something personal


Riiiiing! Riiiiing!

It was our phone sounding at 7:30 in the morning last June 10th. [those of you who are familiar with Barry's and my sleeping schedule will understand just how much that call violated all reasonable decorum in this household] When I picked up the receiver the short message I heard was, "Would you mind if we cancelled your radiation lab appointment for 2 o'clock today?" After answering that it would be no problem, I managed to ask my oncologist's office, "why?" [not why call at 7:30 am, which is what I should have asked first, but why cancel]

[A LITTLE BIT OF BACKGROUND: I was scheduled to begin radiation treatments that afternoon to combat a serious prostate cancer diagnosed early in April. I had already managed to make my peace with the prescribed regimen, but the message nevertheless registered as something of a last-minute reprieve, even better than hearing that classes had been cancelled for the next day when you had not done the assigned homework.]

The nurse's answer to my question was, under the special, very high-tech and critical circumstances of the procedure involved, and one which has to be precisely directed at an extremely important part of the body's plumbing apparatus, not a little disturbing. Her explanation: "We're having mechanical problems with the machine."

Umm, maybe it was actually a good thing that I wasn't fully awake.

In any event, later that day I was given the all clear signal, and I eventually went off to go under the big zapper - on the following day. I was in and out in under a half hour, and I didn't feel a thing. I went back every weekday for a total of five weeks and then took a break for three more (squeezing in a trip to the West Coast) before going into the hospital for an outpatient procedure during which radiated "seeds" were implanted in my prostate.

I'll spare the details, but mine is a serious case, because of the growth's size, and beyond serious consideration of a cancer removal operation. There are major, not easily measured, risks in the radiation treatments, and no one knows at this point what are my chances of escaping from the ultimate capital sentence. But from the evidence available this thing sounds pretty pokey to me. I believe most men die of something else before this cancer gets them, and I still expect, as I have for years, that I'm more likely to be shot by a road-raging driver than I am to die in bed.

I feel fine, and my head seems to be alright. I'm a wee bit distracted, but I don't think I'm really depressed. Actually the worst seemed to be over once I had decided on the treatment regimen.

Barry's been great, of course. His welfare will always be my biggest concern.

I was initially reluctant to tell many people about this thing. I wanted to wait until I knew more about what was going on, and at first it barely went beyond my immediate family. At this point however (9 weeks after the implant procedure and 7 months after a diagnosis) although there are already probably too many friends who have had to listen to my all-too-complete response when they ask, "so how was your summer?," I'm now ready to visit it upon the blog world.

Those who regularly look at the site know that I've generally kept most of myself out of it until now. It's always been about other stuff, and it's definitely not a journal. I decided to make at least one exception and to write this post months ago because I thought it might help some people (and incidently give me an opportunity to mention the success story of my long-term seropositive status at the same time). I've regularly put it off since, mostly because I thought it would be such a chore to get it right, that is, to not sound too self-indulgent and to avoid any morbidity.

I don't understand morbid.

If I had not been really blown away by the original cancer diagnosis last spring, it was largely because I'd had to deal with virtual or almost-death sentences several times before, and I'd managed to get past each one. I see no reason to imagine this thing going any differently.

There's this history.

When I was 17 I was in a car accident which two of my best friends did not survive; rescuers didn't find me in the burning car at first, and once I was deposited in the emergency room hallway I was given "last rites." Thanks to the excellence of a great little hospital I was able to leave its care a month later, even if encumbered by a full body brace and crutches.

Years passed and in 1989, at my regular doctor's casual suggestion, I decided to take a blood test for HIV disease. He called me at the office a week later and quite matter-of-factly told me it came up positive. At that moment the only thing shielding an uptight corporation from seeing my pretty dramatic response to a short phone message were the opaque walls of my private office; I left for the day soon after in order to share the news with a very wonderful friend. Today, 20 or 25 years after being infected, I remain asymptomatic; I know I'm one of the very fortunate ones. My doctor himself didn't make it.

Five years ago just outside my front door I was assaulted from behind by an irate SUV driver. After he had nearly run over myself and an elderly blind neighbor crossing with the light, I had slapped his truck's rear end with the palm of my hand. I went to the emergency room for immediate care and an x-ray - just in case; the diagnosis for serious injury was an all clear, but I was shocked to be told that, by the way, there was a mysterious growth in my right lung. Months later, after a major operation and a couple of extraordinarily painful complications, I had learned that the tumor was benign but that they weren't going to replace the damn rib.

I think I'm very likely to shake this latest threat to my plans for a slightly cranky old age, just as I have all of the others so far.

Since I now have a few more years under my belt than I did in 1989, I'll admit that I'm now a little more comfortable when I think about my mother's immediate and unsentimental response that year after I told her I had the AIDS virus: "Well, you've had a good life."* Okay, I can go along with the "good" part, but I'm still not ready to call it a complete life.

Still just a little too cranky.

* Eighty-two at the time and with almost 8 more years to live, she had instantly changed the direction, if not the subject, of our converstion; maybe that's what she was hoping to do, maybe she thought that would be a good thing and maybe it was.

[image by Gahan Wilson from the New Yorker]

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Good luck.

What a magnificent attitude. Cheers that you didn't accept ideas of your possible demise. Good wishes for a speedy recovery from an almost old, feisty lady.

James, thank you for sharing this with us.

Although I know it's not your habit to write about yourself on this blog, I'm sure most of your readers (me included) come here looking for James, and feel they know James, even if only by reading between the lines. Your decision to discuss this personal experience only confirms that.

Hang in there.

I'll be thinking of you, and wishing positive thoughts at you for an all clear!

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Published on October 12, 2004 5:11 PM.

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