Fun With Cancer

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

Head Case

August 29, 2014

I notice the looks, the glances, the double-takes. And they don’’t surprise me. Even though approximately half of all men and a third of all women will have cancer it’’s not that often that you see someone out and about who obviously has it. And not everyone who gets chemo goes bald, and not all those who do cover it up by wearing doo-rags. That’’s been my response to losing my hair – I have several great ones made by my mother-in-law. They’’re just the thing for keeping my head warm when it’s cool and preventing a burn where the sun used to not shine. I just wish there was a term for them other than “doo-rag”, which sounds more like a term for a diaper, but that’s another story.

I don’’t mind people looking. It’’s understandable that people should be curious, although they usually turn away as soon as I turn in their direction, which makes me think they’re uncomfortable rather than admiring of my head couture. Sometimes I think I should wear a t-shirt or maybe even a button that says, “”It’s cool. It’’s just cancer”.” And there have been exceptions. One night when I was at a baseball game there was a guy a few seats in front of me wearing a doo-rag. The hair protruding from his made it clear that he was wearing it as a fashion statement rather than a matter of comfort. Not that there’’s anything wrong with that. If it looks good wear it has always been my philosophy, although that may come as a surprise to fashion mavens who’’ve seen me out and about. As the guy at the baseball game walked by me on his way to get some nachos our eyes met. We smiled and nodded at each other. I was looking at his head and thinking, “Cool flames.” I think he was thinking, “Cool spider web.”

Then there was the time at the grocery store. The man in the checkout line ahead of me said, “”Excuse me, um, chemo?”” I smiled and said yes. He took off his olive-green Marines cap, revealing a head of close-cropped silver hair. ““Don’’t worry. It’’ll grow back.”” If my white cell count hadn’’t been so low I would have loved to shake his hand, but maybe at least I can learn from his example and offer the same comfort to others in the future. In the meantime I’’ll take the peeps, peeks, peers, ganders, glimpses, gawks, and even the occasional rubbernecking. Heck, I don’’t even mind the guy at the library desk who gives me the stinkeye every time I come in. He’’s an older guy, bald, except for a fringe around the sides, and I finally realized that might be his problem. He’’s looking at me and thinking, “Hey buddy, for me it’s a lifetime commitment. If I can leave my cranium uncovered you can too. Dare to bare. If the dome is chrome go glabrous or go home. Let the knob do its job and the belfry blaze.” And maybe I should take him up on that. Maybe I should strip the egg of its eclipse and enter the bibliotheque in the buff. I’’ll turn to him. Our eyes will meet. I’’ll be thinking, “Cool crown.” He’’ll be thinking, “I have more hair than you.”

The Hirsute Of Happiness.

August 1, 2014

It started on a Sunday. I’’d lathered, rinsed, and was about to repeat when I noticed about two dozen strands of hair in my hand. Well, I thought, this is it. This is the beginning of the hair loss I’’ve been expecting. In fact I’’d been hoping for it. So far I’’ve been lucky. I haven’’t had most of the side-effects associated with chemo. I haven’’t had loss of appetite, mouth sores, diarrhea, constipation, spontaneous decapitation, or confusion. Although if I had confusion I don’t know how I’’d know. Although if I had confusion I don’t know how I’’d know. I did have a single bout of nausea, at around one a.m. the Friday of my first full week of chemo. Normally I don’t believe in signs and omens, but the Thursday afternoon before I’’d been in an office supply store where I wrote “FUCK CANCER” on a pad with a display pen. In my weirdly neurotic way I connected these two events. I took it to mean that I shouldn’’t wallow in negativity. I’’m fighting the cancer, but I also have to accept that it’s part of me. It’’s the result of a biological miscommunication in my cells, and not the spawn of something external that can simply be expelled.

I thought the hair loss I’’d experienced Sunday would be typical–—that it would be a slow, gradual process that would take a while to be visible, and would, in three weeks or a month, leave me looking like a scrofulous Victorian street urchin. On Monday I was surprised to find whole handfuls of hair coming out. Each day that followed was an adventure. I began to look forward to taking a shower more than I ever had before. How much can I clog up the drain today? And I was shedding. I had to wear bandanas to bed to keep from leaving hairs all over my pillow and the rest of the bed. I had enough trouble with leaving hair everywhere else. I haven’’t quite mastered the art of tying a bandana so it fits snugly to my head yet, though. If I tie it myself I look like Vermeer’’s “Girl With The Pearl Earring”, minus the earring. It’’s surprising that I have so much trouble tying a bandana. I was pretty good at knots as a Boy Scout, and give me a bottle of good Scotch and I have no problem tying one on.

The reason I looked forward to the hair loss is it’’s the most obvious sign of cancer. I realize it’s not really the result of the cancer itself–if I’’d never started treatment I’’d still have a full, lush head of thin hair—–but rather the chemo’’s effect on fast-growing cells. And chemo is very nonjudgmental in what it attacks. Hair follicles are just one type of cell that may or may not be collateral damage. I’’d heard stories of people who didn’’t lose their hair, and my wife told me about one man who lost hair only from his neck down. I was hoping for baldness because, well, in my weirdly neurotic way I worried, unnecessarily, if others with worse forms of cancer looked down on me. I’m not complaining about the lack of side effects, and I’m happy about my incredibly positive prognosis. Before I was diagnosed I’’d never heard anyone talk about being cured of cancer, but ““cured”” is exactly the word several of my doctors have used to describe the probable outcome of my treatment. But it all led me to wonder if there are other cancer sufferers who look down on me and my upbeat outlook. So far I haven’’t encountered any kind of one-upmanship—–nobody’’s ever said ““My cancer’’s better than yours because it’’s worse”” or anything even close to that. All I’’ve gotten from anyone–particularly others with cancer, regardless of the type–is sympathy and support. Still it seems like every group of people, no matter what brings them together, has a few jerks. Maybe they keep to themselves. Somewhere out there might be a support group of grizzled guys who gather around a campfire and mutter. ““Doc says I got six months to live.”” ““Shut up, Bill. You know my doc said I got three days to live, and that was two and a half days ago.”” Yeah. I kind of wanna hang with those guys.

As abruptly as it started the hair loss slowed to a crawl. It happened the following Sunday. Saturday hair was coming out in fistfuls. I could see my scalp, and was surprised to find that it had never gotten tanned, so there’’s a pale patch above where my hairline used to be extending all the way back to my neck. On Sunday morning, though, I only lost a dozen hairs or so. This was in part because I didn’’t have that much hair to lose, but I’’ve still got some left. I’’d been saying I looked like Gollum, but the truth is that I’’ve got lingering sideburns, so I feel more like Gerald Ford with mange. It’’s a little depressing looking at the last hairs clinging to my head. Sometimes in the shower I can hear them. ““Auntie Em, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home!”” I want to encourage them to join the others, pulled from the drain trap and tossed to the trash. Some people, when chemo starts to take their hair, will shave their heads as a way of exercising control. My way of taking control is to let nature, or at least medicine, take its natural course. I want to watch it happen, to document it. And I am still losing hair. There’s just not that much more left. I’’ve been assured that the rest of my hair will go, and probably soon as I start another cycle of chemotherapy. Although if I had confusion I don’’t know how I’’d know.

Captain Chemo

July 18, 2014

High blood pressure. Insomnia. Stomach cramps. These are not side effects of chemotherapy. These are side effects of anticipating chemotherapy. As the date of my first treatment got closer the symptoms got worse. It was only after I stepped back and thought about it that the reason became clear. I was terrified of chemotherapy. I was terrified because I had no idea what to expect. Everything I’d ever heard or read was either vague (“I had chemotherapy”) or technical (“the protocol consists of three primary…”) with no real practical descriptions. Would it hurt? How long would it take? What was involved? Would I have to do any heavy lifting or math? For some reason these were questions that I never thought to ask, at least partly because the name “chemotherapy” is so intimidating. Even shortening it to “chemo” doesn’t help, because only people with cancer get chemo, so there’s guilt by association. This is misleading. Technically taking an aspirin to get rid of a headache is chemotherapy. Why give the treatment an intimidating name? Cancer is bad enough without making the remedy sound as intimidating as the disease.

The marketing is something we can address later. For now I feel it falls to me to reveal the dirty secret of chemotherapy: it’s boring. I’’m not talking about the side effects, which can range from annoying to horrendous. I’’m talking about the actual process itself. You sit in a chair and let toxins drip into your veins for several hours. Aside from the needle sticks and remembering to unplug your IV unit so you can go to the bathroom because the power cord won’t reach that far, and remembering to plug it back in when you get back to your room even though it supposedly has a battery life of several hours, but who wants to take chances, it’’s sitting around with your feet up. Fortunately for me my first round of chemo did offer plenty to break up the monotony. Gilda Radner, who passed away from ovarian cancer, famously said, “It’’s always something.” She could just as easily have been talking about my first five days in the chemo ward.

Day 1 – Blood draw. They have to determine how to mix my chemo cocktail. I tell them shaken, not stirred, on the rocks, and with a twist. Instead a nurse sticks a needle in my arm with an open tube at the end for easy access later on. This is taped down and I’’m sent upstairs to the infusion center. In the center I’m given a small room where I can put my feet up. A nurse brings me apple juice and a granola bar. They flush my IV with cold saline, which feels strangely pleasant, almost like peppermint being injected directly into my skin. At this point I’m in full panic because I imagine things can only get worse. In fact what happens is the nurses come back with big bags of fluid which they hang from my IV stand. And that’’s it. Several hours later, bags emptied, I’m free to go. The worst thing that will happen to me today is they leave the needle in my arm for easy access tomorrow. And even that’’s not so bad until I go to take a shower and my wife has to wrap my arm in plastic.

Day 2 – The nurses tell me they’re adding an anti-nausea drug to my cocktail. I ask them to put salt around the rim. Maybe this was a mistake. After a few minutes I feel an intense burning in my arm. The nurse explains that this is happening because they’’re using the same IV from yesterday. She has to remove it and re-stick me further up. This isn’’t a problem, except that I now have trouble bending my arm, which makes it difficult to do things like unzip my pants. And since my cocktail is all liquid and includes a liter of saline, not to mention the apple juice, that’’s kind of important.

This is also the day I have surgery to get a chest port: a plastic tube that will allow direct and easy access to my jugular vein, and prevent the nurses from having to stick my arm every day so I won’’t end up looking like a heroin addict. The doctors tell me they’’re just going to use a local anesthetic, which makes me worry I’ll be vaguely conscious of people in masks stabbing my chest with scalpels. Instead the local anesthetic knocks me out completely, and I amuse the surgical staff by reciting “Comfortably Numb” lyrics when I regain consciousness. My terror leading up to the procedure becomes increasingly anti-climactic as I wait two hours in recovery listening to a man in the bed next to me demand beer and belch fifty-two times in a row.

Day 3 – Everything goes smoothly. The nurse uses my new chest port, first flushing it with saline, so I get peppermint in my chest instead of my arm. For the first time I get a sense of how future chemo treatments will go. The only thing that breaks up the monotony is a volunteer with a guitar and harmonica who comes in to sing me songs from “The Sound of Music”, “Oklahoma!” and “The Wizard of Oz”. He and I worked at the same summer camp twenty years ago. Small world.

In the evening my wife notices my legs are swollen. Maybe this is cause for alarm, but I’’m not sure what to be scared of anymore. She calls the doctor, who assures her this isn’’t unusual.

Day 4 – My right leg is horrendously swollen and my jeans don’’t fit. I wriggle into an older, larger pair, and head off to treatment. The nurses give me diuretic pills, and I entertain them by talking about elephantiasis caused by filarial worms. Then the pills kick in and I run to the bathroom every five minutes, pausing only to be yanked back because I’’ve forgotten to unplug my IV unit.

The swelling isn’’t unexpected, but the doctor schedules an ultrasound for the afternoon just to be sure it’’s just all the fluid they’’ve been giving me going straight to my hips, thighs, and calves. I’’ve now become so accustomed to getting ultrasounds I fall asleep on the table. The ultrasound technician confirms that, yes, I’’m merely filling up with fluid. No one thinks much of my suggestion that an application of leeches might help.

Day 5 – Nothing happens. I’’m not even serenaded. The blind panic that preceded chemotherapy is rapidly receding, and I start wondering what the big deal is. I’’m done for the week, and I start thinking that it would be really nice to go home and have some chemotherapy in the form of a beer.

Only When I Laugh

July 11, 2014

Here’’s how it was supposed to happen:

The doctor would call my wife and I into his office, which I imagined would be a wood-paneled room lined with books. He would rest his elbows on his desk and fold his hands, and, quietly and soberly, say, ““Mr. Waldrop, I’m afraid you have cancer.””

And I would say, “I’d like a second opinion.”

At this point I expect he’d start looking through a list and saying something about referrals, and I’’d have to stop him and say, ““Doc, you’’re supposed to say, ‘‘And you need a haircut.'”’” And I would have to explain to him who Henny Youngman is, because they don’’t teach the important things in medical school.

Here’’s how it did happen:

I’’d been in for an appointment about an ongoing pain in my leg. This had lasted a couple of months, and I was tired of it waking me up at night. While he was telling me to turn my head and cough my doctor noticed some other things that concerned him, so he ordered some tests, including an ultrasound and a CT scan. Some other doctors might not have taken the time or been concerned, but he didn’’t see any need for delay. My wife and I were on our way home from those tests when the doctor called my wife’’s cell phone. In fact we were two blocks away.

““Chris needs to be taken to the emergency room right away. He has a blood clot in his leg. Also he has testicular cancer.””

I know that if he could have had the sober wood-paneled office meeting he would have, but while cancer is slow blood clots have a tendency to cause sudden death. And my diagnosis would play a part in my treatment over the longest three days of my life.

So we turned around and went to the emergency room, where we managed to find a couple of chairs together in a corner. This was a Tuesday, and I would later be told that emergency rooms are busiest early in the week, maybe because it takes sick people a while to recover from their hangovers. After about twenty minutes I was called back by a nurse. We sat on opposite sides of a desk and I was subjected to a routine interrogation. It included taking my blood pressure, and being asked the following questions:

“”Are you allergic to anything?””

““No.””

““Are you taking any prescription medications or drugs?””

““No.””

““Do you have any religious or cultural sensitivities we should be aware of?””

““No.””

I made the mistake of thinking this was progress. Instead I was sent back to the waiting room where, after five minutes, I was prepared to offer my spot in line, or at least cash, to anyone who could figure out how to change the television to any show not set in a hospital. Ten minutes later I was called back by another nurse. Progress! She took my blood pressure and asked me some strangely familiar questions.

““Are you allergic to anything?””

““No.””

““Are you taking any prescription medications or drugs?””

““No.””

““Do you have any religious or cultural sensitivities we should be aware of?””

““No.””

And it was back to the waiting room where a kid with green-tinted hair and bright green skin sat listening to a pair of bright red headphones. His problem seemed more urgent than mine, but he was still waiting when I was called back again. This time I was led to an oversized closet with a bed. I was given a gown to change into and a pair of socks with sticky pads on the feet. A few minutes later a nurse came in to take my blood pressure and ask a surprising series of questions.

““Are you allergic to anything?””

““Belgians.””

““Are you taking any prescription medications or drugs?””

““Just baby aspirin and PCP.””

““Do you have any religious or cultural sensitivities we should be aware of?””

““As a Mayan I believe the world ended in 2012.””

I’’m pretty sure the word “”smartass”” is now a permanent part of my medical records.

My chest and stomach were then covered with stickers attached to wires that went to a machine that measured my breathing, heart rate, eye color, measurements, pet peeves, favorite television station, turn-ons, turn-offs–—everything, in fact, except my blood pressure, which a nurse would have to come and check every four hours.

Since I was staying in a teaching hospital I was also visited by groups of approximately twenty-seven people in lab coats, all of whom politely asked if they could examine me, which meant hiking up my gown and acting like it was our third date. I haven’’t been naked in the presence of so many people since high school gym class, but I didn’’t complain. Unlike dodgeball I knew I had a good chance of beating this cancer, and Dr. Coldfinger and Co. were stepping up to be part of my team. I was going to make their job as easy as possible. Maybe I got a little too comfortable. Every time the door opened I hiked up my gown, only to have one person say, “”Whoops, wrong room!””

Apparently “if you’’ve seen one you’’ve seen ‘‘em all” doesn’’t apply for certain regions.

I was also visited by a nice young doctor who asked me if I wanted to be listed as DNR–—Do Not Resuscitate. The question set me back a bit. I was certain of my answer. If it was an option I wanted to be Do Resuscitate, Please! It was just the reality settling in. I hadn’’t been in a hospital as a patient in thirty-nine years, when I was treated for a condition that, ironically, was a risk factor for the cancer I now had. I’’d known I was going to end up in the hospital again eventually. I just didn’’t expect to be facing questions of life and death quite so soon, or so suddenly.

That evening I was taken for a spin around the hospital by a nice orderly named Leonard. He was taking me for another ultrasound at eleven thirty at night, and I’m pretty sure he was taking me around the entire hospital just for fun.

In a strange and half-lit room I was gooped up and given another ultrasound in search of the deadly blood clot, which declined to make an appearance, then sent back to the closet for a shot of blood thinner, which the nurse assured me would be “just like a mosquito bite”. She meant one of those prehistoric mosquitoes, with a schnozz like an elephant. And then I managed to sleep, waking only to hike up my gown whenever the door opened, even though the nurses kept telling me they’’d use my arm to take my blood pressure.

Later that evening I’d get up out of my hospital bed and go to the bathroom next door. For some reason the emergency room bathroom didn’t have a lock, so as I was sitting there trying to relieve myself the door opened. “Occupied!” I yelled. The doctor who’d opened the door was talking to someone–obviously his need wasn’t that urgent–so he didn’t hear me. He just stood there, one hand on the doorknob, with me exposed to the world. This would be the only time I’d have my gown hiked up that I felt genuinely embarrassed. Finally he turned around, said, “Oh!” and closed the door. I’ll never know who you were, doc, but thanks for the look-in.

In the morning I woke with heartburn, probably because I hadn’’t eaten anything in nearly eighteen hours. I thought this meant I needed an antacid and maybe some breakfast. The staff thought it meant I needed an EKG, which meant adhering more wires to my chest. Two weeks later I’’d still be washing off sticker residue.

““We don’t want to alarm you,” said the nurse, “”but you could be having a heart attack.””

The only thing I found alarming was that the way she put it could give me a heart attack. Fortunately it turned out that what I needed was an antacid and some breakfast. This was followed by another shot of blood thinner from a slightly smaller mosquito, and then I was told I was being scheduled for surgery. The original plan had been to perform a biopsy, but the doctors decided that since the source of the trouble was in an easily accessible spot between my legs they’’d cut out the middleman–—or rather the manufacturer.

Surgery meant being moved upstairs to a luxury suite the size of a double-wide trailer, complete with a private bathroom, shower, sitting area, refrigerator, and, right across the hall, a pantry stuffed with all kinds of snacks and drinks, from chocolate milk and sodas to yogurt, cheese, and crackers. And a nurse who was professional, courteous, efficient, and who, when she was done with all her tasks, sprawled at the end of my bed and told us how much she was looking forward to going home and having a beer with her country singer boyfriend. I would have loved a beer myself, but, almost as good was having someone come in and talk to me as a person rather than a patient.

Then she left. My wife left too. My wife had been the best source of comfort and stability I could have hoped for, and more. She had gone above and beyond necessity to take care of me, but I now I needed her to take care of herself. I needed her to take care of the dogs. And I needed to crank up “Take The Skinheads Bowling” by Camper Van Beethoven and dance around the room, which I can’’t do in the presence of other people.

A week after my orchiectomy I would learn I had an embryonal some-kind-of-noma, with an excellent chance of being completely cured. And half of it was a yolk sac, which made it sound even more like an alien parasite. It was fitting. Whenever the subject of astrology came up a college friend of mine liked to say, “”I’’m a Cancer, sign of the crab. I’’m two diseases nobody wants.”” This made me wonder what cancer had to do with crabs, so I looked it up. Ancient doctors found that tumors, when cut, spread sideways, like a crab. Cancer is of the body, but behaves like an invader.

The prognosis was in the future, though. Alone the night before my surgery I wandered down the hall to a spot the nurse had shown me earlier. My room had everything except a window to the outside. It had been twenty-four hours since I’d seen the sky. I’’d been wired up but disconnected from the world. At the end of the hall was a window that looks over a section of Twenty-First Avenue I knew well. I could see the bar where I knew someone was playing pool. I could see the coffee shop where I knew someone was eating red velvet cake and laughing with friends. I could just make out the indie theater where I knew someone had escaped into the silvery darkness of a movie. The avenue itself was an artery pulsing with red and white lights, people illuminating the future. I had been all of them. I was all of them. I don’’t want to be the heroic survivor who inspires others. I simply want to live.

The darkness deepened over the world below, but the lights brightened. I wondered if, in the months to come, I would still be as brave as I felt, if I would keep my sense of humor. I knew things would get worse before they’’d get better, but I knew they would get better. The first most crucial step was taken because my doctor had been on the ball.

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