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The Big C 

Cancer as entertainment? Evidently so. There's a new television program titled The Big C. I've never watched it, because I don't have Showtime, but I did have it—the "big c," that is. And like the program's title, I do not call it by its full name. If I can get away with it, I use the acronym "NHL," which is what I heard doctors say. It's their shorthand for "non-Hodgkin's lymphoma."

It seems strange that Thomas Hodgkin is immortalized by one kind of cancer which he discovered, and, in a peculiar memorial, by another kind which he apparently did not. Whatever his legacy, saying "NHL" afforded me a euphemism, a circumlocution, a way of not saying, you know, the dreaded word. Even when I gave my wife the news, I was aware that I was avoiding it. She had come home from work and asked if I'd heard from our family physician. Seated, looking down, I studied the kitchen floor beneath my feet: "I have lymphoma," I managed. Lymphoma—a word of Latin origin and appearance, far removed, in my view, from its scary big brother, the big "c." I repeated what little information the doctor had given me over the phone, then got Sullivan's leash and took him out for a walk.

I had some thinking to do. I remembered a recent UNC chancellor who had lost his battle with lymphoma, which had been the only previous time I'd encountered the word. "Now what?" I wondered. I'm descended from a long line of dead people, among them my mom, who had lost to the big "c," as had her mom. "Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear," I said to Sullivan. He watered a skinny willow oak, and we headed for home.

My wife asked around at the hospital where she works. "This doctor you've been assigned to is very highly recommended," she said, adding that he had been the late chancellor's oncologist. "He was?" I shuddered.

I went to the hospital's Gravely Building to meet with Dr. Berkowitz. "You're lucky," he said. "I am?" I had the "non" form of Dr. Hodgkin's nondiscovery. Dr. Berkowitz said, "It's eminently treatable." Maybe he said imminently—I'm not sure. Either way, his treatment worked. I had eight once-a-month infusion sessions, which is the word they used at Gravely instead of "chemotherapy." Cancer obviously causes linguistic change.

Bald, exhausted, cured, I finally bid goodbye to the Gravely nurses, went home and joined Sullivan on the couch, where the pair of us slept through the fading summer.

"So, you're in remission!" friends and relatives say now, using another word from which I shy.

"Yes," I answer. "Three years now," I add if they ask how long.

Hodgkin himself is long gone. I'm back to regular visits at SuperCuts. Dr. Berkowitz has relocated a half-mile away and now supervises medical students. The Gravely Building was bulldozed, loaded into dump trucks and hauled away. Remission, indeed.

  • Cancer obviously causes linguistic change.

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