Truth, and goodness, and beauty are but different faces of the same all.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
A smile filled her face eternally and she seemed incapable of ever being self-conscious. Despite that, the first time she arrived at my office for an appointment, my eyes were drawn — not to her smile or the twinkle in her eye, nor to the stark whiteness of her upper denture — but to the surgical scars crisscrossing her lower face and cheek. Each crevice darkened and became more distinct whenever she worked the few remaining muscles into a laugh. The lines glowed. “Here we go again!” she would chuckle. “Heading down that cancer road once more!” She would shake her head and close her eyes but keep on smiling.
After that first office visit, I plowed into the paper medical records that she had assembled. Reviewing her old chart was an archeological expedition marked by the hieroglyphics of an earlier era. Many of the doctors listed had long since retired or died.
The story slowly emerged. A tiny but slowly growing mass had first appeared in her cheek while Eisenhower was still president. When it finally became noticeable several years later, she had seen a surgeon. In his effort to remove the mass as completely as possible, he had rearranged her cheek skin and lips dramatically. “Thank goodness I was already married when I needed that surgery,” she chortled. “I was certainly a mess after that!”
Her cancer stayed quiescent for ten more years before she developed more swelling and discomfort. Surgery was followed by radiation therapy. She told me that it had been rough but had not slowed her for long.
Her life was a cancer life. She lived in an uneasy but cheerful balance with the disease — talking about it openly, knowing a bit too much about it, and realizing that it could reappear at any time.
My contributions to her cancer care did not diminish her deformities. Despite her appearance and challenges, she volunteered regularly at two museums. She distributed chocolates to everyone she knew each Valentine’s Day. She read books to children. She traveled. She kept busy. She moved about her world with purpose and pleasure, her face be damned.
Years later, after more surgery, another round of radiation therapy, and some futile attempts at chemotherapy, she announced with a smile, “I am finished now, Doctor. Don’t be mad, but I think it is time to let it go.”
A few weeks later, as I sat at her bedside in the hospice, she opened her eyes for just a moment. A glimmer of a smile escaped and washed over the fading wounds. Before my eyes, I noticed — not the scars — but the marks of her grace-filled and gracious life.
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Really, really touching tribute. Beautifully penned (as always)!
Yet another great entry Dr. Campbell. This one brought to tears to my eyes, just beautiful!
*Her life was a cancer life. She lived in an uneasy but cheerful balance with the disease - talking about it openly, knowing a bit too much about it, and realizing that it could reappear at any time.*
This hit me because it happens after years of dealing with cancer as a patient.
There are often times I think *cancer be damned* as well as face be *damned.* All the head and neck issues. I just make it point to move on and live life. Whats the point of surviving if you sit in the house and waste the time your given. Purpose grounds you and keeps you moving daily.
Thank you Bruce for writing such a beautiful tribute. It made me smile,cry and cherish the gifts and the hardships.
Thanks, Dr. Campbell. You continue to help David and I to be better than we thought possible. You completely embody our ideals ; to provide compassionate, excellent care, in a 'real' person, to a patient we treat as a person, not a number. What an amazing mentor, even years later. Thank you. Our patients thank you as well...
- Lori Book
OK...you made me cry. I needed it. Thanks.