Three Little Letters

This morning, while my aunt and I visited with my mom, the resident oncologist at Little Company of Mary came in to speak with us.

“What’s an oncologist again?” my mom asked. We’re all still so new to this. This temporary oncologist went on to explain that we’d need to find a radiation oncologist, a hematologist, and a permanent oncologist, and my mom interrupted to ask if she knew for sure that we would need these doctors. The answer, of course, was yes, but my mom’s interruption led the oncologist to mention something the attending physician, neurosurgeon, and nurses, hadn’t yet.

“We don’t know the final [results] yet, but that’s what it usually is, it’s called GBM,” the oncologist said. “It’s the most common cancer in the brain, and we have a protocol to how we treat it.”

There have been words like “cancerous,“ “malignant,” and “seizure” that have been tossed around, but no one had mentioned the three letters “GBM” yet. The oncologist spoke these letters cool and casually. I wouldn’t have thought anything of them if it weren’t for the reaction of my aunt, Denise, who widened her eyes and sat up just a bit straighter when this was mentioned.

After the oncologist left, Denise and I walked out into the hallway, out of earshot of my mom. “From what I researched, GBM is the worst brain cancer you can have,” she told me. “It’s stage four.”

As I listened, I realized I had not been as thorough in my research as I thought, and made mental notes to find out what how many stages there were, and to look up the goofy-sounding word she told me GBM stood for — Glioblastoma. It sounds like a villain from a cartoon.

“Well, it’s the most common type of brain cancer,” I replied, repeating what the oncologist said, and mistakenly believing it implied that treatment for GBM would be more effective than other cancers because it was common.

I searched the letters on my laptop. I wanted them to slip from my memory, to mix them up with the other 23 letters of the alphabet and forget their combination.

There are 16 tabs open in my browser. As significant as the surgery was, it’s only the first step in a treatment plan that cannot cure a GBM patient—it can only attempt to slow the damage of the tumor, a tumor that is certain to grow. Median survival time for GBM patients after the diagnosis? Fourteen months.

My aunt was right to be worried.

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