I was diagnosed with cancer on June 17th and started chemotherapy on July 7th, not quite three weeks. I tell people that and they say, “Wow, things happened quick.” And I say, try it. I spent most of that time recovering from surgery that, in spite of being minor, was still surgery and left me with some pain, meeting my oncologist, talking about my chances, and preparing for chemotherapy. Well, there wasn’t much preparing to do, and my wife did an amazing job of stepping up and doing a lot of what needed to be done. She bought a moisturizing mouthwash because chemo would probably give me dry mouth, and an electric razor because I’d have a compromised immune system and a cut could be deadly. She bought a bunch of toothbrushes because I’d need a fresh one each time I started a new round of chemo. She’s also worked in medical research and went into meetings with doctors armed to the teeth with questions. Anything I could have thought of to ask she had covered, and more.
She also acted as a filter for information. At times I was tempted to look up information myself, but I didn’t. I’ll always wonder whether this was a good idea or a bad one, although it seems like it was the better choice. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. A lot of knowledge can be even worse. And while ignorance may not necessarily be bliss—I’d lost nine pounds when I started chemo—I’m not sure whether knowing all the fine details of my particular cancer would have helped my anxiety. The disease didn’t scare me nearly as much as the remedy.
I’ve never talked to anyone who emphasized this so much, and maybe it’s because I’m an idiot, but from the outset the one question in my mind was, what will chemotherapy be like? And it was a question I was afraid to ask because I thought it didn’t really matter what it would be like. Imagine you’re being chased by bears and your only hope of escape is to climb a cliff. And you’re afraid of heights. But you’re lucky: you’ve got an experienced climber who’s going to guide you up the cliff. Would you stop and wonder what the experience of climbing would be like? Or would you just shut up, do your best to swallow your fear, and get on with it? That was my strategy. If you’re thinking it would be a good idea to stop and ask for tips on how to climb, well, you’re absolutely right. I wish I’d thought the same thing at the time.
I wasn’t entirely ignorant. I may not have known the specifics of chemotherapy, but I had heard and read other peoples’ stories. I knew there was a pretty good chance of losing my hair, which sounded fun, but I also knew I could probably expect fatigue, nausea, and weight loss. I knew that chemotherapy could lead to trips to the emergency room and long hospital stays. I knew, from others’ experiences, that if they had to resort to really aggressive treatment it would leave me so wiped out death would start to seem like an appealing alternative. At the outset I knew I wanted to live, and the doctors kept telling me that I had a really good chance of beating the cancer, but I wondered, what if it turns out not to be so easy? What if things take a turn and get worse? I wondered if I, like another cancer patient I’d read about, would one day stand at my hospital window and contemplate jumping.
I spent most of that time in a weird mix of denial—my wife was the one who noticed that my right leg was the size of a tree trunk after my first couple of treatments, whereas I was just thinking, “I don’t remember these shorts being this tight”—and preparing for the worst. And I realize it must have been frustrating that I tried to make everything a joke. I’d reasoned that no one is better prepared for life-threatening illness than comedians because when you’re up there alone on stage your only choices are die or kill. And I thought if I pumped myself up on optimism and humor I’d be better prepared. If I fell from the cliff laughter could be my lifeline. It was good that I was coping but bad that my focus was too narrow. I’m happy to be a survivor, but I have regrets. My biggest regret is getting cancer in the first place even if I didn’t have a lot of choice in it, but a close second is not being more aware of what treatment was doing to me. That was important information that needed to be shared. Mentally I was coping, but I needed to be engaged with the physical part of my recovery too. “What’s wrong with your arms?” my wife asked one night. Oh, hey, I was so giddy from having been out that day cracking up strangers with my emergency room stories that I didn’t realize chemo had given me an allergic reaction to sunlight.
And in the end I got lucky. Chemo turned out not to be as bad as I thought it would be, or as bad as it could have been. I didn’t need radiation, and doctors had figured out ways to counteract some of the worst side effects of the poisons they were pumping through me. I had a few bouts of nausea but they passed quickly. I felt tired, but I never wanted to die. And when, on my first day of treatment, I was shown to a room the first thing I noticed was that the windows were sealed shut, and that it was only about an eight foot drop. Nurses came in and gave me apple juice and a warm blanket, which was emotionally reassuring but also nice because you could store meat in the infusion ward.
Of course it wasn’t just luck. My wife pulled me through a lot of it. Something else I should never take for granted, though, is how much I benefited from the experiences of others. Cancer patients who had come before me contributed information that improved my chances.
This is a song I had stuck in my head for nearly three weeks: