It’s been nearly four years now since I finished chemotherapy. So far there’s no sign of it returning, which is good. I never want to go through any of that again, and I don’t take the fact that I’m healthier now lightly even though there were too many things I took lightly at the time, too many things I regret.
My last day of chemo, September 22nd, 2014. wasn’t the end of my cancer treatment—and technically it’s never-ending since I’ll need checkups and scans for the rest of my life, but it’s the anniversary I’ve chosen to mark because chemo was unlike any other part of the treatment, unlike anything I was prepared for. The first day I went in for chemo, in early July, I was terrified. What would it be like? What was the process? The clinic I went to put patients in individual rooms and as we passed by one with a bed I wondered, should there be straps? Will they knock me out, cut me open? Well, I thought, as we passed machines and bags of fluid and needles and nurses in crisp uniforms, it’s too late to ask now. I wanted to ask sooner but I also didn’t want to bother anyone, the same reason I put off going to the doctor about the pain in my leg that had been keeping me up nights for at least a couple of months, or why I didn’t even notice the swelling that was also a symptom of cancer, a symptom that, if I’d noticed it sooner, could have been treated with surgery. I could have skipped chemo entirely but I had to go through three rounds of getting toxins pumped into me because of the toxic combination of taking my health for granted and not wanting to worry anyone.
When I was diagnosed my wife stepped up and took on a lot more responsibility than she should have, partly because she’s worked in the medical field and has a lot of experience and knowledge and partly because I acted like a complete jackass.
There’s a saying that tragedy plus time equals comedy. Most of us, I think, apply the word “tragedy” to epic events that affect large numbers of people, but tragedy can be quiet and personal too. Cancer was my tragedy and went into it joking. People would ask me about my diagnosis and I’d say, “It’s a funny story…” In the cancer clinic nurses would come in to give me injections and I’d ask, “What are today’s specials?” Or when one of my IV bags was empty I’d page them and ask for a refill. My second day of chemo I came in with the same IV from the day before, for convenience, and when they start giving me my cocktail—“Could I get three olives and a little paper umbrella?”—I got an intense burning in my arm and tolerated it for about twenty minutes. It wasn’t a macho I-can-take-this attitude. It was the I-don’t-want-to-bother-anyone attitude. When I finally told a nurse she had to consult another nurse who explained that irritation sometimes happens if they use the same vein two days in a row. It wasn’t anything to worry about but she had to remove the needle and stick another vein. In that first week I noticed my jeans were getting tight but I assumed that was normal and didn’t want to bother anyone with questions. It was my wife who noticed my right leg was swollen and told the doctors who believed it was probably just excess fluid but sent me in for an ultrasound anyway to rule out anything serious. When I started my second of three rounds of treatment I made jokes about losing my hair and chemo being boring because I didn’t want anyone to know how stressful it was to spend hours sitting alone with a needle in my arm. Sometimes I had to go to the bathroom, dragging my IV stand with me, and once wandered so far away from my room I couldn’t find my way back. A nurse recognized me and asked if I was lost. I laughed and said, “No, I’m taking the fifty-cent tour,” because I wouldn’t admit I was scared and confused. One morning when I was waiting to start treatment a nurse came out to tell me my white blood cell count had crashed and all I thought about was whether I’d still be able to go out to a baseball game while they checked with the doctor to find out if I could continue treatment with a compromised immune system. When I went out in the sun I developed a red, itchy rash and ignored it. My wife noticed and contacted the clinic to find out if sensitivity to sunlight was something to be worried about. It wasn’t, but my own lack of sensitivity was and resulted in a pattern I’d keep going through. It was a pattern of telling myself I didn’t want to bother anyone only to end up causing a lot of unnecessary trouble. It didn’t end when the chemo did either. I developed migraines which I tried to hide because I didn’t want to bother anyone. It turns out all I needed was medication but even at the time I asked myself, what if they’d been a symptom of something worse? And it’s taken me almost four years to understand just how deep, and dangerous, my denial was. It was rooted in a very firm delusion that if I pretended nothing was wrong nothing would be wrong, which, in hindsight, I know was making things worse. Contrary to the saying about tragedy, time, and comedy my cancer experience has gotten less funny as it’s slipped farther into the past.
The fourth anniversary may not have the same cachet as its odd neighbors but this one is still significant because I’m glad the cancer is gone, I’m glad it’s over because, in spite of the way I acted, it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t exciting, and most of the trouble I caused could have been avoided if I’d been more responsible, which is why, yes, I wish I could do it all over again.
Congratulations! I’m closing in on 5 years but will always insist on at least 1 (preferably 2) CTs a year. I joked my way through surgery because everybody else around me was scared, so I had to bolster them. It wasn’t until about 8 months after the surgery that I had my melt down. Cried for hours. Fingers stay crossed from now on!
Congratulations on almost being at #5, which is a biggie! And good for you making jokes through it. I hope I don’t sound like I’m putting down the value of humor. Keeping an upbeat outlook is healthy. I was in denial, which isn’t.
I have very few regrets in life, but if I had to pick one, it would be not asking for help when I needed it because I didn’t want to inconvenience someone. In fact many of my less than graceful moments stem from my desire to be as self sufficient as possible. I’m glad that you have survived cancer and lived to tell about it, and that you also kept your sense of humor, but please remember, to ask for help when you need it. Although our dumbass moments make great stories, they are much better and live longer when they are told by the person who survived
Thank you–that’s quite possibly the best advice I’ve ever gotten. And I don’t want to make it sound like I’m putting down humor. Making jokes and finding the funny side of some pretty dire situations got me through cancer and it seems like it’s helped you too, even at times when you only find the humor after the fact. But there were too many times that I used jokes to pretend there was nothing wrong and pretending nothing was wrong put me very close to not living to tell the tale.
We all learn our lessons the hard way–harder for some than others unfortunately. I’m sorry you had to go through all that, but congrats on 4 years–here’s to many more!
Fortunately I’m still a glass-half-full kind of guy–I just think a little more carefully about what’s in the glass now, and it’s a bitter lesson but a good one to learn.
Congratulations on remaining cancer-free, my friend, however long it has been. This is a happy anniversary, indeed. But, for god’s sake, young man, start bothering people, over and over and over again, whenever you have to. Me, even. Get it checked. Two decades and one year from now I want to read about your 25-year anniversary of health, and laugh. 🙂
Thank you so much, and as for the getting checked part–right back at ya. And do self checks. If I’d bothered to do that, if I’d bothered to, you know, look down, I would have seen something was wrong. Fortunately what didn’t kill me has left me stronger.
I can relate to the not wanting to bother people, Chris. I hope I’m not bothering you when I tell you how glad I am that you’re with us, exactly the way you are.
It doesn’t bother me at all and you keep inspiring me with your willingness to speak up when you need help in spite of the terrible experience you had when you were young. If anything you set the best example of why it’s important to speak up.
Congrats on your cancer free anniversary. I know exactly where you are coming from on not speaking up for fear of bothering someone. I get so mentally exhausted from trying to speak to doctors about my issues, especially when I have to do it over and over again. I always seem to leave something out or just don’t want to extend the conversation with more questions. Of course this isn’t a good idea, so lately I’ve taken to writing things down that I want to discuss and just handing the doctor a piece of paper when they walk in.
Writing things down is a really good idea. And while I can’t really imagine how exhausting it is for you to talk to a doctor about what you’re going through I do remember that first night after I got the call that I had cancer and I had to go to the emergency room and answer the same questions over and over. If I’d known what was coming maybe I could have written down all my information, photocopied it, and just handed over the paper.