I’ve been asking myself the question “Now What?” for a while now. A good, long while now, actually. I’m pretty sure the first time I asked it was when my current mid-life crisis began at the age of twelve. This year, however, the question took on a different tone. I’m still looking for the answer, but before I get there, let’s first take a trip back through 2012.
A word of warning, though: this gets a bit long and boring. You might want to go fix a sandwich first or just read this over the course of a month or so.
I kicked off the year with the decision to put Back to the Fridge on hiatus. About a week later, a faint sensation in my chest made me think, “I hope I’m not getting bronchitis.”
At work, I stayed very busy. At home, I continued my vain attempts at writing a novel. My “bronchitis” remained nothing more than background noise. It wasn’t getting any worse but it never went away either.
Okay. Now it was getting worse. You know when a man voluntarily decides to see a doctor, something’s really wrong. I now had a full-fledged cough, accompanied by headaches and a high fever. Yet upon each examination, my lungs were inexplicably clear. I felt sick enough to stay home from work the last week of March but okay enough to still work from home (in spite of my deteriorating condition).
On April 2, I actually headed back into the office. Shortly after showing up I wrote, “I feel sick to my stomach. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” And about an hour after that I wrote, “That’s it. I’m bagging it.” I made my third trip to the doctor and this time they took blood. That evening she called with the results: my liver wasn’t working properly. The next morning, I found myself in the ER.
The first scans came back with a diagnosis of cirrhosis. Oddly enough, this was my low point of the year. I saw myself on an organ donor waiting list. I had this sinking feeling of, “Whelp, I guess that’s that.” Fortunately, this particular diagnosis only lasted a couple hours. They decided to do a couple biopsies. (The first of which, in spite of the use of a local anesthetic, I could very much feel. (And just between you and me, having someone thrust a knitting needle five inches into your abdomen isn’t the most pleasant sensation.)) Anyway, the new diagnosis of lymphoma was actually a relief. This felt doable.
The highlight of the year came the week of April 16 when I lost twenty-six pounds in four days. Yes, it was entirely in the form of retained fluids. And yes, it came with the price of having to pee about once an hour for eighty-five consecutive hours. But it was a sure sign that a few key affected organs were now functioning again.
I began to settle into what was to become my routine for the next four months. In short, it went like this: a week and a half of “normal” followed by a week and a half of “cancer.”
During the normal periods, I felt more or less like a regular human being. Apart from my inability to eat many things and getting tired easily, you’d never know anything was wrong.
During the chemo periods, I felt like crap. It’s amazing what quarts upon quarts of high-quality, expensive poisons injected directly into the bloodstream can do. Peripheral neuropathy set in (numbness in my fingers and hands). There was nausea, fatigue, sore throats, and the usual litany of symptoms. I could barely eat anything spicier than water. Going into this, I fully expected to feel drained of energy. But what I really experienced was more like being drained of will.
Ironically, this was probably about the healthiest I’ve been in a while. I’d lost a whole bunch of unnecessary weight. I was doing fairly well at not losing necessary weight. I was eating reasonably well. I was exercising as regularly as possible. And, thanks to Temazepam, was sleeping quite soundly. If only life could be like that all the time.
I wrapped up the month with my first PET scan. This would tell us how things were going and would determine whether I had two more or four more chemo cycles to go through.
I’m sure the vast majority of cancer patients are absolutely elated to get the news of “complete remission.” For me the news was tempered by the loss of two close family members. We lost my uncle Dave Garraghty just one week earlier. And about an hour after my news, we lost Laura’s mother Dorothy. Laura was en route to see her, arriving in Des Moines just forty-five minutes late. So just a couple days after my fifth chemo treatment, I was packing up the car and driving north to meet up with her. It was a difficult trip on every level and it was just good to be home when it was done. The rest of the month was a blur. My sixth and final chemo treatment took place on July 26th.
I went in for hydration for the last time on August 10 and remember feeling very strange. Strange that this whole thing was nearly over. Strange that life would be returning to “normal” soon. For the first time in a long time, the question “Now What?” popped back up.
It’s not uncommon (half of all patients, or so I’ve read) for some sort of depression and/or anxiety to set in after achieving remission and completing treatments. I have no data to back up my own hypothesis, but my thinking goes like this: normal sucks.
“Normal” is going to work for ten or twelve hours a day. And cleaning the kitchen. And getting your car’s oil changed. And taking out the trash. And paying bills. Lather, rinse, repeat. “Cancer”, while both a physical and mental strain, also comes with a vast outpouring of support from people both near and far, both in space and in time. As Clarence the guardian angel put it, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.” And it isn’t until some life-altering event comes along that you actually get the opportunity to witness it firsthand.
Cancer’s a bitch. And then you survive.
But survive for what? For work, the dirty dishes, the oil changes, trash, and bills? Eventually the get-well cards stop, the Facebook posts stop, the bags of money stop. Life gets back to normal and normal sucks.
Ginormous disclaimer: I don’t honestly believe normal sucks. I live at the peak of human civilization and enjoy a roof over my head, meals on the table, and all that that implies. I have family, friends, and tens of adoring fans. But as Joe Walsh so wisely put it: I can’t complain but sometimes I still do.
Now we’re to the parts of the year no one knows about. At the beginning of September, I went offline. I stopped logging into Facebook. I stopped reading blogs. I more or less stopped checking mail. To get my mind off things, I began a pet project or two (in computer programming).
On September 17, we headed to San Antonio to talk about transplant options. This was something my oncologist told us about during my last office visit in August: that one option for people in remission is to get a transplant in the hopes that it prevents recurrence. (In general, it doesn’t, but it’s still worth looking into.) So off we went for a battery of tests, including something I hope to never go through again: drawing arterial blood. This was almost as bad as that biopsy.
In short, nothing came of it. There’d be no benefit of a transplant at this time.
Oh, and to be clear, a “transplant” means taking stem cells from my blood, killing everything in my body with intense levels of chemo, then rebooting my system from the saved cells. It takes about three weeks and is about as thorough as anything gets.
Two significant events happened in October: 1) I had my first beer since I don’t know when and 2) my laptop died and I replaced it with a desktop computer. Based on shelf-space, I don’t think anybody actually buys desktop computers anymore.
We made a trip to Chicago/Indianapolis this month for the Bands of America Grand Nationals Competition. I also got to have lunch with my sisters. I think they were happy to see me looking my usual self again after my frightening visit in July.
Speaking of which, I finally buckled on November 18 and gave myself a shave and a haircut. The hair loss period really only lasted from the end of June through mid September. I was all bushy again by mid November. Well, except for that part on top which simply refuses to grow.
December, not daring to break the tradition set by every other December ever, lasted all of about eighteen minutes. I had my very first “three month” checkup, and those will continue every three months for two years. If I make it out that far, I’m considered cured, as the odds of this kind of cancer relapsing after that point are extremely low.
At the beginning of 2012 I made a handful of New Year’s Resolutions. I wanted to read more, write more, draw more, and, in general, be creatively productive. None of that really happened this year. Of course, it’d be easy to blame it on the obvious health issues, but to be honest, I’ve made these same resolutions for about three decades in a row now and nothing’s come of them yet.
Therefore, it only makes sense that I approach this whole “resolutions” thing completely differently for 2013. This year I resolve to not get cancer.
Everything else is just a bonus.