It’s Cancer! Woohoo!

(Editor’s note:  This is incomplete and I’ll come back and polish the turd sometime, but my lack of enthusiasm for finishing it keeps diminishing, especially since I have just had my last treatment (details below) of any kind earlier this week.  However, because of what this posting describes, my desire to complete it outweighed my need to post other unrelated thoughts I’ve had since I started it.  I have finally decided to just crap this article out so I could move on to other subjects and revisit its completion later.

And there ain’t no editor, it’s just me.)

So, whoever picked “cancer” in the unexpected clusterfucks pool has won.  Please report to one of the payout windows for your winnings.  Try to blow it all on a really good time.

I already knew that it sucked to be me– getting cancer just adds more weight to the argument.

So, Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot happened?

By the first week of April, I was experiencing shortness of breath with what I had with my Afib (another long story about my ruined summer, last year– sucks to be me, get over it)– but this was different, somehow. It was like I could not draw in a full breath.

You remember in physics (or maybe math, who the fuck remembers?) when they were covering displacement? You’d put  a block of something that didn’t float you had measured (Width x Height x Depth) into a beaker and add water until the beaker was full, take out the block and measure how much water was left over.  The difference was the displacement (and it should have been the same as the volume of the block).

Again: who the fuck remembers?  Anyway…

It felt like that– I had a block in my lungs that took the place a lot of air.  Up until just last year (Afib, remember?), I rode my bike a lot.  Back when I was younger, I ran a lot,  So, I have a pretty good idea of what a full breath feels like. And walking up a flight of stairs? No big deal.

But during the week starting April 2, I walked up the one flight of stairs to my current contract job and had to put my head on the desk and take a minute to recover.

Something was wrong.

(Dur!)

On Friday, April 7, I could not even get out of bed, being so tired and having a headache from coughing so much during the night.  But I’m a male and on top of that me, so it took my wife’s pleasant reminder to call the doctor and get in to Kaiser that afternoon.

It was there that a Nurse Practitioner named Andrea probably saved my life.  I owe her and I think I should send her some flowers.  Better her getting flowers than me, am I right?

Flowers?  What the fuck am I thinking?  She saved my life.

Maybe a nice plant.

Anyway, Andrea sent me down to imaging for a chest X-ray.  Modern medical imaging has a quick turn around anymore, so by the time I got back upstairs (using the elevator!), she had the results.

It turns out I had a “mass” in my chest and fluid around my right lung.  Made sense.

Now, at the term “mass”, my mind did not immediately leap to cancer.  Andrea did not say “cancer”; but “mass”.  I appreciate this.  She did not render a diagnosis or frighten me with conjecture– she told me what she knew: M-A-S-S.  Se also told me that she’d set up a CT scan for the following Tuesday (the 12th of April).

I, being a male, had all the information I needed to answer the question “what’s up and what’s the plan?” so I satisfied. At this point, what good would more information do me?

What else could I do?  Ask if I should start a vegetarian regimen?  Maybe sell everything I owned and start worshiping a fungus in a cave somewhere (i.e., start praying)?

Worrying is pointless, reacting in radical ways to limited information is even worse.  Besides, they were moving on this– they got me scheduled for as soon as they could for the scan.

Check.

Seeing that I appeared to have no more questions, Andrea offered that a “mass” did not necessarily mean cancer.   There were certain thyroid-related issues that could account for the location and size of the “mass.”

Cool.  I didn’t ask the cancer question, but still nothing to be alarmed about.

“Okay,” I said and thanking her, left.

I went home and told my wife about the x-ray and the “mass” (my new name for the little fucker), and she asked me a lot of questions I apparently did not think to ask myself because not only was I male; but apparently an idiot by her estimation.

Some people, mostly female, would say that those two conditions are the same thing, but I digress.

The weekend came and went, and on Monday morning I noticed a lump at the crux of my neck and right shoulder.  It hurt a little, like a muscle cramp and was about 4 cm across.   Oh well, nothing to worry about, I thought, since I was going in the following day.

My twisted little mind though went to an old science fiction movie I’d seen about a guy who had a second head growing out of his shoulder, so I gave it the name “lumpy” and awaited the appearance of an eye in the middle of it.

Tuesday rolled around and my wife went with me to the CT scan appointment.  After the scan I went upstairs to the doctor’s office (elevator!) to see if I could get squeezed in to have him look at “lumpy”.  Funniest thing– “lumpy” had grown somewhat to about 6 cm since the day before.

They got me right in, and came in to tell me that if I had not come up from the CT scan myself they would have called me back in if I had left and had me admitted to the hospital immediately.   It seems that the “mass” had grown significantly since Friday, and was definitely cancer.  After having looked at “lumpy”, Dr. Wolsko said that it was related and was probably a tumorous growth.

Awesome.

The hospital was a short walk from the Kaiser office (actually, it’s physically in the same building) and I went to the emergency room to await admittance.

I was set upon by a host of very concerned people. They started an IV that would not be removed for about 6 days, making me feel like an astronaut on a spacewalk for my entire stay.  They got my vitals, and were very concerned about the apparent pressure the tumors (we can call ’em that now) in my chest were putting on my heart and the plumbing around it.

My wife called our sons and my middle son came up on his way home. I called my parents and let them know the news. I kind of wished I hadn’t since they didn’t get much sleep for the next couple of days over it. Everybody seemed worried– I didn’t feel worried at all. Well, I might have felt sorry for myself for all of ten minutes; but I figured what was the point of keeping that up?

I know that I am going to die someday– I have since it hit me and really soaked in when I was about 15.  Whether we want to believe it or not, every day is a crap-shoot about whether we live or die.  Every day.

Something is always out to get us.  Might be a bus, or a meteor, or a heart attack, or a jealous husband, or choking on a gummy bear, or… you name it.

I mean, by the terms I had grown accustomed to I was dying anyway (we are all dying from the minute we are born, it’s just a matter of time), cancer was just the (possible) terminal vector for me.  Cancer was always a possibility; but so were an infinite variety of other causes.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to live and I was perfectly willing to do whatever was necessary to stick around; but, why kid myself?  Death is inevitable. Fretting over mortality is a terrible waste of what little time each of us has in this life.  I’m not special, neither are you– I wish you a long and happy life; but sooner or later entropy will get you and me both.  Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death is a great read on the subject of just how much energy we burn on ignoring the subject.

I remembered all the times in my life when that wonderful experiment called “me” had come close to dying before, either by accident, stupidity or circumstance I had survived:

  • That time in Bequia when I (yes, stupidly) separated from my dive partner and then swam though a short. very tight tunnel I found though a coral head.  Once fully lodged in the tunnel, I became somewhat stuck.  I tried to
  • As an infant I became dehydrated and nearly died from what was apparently just the flu.
  • I drove drunk on many occasions.  I know, I’m an idiot.  One time between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I was enticed into joining a drinking club with the dubious name of the “zug-zug keg team” by a friend of mine . The membership ritual consisted of drinking 5 beer bongs.  I “made” it (yeah, young, stupid, male–got it) and was, needless to say, inebriated.  After a friend told me she would drive me home, I got impatient and got in my car and drove away (I assume) and woke up to the sunrise hours later on a street near my parent’s home.  Dumb.
  • The list goes on…

I had already died many times– or at least had the opportunity to.  Every day I had lived since any one of these occasions had been living on borrowed time.

Anyway, back to the narrative…

They carted me up to a room in the internal medicine ward and not oncology as I expected.  There, they slapped a monitoring device that I lovingly called “the Octopus” onto my chest so they could tell if I threw a clot or had heart failure.  It turns out that the real danger at this time was not the cancer itself, but the secondary problems it was causing me physically.

The tumors in my chest were between my lungs and around my heart, putting pressure on my vena cava and jugular veins to the point that clots were forming in them.  In addition, there was fluid building up under my right lung, which was the cause of my breathing difficulty.

(Spoiler alert: as it turns out my lymphatic system had gone haywire due to the Lymphoma I had contracted and was pumping out fluid that my system could not adequately dispose of.  You know that fluid you get in a blister?  That’s lymphatic fluid, and your lymphatic system pumps it out when you are injured– a lot of the reason for swelling.  So, like a really bad housekeeper, my lymphatic system was producing a lot of fluid to address the problem with itself and swept it under my right lung– the bodily equivalent of a rug).

The doctors started me on (different) blood thinners than I was taking for my A-Fib.  They also had me get an immediate head CT-scan to make sure that I had no tumors in my brain (I didn’t).

I wasn’t able to string together more than maybe a half hour’s sleep together all the time I was in the hospital. Blood samples, “are you ok?” checks, getting tangled up in the Octopus or the IV.

The next day (Wednesday), I went down to surgery where they drained a liter and a half of fluid from under my lung (the rug had quite a lump in it at this point) and performed a biopsy.  I was fortunate in that “lumpy” was much more accessible than the tumors in my chest, so they took a couple of lymph nodes from it rather than having to fish around my compressed heart for them.

On Thursday, I was given a PET scan that showed the tumors stretching from about the bottom of the sternum up to and pressing down on the heart and diagonally up to the juncture of my neck and shoulder.

Now, a PET scan is very interesting: first, you can’t eat anything for about 12 hours ahead of time (they would have done one on Wednesday, but I had already eaten lunch before they could have fit me in in the evening. Second, they inject you (using a lead-lined hypodermic needle) with radio-active sugar that the tumors soak up like coke heads do nose-candy.  The images were very arty– yellow stars in the constellation of my body.  My chest looked like the center of the galaxy.

Later that day, the preliminary results of the biopsy came back indicating Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  The doctors were fairly sure that this was the case already, since the cancer was so fast-growing– a common indicator of Hodgkin’s.

My doctor said that if I had to get cancer, this was the one to get– I had effectively “won the cancer lottery”.  Hodgkin’s has about an 80% survival rate if treated in time.  I was in stage 3– the cancer had spread beyond the starting location in my chest to lymph nodes to below my diaphragm but had not reached my liver, spleen or kidneys.

On Friday, I was moved to the oncology ward.  My breathing was vastly improved after the fluid was drained around my lung.

On Saturday, I had my first chemo treatment in the hospital and on Easter Sunday I went home.  At last I was able to get a good night’s sleep without the IVs and “the Octopus” attached to me.

I have since had 6 more chemo treatments.  I have 5 left.

I have learned a lot of things from my experience.

  • Cancer is expensive.  Save your money– don’t get it.  If I had not been lucky enough to have walk-on-water health insurance, I would be looking at about $200k in expenses at this point.  I can see why there are so many people who need help on GoFundMe.com— and those are just the people who have the same kind of cancer I do.  My wife and I find someone there every month and give them some money.  It’s fairly easy to recognize someone genuine– their stories are remarkably similar to my own minus the insurance.  Help them out a little.
  • Cancer is a pain in the ass. Lots of new routine. Then there are the side effects from the chemo that get progressively worse.
  • Cancer is boring.
  • Cancer involves spending a lot of time reassuring others.  Yes, people are genuinely concerned and very sympathetic; but I think they want to be reassured because of their own discomfort with a very uncomfortable situation.
  • Everybody has an anecdotal cure.
  • I have pansy cancer.  There are people at the clinic when I go in for chemo that are really bad off.  They’ve had surgeries, chemo and radiation.
  • The doctors at Kaiser are fantastic– they were all right on top of my treatment. Every department has been involved and very aware.  The fact that they can easily exchange patient information with one another and consult with no artificial boundaries shows me what medicine can be.
  • People take my attitude as bravery.  I’ve been accused of being “stoic.” The only time someone can be brave is when they are afraid.  I’m not really that afraid.  I’ve not been asked to do anything more than to survive, and we all do that every day whether we recognize it  or not.

I want to keep writing about this, but

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