Living with cancer
It’s Sunday, 23 June, 2019. Tomorrow I will start chemo. Actually, I have a busy morning of appointments. It starts off with another blood draw. Shit, it will be like the twentieth vile of blood they’ve taken out of me in five weeks. Vampires! I wonder if I’m donating to the Red Cross and nobody’s telling me. Next, I have an appointment with a counselor for something called “Living with Cancer.” That should be interesting. I’m picturing one of those educational films they used to show us in high school health class. Remember those? The narrator has a deep voice and perfect English. (Pan in on a man watering a lawn in a nice middle class suburban neighborhood) “This is Nick. Nick has cancer. He takes 23 pills a day and has his blood drawn every week. Nick is in pain much of the time but he gets to smoke marijuana if he wants. Nick is living with cancer, unlike Harold. Harold (pan in on a green, tree lined cemetery) died of cancer. Some people live with cancer and others die of cancer.” Then the film reel runs out and goes flip flip flip flip while the bright light continues to shine on the screen until the monitor shuts off the projector.
I was a projector monitor in the third grade. Actually, the teacher appointed three projector monitors so I was more of a back-up projector monitor. The back-up’s back-up. So I got to enjoy the caché of being one of the teacher’s favorites without having to do anything. Now that I think about it, that’s probably what put me on the road to a lifetime of underachievement.
Anyway. After that I will see my oncologist. The last time I saw her she said I’d probably have questions for her before I start chemo. I do. Important questions. Like, how long will each chemo session last? Am I going to feel sick afterward? Will several weeks of getting shots in my belly create skin problems? Will there be free cookies?
Then, finally, I’ll have the chemo. I’ve always pictured chemo as this “thing.” You know. You kick back in a big comfortable recliner and they put an IV in your arm. You lay there for hours while they pump poison through your veins and you become nauseated, hating life while “living with cancer.” However, in my case, I understand there will be no IV. Not as dramatic as I pictured. I hope at least I get to sit in a big recliner. I do like recliners. And sitting. And cookies.
It’s always something
This week I’ve been thinking about Gilda Radner. If you don’t know of Gilda Radner, she was one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live (when it was funny) and an amazing entertainer. She died of ovarian cancer at the age of 42. Before she died she wrote a book called, “It’s Always Something.” Cancer took her way too young.
Gilda joked her way through cancer, just as she joked her way through life. I saw her in an interview once in which she was asked why she became funny. She said, “Because I wasn’t pretty.” I’ve always felt inspired by her. I mean, I’m not pretty either. I wasn’t a popular kid. Wasn’t good looking or bright. Wasn’t athletic or interesting. Had no self-confidence. Wait, where was I going with this? Oh! I learned to be nice, and kind of funny, because I saw that it made people like me. More importantly, it let me affect their lives in a positive way and I love that. So I’m thinking a lot about her today in particular and I’m repeating her SNL tag lines over in my head. Things like, “Never mind!” and “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”
Gilda named her book after the line she used every week on SNL as her tough New York City street-wise character, Roseanna Roseannadanna, “It’s always something!” I’ve repeated that line to myself many times over the years, for inspiration and strength. From eight weeks of radiation for a brain tumor to a decade of vertigo attacks that followed; from sinus surgery, marriages and divorces, family issues and job worries, I’ve always comforted myself remembering that Gilda got through life’s challenges and kept making people laugh. I know when I get to wherever I’m going, she will be there, cracking jokes with that unmistakeable voice, and not allowing anyone to feel sorry for themselves.
The last normal day of my life
Here’s the thing. Today, the last day before chemo, is the last normal day of my life. Everything has changed. That’s an awesome feeling. And I don’t mean awesome like when your crazy friend rides his bike off the roof and into the swimming pool 10 feet below. You gotta admit, that is fucking awesome. Nor is it like when your mom cooks a huge dish of really cheesy lasagne just for you. Again, awesome! No, I mean awesome as in hugely overwhelming. The reality is, tomorrow I’ll begin a round of chemo which, even if things go well, will start me on a lifetime of treatments and medications. Drugs for the cancer. Drugs for the side effects of those drugs. Drugs for the pain. Drugs for constipation and drugs for diarrhea. Whether I live two more years or 15 more years, I’ll never really feel great again. OK, admittedly I’m not exactly the picture of health right now, physically or mentally. I’m at that age where when I see the doctor I’m asked if I’ve had a serious fall since my last visit, or if anyone is abusing me at home. God, just once I want to say yes to those questions. Just to see what chain of events is set into motion. But then, I live alone and I don’t think I could convince anyone that my dog is abusing me. She’s just so sweet.
I’m thinking of getting a large candy dish and filling it with my pills. That would certainly be colorful, and fun. It would be a test for me three times a day to see if I could remember which pills to take when. And offering candy to visitors would be a hoot! If you visit me, you’ve been warned.
This weekend I haven’t really felt well. Clearly it’s nerves. But it’s not so much like I’m facing a firing squad as it is like being sent to the principal’s office. You remember that sick feeling you would get in your gut? Or when your mom would bellow out your name from down the hall, using your middle name. “Oh oh! I’m really in trouble.” Yeah, it’s like that.
So, everything has changed. This will affect every aspect of my life. My health. My work. My finances. My relationships. But like Gilda said, it’s always something.