Not surprisingly, there is a real paucity of aspects to having cancer that could be described as uplifting, or even neutral. Most everything about being diagnosed with cancer is negative. Oh sure, I do have an excuse to avoid the occasional family gathering, pass on the not-infrequent elementary school project that, while purportedly is to be undertaken by a five-year-old clearly requires someone with a post-graduate degree – and a credit card – to complete, or to clean out the cat’s litter box. On balance, however, I don’t believe that these benefits outweigh the negative ramifications of having a lethal disease. But that, of course, is just my opinion.
While I am giving my opinion, however, I would also like to opine on one of the areas that is so hard to accept as a cancer patient – its relentlessness. I do not mean relentless in the sense that it is so very, very hard so very, very often to get rid of the cancer. That is of course tragically true more frequently than I can even begin to contemplate. It’s almost like whack-a-mole – one snuffs out cancer in one place and then it pops up somewhere else, often in the lymph nodes, for which I still am awaiting an intelligible explanation of (a) what those are and (b) what the hell they do – other than illicitly harbor cancer cells.
The relentlessness of cancer about which I am referring, however, is that even when one is seemingly doing well with it – primarily by not dying – it is a constant cause of vigilance, examination and, of course, worry. Even people who are having the most “success” with cancer are often referred to as those on “watch and wait,” which of course implies both regularly and quite closely keeping tabs on these good-for-nothing white blood cells and that there is eventually a bill that will come due when the “wait” is over.
I am not so fortunate. I was W&W, to employ a catchy cancer abbreviation, for the first four years of my diagnosis. But then the waiting portion came to a rather abrupt conclusion once my lingual tonsils began downsizing my airways while my white blood cells decided to simultaneously reupholster the interior of my veins and arteries. All of this of course led to the need to undergo treatment, which in my case was months of chemotherapy.
Fortunately, as un-fun as it was, I was able to get through all six prescribed rounds. I had hoped, however, that this would be the end of all of this cancer talk in my life for a good decade or so, which may seem a bit greedy but living past 55 does not strike me as such a huge ask today. Sure, in the Bronze Age, that would be pushing it. But today, with fluoride in our toothpaste and home-based colonoscopy kits that don’t even require the prep – which everyone says is the worst part (and it is) – it doesn’t seem too much to hope for.
Much to my dismay, however, I was told at my first post-chemo visit that I would be required to come back to see my oncologist every three months for the next two years. I didn’t like the sound of that in the least, I can assure you, in part because that was essentially the same schedule I was on when I was “W&W”, and that, as indicated above, was not one of the golden phases of my first 45 years on this earth. (The only thing worse than a 3-month rotation was the six-week-down-to-one-month schedule I was forced on to as my lymphocytes really kicked it in to overdrive.)
I believe that most everyone can relate to how short a 3-month reprieve is. All one needs to do is reflect upon one’s school years and the three-month summer vacation that separated one grade from the next (unless, of course, you were a rather academically challenged student in which case it just separated one grade from the repetition thereof). And although I generally liked school, I never once had the thought – nor heard anyone else among my peers – say, “Boy, summer is great and all but this vacation is too long. I’d really like to get back to my desk and work more on my penmanship and get a better understanding of how one programs a computer in BASIC – not to mention DOS.” In fact, the only people I ever heard utter that vacations were too long were the stay-at-home parents who had had enough of us by the time that third month rolled around.
Given, therefore, that we can all relate to how short a period three months is, imagine replacing the dreaded event at the end of such period – return to school, which at least was mitigated somewhat by a new Trapper Keeper and some new sneakers – with a return to blood draws, discussions of the efficacy (or worse, lack thereof) of treatment and your long-term prognosis. Just try and envision what it is like to quarterly have to leave the life that you want to be living to deal with the life that you may have to live. And how little of it there may in fact be left.
This is such a daunting task for even the most dauntless among us, a group with which I do not readily associate myself. I am not afraid to admit that I am afraid. It’s some scary shit. (Editor’s note: I do not really like profanity – attribute it to my WVa roots where politeness is paramount, but I have noticed an uptick in my use of “cuss” words as the next oncology appointment draws near. Coincidence? I suspect not.) Of course, there are some fellow cancer travelers I have encountered who seem quite excited about the opportunity to go and learn more about what their disease has been up to of late. I guess they are just the introspective, inquisitive types. I wish them well and hope they enjoy their time with their lab results and the algorithms they plug such into for hours of interesting study, discussion and sharing over the Internet. As for me, I would just like some satisfactory test results and to know that my ultimate demise has not drawn nearer since the start of my all-too short cancer vacation. That and, possibly, a new lunchbox.