November 25, 2019
On Monday the medical oncologist told Sandy and me that my last CT scan looked good. He isn’t one for drama. No thumbs-up or touchdown signal. He said what cancer doctors say: “Within the constraints of our detection capabilities and the close proximity of organs in the region, I see no need for further treatment at this time.”
We sat back in our chairs and exhaled. For a moment I said nothing.
My first question: “Can I get this taken out?” I tapped my chest.
“Yes, let’s go ahead and take it out. You can always put it back in if, God forbid, you need it again,” he answered. “But that’s not the end of the world, either.”
We’re talking about the plastic port embedded in my chest. It was inserted in a surgical procedure back in January, when the doctor nailed down the schedule for my six-week chemotherapy-plus-radiation regimen. The port is a connection point for the needle through which the chemo drugs and other medicines flow. My best analogy is a wall electrical outlet—you plug in your lamp, computer, hair dryer, and get power. The drugs flow from the IV through the port into a major vein, avoiding the potential for damage to veins of repeated needle sticks.
So you show up for your treatment, stretch out on an lounge chair, the nurse inserts the needle in the port, and you sleep, on and off, for five hours. Intermittently you gaze up at the IV bag.
The doc wants another scan and another meeting in five months. Back in June he was encouraged after looking at my PET scan. But the port had to stay. He wanted to see definitive healing.
On another front, I see the urologist in January for a cystoscopy, an unpleasant procedure—involves a tiny camera—to check the urological landscape.
He gave me a more or less positive report a week after he removed my left kidney and ureter. “I took lots of surrounding tissue out,” he said. So along with losing the organs I got a free liposuction. So I won’t need to schedule one of those. He added that what he found “could be aggressive,” meaning I need watching. So I’ll be in his office, grimacing, in a couple of months, and out into the future.
Sitting in the oncologist’s office, I recalled the cardiovascular surgeon’s comment after he opened my chest last December, then quickly aborted the procedure when he saw what he saw. “You’ve got a really ugly tumor in there. You need further treatment,” he warned.
Seems like a lifetime ago. So I’m lucky. Blessed. All those prayers by so many people, family, friends, total strangers, carried some weight with the Almighty.
Through all this—18 months—we’ve had lots of adventures as we reexamined life: a bunch of trips to out-of-the way places; happy visits with family; some rich experiences doing practically nothing. I wondered about the future in my own peculiar way, which is way different from the way young people think about it. When I got into my dark moods I wondered about the future of the country, as a huge swatch of Americans ignore or defend the president’s lies, and coming generations likely face crippling tax burdens to pay those federal entitlements to the oldsters.
Sometimes I talked vaguely about picking up last year’s road trip where we left off, pre-biopsy. The plan, sketchy as it was, had us pushing on from Nevada to San Diego. We’d drive up the Pacific coast to Seattle. From there, state highways east. Or perhaps head south to Utah to see those famous parks.
Right now it’s just me talking—or hallucinating. Other things, like the bills, insurance, fixing up the house, have intruded.
Meanwhile, others sit in oncology treatment spaces waiting for their chemo and radiation, and the side effects that follow. They’re both older and younger than me, hoping for their own good news, some with vicious, voracious strains that the conventional treatments can’t defeat. Sometimes the chemo cocktail doesn’t have the kick they hope it will. Sometimes the radiation beams seem to bounce off the tumors. Our son, the medical physicist who works with cancer radiation therapy, says simply, “They never get every cell.”
Those I recognize from my visits to the waiting rooms will move on, replaced by others. They’ll wonder about the future: Why is my life suddenly so complicated? Why is this bad joke on me? I wonder: how do those eighty- and ninety-somethings do it? What good did all that jogging do for me? What about all those vegetables and fresh fruit?
You recognize sooner or later that the jogging and eating well and getting enough sleep all amount to a holding action. Eventually everything breaks down.
Once you’re clear on that, you can relax and enjoy life. We don’t know where the cancer will take us, although we’ve heard those stories about patients living decades, knowing it’s there, knowing the docs never get every cell. What matters is how we fill up the time ahead, understanding that it’s given by the Lord as something precious. The illness is a mystery that transforms. The sick pray for healing, but they really pray to make their lives, their presence, a gift for those around them, for everyone they encounter.
So my doc finished up, saying, “let’s schedule the port removal. We’ll see you in April, then in six months and then a year later, then we’ll look out over three to five years.” Five years? Sounds good to me. By then he may be head of a hospital somewhere. Our older grandson will be 11. We haven’t scheduled the five-year appointment yet. I’m free on Mondays.