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  • Socks Full of SandSymptoms, Side Effects, and Signs in the Cancer Game
  • Tony Hoagland (bio)

1. Weighing the Dog

I feel afraid today to step on the bathroom scale. I am worried that my weight has slipped below 120, and if so, I fear the predictive significance of that, and therefore I feel superstitious about checking, and therefore, I am going to go instead to the kitchen and have a mango popsicle. I think I will weigh myself tomorrow.

2. Dead Nerve Endings: Sand in Your Socks

For two years now, since my first chemotherapy sessions, my fingertips have been numb and tingly. This sensation, or rather, lack of sensation, is called neuropathy, a general label assigned to a host of side effects—nerve damage incurred by treatment for more serious diseases. It's a word you hear a lot, but one that is rarely given much detailed description.

These effects themselves, in my experience, are pretty strange. For example, I have a weird sensation in the bottoms of my feet. It feels exactly like my socks are full of sand—a grainy, squishy, gritty feeling each time I take a step. When I first noticed it, I would stop what I was doing and remove my shoe, thinking, "Somehow, some dirt has got into my socks!" But when I took off the sock, there was nothing to be found but a clean bare foot. What I was feeling was just a lot of traumatized, hallucinating nerve endings that made me suspect that my personal hygiene was poor. [End Page 23]

Socks full of sand: I have never heard this particular phenomenon described by a doctor or another patient. The doctors are preoccupied with their special areas of expertise, whatever that might be: radiation, surgery, bloodwork. Tingling fingers are not a life-threatening symptom in cancer patients. Furthermore, they don't want to stimulate a patient's imagination unnecessarily. After all, maybe you won't get neuropathy. Maybe it simply won't happen. Why mention possible problems to a patient and trigger a psychosomatic symptom they might not otherwise experience?

Lately the outside tips of my little fingers are starting to actually blister and hurt. I am afraid I will wake up tomorrow and my hands will have begun to actively ache. However, I don't want to mention it to the doctor. Why should I stimulate her imagination of my disease's progression in a negative way? I want her to think that I am thriving. I want her to invest in me. The fact is, we're all delivering selective information. We're all involved in a kind of performance.

3. A Joke

When my doctor asks me what my symptoms are this week, I tell her Self Pity and a Longing to Have Done Some Things Differently.

She says that although my insurance plan covers Self Pity, it unfortunately does not cover Regret.

4. The Truth of Surrealism

Even if the French artists André Breton or Max Ernst had never been born to discover and proselytize their aesthetic movement, Surrealism would be alive and thriving in the world.

I know this firsthand, because in the transfusion center where I receive my biweekly IVs, in that waiting room full of scrawny and bald, wig-wearing, bandaged, tremulous, limping, poorly dressed patients lined up to receive their dispensation of poison, there is always a food show on the big-screen lobby television. Always a vivid wide-screen color picture of barbecue sauce being slathered onto a rack of pork ribs, or of croissants being drizzled with crumbs of [End Page 24] chocolate and truffle. The pleasant voices of the morning show hosts murmur in the background, and every face in the room is turned towards the screen, like a flower following the trajectory of the sun, or like the blank, hypnotized expression of mice watching the approach of the snake. At intervals, from the technician's corridor, the name of the next patient is yelled out: "Mr. Gonzalez! Mr. Harold Gonzalez?!!?"

5. Procedure

One Thursday morning, in late November, I am given a toffee-flavored...


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