So I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and he asked me how I was doing. I said fine and asked how he was doing. He said fine, then motioned toward his body and asked, “All clear?” And that’s when I realized he was asking, seriously, “How are you doing?” It’s a question people sometimes throw out just out of habit, but for me it’s one more thing that’s taken on a whole new context. It’s been a year now since the longest two days of my life, forty-eight hours that felt like a year because I was diagnosed with cancer, rushed to the emergency room, and then taken in for an orchiectomy. It was only as they were wheeling me into surgery that someone thought to ask if I’d like a prosthetic replacement, not enough time
for me to ask, “Can I get a bionic one?”
It’s now been a year since the day I was diagnosed. Most of the time it feels like nothing’s changed in that year, but then I stop and realize everything’s changed. Until that day I hadn’t spent the night in a hospital since I was four. I hadn’t been out of work due to illness for more than two days. I could say “I never get sick.” I could say “I have no allergies.” I didn’t take any medications regularly. I hadn’t had a doctor’s appointment in three years.
Events tend to get telescoped in memory, but at the time it seemed like time itself slowed down. I became very focused on time. My second night in the hospital, the one I spent alone, seemed to move so slowly. I couldn’t watch TV or read even though the book I happened to have with me, Mark Twain’s Roughing It, was strangely appropriate. I had a really cool nurse who talked to me about the future, then reached over, picked the book up, and said, “Swear on the spirit of John Wayne…” then she looked at the cover and said, “I mean Mark Twain that you will get through this.” It was the best thing that she could have said. Like a young Samuel Clemens I was facing an uncertain future. Like him I was determined to push on, and I was determined to look back on the whole thing as comedy rather than tragedy. The strange thing is thinking about the future seemed to slow the present. When I walked to the window at the end of the hall the lights of the cars below made long streaks like a long-exposure photograph. I couldn’t sleep. When I tried the pain in my leg that had been the symptom that drove me to the doctor flared up. I called the nurses to ask for medication three times. If I’d called again they were going to come back with a needle of black tar heroin. And then it was all over and I was home, then back to the emergency room in the middle of the night because I sat down on the toilet to pee and stayed there for what felt like hours while nothing happened. A nurse gave me a pitcher of water with instructions to drink all of it then told me I might need a catheter which scared me into going like a fire hose.
The few days before I started chemo seemed like months. I could barely sleep or eat. Then, after my first week of chemo, things fell into a comfortable routine: five days of treatment, Monday through Friday, then just an injection on the following two Mondays. The off weeks I had nothing to do. I found ways to keep myself occupied, but time still seemed to crawl by.
One of the drugs I was taking made my appetite come back with a vengeance. For days I’d dreaded my wife asking, “Have you eaten anything?” because I didn’t want to eat. Then suddenly all I wanted to do was eat. I hopped out of bed early one morning and made myself French toast with chocolate hazelnut spread and pecans. That was at seven-thirty. At ten-thirty I had a sausage biscuit because breakfast had been hours ago.
My hair started falling out just before my second round of chemo, and I thought, well it’s about time. I thought it was never going to happen. It had only been three weeks. It felt like years.
Even as I fell into a comfortable routine of chemo I kept the final day, September 22nd, in mind.
Six weeks after finishing chemo I went back to work, but the days didn’t have a chance to blur. There were the holidays, and then, after some tests, I learned I’d have to be back in the hospital, this time for major surgery. The wait until that day seemed endless, and then the day itself seemed like an endless pattern of being shuffled from one desk to the next, progressing through a series of doors until they finally moved me from a rolling bed to the operating table. I have a sense of time passing in a deep but dreamless sleep before I woke up to my wife and a bearded man saying my name, and a dull pain down the middle of my body.
In my hospital room I read, wrote, watched TV. An old friend dropped by. Another friend sent flowers. I finally worked up the courage to sit up, to amble to the bathroom, to even take a shower.
Finally I was deemed well enough to be released, after three whole days.
Around Christmas everything that had happened over the previous six months finally seemed to collapse on me while we were watching a Peter, Paul, and Mary special. Thanks to my parents I listened to Peter, Paul, and Mary before I could walk. The fact that Mary Travers had fought cancer, and lost, a few years earlier hit me hard, especially during “Puff The Magic Dragon”. Make drug jokes if you want but that song was a major part of my childhood soundtrack, and it affected me deeply because I think it was one of the few children’s stories that was brutally honest about life.
Dragons live forever but not so little boys.
Painted wings and giant strings make way for other toys.
One gray night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more,
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.
Even as a child I wondered what happened, because the lyrics make it clear Jackie Paper doesn’t just grow up. Maybe Jackie Paper dies. Maybe Jackie Paper also has cancer. Or maybe it’s just that from the perspective of a dragon who lives forever Jackie’s childhood is over in an instant. As a child, maybe from the first time I fully understood the words, the song made me look through the glass darkly to understand that it’s inevitable that we grow up, that we grow old, that we die. Listening to that song for the first time after I’d finished treatment and surgery made me think about how close I’d come to death.
It also might have just been post-surgery hormonal changes that had me sobbing uncontrollably.
Time began to get back to its normal pace as I went back to work, fell back into old routines. I had another breakdown when my urologist recommended I have a second orchiectomy. When they asked for my approval to have the first one I said, “Sure, great, go ahead!” And I looked between my legs and said, “So long, Dexter, it’s been nice knowing you. Don’t let the ass hit you in the door on the way out.” And logically a second orchiectomy was an easy decision. My urologist told me that without chemo there would be a five to seven percent chance of cancer developing in what I had left. He wasn’t sure about the numbers after chemo, but I calculated that the low end of that scale was still one in twenty. My cancer is very treatable but it’s also pretty rare. I didn’t want to push my luck. My oncologist also supported the idea of a second orchiectomy. Who am I to argue with two of the people who saved my life? And it’s not as though I would miss Lefty. At this point the attachment was purely physical. What I’d become attached to was the misconception that I was done. When he suggested another surgery I felt emotionally deflated. Was this never going to end? Every time I thought about it I felt like crying.
It also might have just been post-surgery hormonal changes. I’ve been on hormone therapy for a little over six weeks now, and I can’t tell whether it’s that or time or maybe a little of each that’s perked up my outlook.
The surgery is now scheduled. It’s something I have to look forward to, and, yes, I really am looking forward to it. I’ve been extremely lucky. Some people are in treatment for years, and in addition to chemo have radiation, transplants, infusions. For them it’s like going twelve rounds in the boxing ring with a heavyweight opponent. For me it was more like a late evening brawl between a couple of guys too drunk to hit each other most of the time. And I’m grateful for that. I also have to keep in mind that even though it felt like forever things happened really quickly. That’s made it hard to adjust my perspective, but realizing that it’s only been a year has made it easier. A year isn’t that long. No, it’s not
ever going to end. Cancer is going to be with me for the rest of my life, but given time things will get better. How am I doing? I’m fine. I really am.