I may, or may not, have cancer.
Now, before all my regular readers and, due to my automated update configurations, my Twitter and Facebook friends who might read this, get too excited, nothing has changed in my recent medical status. However, Wednesday, I go in for a scan. A regular scan, nothing special, nothing new. My scheduled, nine-month scan, per the standard protocol. Or so I have been lead to believe.
The scan, however routine it may be, will not decide if I have cancer, however.
That, I’m afraid, already is. Or is not. Either my body has betrayed me again and a cancerous growth has lodged itself in my chest or it hasn’t and I’m as healthy as I feel. Personally, I’m inclined to think that I’m cancer free, still, and this whole exercise will be a test of the quality of my health insurance. But, also, as it turns out, it’s a test of my patience and courage.
You have to understand, I’m not afraid of cancer. Or of death, either, really. It’s chemotherapy that terrifies me.
Cancer, as such, is just a way of describing cells that have gotten a bit carried away with themselves and aren’t too particular about playing by the standard set of rules. And death… Well, death is the one thing we all have in common. None of us make it out of this place alive. Not a one. Death, in its way, is the final answer. The ultimate solution to every problem I’ve ever had or can ever conceive of having. So, no, though I don’t know what waits on the other side of that particular experience, death doesn’t frighten me so much.
Chemotherapy, on the other hand, I do know. It is, I think, the embodiment of suffering. At least, for me.
I know everyone’s experience with chemotherapy is different, so, let me take a moment and tell you why it is that I fear it. For me, chemo was about losing all my hair, all my color, close to sixty pounds, and virtually all my energy. And, frankly, in a very, very short amount of time.
My hair went first. I remember it coming out in clumps in the shower. Just like in the movies. I started to cry when it happened. Great racking sobs, with tears running down my face, mixing with the soapy water. No one can see you crying in the shower. I recommend it, if you have any crying to do in the future and you’d rather people not know. It’s one of the many useful things I’ve learned from one of my ex’s. I took my beard trimmer and cranked it down to the shortest setting, then sheared the rest away myself. My own way of taking a bit of control back, I suppose. But, I remember that day, more than four years ago, as if it were yesterday. A few days later, I shaved for the last time in what would turn out to be more than six months.
My eyebrows and ear hair and nose hair weren’t far behind. You have no idea how important nose hair is until you don’t have any. Trust me. My nose ran for weeks and weeks and weeks. Nonstop. All those annoying, little hairs filter the nasty gunk out of the air and grip it with that snotty mucous up in there and keep it from getting into your lungs, as it turns out. Without it, well, your nose just runs and runs and runs like a little kid with a cold on a Winter playground.
The weight and the color took longer. By the time I was an unhealthy, pallid gray, my goatee had become so thin that I shaved it off. And, I was a larval, grub-like thing, pale and weak, before the weight started to melt off me.
Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded the weight loss, but it took muscle as much as it took the fat. And, of course, it involved severe nausea and, yes, actual vomiting. Not to mention all the other symptoms, like how everything smelled different; how all my favorite food smelled, well, wrong somehow. And the weird bloating I would get in my hands and arms that led the doctors to proscribe diuretics and force the poor nurses to record how much I peed, by volume. I was measured and weighed regularly. Multiple times per day, actually. Oh, and the drugs! Pills by the score, a fist-full at a time. Self-administered injections three times a day, at one point. All while fighting nausea and trying to find a square inch of flesh that I could still pinch up enough to get a needle into without going all the way through.
Death would have been easier.
But, as a wise, Zen-Catholic almost-monk reminded me recently, without fear, there can be no bravery.
He also reminded me that the test will only show what is, or is not, already there. It will only tell me if I have just another problem to deal with, or another opportunity to exercise my courage, or, simply, a bill to pay and just another doctor’s appointment to go to and questions to ask and answer.
And, either way, all I can do is live in the present moment. What’s happened is done already. What happens in the future is yet to be determined and may not have anything to do with what has come before. And, regardless of the results of this scan on Wednesday, which I’ll get on the following Monday, I can only live as best I can, as best I know how. There will, ultimately, be other scans, other tests, potentially one every year until the day I do, finally, make the last great leap into the dark. In between those scans, however many there may be, I slowly, gradually, have chosen to live healthier. The past couple years, I’ve been juicing. Fresh, home-made, organic vegetable juice. And, this year, fruit smoothies. Both, or either, instead of sandwiches for lunch, along with yogurt, which has lately been organic as well, and, newest of all, Greek for the higher protein.
I exercise more regularly than ever. I’d like to be less heavy than I am, or at least less fat. Pound for pound, more muscular would be just fine at my weight. Less stiff and less creaky in the joints would be okay, too. Some mornings when I get up, I sound very much like a bowl of Rice Krispies my joints snap, crackle and pop so much. Several people have suggested that I add yoga to my exercise regimen, that it would help with flexibility and ease my stiff joints. And, when I hear a thing three times, from three very different people, I have to at least investigate that or risk the Universe taking offense at my willfully ignoring the suggestion. So, this conservative, meat-and-potatoes, tough-minded, mostly pragmatic Mid-Westerner has found himself a bit adrift in Texas, more liberal and open-minded toward alternative health practices, eating mostly fruits and vegetables and “crunchy granola”, and, yes, finally, investigating yoga, of all things. At least I hear the classes are mostly women, so, who knows, maybe I’ll meet a nice, healthy girl who won’t laugh too loudly at my foolishness.
So, regardless of how terrified I may be of having to endure chemotherapy again, or how distasteful I find the radioactive enema I will pay an enormous deductible on, I will face the day, the scan, with as much courage and dignity as I can still manage. I will do my best to be thankful for the friends and family who support me in my weakness and discomfort, and, yes, for the medical staff who will run me through their gauntlet. I will try to be patient while waiting for the results of what is already there, or not, like Schrödinger’s cat, who’s state cannot be known until it is observed.
And, when all is said and done, I will try not to let the fear cripple me, but, rather, I will do my best to live more fully. Certainly, more fully than I have been, more courageously, I hope. I will still know fear, I am sure, but, as I was reminded, there can be no courage without the fear first.
Of course, until that all happens, I will be more than happy to accept your prayers, good thoughts, and any introductions to nice, pretty, healthy ladies who aren’t more than ten years younger than I.
But, let’s start with those prayers, okay?
Advice from your Uncle Jim:
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."