What I Learned From Coal: An Unexpected Diagnosis In A Pandemic by Jessica Burgess

An essay from Jessica Burgess. Jess is an award-winning director and producer who has created for clients such as MoMA, Jay-Z’s Life+Times, Vice, Gravity Media, and the art blog, Future Tongue. With a background in Art History, her work often focuses on the visual arts and contemporary artists.

In this piece, Jess reflects on receiving a cancer diagnosis and treatment, just as the coronavirus pandemic hit New York.

May 4, 2020

What I Learned from Coal: An Unexpected Diagnosis in a Pandemic by Jess Burgess

The first time someone says the word cancer in relation to you, it feels surreal and impersonal; not in the I-must-be-dreaming sense, but semantically. You hear the word “cancer,” usually with some qualifiers with it, like what stage, or which body part, or what the prognosis is, but your brain doesn’t really get past the cancer part. And the doctor won’t just come out and say, “You have cancer;” there’s always some roundabout statement about it. “We’ve gotten the results back and it’s not lymphoma.” Or, “It appears to have spread.” Or, “We will need to remove it quickly.”

Perhaps there is some professional reason for doctors to speak this way, but I’m not sure. No one likes to deliver bad news, even if it is part of your job description. So, for better or worse, you get to be the one to say the undeniably true thing, the thing that they don’t feel comfortable saying. At some point you will have to be the first person to speak those words. Someone will ask what happened at the doctors, or they will ask you what’s wrong. But more likely, the first time anyone says it out loud, you will be alone, and like naming a newly discovered species or realizing for the first time that you’re in love, you will stop and say to yourself, “I have cancer.”

At least that is what happened to me. It was March 16th and I was sitting in a cavernous Vietnamese restaurant in Union Square. A restaurant where I used to have lunch in between college classes, but was now empty save for me, my partner, the owner, and her pet chihuahua. We were all watching Mayor DeBlasio talk about the possibility of a city-wide shutdown. Every time he spoke the chihuahua would start yapping at the television, as if it were upset on behalf of its owner about the loss of business. After the waiter placed a steaming bowl of soup in front of me, the last meal I would have in a restaurant for the foreseeable future, I looked down at my lunch and said it. “I have cancer.” Happy fucking pandemic.
I have always been an avid researcher; information helps me to give shape to the things I can’t control. While I was waiting for test results, which is like sitting in Satan’s living room, my writing group had assigned an exercise in semiotics and deconstruction. We were to research a randomly assigned object, and directed to find meaning within its properties. Others were assigned things like lipstick or swing sets, things I had actually seen before in my lifetime, and I got coal. I’m not immune to the universe’s jokes, especially when I was getting the proverbial coal in my stocking in more ways than one. I knew almost nothing about coal, so I began with the basics.

The first thing I realized, and the thing that still shocks me is this: life is required to electrify the laptop that you are using to read this. That life was most likely coal, since electricity generation is the reason for 93% of coal extraction in the United States. Like all fossil fuels, the utility of coal comes from its carbon structure, but it’s the residue of life that creates its combustibility, and hence its importance to us. Diamonds and the graphite in your pencil are carbon, but their crystalline, undiluted structure make them impervious to heat; they are, and always were, mineral compounds. Coal was formed when the Mesozoic plants – ferns, pines, redwoods, and all the first flowering flora – succumbed to the swamps around them. Hundreds of millions of years of heat and pressure forced the oxygen from their dead mass, leaving behind carbon but also mercury, nitrogen, and most importantly sulfur, the reason coal burns so consistently. The rotten egg smell wafting from northern New Jersey is the remnants of prehistoric ferns, exacting their revenge on motorists on the Turnpike. 

Despite clean energy advances, the U.S. still relies heavily on coal and we still extract a lot of it – 755,000,000 tons of coal in 2018 according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration to be exact. We do this primarily through strip mining. The technique, which is actually a group of methods including the controversial and aptly named “mountaintop removal” process, was created as a safer practice, billed as both more efficient and much cheaper than traditional pit mining. Strip mining only works when the coal is close to the surface of the earth. Employing some of the heaviest machinery on the planet, the earth is peeled back layer by layer to expose the black mineral, which is blasted from the ground with explosives and collected in dump trucks. The “over burden,” or topsoil previously exfoliated from the earth, is laid back atop the broken ground and companies are supposed to plant vegetation in the wake of their Frankenstein machines. 
One night I dreamt that my neck was the earth. A bucket wheel excavator, one of those machines that’s larger than a cruise ship and looks like a fever dream from Mad Max, rolled into the space between my collar bones and excised all the unwholesome flesh beneath. 

The definition of cancer is “a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body.” It’s in the definition that you find the problems. Separately, accelerated growth and mutation of cells are merely dysfunctional, but together these two characteristics are lethal. Abnormal cells happen everywhere on your body; in fact, cell mutation is what created our species. The mutation that causes cancer also caused the cell in the hands of apes to defect and start acting like a thumb. Cancer cells act on the same line of evolutionary edicts, fighting to exist in a body with the same tenacity as early humans fought Neanderthals.

Like all evolutionary beasts, the important facet of cancer lurking behind the definition is time. The phase of cancer given during diagnosis is largely based on the amount of time it has been allowed to grow undetected. Thyroid cancer, at least the type I was diagnosed with, is incredibly slow growing; the tumor could have been there for up to ten years before it spread and could be felt in the side of my neck. But it didn’t start out that way. 

All tumors begin as a cell that has a mind of its own and doesn’t want to stop existing. “Adult cells are constantly under strict control,” Timothy Weill of Cambridge noted, “basically cancer is a loss of control of those cells.” Cancer cells are wild cards, they break all the rules, they can’t be stopped. I respect cancer, hell, I might even admire cancer – one little deviant cell that laid low, biding its time, waiting long enough to upend my whole life.

My doctor decided to rush surgery, fearing that non-emergency surgery would be cancelled for over a year because of the coronavirus; there was too much unknown to let this thing stay inside me for any longer than it needed to be. At 30 years old, they figured I was young and healthy enough to operate then get me out before Mount Sinai would become a respiratory ward, so they scheduled surgery for March 20. With only three days between diagnosis and surgery to prepare, I did what I could. 
My parents, at ages 65 and 68, couldn’t come into the city that was quickly becoming a hotbed for a disease that preyed on people over 60. Not that it would matter, no one could come into the hospital with me. During my surgery they would remove my entire thyroid, as well as the lymph node – where they expected the cancer had spread to – and all the surrounding lymph nodes in my neck. I would have a scar that would stretch from the left side of my neck, across my throat, hook a hard right upwards, and end just below my right ear. After surgery, I would be watched in the hospital for up to 48 hours with no visitors. 

So that was it. In 72 hours, they would remove a tumor I had for 10 years that took 2 months of testing to identify. There was no time to accept, or prepare, or even understand the gravity of my situation. 
Coal did have some personal relevance as it turned out. Like all the difficult and fascinating things about myself, it has to do with my southern roots. In Appalachia, “redneck” is a complicated term. Lots of folks take a sarcastic joy in using the term, calling their floating pontoons “redneck yacht clubs” and prompting a whole line of jokes. “If you’ve ever been too drunk to fish, you might be a redneck.” (Thank you, Jeff Foxworthy.) Others find it a shameful slur, akin to being called ignorant, uncivilized, or even illiterate. Like most people I know, I grew up thinking the term came from the sunburn gained from long hours working in the sun, but it turns out that isn’t true. 

My grandfather, growing up in a coal mining family in West Virginia, was proud of the name and with good reason. One story of how the term “redneck” began, as it turns out, was probably first coined over one hundred years ago in relation to coal miners. The peak of coal production in US history was before and during the First World War. Coal-miner veterans returned home to find that the coal companies had worked hard and fast to consolidate power, squeezing wages everywhere in the country. Conditions were so dangerous and pay so meager that after the war, the United Mine Workers of America began to gain ground as a legitimate force.

The main focal point of conflict was in West Virginia, where coal was the predominant industry. In 1920, the long-simmering tensions of “The Coal Wars” erupted into the single largest worker’s uprising in U.S. History at the Battle of Blair Mountain. A coalition of 10,000 white, black, and immigrant miners marched from Charleston to the headquarters of Logan County Coal. Armed with rifles, they demanded their rights to fair pay, safer working conditions, and the right to unionize. The miners wore red bandanas around their necks as a symbol of solidarity and quickly became known as “The Redneck Army.”

The ramshackle army was met by the Logan County sheriff, employed by the coal industry, and their 2,000 hired mercenaries. Private planes dropped bombs and mustard gas acquired from the First World War on the unionizers. After a month-long standoff, President Warren G. Harding called in the National Guard of West Virginia, which effectively dispersed the leftover uprisers. Almost 1,000 men were tried for a litany of charges, including murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and treason. Membership in the UMW plummeted from 50,000 to under 10,000.

My grandfather grew up outside of Logan County. I don’t know for sure if my great-grandparents were part of this rebellion, but I like to think they were rednecks in the original sense of the word. The coal miners went on to unionize in 1934.
One hundred men died in the Battle of Blair Mountain. People killing each other over the right to take the remnants of dead plants from the ground, or the right to not be killed while doing so. We are fallible, delicate beings. We don’t have the luxury of seeing the fullest reach of our actions.
The worst moments of my week-long run-in with cancer was the morning before the surgery. I woke up after a few hours of sleep and for one brief, lovely moment I thought I’d dreamed up the past 5 days – that I didn’t have cancer, that the world wasn’t shutting down piece by piece, that I could make coffee and worry about finishing the accounting for my last job. 

Then I remembered, New York City was shutting down, turning off the lights. Without the need for as much power, the coal had stopped burning somewhere upstate. And I did, in fact, have cancer. I was hours away from going into the hospital, alone. Alone because it was too dangerous for anyone to accompany me. Alone to wait in a mostly empty hospital, while nurses readied themselves for the hard weeks ahead

Then the interminable car ride to the hospital, readying myself to say goodbye to the one person who I would be able to see until the world started up again, knowing that in thirty minutes, now twenty, now ten, he would have to leave me. Standing on the precipice of all the wonderful and terrible facts of who I was, being made to fall into the unknowable blankness of who I would be. Would I still have a pretty neck? Would they cure me? Would it hurt? 

When they woke me up, I immediately began to have a panic attack, like my brain was just catching up to the trauma my body had just been through. But then, this internist named Josh held my hand and looked at me with his crystal blue eyes. “Don’t worry,” he said, “we have all the best drugs here.” And I thought, “Wow, he really fills out those scrubs well,” and I realized I was all right.
In fact, I was more than all right. The reason anyone even thought to test me was because of a lump you could feel in the right side of my throat. Further scans discovered another tumor, deep in my thyroid as well as an enlarged lymph node. During surgery, my surgeon discovered the tumor in my lymph node was much bigger than it had appeared in the scans, and that it was putting pressure on my carotid artery. When I asked my doctor what all of this meant, he said, “Well, you could have had a stroke, really at any time.” 

As it turns out, the huge, tangible lump in my throat wasn’t related to the thyroid cancer at all, even though I also had thyroid cancer. It was something called a vagal schwannoma, a relatively benign tumor of the nerve sheath that only causes problems when it grows in vital areas. Without the schwannoma, they would have never found the malignant tumor, possibly for another entire decade. Without the cancer, they would not have operated as quickly, and I could have had a stroke. I haven’t fully had time to understand the depth of this experience for me, but I do know that I am very lucky. Not least of all because I have years of puns ahead of me, since, technically, my life was saved by something called a vagal schwannoma.

Perhaps there’s no bigger significance to everything I learned about those little black lumps of fuel. Perhaps I just want to find meaning, but I don’t really know if that matters. I felt better learning about old, socialist coal miners in West Virginia and how many tons of coal China produces - which is, by the way, which 3,532,500,000 tons per year. There was nothing for me to do while I was waiting for test results, or my surgery date, or for the pain to go away, nothing except learn and think.

Perhaps, there is one concrete lesson I took away from my brief stint with cancer and researching coal. There is no way of knowing what the coronavirus will fundamentally shift in our global community, like coal miner unionists didn’t know what a “redneck” would one day symbolize, or that a single cell in my neck would revolt and try to end my life, or that the trees on the edge of a swamp 60 million years ago would be the fuel to build skyscrapers. There’s no way to know the specifics, but it will be destructive, and surprising, and, perhaps, a bit magical.  

By the way, getting coal in your stocking began as a gift, a little black lump for a poor family that had no better way to get warmth or light in the dark winters of Northern Europe. 


Jessica Burgess eats, dreams, and breathes stories. She's an award winning producer for agencies like Vice, Vaynermedia, and Gravity Media; co-owner of Little Animals Pictures, a Brooklyn-based production company; director of fever-dream content; teacher at Tisch School of the Arts; and podcast creator, essayist, and daily admirer of life's idiosyncrasies. She doesn't like to brag, but she can also make a mean meatloaf. Check out her southern-fried brainchildren here.