Back in 1998, my sister Biz decided to join Team in Training and walk the Chicago Marathon. I remember the day she called me up and told me all about it. After a few moments of silent disbelief, I said something like, “You know how long that is, right?” She confirmed that she did. After a few more moments of silent disbelief, I said something like, “Okay, I’ll do it with you.”
I won’t bother recanting the entire story here. If you’d like to hear the full tale, you can buy that book over there on the right and read all about it. (See Chapter 14.) Instead, I’ll bypass ninety nine percent of that story and just draw your attention to the end.
After months upon months of training, miles upon miles of sweating, and pounds upon pounds of Rice Krispies and strawberries (a favorite breakfast after a brisk three-hour morning stroll): I did it. And do you know what happened at the end of the marathon? It ended. That is, I walked twenty six miles three hundred and eighty five yards and crossed the finish line. In that instant, it was over, and it felt good.
We have a word for that feeling: closure. And the need for it is engrained deep in the human psyche. Sometimes we need it for something good that happens, sometimes we need it for something bad. But we always need it.
Fast forward nearly thirteen and a half years. On a date which escapes me in early April 2012, somebody put me on a gurney and wheeled me down a hall and parked me in an operating room. Someone else told me to count backwards from ten to nine and the next thing I knew, I had become part of the Borg Collective:
That’s a port. (In particular, a PowerPort.) And it’s the bestest and safest way to pour gallons of burning chemicals into the human body over an extended period of time. The port itself lies close to the surface, which makes easily accessible via a special needle. It then has a long tube extending toward the heart, so that the chemicals can get into a very wide and robust part of the cardiovascular system.
You can definitely feel the port (and see it) right near the surface. Less obvious (to the external observer) is that tube winding up and then back and then down. That I can feel too, running my fingers over my left upper pectoral area. It’s a bit strange, or, at least it was at first. I’ve grown used to it, more or less.
Now back to that closure thing. One might assume that closure comes when you receive those first scan results saying, “We can’t find any signs of unusual metabolic activity.” But you still have a couple more rounds of chemo coming, so that isn’t it. Maybe after that last session? No, because you’re still seeing the doctor fairly often after that. Six months later when things are still clear? Nope.
When it comes to cancer treatment, closure is pretty hard to get. Impossible, actually. In place of it, all you get are baby steps towards something that eventually approximates it. If all continues to go well, a few years later you end up “cured”, so to speak. But all that term really means is that, statistically speaking, the chance of a relapse are very low.
Low, but never zero.
But hitting zero isn’t my point. My point is that there is no “point.” There’s no singular point in time where before that you weren’t fine and after that you were. It’s a long continuum with no discrete steps: nothing to point to and say, “Ah, that was it!”
Except for one tiny thing.
Once you realize your progress is continuing the same, long, positive path, you begin to inquire, “When can I get the port removed?”
“Not just yet,” the doctor replies, which is code for, “A couple clean scans don’t mean much. It costs money to take that thing out and even more to put it back in. Let’s wait a while longer.”
“Okay,” you reply wondering just how well you’re actually doing. You wait.
“Can I get that port removed?”
“How about now?”
“No. And if you ask me one more time, I’m adding a year to it. Good day, sir!”
A few weeks ago, I had my most recent three-month follow up. “You’re still looking extremely well,” he proclaimed. “In fact, let’s start seeing each other every six months now. I’ll see you again next January.”
In cancer treatment, this is what’s known as Pretty Good News. Of course, in my head I’m thinking about that port again. The doctor leaves the room. I hoist my backpack on my shoulder and walk out a few seconds behind him.
Ask him, I say to myself.
No, he’ll just yell at me again, I reply.
Do it! I push.
To properly picture what happened next, imagine the whole Oliver-Twist-May-I-Have-More scene. I’m wearing dirty rags, hair disheveled. Everyone else in the place is starting at me in awe as I slowly approach the doctor, hands outstretched.
“Excuse me, sir?” I asked. “My I have my port removed?”
“Sure, no problem. Why didn’t you ask sooner?”
Okay, didn’t happen quite like that. But he did agree to it. A few days later, we got it scheduled. And today, around eleven o’clock central time, I’m going to complete this latest twenty six mile course and cross, if not the finish line, at least a finish line.
And that’s good enough for me.