(Kris Kristofferson reference)
I was diagnosed with cancer in early September of 2005. I bring that up only because in the time since that diagnosis I have been around a lot of cancer survivors either in waiting rooms or online and have found them to be some tough customers. If you have not experienced cancer, I am here to inform you that survivors generally do not have much tolerance for your brand of expertise regarding the subject.
It is one thing to treat cancer, and it is quite another to experience it. It is, in fact, one thing to care for a cancer survivor, and yet another to be one. The differences are truly incomparable, and there are no words that can bridge the chasm between having and caring.
That is not to say that having cancer is easier than caring for someone who has cancer. Oh no, not by any means. Given the choice, I would prefer to be the one with the cancer, as you will see if you continue reading. Still, there is nothing quite like being told you have cancer.
I was diagnosed with what the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the doctors who eventually owned most of my soul refer to as head and neck cancer. Simply put, I had a bump on my tongue that turned out to be cancerous.
Cancer, you will discover, if you do not already know, is not as simple as that. A bump on the tongue is merely the beginning, as any woman who has been told that she has ‘an interesting spot’ in her breast can tell you, as any man who has been advised that ‘they want to take you in for additional tests regarding your right lung’ can affirm. Cancer is not simple.
My simple cancer started with what I described to my family doctor as a sore throat. He took a look (and bear in mind that, ironically enough, I was a well-known gagger, unable to tolerate Popsicle sticks shoved down my throat, for one thing) and advised that I had a sore throat. He prescribed medicine.
I was to take this antibiotic for a week, three times a day, and I may have, and I may have slipped now and then. I am a man. I do not mean to come across as sexist here but I think that men are less prone to take their medications as prescribed, and my wife, who is a nurse, insists that this is so.
I went another week without bothering to contact my doctor, hoping that the sore throat would disappear on its own, since the antibiotic didn;t work. That is not unique to me. Again, it seems to be the kind of thinking that men indulge in from time to time.
I finally went back to my family doctor, and he had another look, and he prescribed what was presumably a stronger antibiotic. At the same time, he made an appointment for me with an Ear/Nose/Throat doctor (commonly referred to as an ENT, like something out of Tolkein) for some time in October, in the event the sore throat had not disappeared.
All of this happened between July and August of 2005. On the first Friday of September, and I only remember because the football team of the college I attended long ago was playing their first game of the season the next day, I called my doctor in the late morning and told him that I had a bump on my tongue, that it hurt like h*ll, and that I couldn’t, in fact, eat the night before.
The night before, by the way, my wife made steak with mushrooms and onions, along with scalloped potatoes and green beans. There was bread. I like to imagine that it was garlic bread, although I suspect it was really Wonder Bread. Still, it was a meal fit for a king. And I could not eat it. Or, I thought I could not eat it. With what I know now, I would advise that it was the last meal I every truly ate in the way that others eat.
On that Friday, as I mentioned, I called my doctor and told him about the bump and the fact that I was really hungry, and he set aside a time in his busy day for me to come by to see him. I did.
Now, with knowledge of the bump on my tongue (what, am I supposed to be the expert here?), he stopped looking for redness in my throat, apparently, and concentrated on the bump on my tongue. In fairness to him, I am not sure the bump was there before Friday. I am not sure of anything. Like many a cancer survivor, I look back and wonder if there were signs or symptoms that I should have caught, that he should have been looking for. I do not know.
I know this: He said, ‘Joe, go home, pack your bags and head over to Bayside Hospital. I will meet you there.’
(There really is a Bayside Hospital. I am not making that up. You probably thought it was just in soap operas, but, no, it exists.)
He said he suspected an abscess, an infection, the implication being that it might explode at any moment and kill me dead in my tracks. Or so I interpreted his message.
My response (I’m a man, don’t forget): ‘Are you serious?’
His response (he’s a man, too): ‘Yes! Get your a** home and get some clothes and meet me at the hospital!’
My response (I’m still a man): ‘Okay.’
I didn’t do that, exactly. (I am a man.) I did drive home immediately. I did pack some things as quickly as I could. My wife will confirm that I can pack for a trip to the Arctic Circle faster than she can get ready for a trip to the mall. When I am going to the hospital, I seek clean underwear, and by that I mean underwear I have not yet worn (the only insurance against unsightly stripes and skid marks), and beyond that I just throw some things into a little leather Tote bag I have, knowing I will not wear them anyway.
I called my wife. And then I sat down and drank beer. I may have had a few beers and then called my wife. I am a bit foggy on that point. But I did call my wife, and I did drink some beer. I called my wife once. I drank a beer more than once. My wife said she would meet me at the hospital. The beer said it would be a good idea if it left me before I left the house. I understood. Parting is such sweet sorrow, but, from a practical perspective, the right thing to do. I had not developed an intimate relationship with any particular one of the beers anyway.
I think I knew that this was it. If you are a survivor, you know what I mean. There comes a moment when you just know the news is going to be bad and that the word ‘cancer’ is going to come up. Maybe I am alone in that, but I know it was true for me. I knew the abscess business was a ruse and that I was going to be facing the big C, the Beast. I knew it.
I arrived at the hospital and told them why I was there (actually, I don’t remember much of this, so live with my imagination for a moment). I recall being in a room. There was an old guy there. They told me he was an ENT (see above) and that he was going to do a biopsy on my tongue. I had issues with him due to his appearance. It seemed to me that they had perhaps dragged him from under a bridge somewhere. He was ancient, at the very least, and I wasn’t certain that he would be able to find my tongue even if it was pointed out to him: (‘No, no, those are his tonsils; there is his tongue!’)
It also struck me that maybe one of us was drunker than the other and that while I should be the winner in that contest, I was not certain that I was. I longed, for the first time in my life, for a policeman and a breathalyzer. Neither was to be had.
I remember family in the room. I am fairly certain that they gave me some drugs (not my family, but the medical professionals) because it was not long before I stopped remembering my family in the room.
At some time during the evening or early the next morning, it was decided that I had cancer.
I did not have an abscess, I did not have an infection, I did not, when you get down to it, have a sore throat. I had cancer.
They determine this by cutting out a bit of the tongue and by scraping away bits of the cheeks while you sleep, during what they refer to as a biopsy, incidentally. I awakened with what felt like a sock in my mouth, but attempting to chatter away nonetheless, no doubt due in greatest measure to the opiates still impacting my version of reality.
My family doctor came in to visit me, and, sitting on a small stool for some reason, he tried to give me the news. The truth is, we have known each other for a number of years and have been friends for longer than he has been my family doctor. I think the diagnosis was clogged up in his throat for that reason.
He said, ‘Joe, it was not an abscess. It was a…’, and seemed to get caught on the next word. So I finished for him, matter-of-factly: ‘…tumor?’
‘Yes,’ he confirmed. ‘And it’s…’ and again he seemed to be searching for the word. I said, ‘…malignant?’ And he nodded his head. I believe he was on the verge of tears, while the opiates took the edge off for me. In any event, I repeat, as some of us like to say:
I had fucking cancer. Perhaps equally true or more so and only time would tell, cancer had me.