They came for Blaise of Sebaste in the late afternoon, just before supper. Light filtered through the trees on the mountain before it entered the mouth of the cave where he knelt in prayer on a mat of reeds. He had seen patients earlier in the day, but retired to the cool of his home when the guards appeared bearing knives left sheathed. He’d known this day would arrive.
They permitted him to put his modest home in order. He called to the dogs. “They’ve come,” he said. “I must go.”
The animals pressed close, allowing him to stroke their soft ears, licking at the bishop’s hands.
The guards grew impatient, eager to reach the jail with plenty of daylight. Blaise secured his robes, tying a belt at his waist, and slid sandals onto his feet. The dogs sat, as if they would wait until he returned, no matter how long it took. “You must go, too,” he said, and one after the other, they rose and trotted towards the woods, the leader of the pack pausing at the top of the hill to look back at his master.
I have a tumor on my thyroid. It’s a two-point-seven-centimeter nodule, suspicious for follicular neoplasm. That’s cancer.
The idea of asking God to spare me flits across my consciousness, but I dismiss it. Praying, I fear, may make it real.
For the diagnosis, the doctors must remove it surgically, slice and analyze it under a microscope. My role in this is minor. I must only give consent.
I did not learn the stories of Saint Blaise when I was a child. I knew him only as the patron saint of sore throats. Later, I read about him. I imagined how Blaise and the guards traveled a worn path down the mountain. Once on the road, the villagers took little notice of the guards, who seemed to always be around. Word traveled, however, of the man, doctor and bishop of the village, held in their custody.
Susurrus rose with the dust at their feet.
“Blaise,” another voice whispered.
Through the crowd came a woman carrying a young child. The guards stopped and, seeing the woman meant no harm, unhanded the bishop.
“Father, please! He cannot breathe.” The woman held the child up for Blaise to see.
The boy, not over two years old, wheezed out a thin stream of air, his eyes wild, lips tinged blue.
“This child is choking!” said Blaise. He took the boy from his mother and knelt on the road. He flipped the boy onto his belly, supporting his neck and chest with a wiry forearm. With the heel of his right hand, he thumped once, twice. The child coughed and gagged, an object shooting from his mouth into the dirt. He wailed. Blaise turned the child upright and smiled, pleased to see the boy’s lips turning pink.
A fishbone lay in the dirt.
“Bless you!” said the mother, tears in her eyes, as she pulled the child to her chest, wrapping him in her shawl. The gathered crowd cheered.
“Keep a careful eye on that one,” said Blaise. He made the sign of the cross over the child, then kissed his fingers and pressed them to his throat. The guards looked at one another.
“Enough,” said the one with an ugly gash across his chin. “Time to go.”
The woman and her child faded back into the crowd as the guards again took Blaise by the arms and continued on their way. The mother, grateful to the bishop, would tell of the miracle, how her son was near death and how Blaise saved his life.
In about a month, I’ll check into a hospital and undergo all the preliminary prep work necessary for invasive procedures. They’ll put me to sleep. A sterile field will expose my neck. My surgeon will cut my throat from side to side and, avoiding my carotid artery and my larynx, will separate the right lobe of my thyroid with its hitchhiking tumor intact and remove it from my body.
I’m told the procedure is simple; I’ll have a week or two of downtime. They’ll make the incision in the crease of my neck to hide the scar.
I like scarves. A scar does not concern me.
I don’t feel sick. Thyroid cancer is asymptomatic. Unchecked, it can grow and metastasize to the bones, lungs, lymph nodes.
“I see a dark one in there. That’s not normal,” said the ultrasound technician, scanning my lymph nodes, and I know, and she knows, she’s not allowed to say that.
My voice strains easily. My neck has hurt for over nine months. In September, I was in a car accident; a fierce rear-ending snapped my head back, then forward, so hard the ponytail holder fell out of my hair. My face tingled, then went numb in the aftermath. The pain, unmitigated with physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, and promises to God, lingers and crawls up my skull and down my shoulders. My doctor ordered an MRI to assess the damage to my neck.
Incidental findings of thyroid nodules are common. Most are benign.
“Your nodule has some characteristics consistent with follicular neoplasm,” said the surgeon. “On a scale from one to six, with one being benign, yours is a four.”
They are careful not to say cancer. Or tumor. The endocrinologist gives it to me straight. “It’s your choice. You can wait, and they can do another biopsy in a few months and you’ll have it out then, or you can do this now and put it behind you.”
I’m lucky. The doctors say my half-a-thyroid shows every sign it will work like a full one. I hesitate. I dread the surgery and despite the biopsy results, have my doubts about the diagnosis.
My mother was the child of a devout Catholic convert. Devout herself, she insisted on observing the Feast of Saint Blaise, an optional event. The evening ceremony had congregants lining up to receive the Blessing of the Throats, to ward off ailments during the winter.
Bored to death, with no music and mostly old people, there wasn’t anything to occupy me while I waited my turn for the blessing. Mom insisted we stay for the entire mass, too. She never allowed us to skip out after communion like some of my high school friends’ families.
There were three priests giving the blessings: not nearly enough to make it go fast. I killed time, reliving my last date with my boyfriend, fantasizing about what we might do when we were together again. My mother nudged my back when it was my turn, and I stepped forward.
The priest held two unlit candles, crossed at my throat and said, “Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness.” He raised his right hand before me and made the sign of the cross, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
I turned and headed for the back of the church to wait for my mother to receive her blessing. I knew she would take her time, nodding to the sisters, and kneeling to say yet another prayer. It was embarrassing to watch her smile and whisper, “Hello, Sister,” to every nun, even the ones she didn’t know. I looked around, and the coast was clear; the other kids’ parents hadn’t made them attend the Feast of St. Blaise. I buttoned my coat and wound my scarf, ready to escape and get back to homework and late-night phone calls.
I sit in a fancy medical recliner as the surgeon answers many of my questions. This, I realize, is the foreplay of the appointment.
“Have you ever had neck surgery?” he asks.
“No! I still have my wisdom teeth.” I say, babbling. Nervous.
“Really? So do I! OK, let’s see what we have here. I will feel your lymph nodes and then see if I can feel the tumor.”
He moves behind me and gently wraps his hands around my throat. A flicker of panic. I think of Saint Blaise. I think of the candles. With long fingers, he presses here and there, then pauses, low, on the front of my neck.
“Can you feel it?” I ask.
“Yep, it’s right there.” He comes back around to face me. “It’s a simple procedure. I’ve done thousands.” I read about the risks. The laryngeal nerve lies close to the thyroid. If he nicks it, I could lose my voice.
His face is kind. His hands are confident. He has four children and his wisdom teeth intact. I sign the forms.
Saint Blaise was a martyr, physician, bishop, and patron saint of animals and throats in the part of the world we now call Turkey, around 300 A.D. Some accounts describe him as a hermit, living in a cave and communicating with animals. He may have cured people while imprisoned for his faith. He may have saved a boy from choking. He may have spoken to a wolf and convinced it to return a stolen piglet to its owner. The stories say he survived attempted drowning, beatings, and being raked with wool combs. They beheaded him for being a Christian. We don’t know if any of these things are true. But I can imagine them and hope that if blessings have meaning, if they are real, then they sometimes heal more than the pious, that St. Blaise can somehow save even the nonbelievers. Like me.
I try to be brave, but I’m scared on surgery day, imagining all that can go wrong. I vacillate between thinking even if it is cancer, it’s an easily treated one, and maybe this is just the beginning, and the cancer has spread. In the weeks prior, fear and anger seized me. I wondered what I’d done to deserve cancer. I try and fail, to pray. I think of St. Blaise and wish for a blessing, hoping that somehow those long-ago rituals could count now. I wish I could time travel back to those winter evenings and the Blessing of the Throats, that I could have the faith required and save the blessing like a prayer card, tucked into my coat pocket.
While under anesthesia, the doctors angle my head back for over two hours. When I awake, it is this pain, like a charley horse in my neck, that hits me first, and I gasp in shock. I am pleased to find I have a voice, using it to moan and sob in my distress.
It takes about a week to feel better. It takes two to get the news: the tumor is benign. I cry with bitter relief. I call my mother. “They called. It’s not cancer!”
“Don’t forget to say a prayer of thanks,” my mother says. “Your guardian angel was looking out for you.” My eyes fill anew, though I struggle with the idea that either God or the doctors saved me. There was nothing to save me from at all. I know my lack of faith disappoints her; the guilt over not being the pious person she hoped I’d be, steals some joy from my relief.
When I see the surgeon again, I am awash with anger at a pointless, painful experience. I feel like a fool for submitting myself to a totally unnecessary procedure.
“What happens next? Do I need to follow up with you again?” I ask, after the surgeon looks at his work via a camera threaded up my nose and down my throat. He admires my healing incision.
“We want to keep an eye on the nodule on the other side of your thyroid,” he says.
I give a false smile and thank him, but I can’t get out of there fast enough. He wants to take the rest of my thyroid.
As I make my way to the checkout counter, I tie a silk scarf around my neck and promise myself I’ll never return.
Sitting at my vanity, applying moisturizer with my fingertips, I look into the mirror and notice my scar, tucked deftly into the lowest crease of my neck. I doubt that anyone but me sees it there. My half-a-thyroid pumps out hormones like a champ, and I have no need for medication to replace its amputated twin.
I’ve nearly forgotten the cancer crisis, resigned to my status as a foxhole Catholic, reaching for religion only when my back is against the wall. I’m curious if Saint Blaise’s fear and pain, ever greater as the torture failed to kill him, made him pray, and believe more fervently.
As I age, I’ll almost certainly have to believe in doctors again, to leave the care of my body in their hands. The terrors that come with remaining alive will almost certainly have me saying prayers I only recall in fear.