How I beat cancer

Andy Hinds | Parenting

Last Friday, I took my 4-year-old twin girls to the Natural History Museum for a return visit to the big exhibit about dinosaurs, a topic that has dominated their conversation for the past few months.

Andy Hinds

Andy Hinds

They’re at once fascinated and terrified by the huge displays at the museum.  They’ll play make-believe with the little T-Rexes and Stegosauruses in the play area for hours, and they’ll memorize the facts that I read them from the plaques on the more docile looking dinosaurs; but they won’t get within 20 feet of the huge animatronic dinos that grunt, paw at the ground and grind flesh with their robotic jaws.

The girls raced up and down the stairs and ran laps around the galleries on the upper floors, and later picked at a pricey lunch in the museum’s café.

It was a lovely outing, except for the fact that I was pretty sure I would be dying shortly afterwards.

On the way to the museum, I had noticed, while making faces at the kids in the rear-view mirror, a dark spot on my left earlobe. It looked kind of like an inkblot.

“Perhaps it’s an inkblot,” I told myself, with false lightheartedness that only brought attention to my sudden sense of dread.

I looked at it more closely once I had parked and, since it was slightly raised, determined that it was not an inkblot, but certainly a fast-acting, death-dealing tumor that was at that moment spreading its pernicious tendrils deep into my brain.

I never used to think like that. Even when I technically had skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma, pretty much the least deadly cancer ever) a number of years ago, I was like, “eh, whatever. It’s cool, I’ll just be better about using sunscreen.”

But that was before I had kids.

It was also before I passed a certain age threshold where bad things started happening to my peers. I know people my age with serious or even terminal illnesses. The extent of this knowledge is exacerbated by the miracle of the internet, through which I am constantly apprised of the comings and goings of people I haven’t seen in 20 years, as well as people I have never even met in real life. Hell, I know people my age who are dead.

But mostly it was the kids who gave me the dreads. How would they react when they learned that Daddy was no longer there to take care of them? What would Mom tell them about where I had gone? How would they remember me? Worse, would they remember me? Would they feel an endless ache for the person who was always with them as they transitioned from wiggling scream-sacks to sentient beings: for the man who contained half of the secrets that could help them understand themselves? Or would I just become a vague memory, a collection of stories that became less accurate in the telling, and more expedient to their personal narratives? Would their new Daddy be rich and have thick, luxuriant hair?

These questions distracted me from the more immediate mystery of why the fossil of the land-based Ankylosaurus was found in an ancient seabed with a shark tooth in its side.

I texted an ear self-pic, along with the question “what kind of cancer is this?” to a highly respected doctor in my area, with whom I happen to be sleeping: my wife. While she usually responds to any request from family for free medical advice with, “You’ve got about four months … six months, tops,” she texted me back: “The brown spot?  I’d need to look at it more closely.”

The lack of gallows humor only deepened my anxiety. Had she not been concerned, she would have surely mocked me for worrying about a little blemish on my ear. Her answer was very, well, professional, as if I were a real patient with a real condition.

I tried to remember the pamphlets that I had received from the dermatologist when I got surgery for what I had jokingly referred to as “face cancer” seven years ago. What does melanoma look like? Was that the bumpy, colorless one? Or the one that looks like a mole? Or an inkblot?

I could never keep that stuff straight. It was like Poison Oak or Black Widows: it didn’t matter how many times I saw the illustrations, the warning signs of the stuff that would mess me up didn’t stick. One thing I knew, though, was that my occupational history (lifeguard, carpenter, ski instructor), and disdain for sunscreen until age thirty, put me at high risk.

“He’s extinct, right?” Maddy asked.

“What?” I said.

“The Triceratops. He’s extinct, right?”

“Oh. Yeah. All the dinosaurs are extinct. Or, you know, they’ve kind of turned into something else. They don’t really live anymore, but we can see still see traces of them in animals that are alive now,” I said, trailing off.

“I have to pee!” Livvy interrupted.

We raced to the bathroom and, after all the business was done, I rubbed and scratched at my earlobe in the mirror.

“What are you doing, Daddy?”  Maddy said.

“Oh, just … I have this spot on my ear,” I stammered.

“Wash it off, Daddy!” Livvy said.

“Well, I don’t think it’s gonna come off from washing, sweetie. It’s not that kind of spot.”

“You should put water on it and use a washcloth,” she insisted.

“OK. Well, I don’t think it will work, but sure. OK.”

I soaked a paper towel and started scrubbing the damned spot.

And damned if it didn’t start rubbing off. My earlobe turned red as I scrubbed, but the spot disappeared.

“Hah,” I said.  “You’re right, Livvy. It did come off.”

“What was it, Daddy?” Livvy asked.

“It was just some caulk with dirt stuck to it,” I said. I realized that, as thoroughly as I had scoured myself after working on a window replacement job the day before, I hadn’t gotten every last schmear of polyurethane caulk off of my skin. I must have brushed my face against the trim of the window I had just installed as I tried to squeeze between the wall and the lemon tree.

“What’s caulk?” Maddy asked.

“It’s the gooey stuff that Daddy uses sometimes to fill in cracks and holes when he’s fixing stuff. Kind of like glue,” I said, but they had already stopped paying attention.

“You are exti-inct! You are exti-inct!” they chanted as they ran back toward the dinosaurs.

—Andy Hinds is a stay-at-home dad, blogger, freelance writer, carpenter and sometimes-adjunct writing professor. He is known on the internet as Beta Dad, but you might know him as that guy in North Park whose kids ride in a dog-drawn wagon. Read his personal blog at Reach him at or @betadad on Twitter.

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