate dinner with my friends at the dining hall in basement of our dorm and headed over to after-hours Student Health, which was a dedicated section of the emergency room at Hospital of University of Pennsylvania (HUP) with it’s own entrance. It was completely unrelated to the regular Student Health Clinic, where grumpy old men bumbled around barely listening to their patients and practicing medicine by habit. By contrast, I was attended to by a young, razor-sharp doctor who was manning the post that night. His name was Dr. Elliot Barnathan, and he remains, to this day, high on my list of people to whom I am eternally grateful.

I was the only patient that night. Dr. Barnathan looked like the nice Jewish boys I grew up with. I imagined he must be making his parents proud. He stood about 5’9” with brown wavy hair and glasses. His badge said, “Cardiology Fellow” under his name, which meant, technically he was still in post-residency training. He was warm and present, thought not at all a nebbish. He had a quiet confidence and almost a bit of a swagger, and under other circumstances, I might have been crushing on him. He called me into the room and examined me. After feeling the pebble in my neck, along with several just like it, he sent me to Radiology for a chest x-ray. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. For a child who had grown up with severe asthma, a chest x-ray is standard procedure. When I returned from Radiology with my films, Dr. Barnathan took them from me, held them up in the air so they’d be illuminated by the ceiling fixtures and looked. It was clear by his face that he felt the same way I did about the previous night’s election result: disappointed but not at all surprised.

He directed me into the exam room and had me sit on the table while he shoved the films upward into the holding clip on the light box which hung on the wall across from me. He showed me the white cloud of cotton candy billowing from either side of my sternum and explained it was a mediastinal mass, which, together with the lumps in my neck and my age, was a clear indication of lymphoma—a malignancy of the lymph system. Cancer.

A black cloud came over me and I fell backwards, losing consciousness. He delivered the rest of the news as I was lying down in shock. He explained that there are two kinds of Lymphoma: Hodgkins—which is very treatable, and Non-Hodgkins—of which one type is treatable and another is not at all treatable. He said, what I was hoping for was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It occurred to me quickly how certain he was that I had cancer at all. I tried in vain to negotiate with him for the possibility of pneumonia or something else of an infectious nature (curable with a simple course of antibiotics). He looked genuinely sorry to have to disappoint me, but the confidence I was attracted to an hour ago was now showing up in his medical expertise. I got it. Cancer.

Lying there in shock, my mind didn’t race, my heart didn’t race, I was oddly calm. I had the sensation of being suspended in darkness, suddenly untethered by the threads of everyday life which had tied me to reality: the dorm I lived in; the French class I was failing; my childhood experiences; the salad I had eaten for dinner. Suddenly these threads had been cut, and I was floating.

“Where are your parents?” Dr. Barnathan gently asked as he stood over me.

“At home in New York.”

“I want you to call them.”

“I can’t talk. I don’t know what to say. Can you please call them?”

“I want them to hear your voice first. Say hello, and tell them you are okay. Then you can hand the phone to me and I’ll explain what is going on.”

So I did, and he did, and then he handed the phone back to me. My parents and I said goodbye. None of us can remember that conversation, but I am sure it included a poignant expression of love.

The next thing that Dr. Elliot Barnathan handled was the contacting of a revered oncologist, Dr. John Glick, who was on the team that “founded the cure” for Hodgkin’s. His answering service reported that Dr. Glick was at a dinner party and inquired whether it something that required he be paged. “Yes,” Dr. Barnathan said, “Yes, please page him immediately.” Within minutes, Dr. Glick was on the phone with Dr. Barnathan who explained every detail of who I was and what had just transpired. Medical terms were said, names were mentioned, and plans were made. I was to call his office first thing in the morning and I would be fast-tracked as a high priority.

And then it was time to send me on my way. In a final act of loving care, Dr. Elliot Barnathan asked me if I had a friend I could call and be with. A friend who had known me for a long time, he advised, would be preferred. I thought for a moment and called my friend Mark. We had grown up together at summer camp and he was the reason I ended up at University of Pennsylvania. I walked directly to his apartment. He opened his door, and then opened his arms where I stayed for hours as we processed my new reality into the wee hours.

3 thoughts on “The Night That Changed Everything: Cancer at 20”

  1. Wow Zoe, tears in my eyes as I read this blow by blow (yes I felt it hit hard) account of your diagnosis and also the gratitude for Dr. Barnathan being the one to diagnose and give the news and usher you into the next steps of this journey. I’m grateful for your sharing through this very poingnant memory. I’m also grateful that you are still here.

  2. beautifully written. many connections for me. Brought me chills. I am glad you are here. My step daughter passed from Hodgekins at age 22. She was fiery and passionate. I know the family of Dr. Barnathan and I was living at Penn ( my boyfriend was in Law school) at this time.


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