Colon Cancer: It's Not That Bad
Every other Tuesday for the past six months I've been subjected to forty-six hours of chemotherapy treatment. It’s not a treat the way cookies and brownies are a treat. It’s a treat more along the order of having the toilet overflow. But doctors call it a treatment, and who am I to argue? Chemicals with names like Oxaliplatin, Leucovorin, and 5-Flourouracil (better known as 5FU… get it?) make up the cocktail I'm given. I've had better cocktails too. Maybe the medical staff should hire a nomenclature expert. But, it is what it is. During said treatments I'm sent home with a Lovecraftian tube sticking out of my chest. After many an abject contortion, I've learned to sleep with this and in the days that follow have soldiered on with an energy drain reminiscent of a flu-whisky hangover combination. In the days of my misspent youth, I was familiar with the former, and everyone knows about the latter.
I'm not sharing this information for people to get all pouty like somebody just stepped on their kitten. Mmm-k? Instead, I'm trying to help people understand that having colon cancer isn't that bad. I mean, it sucks and everything, but I’ve also come to realize a number of benefits have come my way in the last half-year.
For example, I'm in the Cancer Center Youth Group. I get together in the brightly lit activity-room and color bowels and intestines in my official Cancer Center Youth Group color book. Then I get to play games like pin the polyp on the sigmoid. Last week I made a popsicle-cell anemia and three macaroni lymph node magnets for the refrigerator. The teachers smile and make me feel special and give me candy. Then I sit around and talk with the other Youth Group people about how I feel.
Ok, I made all that up, except for the part about sitting around and talking about my feelings with others; maybe that’s why I don’t go. But at 47, I’m usually one of the youngest at the Cancer Center, except for the nurses, and who doesn’t like young nurses?
Another bonus has been the loss of feeling in my fingertips. This is because one of the medicines contained platinum, which is a heavy metal. I never cared too much for heavy metal. But what happens when the human body accumulates too much of certain heavy metals is that it puts on the brakes and tells the central nervous system, "Enough of this. I’m outa here!"
I said contained earlier because on treatment number nine I had what they call one of them there anaphylactic reactions to the platinol (doctor talk for platinum). This included a twenty-minute hot-flash (more on menopause later), the inability to speak, general disorientation, and a really sucky afternoon when thinking coherently was the least of my worries. Next thing I knew I was surrounded by nurses (did I mention they're young and pretty?). One of them tore open my shirt and another fanned me. Then, the head-honcho nurse gave me a giant shot of Benadryl. Long story short no more platinol for me. But getting back to the numbed fingers, I can now take things out of the oven without a potholder and can scrape ice from the windshield with my bare hands. How cool is that? Don’t ask me. Remember, my fingertips are numb.
Then there's this: before I had cancer I could count on one hand the number of compliments I'd received on my physical appearance. That's ok. Manly men don't need that kind of validation. I always did figure my face was more masculine than it was handsome. But since the cancer diagnosis, I can't go anywhere without someone telling me how good I look. Friends, family, church members, and coworkers constantly ask about how I'm doing. Invariably, they follow this up with, "Well, you look good." Or, "You look great." And I'm all like, heck-yeah. Part of me wishes I were single. The point here is to forget botox and cosmetic surgery. If someone wants to improve their looks, they should consider cancer. The compliments just keep on coming.
Then there's the weight loss. This spring I was admitted to the hospital at a portly 184 pounds. Ten days later I left weighing 162 pounds. That's twenty-two pounds in ten days. Jenny Craig? Get out of my face! Biggest Loser? Go suck some wind. Diet pills, flush 'em. America's weight problems could be cured if only more people had cancer. And, during these past six months I've been eating like a freaking horse and I don't mean because I have buck teeth. It's great when the doctor says eat anything, whenever and however much. Today, after a half-year of playing Jack Sprat, I'm tipping the scales at a mere 182 pounds.
Finally, in terms of often overlooked bennies, I've saved the best for last. I discovered this one by a desperate accident. There’s a backstory. At the end of June, one of my wife's friends had the great idea (as only wife friends can) that my wife and I, her and her husband, and two other married couples should take a road trip to a Bloomington dinner theater and see a musical called, "Menopause the Musical." The official website declares the show to be, "The Hilarious Celebration of Women and the Change." Sidebar: why won't dinner theaters do anything like Shakespeare or Sophoclese? I mean, Oedipus Rex had singing. I've heard Cormac McArthy wrote a play. That might be good.
But anyways, I don't know a single man who wants to see a musical about menopause presented by amateurs. Guys, I don't mean to blow the cover, but it's true. And secondly, dinner theater dinner, at least in this tri-county region, is usually a click or two under the mediocre bar. And, more man-secret truth here, the plan for a, "couple's night" is usually nothing more than a thinly veiled, "ladies night" with men along so they can pay.
The men would have sat and nodded and spoken amongst themselves, listening for funny lines so they could later tell other men, "It had some funny parts." Or, "It was ok." Or, "Yeah, it wasn't too bad." They would have smiled saying such things, remembering the rubbery chicken with white sauce and the cold rolls from a bag and the lukewarm peas with pearl onions, and the beasts in their hearts would have growled and grown a little weaker. Oh, the things we do for love.
But, I remembered, barely in the nick of time. I DO HAVE CANCER. My type-3 was going to act up that night. Alas, I was unable to take the drive and would remain at home, alone. At the news, one of the brave husbands volunteered to stay with me. When the ladies saw how two of the men could not attend (one heroically and stoically battling cancer, and the other selflessly giving up the show on a Christian mission to console his brother), they decided a true ladies night would be best. I saved three other men from, "Menopause the Musical."
Like an additional disbursement of grace, I have been given something I call the Cancer Card. And who knows how in the future I may be able to channel the tides of history and further help my fellow men? Perhaps also, if daughter #1 would wash the truck, not forgetting to vacuum the mats, that too would help. Then, down the road, a larger screen to help me see the shows might uplift my downtrodden spirit. Next birthday, maybe a crossbow can take my mind off things. Of course, the Cancer Card, like all special cards, should be judiciously used. There's nothing worse than an overplayed special card. But, for those thinking of getting cancer, don't overlook this silver lining.
And by now, the intrepid reader may think me simple-minded and unaware the seriousness that besets me. May I allay those concerns? In December I will be finished with my first twelve treatments of chemotherapy. In January there will be scans and blood tests and who knows what. At the end of these, the doctor will tell me one of three things.
First, the cancer may be done. This has been my prayer all along. If this is the case I'll have the first of a year's worth of three-month checkups for more test and scans, and who knows what. The longer it doesn't return, the greater the odds it will not. The second thing the doctor might tell me is that the cancer is still there, no worse than it was. This will mean six more months of chemotherapy; rinse and repeat as necessary. The third thing the doctor may find is that the cancer has spread. This is not good for the home team.
But until then, no one knows. These are the thoughts that concern me most at night, after the lights are out and I stare at the ceiling trying to go to sleep. It’s true, cancer is not the zany, whacky disease many think it to be. But…
My approach has partly to do with the people I meet at the Cancer Center. I don't know how the elderly do this. Remember, I’m in the youth group, with relative health and reserves that many of the elderly no longer possess. Yet many, not all, of them smile and talk and carry their banners forward the best they know how. When the pretty nurses call my name for my next turn on the chemotherapy chair of funness, and I say to no one in particular, "Once more into the breach," these older people smile and some of them laugh. A rare few get the Shakespeare reference.
It's the younger patients whom seem the most aggrieved. They have darkness around their eyes and stare vacantly into tablets and cell phones. They carry damp Kleenex in their pockets, dab their eyes and noses, and seldom speak.
These are the two paths. I'm merely following the examples of the elders.