Don’t ask me how I’m doing.
Having passed the two-year mark as a cancer survivor is something I should be happy about. And I am, but it’s complicated. I really celebrated the first year as the first of many milestones to come. At the time I still had things to overcome and I felt like I really hadn’t fully recovered my health, like I hadn’t completely bounced back. And I wasn’t sure I would fully recover. That was, oddly, something to celebrate. I felt there was a clear demarcation between me before cancer and me after cancer and that it was something I would deal with for the rest of my life.
It’s still something I’ll deal with for the rest of my life, but, in spite of all the changes, in spite of the fact that I have scars, both internal and external, in spite of having to wear bracelets with health information in case I’m left unconscious in an accident, in spite of still having a plastic bulb in my chest even though I no longer need to be pumped full of poison, in spite of taking a handful of medications twice a day-okay, not a literal handful or even a metaphorical handful really, but more than I ever took on a regular basis before-I still feel like the same person I was before. The before-cancer and after-cancer line is blurred, and I’m left wondering where to go from here. I’m left wondering where I will go from
here. During that first year, and even during the second, I went into every doctor visit with a sense of dread. What if the chemo didn’t work? What if it comes back?
I don’t think I’ll ever be entirely free of that feeling but at least it’s diminished. Before cancer I hadn’t seen my regular doctor in so long I couldn’t have picked him out in a lineup even if he were the only one wearing a white coat and maybe one of those head mirrors that you’d think should have a special name but, no, apparently it’s just called a “head mirror” which makes me wonder why stethoscopes aren’t called heart-listeny-tubes but that’s another story.
Before cancer I could joke about my health because I never got sick. The only reason I ever went into a hospital was to visit other people. It felt like cancer broke a winning streak. At the time that was strangely reassuring. I didn’t want cancer, or any disease, but as long as I never got sick there was always a dark cloud in the back of my mind that sooner or later the odds were going to catch up with me. When I was diagnosed I thought, well, I wish the odds could have caught up with me gradually instead of dumping a heap of tumor on me, but at least I can keep playing
even if I am losing a bunch of chips now. Why I put all of this in gambling
metaphors since I’ve never been in a casino in my life is a mystery. Besides I could always keep that cloud at the back of my mind with the reassurance that luck is an illusion, not something that builds up but has to be paid back eventually. Or to put it more succinctly, shit happens. So does cancer.
But as the two year mark got closer I started feeling I was on another winning streak, and this time that cloud was not only bigger but it was, and is, harder to push it to the back of my mind. Shortly after my diagnosis one doctor told me, “If you’re gonna get cancer this is the one to get.” Testicular cancer is in the easily treatable category, and, although my memory has been left a little fuzzy, I believe that same doctor was the one who told me I had a good chance of being cured. I’d never heard the word “cured” associated with cancer before. For a while I used it too but I won’t say it again. Saying I’m “cured” carries too much temptation to live as though nothing happened. And it feels unlucky.
This anniversary carries other, weirder, even more complicated feelings with it. I don’t want to go through cancer again but I do wish I could relive it and do it better. I survived so I must have done something right. Or did I? My wife took on too much responsibility, did too much that I should have done. If I could do it again I’d make decisions and be more conscious instead of just drifting through treatment.
There’s another feeling, one that doesn’t have a name. It’s not survivor’s guilt even though I know people who lost their fight with cancer. I have friends who didn’t make it. I know others who also survived, who laugh now about how easy their treatment was, that it was only a year or eighteen months. For me it was a just a little over three months. It’s not a competition, and it’s not one I’d want to win even if it were, and it wasn’t easy. I had health issues along the way. My white cell count crashed, leaving me vulnerable to infections which, luckily, I never got.
And yet I was able to keep going. Why was it so much easier for me than it was for others?
When I was first diagnosed, and for a long time afterward, I felt a connection to others who had or who’d fought cancer. It was reassuring. We were part of a club. As the experience recedes I feel less connected. I think maybe there was some mistake. Maybe I didn’t really have cancer, that I’m guilty of some weird fraud.
I also think about all the people who supported me: my wife, the doctors, and just friends and family who offered their sympathy and support. I feel unworthy of all that they did, and feeling anything but happy to be alive and healthy now feels like a betrayal.
My rounds of chemo came in threes: one week I would have five days in a row of treatment, then the next two weeks I’d just go in for a shot on Monday. Even though I say luck is an illusion three still feels like a lucky number to me. Two straight lines connected will leave one side open while three will form a triangle. The rule of three is one of the three secrets of all great comedy-the other is timing-and while two’s company three is a party. So even though I’m currently simmering in a complex stew of strange and even contradictory emotions there is hope.
Ask me how I’m doing a year from now.
Going through a fight with cancer must be pretty horrific – the uncertainty in the years following cancer treatment must be even harder because you don’t have any guarantees. It is wonderful for you and your wife and family that you are a survivor and long may it go on!
Just watched a very interesting programme last night about cancer research. They were looking at a study done on how methylation problems in the body can trigger cancer genes. One of the things they looked at were claims that the spice Turmeric can protect against cancer by being involved in the methylation process. The outcome of the study (which was done by people in white coats in labs who one might expect to trash claims that a spice could help with cancer), was that when turmeric powder is used freely in our food, it does indeed help protect against cancer. The group that took turmeric capsules in the study showed it had no effect in the methylation process. They think this is because our bodies use turmeric powder better when it is consumed with food, possibly the heating and mixing with fats is beneficial.
Wishing you continued wellness and peace of mind fir a long time to come.
Thank you and that’s very good news about turmeric. It’s good news because some of my favorite foods–particularly Indian dishes–use quite a bit of turmeric. The uncertainty is hard but the good thing is there’s a lot I can do on my own to ensure my own continued good health.
That’s powerful stuff Christopher. Glad you are still around to stew in those complex emotions. I get to benefit from reading your insightful and thought provoking posts.
I’ve never had to live through a scare like that but my sister had breast cancer. Luckily she responded well to treatment and has been cancer free for several years now. I also am reluctant to go to the doctor unless I have a serious issue. My father had prostate cancer as well as four of his brothers, one of whom didn’t make it. My wife and mother pleaded with me to go get checked out so a few years ago I did. Even after telling the doctor my family history he was reluctant to check for it because he said I wasn’t old enough (45 at the time). So I looked at him and said, “What does a guy have to do around here to get a finger up his ass?” He still had a shocked look on his face when he snapped the rubber glove on. Negative results then but the big five-oh is just around the corner. Hope I don’t have to buy him dinner this time.
P.S. Sorry if that was a little crass.
Never apologize for being crass. That was amazing 😀
That wasn’t crass–it was creative. And a sign of a good doctor is that they appreciate that sort of thing. My urologist asked if he could examine me and I said, “Sure, doc, have a ball!” He appreciated that.
Anyway I’m glad to hear your sister is cancer free and even though one of your father’s brothers didn’t make it I hope the rest are doing well. One thing I’ve heard is that the longer any man lives the greater his likelihood of prostate cancer, and it’s all but certain at some point in our lives. It’s all part of the fun of getting older.
I too went for years ridiculously healthy.A friend was disgusted when a blood test showed I had Gilbert’s Syndrome, a very mild genetic condition that is usually asymptomatic but has been linked to decreased risk of coronary artery disease (“Trust you to have a condition that can actually be good for you!”). Then I went off the pill to try to breed and my body went to hell with endometriosis. I went on feeling like nothing too horrible will happen to me even after that, only to see something awful happen to a friend. Lumps where they shouldn’t be make me a lot more nervous these days.
I’d guess lots of people who have not had cancer think that once your cancer is gone, you party hard in celebration and then continue life as normal.
So there are conditions that are actually good for you. Funny how nature balances itself out. But, yeah, the uncertainty is hard. It helps though that I’ve talked to so many long-term survivors. When I was still undergoing treatment I talked to people who’d made it more than twenty years. It was reassuring. I didn’t think about it at the time but they must have had lingering fears. They put on very brave faces, though.
You, sir, are a rock star. Life is an amazing thing. I’m glad you’re here.
Life is indeed amazing and your compliments make it even better.
No need to ask you how you’re doing–you’ve explained it extraordinarily well. I’m sorry that your good luck (or this “winning streak” you may be on again) leaves you feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable.
Even though your type of cancer was one of the easier ones to treat, you still had to face issues of your own mortality. It must be bittersweet to lose the camaraderie of the cancer club.
Rather than feeling like an ingrate if you aren’t constantly counting your lucking stars for the care and support you received, maybe you can make a vow to yourself to provide the same to others in your circle when they need it. I have a feeling you would do this automatically…you’ve helped me in the past just my being there to “listen.”
I know how I’m feeling about your 2 year cancer-survivor status: very lucky to have you around. Thanks for being so candid about your process. I hope you get a tiny bit of bad luck (losing lottery tickets, an ugly Christmas sweater or a flat tire) this year so that you aren’t so unsettled by a winning streak next year.
Thank you. A little bit of bad luck wouldn’t be such a bad thing. And being there to listen and help others is something I’d like to do. Joining Gilda’s Club, a support network for anyone affected by cancer, was how I hoped to do that but I haven’t been as involved with it as I feel I should.
Let me just throw out a word for Gilda’s Club though: membership is open to anyone regardless of whether they’ve had cancer or just know someone who’s had cancer and it’s a great support organization.
This is really a subject for another post but when I had chemo I had my own individual room. In most clinics, and the way chemo is usually shown on TV or in movies, people sit in chairs next to each other during treatment. It’s actually a bit of a shame I had my own private room for each treatment. There were times I didn’t feel like talking to anyone but I think having to sit next to another person for hours at a time can foster conversations and even supportive friendships. Who knows better how to talk to someone dealing with cancer than someone dealing with cancer?
I’m so glad that you’re here–otherwise, who would post those awesome comments on my blog? And a year from now–I predict health, happiness, and fame. (That’ll be 5 bucks.)
I’m afraid I don’t have 5 bucks on me. Would you settle for does? I think one of them is Bambi’s mother. Believe me there are so many deer around my neighborhood because they’re all does when they should be don’ts.
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I went back and read our comments and realized that as of now, you owe me FIFTEEN bucks. I’ll just put it on your tab:-)
Technically September is my post-chemo anniversary, but I’m not going to quibble about it. I hope one of these days I’ll be able to settle up by buying you fifteen bucks worth of wine. Or maybe I’ll just fork over the fifteen bucks and let you pick the wine.