Saturday, April 12, 2008

Two Years Living With The Beast

Today marks two years as a cancer patient. Actually, it marks two years since the biopsy. I didn't get the "official" results until a few days later, but the look on the doctor's face after he performed the biopsy told me all I needed to know. Since then, I've had more operations, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy infusions than I care to recount here.

From a strictly scientific perspective, having cancer has been an interesting experience. The one thing I am convinced of is that cancer is largely genetic in origin, and no amount of prophylaxis-----eating lots of leafy green vegetables, exercising regularly, drinking a lot of fluids, etc.----is going to do you much good if you're carrying whatever genetic code that tells certain types of cells in your body to go apeshit at a particular point in your life. I'm further convinced that trying to find a cure for cancer is probably futile because to unlock the mystery of cancer will likely require us to unlock the mystery of life itself-----exactly why do some carbon molecules, but not others, start absorbing nutrients from their environment, grow in size and complexity, start replicating, and eventually develop awareness and intelligence sufficient to produce reality-based television programs? After all, cancer is nothing more than cellular mutation and growth gone amok. That's supposedly how we get new species of animals, so why I am not evolving into some sort of superman? Why am I getting weaker instead of stronger?

No one knows. If I've learned anything, it's that cancer is a very "personalized" and idiosyncratic disease. There's no such thing as a typical case of cancer nor a typical cancer patient. Having cancer is like playing blackjack with the dealer dealing from a four-deck "shoe"; it's all a matter of luck and there's really nothing you can to do to affect the outcome. Winning or losing is a lucky guess.

The hardest part of cancer is the guilt I feel. I often feel like I have done something terribly wrong by getting sick and am letting people down. The next hardest part is adjusting to the "new normal" of having cancer. When I went into the hospital on August 1, 2006 to have the original colorectal cancer removed, I told myself that I would celebrate on August 1, 2007 by climbing El Capitan, the highest mountain in Texas. It took me time to realize that I would never climb another mountain, never again go on a 10+ mile day hike, and never again have the strength to stack bales of hay six-high. I had always been proud of my body strength and endurance, and to suddenly find myself so "old" was a shock. I like to think I have adjusted, but there are times when my body feels like a prison cell. My spirit, my heart, still wants to do things like climb mountains and lift weights, but I can't. I feel trapped by my weakened body, and that feeling will probably get worse as I weaken. Cancer has also put my Di through some terrible stress and pressure, especially since she had a younger sister die from bone cancer. A lot of painful memories are being dredged up in her.

I have received incredible love and support from my family and most of my friends. A few friends have been quizzical in relating to me since I got cancer, like by never mentioning or discussing the disease with me. I don't take offense, since I suspect their behavior is motivated by their own fear of cancer and mortality. The fact that I got it relatively young obviously bothers some people in my age group; couldn't I have at least waited until I was in my seventies, when you're supposed to die?? And a lot of people get uncomfortable when I talk about my impending death. Hey, I don't like that prospect either, but refusing to admit that is what is going to happen won't delay or stop the event. I'm not looking for pity when I want to talk about my death, but I don't want to act like it's a terrible secret I must keep deeply hidden. It's the refusal to acknowledge an unpleasant truth that gives such truths their terrible power.

I know cancer patients are supposed to be noble, but I'm not. I'm no more insightful, virtuous, wise, or good than I was before; I'm just sicker. I also know I'm supposed to be full of sublime wisdom that I have learned over the past two years, but here is all I have learned: cancer sucks. That's it.

But I'm still here two years later, and I'm going to try the play the hand I'm holding as long and as well as I can. I am really, really grateful to everyone who has sent an e-mail or made a phone call to see how I am doing. You have no idea how much those mean to me, and I appreciate them beyond words.