It hasn’t even been two years since my diagnosis so maybe I just haven’t gotten there yet but I hope to reach a point where I can go an entire day without thinking once about cancer. Most days it just pops into my head without any warning or explanation. After all I’ve been clear since I finished chemo and I only get checkups about every three months. In between that I have a plastic access port in my chest that needs to get flushed—or, as I like to call it, any storm in a port—every six weeks. Oh yeah, I also have surgical scars and multiple medications that I take daily. But as long as there are no bumps in the road I can keep cruising along quite happily with the top down, the world’s greatest song on the radio, looking at cows and sheep and the occasional llama, at trees and billboards that tell me there’s a place just two miles ahead where I can buy firecrackers, stopping occasionally to grab a fish sandwich, get gas, and also put fuel in the car.
That metaphor got away from me.
During my most recent checkup my oncologist told me there was good news and bad news, and more good news—the bad news wasn’t really bad. The good news was most of my numbers looked fine. The bad news is my tumor markers were up just a tick. Oncologists, of course, measure tumor markers in small bloodsucking arachnids. The markers were still in the very low single digits and there was a strong possibility that it was a mistake and she was going to have the lab re-run the numbers to be sure. And let me be as emphatic as possible that even if the numbers are right the uptick is so small it’s nothing to worry about.
I’m emphasizing that because there was a moment where I emotionally slammed the brakes and came to a screeching halt, left skidmarks fifty feet long, did an impressive Tokyo drift maneuver across a stretch of highway, and blew out one of the tires. Fortunately I have a complete emergency kit including a can of that stuff you can use to temporarily refill a punctured tire so you can drive to a service station, although people passing by did wonder why I felt compelled to put out flares in the middle of the day.
Yeah, I really need to stop using cruise control with my metaphors.
It’s not been easy making the transition from “I never get sick!” to “I spent three months getting chemo for a disease that could have killed me and has affected the rest of my life!” The first phrase is easy, jaunty, and allows me to go on with my usual happy blind optimism and be the life of the party while the second phrase is clunky and long and doesn’t even begin to sum up just how complicated the reality is which is annoying because just by itself it’s enough to give me the fantods.
Rerunning my numbers required me to go in for a blood draw—meaning I had to get a second port flush in less than a week, which, by the way, was a reminder that even though I may never need chemo again it’s still too soon to get my port removed. There may not be storms but there are still squalls. And she wanted a urine sample too. And not just any urine sample. It had to be a first-thing-in-the-morning urine sample instead of a quick drink-some-water-and-fill-this-cup sample. I was given a specimen bottle to take home.
Almost every time I’ve been asked to give a urine sample I’ve been handed a cup or bottle to fill and it always feels like a missed opportunity to repeat a Groucho Marx joke. When he was called up for military service he and his fellow recruits were taken into a room for a medical exam. The doctor pointed to a row of bottles on the far wall and said, “Fill ‘em up.” Groucho said, “From here? Who do you think we are, firemen?”
Anyway I’d have to remember to fill the cup first thing in the morning, preferably after I’d taken the dogs out for their morning disembogue, and not join them in marking the tree. There was also a strong possibility—and it came to pass—that I’d have to make my passage before the clock crowed. In the event of that my wife suggested I put a note in the lavatory that read “CHRIS—PEE IN THE CUP!” She’s smart like that and through this ordeal has spent a good amount of time in the driver’s seat. So I took a heavy black pen and wrote the note. And then to sharpen the point I took a lighter pen and added, “Make it fun. Pretend you’re an astronaut using a zero-G toilet. And don’t spill any because if your urine’s floating around in zero-G the other astronauts will lock you out of the capsule.” I wish I could say it ended there but I went on to write more, referencing everything from the Apollo program to Quisp and the final scene of Dark Star and now I have to spend the rest of my life carrying a note reminding me to not drink and write notes, but that’s another story.
The real point is I can hopefully always get back on track, fueled by my sense of humor and the occasional fish sandwich.
Update: My oncologist has already gotten the new results back. Everything is back to normal and Beatrice and Benedick lived happily ever after.