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Since I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic cancer and entered an aggressive chemo treatment in early June, there have been clues given to me about how this initial part of our journey through Cancerland – this new mystery in our lives – might turn out. But as is the case in many detectives engaging those mysteries, connecting the dots is much easier to accomplish in hindsight.
One of those clues is that when patients reach the end of their treatments they are entitled to “The Happy Dance.” Each dance involves members of the oncology team and San and I have witnessed a few of them. But we have also observed that each dance is a little different, tailored to the patient. What is in store for me? For us? No matter how hard we tried to get details prior to the dance, the team members only gave us back big smiles, laughter, and obvious deflections. So that is how it was to be. It was, for this detective, “A Case of Strategic Dance Ambiguity.”
Tomorrow morning San and I will arrive at The Four Winds Cancer Clinic a little before 8 a.m. We will greet our friends/caregivers, my blood and vitals will be taken and tested, and our appointment with Dr. Sud will pronounce me fit enough for one final poisoning. Although I have felt so good since recovering from Round 11 two weeks ago that I have threatened not to complete Round 12, it was an idle threat and everyone knew it. Twelve rounds are what the clinical trials say we should do, it’s what our doc and the oncology nurses agree we should do, and who knows? If it buys me a little more time next year it will be worth it. I am feeling optimistic. And I still have a lot of things I want to do, and stories to tell.
That said, the next three days – one of the intensive all-day treatment and the next two of the chemo fanny pack punctuated by steroids and fluids – plus the recovery period afterward, spell out in no uncertain terms a week or so of not feeling particularly good. But even this upcoming week of The Things That Come With Chemo is not going to be all bad. After all, on Wednesday when the fanny pack is removed for the final time, San, Nic, and I get treated to the full-dog version of the Happy Dance! And with it, six months of chemo will be behind us …
Last night in the city of New Orleans a community of dear friends – colleagues, former students who are now colleagues, and current students who are well along the path to becoming colleagues – gathered together to honor my life and work at the National Communication Association convention. I joined in via Skype. For two hours I listened to this amazingly talented, accomplished, and caring group provide answers to a question I had posted in this blog weeks ago. The question was given in the context of how we measure the value of our lives and I wrote it, honestly, without thinking about this event. It was intended as a question for all of us to ponder. Specifically, the question was: what had we meant, and what had our work meant, to others?
I am reading a NY Times Book Review of a new cancer memoir called [Sic] authored by one Joshua Cody. Toward the end of this review my eyes cross this paragraph:
Cancer memoirs pose singular hazards for authors and reviewers: for the author, there’s the looming threat of maudlin sentimentality, and for the reviewer, the question of how to criticize someone’s pain and suffering. Cody sidesteps the sentimentality issue by mocking it. “Pale pastel book after book,” he says of the memoirs he read when he first fell ill, “each one the same, the three-act structure of (I) diagnosis, and (II) the discovery of how beautiful life actually is and how there’s more to it than my hedge fund job ever told me it was and look at how lovely this flower is and this butterfly and this herbal tea, and (III) recovery and a book deal and getting a little place in Vermont maybe.”
Cody is, according to this reviewer, a talented young composer who was pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia University until his diagnosis. He is also apparently an interesting writer and talented person who has composed a most unusual cancer story, one that the reviewer, Gregory Cowles, describes thusly: “[A] G-force of sex and death and insanity — and also, improbably, of music and math and modernist poetry — [it] is the only evidence you need that for all its seeming formlessness, ‘[Sic]’ is in fact as artfully constructed as a Tarantino film.”
What would you think if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song,
And I'll try not to sing out of key.
I get by with a little help from my friends,
I get high with a little help from my friends,
Going to try with a little help from my friends.
Charlie brought homemade Baklava. He roasts the almonds himself, adds the walnuts, grinds them down, adds honey, and layers the phyllo dough, tops with more honey and one single clove. Oh my. Delicious! Everyone in the Room of Orange Chairs agrees – this is the best Baklava any of us have ever tasted.
Jan makes me a cup of hot chocolate. It, too, is delicious. I savor it. Let the chemo begin! I know these two treats will be the last food items that taste good to me for at least a week. Maybe more. After that I won’t be able to taste some foods (and no red wine) but I will be able to taste others. Dr. Sud promises me that my taste buds should return about a month or so after my last treatment. I hope he’s right. Just in time for Christmas!
I finish the Baklava and hot chocolate. Lauren sets the IV machine for a fast drip of the pre-chemo liquids, anti-nausea medicine, and whatever else is in this concoction that is designed to prevent the negative side effects. I get these for about an hour and a half, then begin the real poisoning, which runs for five hours, during which time I also am pumped full of Decadron (a glucocorticosteroid), which, in addition to whatever magic it does to those nasty side effects, also produces on my face a healthy-looking tan.
Round Eleven has begun. Strike up the band and let the song begin …
It’s Sunday, a gorgeous day here in Arizona, with cool autumn temperatures in the mid-60s and lots of blue skies and sunshine. I feel good. I am alive and well.
This morning I got up early to work on Final Draft, a book – probably my last one – which is one part memoir and two parts meditation on what has meant to live my life by the power of stories. With the help of my pal Hugh Downs (himself a lifelong amateur scientist and a member in good standing of our Beyond Institute of advanced theoretical physics) I completed a section on quantum theory and human mortality, which sounds larger and far more daunting than it is. But a life such as mine – and, I venture, such as yours – lived between the imaginative/explanatory powers of the Cosmos defined by science and the explanatory/imaginative powers of our lives defined by stories would hardly be complete without it, with a narrative merging the two storylines into a plausible afterlife.
I do love to write in the morning! And my good day was just beginning.
Nic came home from Tucson and after some grocery shopping he made us a beer-battered fish ‘n’ chips lunch. Tonight San and I will enjoy the company and conversation of our friends Sarah, Brad, Belle, and Dan, and dine on chicken enchiladas accompanied by maybe a glass or two of fine white wine. On the way home we will stop by Jeff and Angela’s to pick up some of young Anna’s amazing homemade cookies.
All in all, it’s a wonderful day as far as I can see. And I am grateful for it.
My usual magical practice is to begin each new month with a personal good luck mantra drawn from British folklore and/or old Nantucket superstitions. I say with my very first breath: “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit!” and then prepare myself mentally, physically, and soulfully for a month of hopeful good fortune. Today I repeated that magical practice and imagined with it a white rabbit leading me through this month, this “Big November,” the last month of my chemotherapy.
Full disclosure: I believe in magic. I believe in the persuasive power of words, stories, speeches, prayers, gospels, surra, parables, and poetry to change how we look at and understand the world, how we act in it, and how we use such understandings to promote happiness, peace, prosperity, love, and justice.
Why wouldn’t I? I earned a doctorate in rhetoric. I studied with wizened word wizards who culled their knowledge from ancient and modern texts, practices, and even the occult. I have, myself, studied the spells, er, done research from the ancients to the present on the subject of words and their relationships to what the philosopher Richard McKeon once called “thoughts, passions, and actions.” In fact, my fellow word wizard and dear friend who teaches health communication at Ithaca College, Stew Auyash and I just exchanged email this week about Jacqueline de Romilly’s classic book Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece (1975), in which exists a compelling discussion of medicine, rhetoric, and magic. Not is this ancient knowledge lost on contemporary scholars who study the close relationship between diagnosis of disease and doctor-prescribed remedies as persuasive efforts designed to elicit belief as well as agreement.
Socrates may have railed against rhetoric in The Gorgias as being “akin to cookery” in relation to “medicine” but he was wrong. He also opined in The Republic that poets ought to be banned from society. There are a host of other things he was wrong about, including the idea he passed along to Aristotle about farting being responsible for death. He was wrong about that, too. Not all philosophy is truth. But as a rhetorician I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Probably the best way to characterize the all-day chemo treatment is by saying that when it was over I had tears running out of my eyes. But they were from laughter. And I was still delightfully full in the belly, due to a cupcake, two brownies, and a huge muffin that preceded my lunch. Laughter and sweet treats make the poisoning much easier.
The event that triggered the laughter was the blonde Lauren’s second application of skin cream, which is a line that only makes sense if you understand that before that happened, our mood was made merry by San explaining her theory of “how to get men to do housework” (bottom-line: ask them to do it because otherwise, left unasked, they won’t see what needs to be done) to an audience of appreciative women, including Lauren.
And this only makes sense if you know that Lauren had already applied a skin cream that was a divine vanilla and something else and that, for some reason, made us all think:Freshly baked cookies! We all complemented her on it and I innocently added to the universal “freshly baked cookies” idea that she should wear it when she asks Steve to do those household chores. “You know,” I said, “that reward thing.”
And this comment only makes sense if you understand that during lunch San and Lauren and Monica and Gerri and Jan all were engaged in a “man discussion” in the chemo prep room that I was not privy to, but at least part of it had something to do with Steve not doing something involving household chores Lauren thought he should just do “because it is common sense.” Men don’t have that particular form of common sense. Hence, the Supreme Bunny Being’s “advice on men” session and after it, my team of great oncology nurses and lovely wife all returned to the Room of Orange Chairs with big knowing smiles and gendered laughter, and maybe that was, at least for them, what triggered an afternoon of what can only be described as fun while being poisoned.
I have been silent on my blog for the past week for many good reasons: I’ve been feeling really good (a result of not taking the white count booster shot) and when I feel really good there is often less to say and more to do; part of the “more to do” has been recording audio lectures and preparing powerpoints and posting readings and URLs for my online class and part of it has been hanging out with San’s folks, who are happily ensconced in a rental house just down the street; and because I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to write for this post.
I haven’t written about “chemo anxiety.” I haven’t written about it because, like chemo treatments, the anxiety has been cumulative, which is to say that over time it has moved from a low-level anxiousness to a more pronounced level of dread about the next treatment. Before I go further into this subject, let me say that I’m not basing my conclusions on a scientific study so the specifics of this condition are not generalizable although I do think they are fairly common among cancer patients given what I’ve heard and witnessed at the clinic. And I do know that “chemo anxiety” affects people differently.
This week I have been encouraged to consider the most existential of questions: what is this life for?
Without revealing details of those triggering events – all of them happy – events that if recalled in detail would once again make me tear up, let me just say that I have been deeply honored and even more deeply humbled to receive gifts of visits, words, original music, email hugs, and virtual love from people whose lives I’ve somehow influenced or otherwise positively affected.
I say this not because I want to underscore what a fine fellow I’ve been. Instead, I want to acknowledge what I have learned from them: that a rich and meaningful life is one in which we contribute to others and accept with gratitude what they give back to us, help them achieve understandings, goals, and pleasure in their lives and in so doing see clearly how such cooperation allows us to achieve our own. It is a relational life lesson and perhaps one of life’s most important lessons.
So in the spirit of musing publicly over “the Big It” question (i.e., what is this life for) within the context of relationships with others, I offer the following fragments. Read one way they provide a reflection on how answers to that question may change over time. Read another way they show that such reflections are timeless. See what you think …