Meet Tommy, My Tumor

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Meet Tommy, My Tumor
When you are a long-term survivor, it’s always one thing after another
by Hank Trout

Sickness will surely take the mind
Where minds can’t usually go

—Pete Townshend, “The Amazing Journey,” The Who’s Tommy

Photo © Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover Photography. All rights reserved

In the 1970s, I sometimes woke up with a knot on the back of my head, just behind my right ear, about half the size of a golf ball. It hung around for only a few days at a time and then left with no residual effects, so I figured there was no cause for alarm—it was a curiosity more than a worry. Still, the lump reappeared so frequently that I named it.
Brenda the Brain Tumor.

Recently, I acquired a new friend to take Brenda’s place.

In April, during a two-day hospitalization after a very scary asthma attack, I received half a dozen or more shots of a Prednisone-like steroid every day to help my breathing. The accumulation of all of those steroids caused me to swell up like an overstuffed sausage, particularly my feet and ankles. I noticed, and remarked to the doctors, that my stomach was also swelling. They assured me that this is normal and that once I was out of the hospital and weaned off the steroids, the swelling would disappear.

My feet and ankles quickly returned to their normal size. Three months later, however, my stomach still had not. My normally flat stomach protruded, from just below my sternum to just above my navel—I looked as if I had swallowed a soccer ball. This was quite alarming, as well as painful and very frustrating.

After three months of treating the bloating with heavy-duty laxatives, a probiotic with “over 900 billion active bacteria,” dietary changes, and even Xifaxan (used to treat E. coli), all with no effect, I finally convinced my GP to send me to a gastroenterologist who ordered a CAT scan.

Meet Tommy the Tumor, who took up residence in my appendix.

More accurately, Tommy was an appendiceal mucocele. According to Cancer.net, “Mucoceles are swellings or sacs from swelling of the appendix wall, typically filled with mucous.” Most mucocele tumors are benign, but the doctors won’t know until they biopsy Tommy. Unlike Brenda, who visited for just a few days and then quietly packed her skirts and moved on, all of her own volition, Tommy stubbornly required a forcible, surgical eviction.

If I seem rather flippant about having a possibly malignant cancerous tumor on my appendix that had to be surgically removed before it erupted, it’s because I am. I have to be flippant about it. I know of no other way to deal with the constant barrage of bad health news I’ve gotten for years—and still retain the shards that are left of my sanity.

If you ask most Long-Term HIV/AIDS Survivors about their health, they will tell you, it’s always one damned thing after another. In just the past year, I have been hospitalized twice due to asthma and COPD. I have made a half dozen or more trips to the emergency room because I couldn’t breathe or had experienced symptoms of a heart attack. I have spent literally thousands of dollars in co-pays, ambulance rides, and medications just since Thanksgiving. I have been house-bound for months at a time with three compression fractures in my spine (to make a matched set with the three herniated discs at the base of my spine, I suppose), with bronchitis, with abdominal pains, with chronic fatigue. I had already gone through one surgery this year, on my back, and now I faced another one to evict Tommy.

If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. Err umm, another—it’s another.

See! I can’t help it—sarcastic, flippant.

Being flippant is the only way I know to deal with this never-ending parade of disruptive, debilitating, expensive health problems. The alternative is to ball up into a blubbering fetal lump for several hours a day and sob my eyes out. I have no problem with crying—I’ve cried at least once a day, every day, for the last thirty-six years, but usually for others, only rarely for myself. I’m not good at the “poor, poor pitiful me” routine.

Besides, my fiancé Rick would find my sobbing incredibly unattractive.

Again: It’s how I push on. It’s how I force myself to fast for a day and drink a gallon of GaviLyte-C before a colonoscopy and endoscopy, and then again before surgery; it’s how I faced that surgery, my eighth in sixty-four years, without appearing to worry about waking up afterward. It’s how I pry myself out of bed most mornings, how I will one foot in front of the other during the day.

Flippancy is the face I put on to cover other faces.

Flippancy is where sickness has taken my mind.

I know I am not the only Long-Term HIV/AIDS Survivor whose mornings usually begin with asking Dorothy Parker’s withering “What fresh hell is this?”

I just wish the Universe didn’t treat the question as such a personal challenge.

Addendum: I was going to call this a “Post-Mortem” but that seemed rather fatalistic and scary! So let’s just cut to the tumor, shall we? Doctors successfully evicted Tommy without incident via laproscopic appendectomy on Wednesday 2 August.


Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-seven-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.