One of the motives I have in writing this blog is to counter that lack of comfort with the idea that, first, not every cancer patient expects to talk about his or her disease to the exclusion of other topics (this gets at the “whole person” not defined by a disease idea); and second, that when we do choose to talk about it, it is not a subject that must be narrowly defined by the obvious end that we will eventually arrive at, one way or the other.
In other words, while cancer is certainly a bad disease and in most cases a terminal one, end-of-life conversations that I plan to be part of will reference a wide range of possibilities—from questions of being and eternity and God and Life to the hopes we have for others who go on after us to those issues that we enjoyed bantering about all of our lives, from politics to food to books to fashion to music to pets.
I’ve talked my way through this life and I see no good reason to stop until I have to. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Of course, that is what a communication professor might say, eh? Pretty funny, too. Imagine the fb photo of me banging on this or that while Death stalks me and you have to laugh aloud. I do.
I’m quite sure that some of my readers will rebel against bringing comedy to bear on cancer on principle or because they don’t think I’m taking the subject seriously enough. Oh well. We all deal with it in our own ways. And I assure you, it’s serious enough to me.
But here’s the thing. Kenneth Burke teaches us that when confronted with a crisis there are two responses humans make to it: tragedy or comedy. He adds that comedy is the only response that offers us hope. And I’m all for hope. So, pardon me, I plan to talk a lot about a lot of things until I can’t talk any more, boring hell out of some of you, and I hope that a lot of that talk will be filled with good humor and the occasional belly laugh. Humor is one of the good things in life. As the novelist Barry Hannah once put it, “God jokes with his best ones.” I do believe that is true.
Today is Monday and San had me up and dressed in plenty of time for my appointment with Dr. Sud. I needed to arrive a little early for blood work, and the last time I had blood work I had to forgo eating and drinking after midnight, so we followed that old prescription and I wondered woozily into the Four Winds Clinic deeply thirsty and longing for—oddly enough—a Graham cracker. Being woozy is not typical. But it is what happens when all you have on your stomach is anti-nausea medication and painkillers. The world outside your body takes on an existential “floatiness” that is not entirely unpleasant, just noticeably unusual. Steps take more time and preparation. Everything … slows … down.
Fortunately, San asked Sandy at the front desk the magical question about food and I soon found myself happily reclined and munching on a fruit bar, washing it down with bottled water. Ah, what a feeling! Turns out, I no longer need to follow those old precautions. I don’t know why (San does) and, at the moment, I didn’t really care. I had a fruit bar. The world was good.
I cannot adequately convey how friendly and supportive an environment the Four Winds Cancer Center provides to anyone fortunate enough to enter it. And I don’t say “fortunate” lightly. But I know that not all cancer treatment centers are the same. The people who find themselves, as we did, entering Four Winds in various states of dread, sadness, hurt, pain, and fear soon learn they have arrived in a caring environment that is entirely organized for our well being and care while at the same maximizing our health outcomes. When bad things are happening to you, this is surely a good place to come.
Our conversations are about our lives, not just our illnesses. So it was that Tia took my blood and as always, humored me about my appetite. “You really only come in for the snacks, don’t you?” she muses. Monica mentions in passing that they all read my blog and were glad to see me writing it. She adds that maybe it can help dispel some of the negative stereotypes about cancer treatment.
I hadn’t thought of that, at least not in that way. But if it does that work, so much the better. I thanked her for saying so. It is the kind of place where everyone has value, something worthwhile to contribute to the whole. Work still to do.
There was an elderly woman seated in the chair next to me and soon San and I found ourselves in a conversation with her and with her caregiver. (Note: I am not naming names in respect to their privacy). Turns out the fellow that was with her was a WWII veteran and had celebrated his 19th birthday in the Battle of Bastogne as one of General Patton’s men. For WWII buffs such as myself, this is remarkable. That battle was decisive, as American forces who were surrounded, low on supplies, and not even in their winter uniforms managed to overcome all of the odds and set the stage for the final dash into Germany.
After we listened to that story, I noticed that the woman seated next to me was a bit nervous. I felt it more than saw it. I asked her what she was “in for” and she explained that this was the first day of her chemo treatment. She has a small spot on one lung and another on her liver. There is some swelling on the lymph glands. She’s in in her eighties and has never had chemo before.
As a one-week chemo veteran I try in some small way to reassure her. I say that my biggest fear, too, was the nausea but that I had not experienced any despite a rather intensive treatment. I could see this ray of hope interested her. I went on to explain that San and I believed these good people at Four Winds had nausea figured out. I talked about the new inclusion on fluids and newer anti-nausea drugs that, as far as I was concerned, were golden. The woman smiled. I could tell she hoped I was right.
By then, Tia had work to do with her, so that was all there was to it. It was a small conversation. I am certainly no expert. But it was clear that just sharing my story of success without nausea had helped this woman feel at least a little less apprehensive. We left for our appointment with Dr. Sud and wished her and her caregiver well.
I believe that it is a good thing when you look forward to an appointment with an oncologist. So it was with no trepidation at all that San and I met with Dr. Sud and discussed my progress since last week’s treatment. So far, so good. My energy returned after the two predictable down days following chemo. I was in no pain. I didn’t suffer from nausea. I had what San called “a pregnant woman’s” appetite, which is true. I now crave foods that only a couple of weeks ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of eating: A Big Mac (I haven’t eaten one of those in 30 years); a chocolate layer cake (I’ve never had a sweet tooth); odd combinations of fruit juices (Cran-Grape? Really?).
Dr. Sud says he shared my blog with his staff and they all enjoyed it. We talked about the community of folks that read and commented on the blog. Then we talked about how my emphasis on his getting the patient’s “story” was important to his approach to both understanding them and treating their disease. “We were meant for each other, doc!” I tell him, both of us smiling.
Back on task. So this week’s challenge, because I am doing so well, is to dial back the meds a bit. “We want to return you to normal and as the chemo works to reduce the tumor you may find that you can get by on less medication.”
I’m a little skeptical, but only because the meds we have in place are working so perfectly. He explains that we are not going to remove any of them, just lengthen the times between taking them. “Let’s try one hour,” he says. “And if you experience discomfort, we can always go back to what we have now.”
I’m fine with that.
I have been avoiding going to the mall for two reasons. The first reason has nothing to do with my illness and everything to do with the fact that I dislike shopping in malls. The second reason is that since last week’s chemo treatment, I have been wary of being in public due to the health hazard posed by my increased exposure to illnesses and infections.
But today we were already out and the mall was close by. I really needed to order a new pair of glasses, given that I had lost my regular pair while in the hospital and was reduced to relying on a pair from waaaay back in what I guestimate was the Clinton administration.
So we went to an eyeglass store in the mall.
The fellow who greeted us was about my age and his name is Harry. After we had located a suitable pair of frames he sat down to enter the data from my prescription. It was a routine conversation right up to a question after the one about anti-glare protection, something about how often I changed my lenses.
“Two years?” he queried.
“Yeah, about.” I replied.
“Then you might want to consider ….” Something … I don’t remember what, but it triggered a sudden emotional response to well up inside of me, bringing a teariness to my eyes.
Harry was concerned. It was real concern, too, not a fake one. He could tell I was struggling with something other than a choice about eyeglasses.
I was thinking about the fact that these would likely be my last glasses. That would I be lucky to have them a year, much less two years.
So it came out. I didn’t elaborate much other than to say I had pancreatic cancer and that I would be happy if the glasses lasted a year.
Harry couldn’t have been a more receptive or sensitive listener. He explained that he, too, had concerns about pancreatic cancer. That as a diabetic, he was at risk. That he had a family history.
I nodded in sympathy. Sometimes, that is enough.
By the end of our conversation, Harry promised to light a candle for me at his Greek Orthodox Church and I believe he will. “You know,” he said, “my old man was from the old country and when he was dying I asked him if he believed in God and all of that. He said, of course he did. He worked all the time and didn’t have time to go to church. He said he believed that whatever it was that was out there, it was a powerful force for good and that in the end you would be judged by how you lived your life. If you treated people well, if you are fair in your dealings, if you helped others, that was all to the good.”Harry paused. He looked directly into my eyes. “He also taught me that people come into your life for a reason.” Harry shook my hand. “I believe that, too.”
So do I, Harry. So do I.
I could have written about today’s events as a series of medical meetings punctuated with a shopping trip for glasses. But that would have been to miss the point of today entirely.
Instead I wrote about today as a series of conversations, each of them ripe with meanings. You could say that even viewed that way, today has been nothing more than a series of conversations wherein the author labored hard to make something important, or at least useful, out of the ordinary stuff of everyday life.
You could, in fact, say that. But I think you would be wrong. For me life is what you make out of the ordinary stuff, and that includes the ordinary stuff we call everyday conversations.
You can treat conversations as nothing special and that is, indeed, what they will be for you. Or you can see them as a material manifestation of our consciousness, what truly makes each of us human and unique.
I prefer that view. But there is more to it than preference accounts for or that viewpoint explains. Conversations are exchanges between and among people in which what “happens” is itself a living creation, an invention of the whole world in the here and now of the everyday.
It is a miracle that we share it and a bonus that we can choose to learn from it.
Conversations are learning experiences if you allow them to be. Every now and again, they may even be profound. To open ourselves to what we can learn from them requires treating the people we meet, the folks we encounter, the strangers we are thrown together with, as whole persons with something worthwhile to say. To choose to do less than that is to diminish them, and so, too, to diminish ourselves.
I still have much to learn in what remains of my life. And good work to do. I welcome the conversation ….