I have cancer and I’m bizarrely calm about it. I’m usually wound pretty tight and I don’t like interruptions. Last year a simple running injury almost ended me. I was angry and I raged about it endlessly. Now I face chemotherapy and surgery with peace and equanimity. This doesn’t make sense.
I have esophageal cancer with a side of stomach cancer, or stomach cancer with a side of esophageal cancer, depending on how you look at it. Either way, this is a ridiculous turn of events and just the sort of thing that would normally send me right up a tree. I’m mystified by my state of mind and so I’m going to write about it.
After I received the diagnosis, my first question was how long this was going to take. I wasn’t tapping my watch in impatience, but I’m sure I sounded like some peevish lout waiting for his extra-hot triple-foam latte.
“About six months,” the doctor said, “if everything goes well.” This means four rounds of chemotherapy, surgery and then another four rounds of chemotherapy. “We caught it early,” he continued, “but the cancer is far along, and it’s an aggressive one.”
“So this is serious?” I asked in all seriousness.
He said that it was, and he’s been plain-spoken and frank with me ever since. I love him for that.
That conversation came two weeks after my 17-year relationship ended, and three months after I retired. The relationship ended amicably but I am devastated by its passing. Retirement has left me with a yawning existential dread not unlike the nausea that accompanies chemotherapy. The soundtrack to all of this is tinnitus that started six months before my diagnosis; the persistent whine of a thousand tiny dentist drills boring into my brain. I joke that the cancer is the fourth-worst thing happening now.
Maybe this calm is a cunning defense mechanism to stop me from sliding into a black hole of despair. Maybe years of yoga are paying new dividends and nirvana is edging into view.
The morning the doctor relayed the details of the surgery. I heard him speaking but no facts stuck. I understood surgery would be required to remove the tumour, but that seemed paltry and circumscribed, like the cracked tooth I’d had extracted the week before (it was a banner month!). But here were the words “remove” and “esophagus” and “stomach” combined in one sentence. Impossible folly! Something surreal rolled in absurdity, smothered in ridiculousness and sprinkled with slivered almonds.
As I sauntered home, still strangely calm, I had more important business to attend to: getting a drink and thinking of more titles for my writing. Sure, I was calm, but I just found out I had cancer and getting a drink seemed like a reasonable thing to do. At some point during the sousing that followed, I found a monitoring electrode still clinging to my chest like a hungry barnacle. I found another on my sternum and guffawed too loudly at the thought of walking into a bar festooned with electrodes and wearing a medical admissions armband. It was funny, and I considered calling this writing “Tumour Humour.” That might be a stretch. “My Cancer Summer” occurred to me but that sounds like an unnecessary twist on a Young Adult romance.
The calm lasted two weeks until another meeting with Dr. Frank Plainspeaking. I think he repeated much of what he’d said the first time, but I was still shocked and surprised. The room was bright with sunshine as I sat, amazed and appalled, while we spoke at length and I somehow held my composure. Later I listened with the placid intensity of a child at story time as the chemotherapy nurse explained the routine. I smiled and nodded but beneath the calm sea of conversation, there swirled a tide of currents as reality set in. The future I had imagined (remaining whole) and the future before me (proceeding without an organ or two) began to roil.
I think this is what we call “processing” and once I got outside, my process was to burst into tears. There followed a few days of gulp crying, phone sobbing and street weeping. There was also a lot of expensive ice cream, many pieces of carrot cake and, of course, the loving support of my friends and family. And then it was over. I emerged again on a plane of tranquillity and peace. I don’t know what mental gymnastics took place, but the sea calmed, and the currents flowed together.
Sometimes I linger in the hospital where I am receiving treatment. There are older, frail people, people with bandaged limbs and eyes, people stricken with fear and people who have to navigate the system alone. I’m mobile, I’m puckish and I’m mostly symptom-free. I’m also not in medieval times about which I had to ask one of the other doctors: “If these were medieval times, would I choke or starve?” Kudos to him for not batting an eye before telling me I’d likely bleed to death. Good to know!
All humans have their pains to bear. We all live with fear, disappointment, and doubt. It is the human condition. We can’t quantify or compare burdens, but some of us definitely have it worse than others. So I’ve decided to refer to this text as “Worse Things Have Happened to Nicer People.” It’s a funny quip I’ve often used. Is this payback for all the times I said it? Maybe not but it bears consideration, and it’s important to remember.
I’ve made it through the first four rounds of chemotherapy, and the surgery, and so far, so good. I vote a solid four out of 10 on Yelp but at least I now have it in perspective and somehow that has made it all okay.
Barry Danilowitz lives in Toronto.