Fun With Cancer

I was diagnosed with testicular cancer June 17th, 2014. Life goes on.

That One Place.

Ozone Falls.

Ozone Falls.

Within a few hours of being diagnosed with cancer, while I was still in the emergency room, I told my wife, “I want to go back to Ozone.” Ozone is a small town in eastern Tennessee that has some quarries and Ozone Falls, a state park around a picturesque waterfall formed by Fall Creek, and slightly northeast of Fall Creek Falls, another waterfall and state park that, in my humble opinion, isn’t as nice. I’d been to Niagara Falls, which was big and noisy and exciting, but Ozone Falls, formed by a creek, is smaller, quieter, and easier to understand. When I first saw it I was spellbound because this is what a waterfall should be. And unlike Niagara Falls which you can see from a distance Ozone Falls has to be approached from a distance that makes it come into view slowly. And then it’s a difficult climb down into the basin where, if you want, you can stand under the waterfall itself. Try that with Niagara.




Ozone Falls. Basin view.

Ozone Falls. Basin view.

Just up the road from Ozone Falls is Camp Ozone. It was a Presbyterian Church camp when I first went there at the age of eleven and went back over several successive summers. I’d heard people talk about Camp Ozone and seen older kids wearing t-shirts with the logo of a cross on a hill with the moon rising behind it, but experiencing the camp for myself was, well, special. It’s a very frustrating thing to try and talk about because I can’t really put it into words, and I’m not sure why I keep trying to talk about it. I think I could describe staying in the cabins, tromping through the woods, finding oddly colored mushrooms. I could describe the bath house where the light stayed on all night so in the morning we’d find the biggest most gorgeous moths clustered on the walls, moths whose names we learned, whose names were almost as weird and beautiful as the moths themselves: luna, io, cecropia, imperial, sphinx. I could talk about swimming in the lake. Ozone Lake is manmade and, I learned recently, was dug in the sixties by some people who didn’t know what they were doing. They just took it as a summer job. Its manmade nature explains why it’s no more than twelve feet deep at any point. You can even take a canoe out into the very middle and look down and if the light is right see the bottom, or even touch it. Radial water plants that look like green anemones grow there. It was my first experience swimming in a lake, which was very different from being in a pool or even the ocean. It was cold and murky but I still loved it. I could float or let my feet slip along flat rocks or over to silky mud. My toes would even sometimes touch those prickly water plants which kind of freaked me out.

Lake Ozone. The boat dock on the right is new to me but the rest is just as I remember.

Lake Ozone. The boat dock on the right is new to me but the rest is just as I remember.

I could even talk about the friends I made there in just a week and then never met again, or how the last night of every camp session we had a talent show. One year I did a stand-up comedy act and no one, not even the minister who was head of the camp, blinked an eye at some of the off-color Buddy Hackett jokes I told, although the laughter might have been a little bit forced.

For various reasons, mostly having to do with church politics, Camp Ozone closed when I was sixteen. From my very first year there—almost from the very first day—I’d hoped to one day come back as a counselor. That wouldn’t happen. My family and their friends would also take weekend trips to Camp Ozone for Memorial Day or at other times of the year. When we went to the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville we stayed in Camp Ozone, a little over an hour away. These trips gave me and my friends a lot of chances to explore the place without the normal camp schedule. There was also time for me to go off alone, to get to know the wilderness by myself. When the camp was officially shut down these informal visits also ended.

In a way I kept going back to Ozone, though. As a teenager I was taught guided meditation by some older friends and Camp Ozone was always where I went. I could, and still can, mentally walk all the way around the lake or stand in the waterfall basin. It was the place I always went to because it’s a place where nothing bad can happen to me. Maybe that’s why I was never afraid of going back, and while it took more than a year from that moment I told my wife it’s what I wanted she still managed to make it happen. I was prepared for it to have changed but the Ozone in my mind is a place I’ve been to so many times nothing can change it. And going there I was surprised by how little had changed. It’s now run by Children’s Bible Ministries and I was shown around by the current director. Most of the original buildings I remembered were still there, even if they’ve been repaired and renovated. He seemed to find it funny when I pointed to a large propane tank covered with green moss and said, “I remember when that was white.” He took me past where the hogans had been. The younger kids stayed in the cabins but when we got older we moved to the hogans which were canvas covered frames, open at either end, with wooden floors where mice lived. He showed me the top of the hill where I’d spent the night under the stars and then left me to walk back down by myself. What had changed didn’t matter. What was still the same made me happier than I can say.

And that’s the problem. None of this may have any meaning for any of you reading this, especially if you’ve never been to Ozone, because there are some things words just can’t convey. There is, however, something I think that can be shared. When I was in the hospital I was facing an uncertain and frightening future and while remembering a place that made me happy helped what mattered even more was the goal of going back. It’s not enough to say I didn’t want to die. I had something to live for.

So what’s your Ozone?



The Day After.

September 22nd, 2014--last chemo treatment.

What a long strange trip it was.

People often celebrate big events in their lives—birthdays, marriages—on the anniversary of those events. They mark the day of each year and treat it as special, but these were big events when they happened. Marriage days are, for a lot of people, filled with a flurry of activity and there’s not a lot of time for the couple getting married to think of even enjoy it, which is annoying because it’s supposed to be about them. And I don’t remember much about the day I was born, but I’m pretty sure there was a lot of stuff going on with me being dragged from my womb without a view and getting slapped on the ass by the doctor–I told him, “Hey, you could at least take me out to dinner and a movie first,” but that’s another story. It isn’t really until the day after the big event that everything settles down and this new life can truly be appreciated.

This is what I thought as I approached the first anniversary of my last day of chemotherapy, the day when I could officially call myself a one-year survivor of cancer. I had my last treatment on September 22nd, 2014. It wasn’t exactly a happy occasion. It wasn’t bad either, but it was complicated. Three months of my life had revolved around chemotherapy. That’s only a tiny fraction of the time I’d already lived but I’d quickly gotten used to the routine. I’d gotten used to the nurses, to the daily needle stick, the coolness spreading through my chest as the saline first rushed in. The boredom, tiredness, weight gain, the cold rooms, the allergy to sunlight, the swelling in my legs, and, hey, being stuck with a big needle I could do without, but it was all working toward killing off the cancer and that made it all tolerable. It even made it something I looked forward to. I thought, mistakenly, that chemo would be the last step. When I was first diagnosed my goal was to get to remission, but then at least one doctor told me I had “a good chance of being cured”. I’d never heard of cancer being cured—I didn’t even know it was possible, so that excited me. I latched onto that and made the mistake of thinking there’d be an end. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, but I made the mistake of forgetting that when I emerged I’d still be on the same track and that there’d be more tunnels up ahead.

I’ve forgotten most of what my last day of chemo was like. I’ve forgotten who the nurse was, what I did to keep myself occupied, what my wife and I did when I was finished. What I do remember, vividly, is leaving. There was a young man in the waiting room, skinny, with dark circles under his eyes, wearing a heavy shirt that was too big for him and a knitted cap over his bald head. He looked up at me as I was going out. I wanted to tell him things would get better but I didn’t want to offer that kind of false hope. Things were getting better for me but maybe for him they wouldn’t, and I didn’t want to shove that in his face.

It’s a form of survivor’s guilt. There wasn’t a single traumatic event that killed others and left me alive, but I’ve lost people I loved—people I sometimes think, in dark moments, deserved to live more than I do—to cancer. And so many others have died. What makes me special? Why was I so lucky? At least one doctor told me “If you’re gonna get cancer this is the one to have.” Actually testicular cancer is just one of some of the highly treatable types of cancer, but I still don’t know what the odds are or why they fell in my favor. Even when I talk to some other survivors I feel guilty. So many had radiation, multiple major surgeries, and chemo that went on longer than mine. My side effects were minimal. I had a few bouts of nausea—I didn’t even throw up—that were so regular my wife spotted the pattern right away and could make sure I took a magic red anti-nausea pill before they started. I was exhausted but could still manage to get out of bed every day. My immune system was knocked down so badly a cold could have easily turned into pneumonia but that never happened. The worst never happened. I listen to what others went through and I wish they’d had my experience instead. What I went through wasn’t easy, but it doesn’t seem fair that others had it so much worse.

And there’s a selfish side to it too. I think about what I lost. I think about the carefree innocence I had. Before cancer I really sort of felt invincible. I’d blithely wander into labs full of anthrax and bubonic plague and flesh eating bacteria and fix myself a drink and blow my nose with a napkin I found on the floor. That’s an exaggeration, but before cancer there wasn’t any illness that scared me because I could honestly say “I never get sick.” And there’s also the fear that, going back to the train metaphor and the light at the end of the tunnel, I may be in the light right now but I don’t know what tunnels are up ahead. The chances of my cancer coming back are extremely slim but I don’t know if this was just a battle or if I’ve won the war. I don’t say I’m “cured” anymore. I can’t be certain I’ve beaten the crab.

This is what I spent September 22nd, 2015 thinking about. It was not a happy day. Maybe future September 22nds will be easier to get through. Maybe farther down the track there are even days when I’ll forget I even had cancer. Even if the anniversaries are still hard it doesn’t matter. September 23rd I celebrated. September 23rd I put all those dark thoughts out of my mind. September 23rd I sang, I danced, I walked in the sun. I celebrated the day after.



Poke In The Eye.

pokeA single stalk of pokeweed came up in the backyard. I recognized it by its bright red stem and its black shiny berries, little oblate spheroids that somehow I knew even as a kid were poisonous, although it was fun to squeeze the juice out of them and write stuff on concrete in dark purple. Except I would later learn pokeweed isn’t always poisonous. Woody Allen’s line that everything our parents said was good for us—milk, sunlight,, red meat, college—actually turned out to be bad for us has its opposite, at least in nature. Plants that are normally toxic—pokeweed, milkweed, stinging nettle—can be edible if you boil them to death. And in the case of pokeweed you have to get the very young leaves when it first comes up in the spring, before it’s put up a stalk. People boil it and eat it, and call it “poke sallet”—not salad, which is what I first thought they were saying, before I saw it in print. I’m not a big fan of leafy greens. I like them best in the form of sag paneer, which is Indian for “creamed spinach”, but I’m kind of tempted by pokeweed, or I would be if I could spot it before it’s branched out. I always forget it Every time I see pokeweed I think of Jerry Thompson. He was a columnist for The Tennessean, back when it was a newspaper and not just a stack of printed coupons. I’m old enough to remember the morning paper being delivered, and I started reading Jerry Thompson’s columns in the fifth or sixth grade. I don’t know why, but I noticed one morning that he’d written something snarky about Barbie ditching Ken and taking up with a sketchy character named Rio. And it was funny to me that this was newsworthy. So “Thompson’s Station”, with his ruminations on everything from pop culture to the good old days when he did things like throw cats on his father’s bare back and accidentally shoot roosters. And there was the time he and a cousin took a snort of an uncle’s moonshine. His uncle kept a jug in the barn “for medicinal purposes”, and Thompson and his cousin weren’t happy when they learned it was flavored with pokeweed root, which may or may not be poisonous but tastes really awful.

My senior year in high school I took a creative writing class. And writing was only part of the class. We also had to submit. The teacher would let us thumb through her copy of The Writer’s Market in search of places that might take the contributions of high school students. And I found some. I had a real knack for finding small publications that had ceased or simply disappeared even though they were still listed as active. Some of my fellow students got their first rejection letters. All I got was envelopes marked “Return to sender”.

The teacher also brought in a few local writers. I was really excited that Jerry Thompson was one of them. By that time I’d learned that he didn’t just write a funny daily column. He’d had a long career as a journalist. He’d been the first journalist to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and had written a book about it, My Life In The Klan. I had to explain to a black friend that it was intended to be an exposé of the organization and not a recruiting manual when he saw me reading it. Maybe I should have kept it hidden under my copy of Rooster Bingo, Thompson’s other book, which was a collection of his lighter newspaper columns, although if I’d looked like I was trying to hide it that might have come across as even more suspicious. Thompson in person turned out to be a lot like his columns: gentle and kind and funny and laid back. He told a few jokes and a few stories. Aside from mentioning his love of poke sallet—something he brought up regularly–I really don’t remember anything specific he said, but I do remember he had the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen on anyone.

After each writer visited we were supposed to write a thank-you letter to them. At least that’s how I interpreted it. A girl in the

He signed my copy and added, "Dear Chris, if you ever play rooster bingo I hope you win." I feel like I lost.

He signed my copy and added, “Dear Chris, if you ever play rooster bingo I hope you win.” I feel like I lost.

class wrote a report on Thompson’s visit, describing his attitude and adding that he was really cool. It, along with my thank-you letter, was mailed to him, and Thompson wrote about it and quoted her, but didn’t mention me, his number one fan–at least in the class. Being published eluded me once again.

A few years later Jerry Thompson would be diagnosed with cancer. Since I was off at college I didn’t read his columns regularly anymore so I missed most of his fight with the disease, although on a few trips home I did see his new “Thompson’s Station” photo. Already bald when I’d met him Thompson’s new photo showed him completely hairless, eyelashes and all. He would fight the disease for eleven years before finally passing away in early 2000. Maybe I should put a marker or a small fence around that spot where that pokeweed plant came up so that next spring I’ll be able to spot it as soon as the first leaves appear, but I’ll probably forget about it until there’s a bright red stalk.

Never Mind The Bollocks.

Portrait of a fool.

My wife and I sat in the crowded hospital lobby waiting. I was clutching a pager. When it went off we would be called to another, smaller waiting area because you can’t go into surgery without having to wait and wait and wait. An older gentleman sharing the curved row of seats struck up a conversation with us, and by “struck up a conversation” I mean “gave us a meandering soliloquy about his time in the pre-seventies country music industry”. I tried to convey to him with my facial expressions that I was impressed even though I didn’t know the names he was dropping from Shinola, but he only stared at the table in front of us, gesturing as he wove through his tangled memories. He talked about his good friend Jack Greene whom I’d never heard of, and who wrote the song “Statue of a Fool”, which I’d never heard of in spite of its being so popular when it was first released in 1969 that it was the Country Music Association’s Song Of The Year. “And then,” he said, his dark eyes brightening behind his thick glasses, “it stayed so popular it was Song Of The Year the next year too. Only song in history to ever do that.”

It seemed like an omen. Months earlier when my second orchiectomy was scheduled, then postponed because my blood pressure was so high a paper cut could produce a scene from Evil Dead II, then rescheduled, I’d come to terms with it emotionally by thinking of it as an end. Dexter had been cut away and with Lefty gone I’d be a proper gelding and the whole cancer experience could be put out to pasture. Except, as I keep reminding myself, there is no end. With any luck I won’t have to have any more bits cut away—although it will be at least several more months before the plastic port that was installed just below my right clavicle can be removed. And I still have scars that will probably be permanent, and be permanent reminders of the sharp divide in my life: before cancer, when I could take my health for granted, and after cancer. Now I can’t take anything for granted. “Statue of a Fool” broke records the year I was born.

I thought about that when the pager buzzed. It had buzzed earlier when I’d had to go back for my initial check-in, rattled off my name and date of birth, and been given a wristband—a procedure I’d been through so many times I didn’t even need to think about where I was going. A nurse led me, my wife, and a small group of other soon-to-be patients and family to an elevator then through familiar corridors to a familiar waiting room. This one was smaller, quieter, and with windows that looked out at buildings I pass every day on my way to work. I think I even sat in the same corner seat I occupied when I was in the same room waiting for my previous surgery. Then I was called back to the familiar pre-op area. The familiarity of everything really hit me when the same woman who’d taken my blood pressure before my previous surgery took my blood pressure then handed me a plastic bag for my clothes, a hairnet, a paper gown, and a pair of yellow socks. I have a dozen pairs of the same kind of socks. She slid the curtain closed to give me privacy. I didn’t need to be told what to do, but I sat down on the bed, still fully clothed, for just a moment.

I’ve always thought of myself as an exceptionally lucky guy. My friends have thought so too. Once a friend and I were evacuated from an apartment complex because a gas leak set off the fire alarm. We stood around the parking lot like a couple of yutzes wondering if the building might explode.

“If it does,” said my friend, “my super reflexes will allow me to duck behind a car before any of the explosion hits me.” Then he looked at me. “It’ll all just fly around you.”

It’s a memory that’s come back to me repeatedly because I’ve felt so lucky throughout my cancer experience. At the beginning one of the doctors said to me, “You’ve got one of the best cancers there is.” There may not be such a thing as a good cancer, but it could have been worse. That same doctor told me I had a really good chance of being cured. I’d never heard the word “cured” applied to cancer before, and I repeated it a lot before I realized it was giving me a false sense of hope. I can’t say I am or will be cured because that implies that I’ve reached an end, that there’s nothing else that needs to be done. For the rest of my life there will always be another pill, another procedure.

I looked around at the pre-op room, at the yellow socks, the gown that I knew from experience I wouldn’t be able to fully tie in the back, but I’d spend most of the next few hours lying down so I wouldn’t need to worry about my ass being exposed. I looked at the hairnet. And then I started to undress and put my clothes in the plastic bag. For a moment I’d been on the verge of breaking down. I thought I was okay, but then the familiarity of everything crashed down on me, and I thought, I don’t want to go through this again. Then I slipped the hairnet over the hair that, a few months before, hadn’t been there, and adjusted the paper gown as best I could. As I lay back I heard machines beeping. Soon I’d be hooked up to a machine that would beep and trace a similar pattern for every heartbeat. I thought about how grateful I should be, how lucky I was to still be here. And I felt like a fool.


Either Way You’ll Be Flying.

Wear a surgical gown the next time you fly. It'll make getting through security easier.

Wear a surgical gown the next time you fly. It’ll make getting through security easier.

My recent experience made me realize how little difference there is between flying and surgery. The distinctions are subtle:

Flying-It’s recommended that you arrive at least two hours early so you have time to get through security.

Surgery-It’s recommended that you arrive at least two hours early so the receptionists have time to sit around and argue about where to have lunch.

Flying-You have to go to three different desks to check in. Your luggage will get a plastic identification band.

Surgery-You have to go to twenty-seven different desks to check in. Eventually your wrist will get a plastic identification band.

Flying-You’ll spend a lot of time sitting in uncomfortable chairs around strangers staring out the windows.

Surgery-You’ll spend a lot of time sitting in uncomfortable chairs around strangers staring at the elevators.

Flying-The waiting areas will have a large variety of overpriced junk food.

Surgery-The waiting area will have a cart with a small variety of overpriced junk food reminding you that you haven’t been allowed to eat or drink anything for more than twelve hours.

Flying-Delays are likely.

Surgery-Delays are inevitable.

Flying-The waiting area will have places where you can buy overpriced current magazines.

Surgery-The waiting area will have lots of free old magazines.

Flying-Everyone in the waiting area is getting on a plane.

Surgery-Half the people actually going into surgery brought three hundred and fifty-nine relatives to sit with them.

Flying-There are occasional garbled announcements over the intercom.

Surgery-You can’t hear the garbled announcements over the mass of relatives fighting over the free magazines.

Flying-Lots of people in the waiting area are using laptops to write email.

Surgery-Lots of people in the waiting area are using laptops to update their wills.

Flying-People come and go on motorized carts.

Surgery-People come and go in wheelchairs.

Flying-An X-ray device will scan your entire body.

Surgery-The surgeon’s going to cut your body open and have a look around inside.

Flying-You get complimentary nuts.

Surgery-You get complimentary morphine.

Flying-The plane may leave without you.

Surgery-If the surgeon starts before you get there get another surgeon.

Flying-In the event of an emergency you may have to stick a rubber mask over your face.

Surgery-As soon as you go in someone’s going to stick a rubber mask over your face.

Flying-You hope the plane doesn’t crash.

Surgery-You hope you don’t crash.

Helloooo Nurse!

nurseIf there was a good thing about getting chemo it was the nurses. Now that I type that out it sounds kind of inappropriate, but my feelings for my nurses were always purely platonic, except on those occasions when my feelings were, “Ow! Hey! That hurts! Watch it!” Now if I were thirty years younger and still single my feelings still would have been purely platonic because I’ve always been a realist and still would have known the only reason my nurses were nice while they were sticking needles in my arm is because they were nice and enjoy working with people and sticking needles in their arms, which is what prompted them to go into nursing in the first place. I had four rounds of chemo, a grand total of twenty-eight separate days of dealing with nurses. Most of them were straightforward, professional types who came in, handed me my meds, maybe gave me some apple juice, and then left until the IV bags were empty and my needle needed to be pulled out. Before the first week was over I’d had minor surgery to install a port in my chest, a large plastic bulb that they’d stick the needle into rather than wrecking my veins and making me come out looking like a heroin addict. Having a needle stuck in the port hurts a lot less than having it in a vein, and I could tell the really professional and experienced nurses because when they stuck the port it hardly hurt at all. And I quickly noticed that if they were using cold saline I’d get a cool feeling in my chest, sort of like a peppermint melting under my skin, and then I’d get a faint taste of salt in my mouth. Most nurses would smile and say, “Yes, a lot of people notice that.”

I have a new respect and appreciation for nurses, but I guess it’s only natural that I would get to know some nurses better than others. Three in particular stand out. I’ve changed their names to protect their innocence even though the only thing they’re guilty of is jabbing me repeatedly with a large piece of metal.

Donna-After introducing herself Donna asked me, “Do you go by Chris or Christopher?” I told her “Chris” was fine and that the only people who normally use my full name are my wife and mother, and they only use it when they’re mad at me. “I’ll remember that,” she said. She was very brisk, very professional, but also very talkative. Donna excelled at multitasking, which I think was what made her such a great nurse. She could ask what I did for a living and what my plans were for the weekend while preparing my injection and drugs, all without missing anything. When she inserted the needle in my port I didn’t even feel it. When I told her I tasted saline she said sarcastically, “Everybody says that but I don’t believe it.”

After that I’d come in every day hoping Donna would be my nurse again. She wouldn’t be, but one day a couple of weeks later I’d get up to go to the bathroom only to find the closest one in use, and the next closest one also in use, so I had to wander all over the ward looking for an open bathroom. I finally found one and then realized I couldn’t remember where my room was. Donna was sitting at a desk and the third time I walked by her she snapped. “CHRISTOPHER ALLEN WALDROP, ARE YOU LOST?” She then turned to the nurse next to her and said, “I can call him by his full name because I’m mad at him.”

Dan-There’s a huge gender gap in the nursing profession. I’m not sure why, but most nurses are women, especially the famous nurses—Florence Nightingale, Mary Mallon, Walt Whitman. Interestingly when I was in college living in a dorm almost everybody on my floor was studying to be a nurse. That was before the administrators realized they’d accidentally put me in an all-women’s dorm, but that’s another story.

Dan was also talkative, but nicer than Donna. We talked about TV shows, what I did for a living, what our respective plans were for the weekend, and his tattoos. He had a couple of piercings, and when he put my needle in he did it with such grace I wondered if he’d done his piercings himself.

Lucy-More than any other Lucy made me appreciate that there’s nothing like a good nurse because she was nothing like a good nurse. I first met Lucy one morning when I was still in the waiting room and she came out to tell me my white cell count was so low she didn’t think giving me chemo would be a good idea, but she was checking with my oncologist to be sure. I know nurses are sometimes the last line of defense between patients and doctors, that doctors can make mistakes that nurses sometimes have to be there to catch, but she was trying to step in and make a medical decision. That didn’t bother me so much as the way she told me that my chemotherapy for testicular cancer might have to be put on hold until a mild cold would no longer be a major health risk. Having shared my diagnosis online I wasn’t exactly embarrassed, but I did wonder why she felt the entire hospital needed to know exactly what was going on at that moment.

Later she’d take me back for my infusion for the day. Fortunately this was a day when I was only getting a single short injection. Lucy prepped my port then without warning jabbed me with the needle. I felt like I’d been stung by a wasp. I gasped.

“Just take a deep breath.”

Thanks, Lucy. Most nurses told me to take a deep breath before inserting the needle—they gave me some warning, but then most nurses weren’t busy talking to someone else at the same time they were giving me my injection. Lucy would continue carrying on a conversation so I had to keep moving forward in my chair to prevent her from pulling out the needle. She noticed this and turned around to say, “Stay with me, honey,” before resuming her conversation.

Later I’d feel sick. A different nurse would tell me that sometimes happened when the drug was administered too quickly. I’m glad I’d been treated by Lucy. She made me appreciate the other nurses so much more.

Too Much Information, Or Too Little.

IBEATCANCERI 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:

Dental Work Isn’t Boring.

IBEATCANCERI had a dental appointment yesterday. It was the first time I’d been to the dentist in more than eighteen months. I’d had a cleaning scheduled in late June last year, but my cancer diagnosis put everything, including getting my teeth polished, on hold. My wife reminded me that yesterday was also an anniversary. July 7th, 2014 was my first day of chemotherapy. It would take a little time before I’d learn the lesson that I now pass on to everyone who has to fight The Crab: chemo is boring.

It wasn’t until yesterday, as I was lying back in a leather chair, strapped down, with a bright light in my face, being jabbed, poked, prodded, stabbed, scraped, pricked, sliced, and sprayed with foul-tasting chemicals, that I realized why chemo terrified me before I’d started. I thought it would be like a dental appointment. I thought it would be hours of painful treatments with doctors occasionally coming in to say, “And just for fun, Mr. Waldrop, we’re going to hammer a chisel into your pelvis.” No one told me that chemotherapy, which sounds so intimidating, would be nothing more than a single needle stick followed by several hours of patiently waiting for IV bags to drain into my veins. The side effects may be horrendous, and for a lot of cancer patients they are. I was lucky. I had the worst side effects before I started chemo. Yes, I would have a few bouts of nausea and lose my hair along with some fingernails and toenails, and I’d have an allergic reaction to sunlight that would keep me indoors for most of the summer. Getting chemo turned out not to be so bad.

I thought it would be like this:

It turned out to be like this:

%d bloggers like this: