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The Gift of Life

(Published 12/24/15)



Florida Courier writer Penny Dickerson, a cancer survivor, reflects on her personal challenges and blessings during this year’s holiday season.

The Florida Courier

Before cancer and after cancer. Here’s a formal portrait (in classy black and white) and a selfie from my hospital bed. (Portrait by GREGORY McKINNON)

Cancer and Christmas share a confounding irony for me this year.

On Dec. 1, I was admitted to Shands Hospital in Jacksonville for a CT-guided kidney biopsy. One month prior, a definitely solid renal mass was found resting leisurely on the outer pole of my right kidney.

The remainder of the month, I’ve endured holiday grandeur, including “Jingle Bells” carols; and pine and spruce trees lit with bright, multicolored bulbs and layered with elaborately wrapped presents topped by ornate bows.

It’s the season to be jolly – if you don’t have to deal with a health woe like cancer.

Instead of cheerfully speaking catch phrases like “joy,” “peace,” and “hope,” my seasonal vocabulary sounds like it’s taken from pages of the “Physicians’ Desk Reference:” “peripherally inserted catheters,” “renal cell carcinoma,” “cryoablation,” and “cancer surveillance.”

This year, I am a bonafide Grinch. I’m sick of that fat White bearded guy of “ho, ho, ho” fame. My sole Christmas miracle is that I haven’t been arrested and jailed for tackling and beating down a mechanical Santa Clause out of frustration.

Santa’s robust, bulging belly is celebrated as he devours endless cookies and milk. Where is the dietary liability? Where is Santa’s sickness or cancer?

It appears it’s been gifted to me!

151225_front01bIn and out
Instead of holiday shopping to extend gifts to family, friends, and my precious granddaughter Journey Nicole, for three weeks preceding Dec. 25, I’ve been in and out of the hospital twice.

Mentally, I’ve had to navigate my current reality, including the exhaustion of 12 weeks of non-paid family leave from my full-time employer, Stein Mart – who matter-of-factly informed me that my first health insurance premium bill is coming as a Christmas present.

Who can indulge in “fa-la-la-la-la” when you’re forced to make decisions like financially maintaining the single bill necessary to sustain your health – and mustering strength to return to work and make a living?

Millions of Americans share the dilemma of health crisis. It not only alters lives; it can steal your Christmas cheer. Here’s a glimpse of my story:

Cancer diagnosed in 2006
I was initially diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer while living in Winston Salem, N.C. and subsequently received treatment at Duke Medical Center. The fine print in this excerpt from my Duke medical records speaks volumes:
Ms. Merdis Dickerson is a 43-year-old African American female who began experiencing abdominal pain in the spring of 2006 and was noted to have gallstones…The pathology showed a clear cell renal cell carcinoma, grade II out of IV, which was confined to the left kidney and measured 0.9 cm in greatest dimension.”

My first thoughts were the monosyllabic: “What?” and “Huh?”

Like most women, I am aware of  breast cancer and had a right breast biopsy for a lump in 2004.

It was benign.

But women are unfairly encouraged to protect our “two brown mounds,” while more complex cancers receive less advocacy and education. As a result, my expectation was that cancer would grow bilaterally in my chest, not my kidneys.

Ignored symptoms
I ignored important warning signs and recall thinking, “I am too smart to have been so dumb.”
Hematuria, or urine in the blood, is a telltale symptom of renal cell carcinoma.  But what woman wants to discuss blood coming from her “lady place,” even it is in her piss?

Blood below the waist is every woman’s right to remain mute, and in 2006, that’s what I did until an incidental finding on a CT scan during an emergency room visit showed a tumor filled with cancer cells.

It was just that simple. A cancer diagnosis rarely mimics what is seen on prime-time television.

Those close to me know that I stay busy and keep it moving. I never smoked, but had my share of health struggles. Over the years, illness has slowed me down, but never stopped my passionate writing pursuit.

Complex surgeries
The first tumor was in my left kidney and a partial nephrectomy was performed as the curative solution. The surgery was difficult. I healed by “secondary intentions” – which means the wound from the surgery was left open to heal on its own.

A huge, gaping divide of flesh was exposed on my left side that needed to be packed daily. Three ribs were “resected” – cut out – so that the surgeon could access my kidney. That caused irreparable nerve damage and permanently affected my range of motion.

Additionally, between 2006 and 2013, I endured more than seven additional surgeries at Mayo Clinic, Baptist Medical Center, and now Shands.

Consistent with protocol, I had surveillance scans every six months to make sure the cancer hadn’t reoccured.  The remaining portion of my left kidney was functioning without fail.

An arduous health journey had finally come to a halt, and I was exhausted.

But when I least expected it, a new tumor was identified on my right kidney last month. That  left me stunned.

Technology advances encouraged a less-invasive procedure called “cryoablation,” that involved freezing the malignant cells (until disco comes back – yes, that’s a joke) or permanently destroying them.

Depressive setback
Shouting victory was premature. The procedure left me immobilized and in pain. I’d also been ambushed by a sense of anxiety that I just couldn’t shake. The blues of the winter solstice had unequivocally fallen upon me.

Further, this tiny tumor popped up at the end of 2015, an unprecedented year of success for me as a freelance writer after I had been on the editorial grind for nearly a decade.

In February, I traveled to New York as a Guggenheim fellow. I followed that by attending my fifth Steve Harvey and Essence Magazine’s Disney Dreamers Academy in March.

In June, I spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard at a literary retreat working on my memoir. I wrote six features in Orlando Arts Magazine and secured a Marguerite Casey “Equal Voice” fellowship.

Mid-year, I signed a contract as lead reporter for the Daytona Times, broke into the Miami market, interviewed Tom Joyner and LeVar Burton, among other celebrities.

The 2015 “cherry-on-top” was celebrating the October nuptials of my only daughter Kelsey Nicole Boyer, age 25.

Cancer did not comfortably fit into this string of successes and personal milestones.

Fighting to win
I posted my recent discharge chart on social media. It read like a clinical litany of despair.

Between renal masses and malignant neoplasms it appeared I had everything but shingles and a hangnail; another surgery consult is pending.

My rigorous personal drive and motivation that I call “Penny-Fly” had faltered. I felt empty, alone and was painfully aware that being sick and single wasn’t sexy. I am blessed to have a bevy of praying friends who I wanted to transparently tell, “Please get off your knees and stretch, because my faith is long gone.”

Most days, my simplest prayer is for my 2004 Toyota 4-Runner to turn over when cranked, or for my bank account to avoid breaching zero.

And then I think of all the victims this year has claimed at the hands of gunmen, police, and terrorism.

I think of their mothers, children, and spouses who will never again see the whites of their loved one’s eyes or warm smiles at the table for holiday dinners.

I think of my own mother, Ethel Jones, who has attended appointments and monitored my 24-hour care.

I think of my two sisters Linda Herron and Natalie Burgess, all my cousins, and all my faithful friends who intercede for me when I am weakened.

And then I am grateful.

Yes, tumors are terrible and cancer is a beast.

But with family and friends in my corner, I recognize the best gift for Christmas is life.

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