Sometimes Bad News Warrants a 'You Cannot be Serious'

One of the reasons I love the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever” is the role of tennis legend John McEnroe as the narrator in comedian Mindy Kaling’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about an Indian teen in an American school. It’s incongruous and funny but also a nod to the universality of some of life’s embarrassing or upsetting moments. As an aside, he often compares the teen’s low points to his own during his long career.

I’m not sure what episode this is in, but I can hear him saying the words that have become infamous, if not legendary, in tennis: “You cannot be serious.” If you bear with me, I will tell you how the words “you cannot be serious” are also part of my blood cancer story and maybe even relatable to yours.

Like McEnroe, I couldn't believe it

It was June 22, 1981, in Wimbledon, before the widespread use of the automated line calling system named Hawkeye made line call disputes near-extinct. McEnroe was playing fellow American Tom Gullikson in an early round of the esteemed tournament that McEnroe would ultimately win. Umpire Edward James called a McEnroe serve out.

The U.S. Sun picked up the story: “In front of a stunned crowd, McEnroe ranted: ‘You can’t be serious, man, you cannot be serious! That ball was on the line, the chalk flew up! It was clearly in, how can you possibly call that out?’”

Another type of GVHD - this time of the mouth

When I recently discovered that I had graft vs. host disease (GVHD) of the mouth, I could hear McEnroe’s voice when I said to nobody in particular, “You cannot be serious!” It was 14 years after my fourth stem cell transplant. I had already suffered through GVHD of the skin and the gut. I didn’t know it could lay dormant and rear its ugly head like this. “You can’t be serious,” I thought.

It started with extreme pain and rawness at the lower part of my bottom gum. I winced when I ate. Though nibble would be more like it, it hurt so much. As luck would have it, I had a dentist appointment around then. The dentist said he thought it might be an allergic reaction to a shot I was giving myself, Dupixent. But the ulcer was so large that he wanted me to see a specialist.

I got an appointment in Boston, some two hours from home, with Kentaro Ikeda, DDS, MPH, in the oral medicine department at Dana-Farber, the cancer institute where I am a patient. He said it wasn’t the shot. It was graft vs. host disease. I didn’t know you could get it so late, but apparently you can. I also had a fungus inside parts of my mouth.

Stinging mouthwash as treatment

He prescribed two liquids, a steroid and an anti-fungal, that I was to combine (five milliliters each) into a rinse. I should do it three times a day. The directions called for leaving it in your mouth for five minutes. I thought it was a typo. The pharmacist said it was real. The Boston dentist confirmed. He said you don’t need to keep swishing. You can just let it sit in your mouth.

This was small comfort. It stung like crazy. Some of it dribbled out of the sides of my mouth. I was also to put a steroid gel on my finger and rub it on my gum and on trouble spots on my lower lip. For the inflamed corners of my mouth, I used anti-fungal cream.

I set the timer on my phone for five minutes and did some chores in my room. Picked up clothes, put away socks. I got better at it. You can’t get used to everthing, but you can get used to a lot of things.

It will probably return

I did this for about two months. In a follow up visit, I said it was 80 percent better. It hurt a little instead of hurting a lot. He said I could decrease to one or two times a week and stop if it got all better. Chances were good that it would come back, in which case I would need to go back to square one.

Another more serious “You cannot be serious” encounter happened in an exam room at Dana-Farber. It was nearly four years after my first transplant, in 2007. My doctor said I had relapsed. I must have been in shock. My words didn’t match the earth-shattering news.

“But I was going to do a triathlon,” I said.

I think it was my way of saying “You cannot be serious.”

Have you had moments where you said or thought, “You cannot be serious?”
Let us know in the comments!

And if you want to see and hear the McEnroe rant, check it out on YouTube. You don't have to know tennis to find it entertaining.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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