So, here we are at treatment plus ninety days and my oncologist, who still hates me by the way, ordered a PET Scan. That’s Positron emission tomography for the uninitiated. A procedure wherein they make you drink mochachino flavored barium, inject you with nuclear isotopes and iodine then shoot you with gamma rays. It’s truly remarkable medical technology and ironically only slightly different than the protocol Marvel Comics used for creating the Hulk.
Nuclear isotopes, gamma rays, it’s a great way to spend a Wednesday morning let me tell you.
Handed the obligatory insurance forms, I filled in the blanks on auto-pilot until I got halfway through the medical history portion. Multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation…. I set down my pen as I realized…
“This can’t be my life?”
This can’t be who I am now? A cancer guy? Did the last two years of my life really happen? It’s hard to wake up and think you’re that guy. That you find yourself in this place… lying on a gurney while a well-meaning nurse explains medical procedures to you as if you’re a two year old… “Then we’re going to slide you into a BIG machine! But first we need you to go pee-pee.”
A couple of hours later, it’s all over and I’m outside staring up at a giant billboard trumpeting the merits of USC’s Cancer Center. A brave young woman urges other cancer-ravaged patients, or at least the ones with good insurance… to “Fight On.”
People love to use aggressive phraseology when they talk to cancer patients. “You can beat this thing.” “You’ve got to fight.” “This is a battle you can win!” I appreciate the thoughts, and have no issue with them, but for some reason it’s an analogy that has never rested easy on me.
I don’t feel invaded, or attacked, I feel betrayed. Sad. It’s like your best friend suddenly turned on you for no reason. You don’t want to fight him, you just want to know what changed.
You see, for forty-seven years my body worked exactly as it was supposed to, Frankly, other than an expanding waistline and the occasional unexplained rash… I never gave it much thought. I took my body for granted. We all do I guess. The body is an amazing machine, built to function flawlessly at an extremely high level… until one day it doesn’t.
Suddenly, nothing is taken for granted. Even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant part of the machine screams for attention. Anyone who has lived it will tell you that life in treatment is not about the cancer itself… it’s about managing the side effects of the horrible things the Doctors are doing to you.
With throat cancer, it’s the second-degree burns from the radiation, the damage to your mouth and gums, the pain, the nausea, the struggle to keep eating and the trips to the cancer dentist to keep your teeth from falling out.
You are suddenly conscious of your every bodily function twenty-four hours a day. In this deteriorating state the simplest acts of yawning or sneezing are traumatizing enough to draw tears.
Throughout this ordeal a Psalm from the bible kept rotating through my head – “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I’ve heard it all my life and this is the first time in it has ever made the least bit of sense.
I drive a Lexus. Before that an Audi. A steady stream of three-year leases that ensures me of always driving a car in peak condition. I’ve never doubted whether or not they would start or had any reason to doubt their ability to get me where I was going no matter how far away my destination lie.
My first car was a ’69 Ford Galaxie 500. It drank 3 quarts of oil a day and the passenger side door was welded shut, meaning there was only one way in or out. I kept a screwdriver under the seat because I had to constantly tweak the carburetor to keep it running and here’s the kicker… it had a weird habit of arbitrarily locking itself. Once while idling in a 7/11 parking lot while I was inside on an urgent Big Gulp run.
I hated that car… and yet I loved it. I could not for one day take it for granted. If I wanted to get where I was going I had to carefully listen to every sound it made, to be able to correctly interpret every knock and ping, to cater to its every whim or risk a complete breakdown… leaving me stranded.
My body is now a ’69 Ford Galaxie.
Unlike my Lexis I can’t take it for granted, I have to turn down the 8-Track and listen for the pings and the knocks, and to have my screwdriver ready when the carburetor needs tweaking.
That’s why it doesn’t feel like fighting. It doesn’t feel to me like a battle to be won. I have to make my peace with it. I have to bond with it, understand it.
At least until the lease runs out…
My “oncologist who hates me” called me in to go over the results of the PET Scan. She greeted me the usual way with a curt handshake that always reminds me of the way an eight year old shakes your hand at a Bar Mitzvah. They’re shaking your hand and looking you in the eye, but it’s only because if they don’t they’re going to get a smack in the back of the head.
She cut right to the chase and told me that all was clear, the cancer had not spread and for the time being I had nothing to worry about. She said we’ll check again in six months and sent me on my way with a written copy of the report.
Sitting in the parking lot, I flipped through the report and after two pages of medical jargon I cannot even begin to decipher… one line caught my eye.
“Patient’s heart, lungs and other organs were grossly unremarkable.”
And that’s when it occurred to me… I am that guy. And I find myself in this place.
Grossly unremarkable. Yet fearfully and wonderfully made.