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McCallum: In A Word

(Host) Educator, writer and commentator Mary McCallum loves words. Her recent experience with some new medical jargon affirmed her belief that words have the power to shape how we respond to some of life's troubling situations.

(McCallum) Last summer, I entered an unfamiliar world with its own lexicon. It began with the word mass, and the doctor telling me that I had one wasn't talking about the religious kind. This bundle of cells had been sitting quietly next to my brain stem for years, taking up a half inch of space and not making any trouble. Until then. I sat on a gurney in an emergency room where I'd gone for tests, heard the news and thought: Ah, something that happens only to other people has just happened to me.

My state of mind clicked into emergency mode when I heard the words mass and brain used in the same sentence applying to me, and thus my journey into the world of advanced medicine began. A word person all my life, I latched on and began taking notes. The vocabulary list kept growing.

The first word I scrawled in my notebook was delivered by a neurosurgeon after viewing MRI images. I looked up from my hospital bed and asked, Can you spell that please? M-E-N-I-N-G-I-O-M-A, he said, and repeated the word meningioma the way we were instructed to do in third grade spelling bees.

And that is? I countered. He described a tumor, likely benign, and similar to a cousin of sorts that's called an acoustic neuroma. The word benign allowed me to breathe out and slowly take in and process his report. He spelled acoustic neuroma for me as I wrote. Not so technical was his comparing the tumor's shape to a small dumbbell. Rather an ironic choice of words, I thought, and later createda file folder on my laptop labeled Dumbbell into which I dumped all my research about this uninvited tenant.

Tenant is exactly what a friend named the little mass, sharing my own squeamishness about the word tumor. And there were other euphemisms: The New Lodger, The Lurker and The Little Knot. Such terminology helped reduce our combined stress about a serious turn of events. At a social gathering, I met a woman who had in her head what I have in mine, and we instantly bonded and exchanged email addresses. Over the course of months, I received updates about her successful treatment signed, Your tumor-ish friend. We shared a special dark lingo.

In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. My dizzy vertiginous state was unrelated to the tumor. It was likely caused by a virus, and would probably disappear over time. The mass was an incidental finding that surfaced through testing for other things. The uninvited tenant can stay so long as it doesn't grow. I now share something with 10,000 others diagnosed nationwide each year with benign meningioma. Even Sheryl Crow has one. The words benign and incidental finding fell as music upon my ears. I carry them within me like a mantra, powerful reminders of how one's universe can change in a moment by a word or two.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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