A Date with Destiny

I suppose, given that Feb. 27, 2017 is the eight-year anniversary of my original nonsmall cell lung cancer, stage IV diagnosis, followed up almost immediately with my “13 month to two-year” prognosis, I should make mention of it. Not that I need any reminding, but perhaps you regular readers who don’t exactly know my history, might be curious as to how long I’ve been droning on about cancer. Strictly speaking, it was June 2009 when my first cancer-type (it was the diagnostic process, actually) column was published: “Dying to Find Out, Sort Of.” And I’ve been self-indulging myself ever since save for the odd occasion when my mind wanders elsewhere and I’m able to write outside the cancer bubble.

Which is probably a good thing, as is venting every week about the good, bad and the ugly, concerning my having cancer and learning how to live with it. Not that the content is particularly informative, factually, but it is an honest description of the anxieties and fears a patient experiences. Occasionally, I will include a few facts, but as a sports- and chocolate-person, medicine/science and my knowledge and understanding, and ability to explain them are mutually exclusive at best and an oxymoron at worst, with yours truly being the moron. What kind of moron you ask? As Curly Howard of The Three Stooges answered in a long-ago “two-reeler:” “Why? Are there more than one kind?”

Nonetheless, in spite of myself, life has gone on as I’m proud and extremely fortunate to say. As to where I am in the cancer-survivor scheme of things? Somewhere between slim and none. When I was first diagnosed, my oncologist said the survival rate for similarly staged patients (stage IV) after five years was in the low single digits (as in 1 to 2 percent). When my wife, Dina, asked him why aren’t there any parades for lung cancer survivors (as is so often the case with breast cancer survivors), he answered quite succinctly: “Because there aren’t any,” (survivors, that is). I appreciated his honesty and told him so. I was clueless however, as to what my immediate future would really be like. I would know soon enough as it was recommended that I start chemotherapy as soon as possible. I remember my brother, Richard, asking the oncologist what would he do if it was his brother diagnosed with lung cancer; his answer was to begin infusions without delay and so a week later, we began.

And so here I am, nearly eight years later, still minding my own business and sharing it with you all every week. My infusions now occur every five weeks, CT Scans every three months. My face-to-face appointments with my oncologist occur quarterly as well, a week or so after the scan to discuss the results. So far, mostly so good. Oh sure, I’ve had my moments (tumor growth, fluid build-up in both lungs followed by a week-long stay in the hospital, ongoing kidney concerns, no surgery though), but for the most part, I’ve been incredibly lucky (my oncologist calls me his “third miracle”).

As to what I’m doing to help myself and hurt the cancer? Not nothing. In addition to the standard fare offered by my oncologist, I have supplemented my treatment with a variety of non-Western alternatives, many of which I’ve mentioned in previous columns. Are they working? They’re not hurting, I can tell you that. Could I do more? Probably. Should I do more? Absolutely! Am I doing more or less than I used to? Less, I’m afraid. But as Popeye the Sailor Man said so often: “I ‘yam what I ‘yam.” And come Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, I’ll have “yamed” myself into an eight-year lung cancer survivor. Do I hear nine? Hopefully, I hear a lot more than that. From my pen to God’s ears.

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“Idiot” No More; Well, Sort Of

For over two and a half years now, since June ‘14 — according to my most recent invoice, “idiot” lights on the dashboard of my model year 2000, Honda Accord have warned me that all was not right with our back-up car. But due to intermittent use, amazing self-discipline on my part and little new evidence to the contrary, the Honda has maintained its performance, if you can even call it that. Soon after this last visit to my local mechanic had cleared the pre-2014 dashboard indicators, the “SRS” (seat belt restraint system) came on suggesting that something was once again rotten in Denmark, and Burtonsville, too. Nevertheless, with the ink barely dry on my credit card receipt, and with our second car not being a priority, I decided to let it live and let live and hope for the best. Approximately 32 months later, my hope has been realized. No repairs have been required in the interim. However, over that same time, multiple additional “warning” lights have come on: “brake lamp,” “maintenance due,” and just recently, the infamous/scourge “check-engine” light to where four lights are now illuminated. And though, to my credit, I have been able to endure and ignore their constant reminders; but when that fourth light, the “check-engine” light came on, I feared my benign neglect had finally come home to roost. So I bucked up, called my local mechanic, and made the arrangements to drop off the Honda. Then I waited for a more detailed assessment of the damage done. A few days later, I got the call. I’ll spare you the details since I can’t explain them anyway; but the repairs were going to cost around $1000, as good as could be expected for a 17 year-old car with 95,000 miles on the odometer.

However, what I am most excited about concerning this outcome is — yes ‘excited’ is the right word — that for the first time in years I won’t have to face down warning lights in my car and alarm bells in my head about what potential car trouble and expense I’ve been putting off and likely making worse. And most importantly, no longer having to exercise the inordinate self-control required to ignore these warning lights and not to be corrupted by their relentless — literally and figuratively — reminders. It’s almost as if I can face reality again, breathe normally and not feel under siege.

Having only driven the car barely two miles home since I picked it up from “Tony’s,” I can’t yet say driving is fun. However, I can admit that driving will be less irritating, will require less mental discipline and when I look down at my car’s dashboard, I will not long for a bygone era of dashboard neutrality. Once again, as if the Honda is under dealer warranty, I will not see any indicators/lights of something I’ve neglected to do or of repairs I’m unable to afford.

As much as I’d like to think I’m fairly welladjusted and know how to process and prioritize things in my life, having cancer does seem to alter these processes and priorities. And when something simple and/or unexpected happens in your life which allows you to regain your composure and equilibrium, it helps that much more to assimilate the cancer-related conditions, effects and challenges you’ve come to expect. Not that I thought much about this eventuality when I dropped off the car at “Tony’s,” but now, having not seen any lights, I feel unburdened, as if a weight has been taken off my shoulders and out of my head. Moreover, when you’re living in the cancer bubble, burdens expected — and otherwise — tend to pile up — and on — and when one is able to catch a break/brake along the way, the positive effect is disproportionate to reality. It means so much even though it may seem like so little. Whether it’s regaining some control, solving a non-cancer-related problem or crossing an item off a to-do list; living one’s life with as few distractions as possible, generally speaking, will likely result in some comfort and joy; not the movie, but the peace of mind.

Completely Off Topic

That topic not being cancer. The topic being candy, or rather the disappearance of candy, from my hiding place at home. The reason I’m even discussing/divulging this publicly is that I’ve been forced by circumstances beyond my control to already involve my wife, Dina, in the disappearance of said topic: my post-holiday purchase of 75-percent-off-the-regular-price of snack-size type candy, typically available the day after a holiday.

Before I proceed, let me provide a bit of context for some of you irregular readers: I love chocolate. I don’t just have a sweet tooth, I have sweet teeth. However, given certain realities/habits in my life, I almost always (unless times/circumstances are desperate) only buy these delicacies when the items are on sale and even more so when the items are both on sale and I have coupons. Now add into that mix an extra $5 off a $15 purchase — or a percentage off $20 or $30 store-specific coupon, and I’m spending pennies (almost literally) on the dollar. On these occasions — and Rebecca, you should probably stop reading — I load up. (‘Load up’ for a typical person might mean months. For yours truly, honestly, it means weeks, sometimes even days.)

Now when I bring this much volume into the house, my wife, Dina, need not know anything about it. Generally, I will stash the noncash in places where I’ll doubt she’ll look (and I’m not saying the oven; that’s an old Henny Youngman joke), and when I do indulge, it won’t be in her presence, nor will there be any sign that I’ve unwrapped anything.

One of my hiding places, which will now be changed, was downstairs in our cellar in a top drawer of an old bureau I use for collecting miscellaneous bank statements, credit card bills, insurance forms, etc., and for years, my candy and previously unmentioned consumables. On the particular day in question — a day now seared into my memory — as I am habitually wont to do, I went to my downstairs drawer to replenish my upstairs drawer (in yet another hiding place) and was shocked and awed to find my two remaining bags of Kisses and Rolos empty, both gutted like a fish, ripped along their sides with nary a wrapper to be seen, 40- 50 bite-size pieces gone.

My first reaction was of course to accuse my wife. Doing so however, would have exposed my secret: I buy candy and hide it (although, she probably knows it, and since I’m not exactly losing any weight … ). But what other cause/culprit could be behind such a dastardly deed? A break-in? No. A ghost who loves chocolate? (We do live in a 250-year-old house.) Mice? Squirrels? It’s possible. There are some animal-friendly access points under our foundation. And even though the bureau is flush up against a retaining wall/crawl space for critters, I did notice that the bureau drawer was open an inch or two. Barely enough access. Otherwise, there is no entry. But if critters were responsible, where are all the wrappers and/or feces or any other evidence of their transgression? There weren’t any. If the candy was indeed pilfered, it was “The Great Escape” of candy heists. Forced with this dilemma and daring-do, I was forced to confront my wife with these facts and ask if she in fact was responsible. She denied everything and blamed either a ghost or an animal. She was surprised, or so she claimed, at where I had hid the candy, not that I hid candy, so we weren’t breaking any new ground, but apparently, my secret had been safe.

It’s been a few weeks since this non-insurance loss, and there’s been no sign or evidence to indicate what happened to my chocolate. My wife seems to have forgotten the incident. As for me, I bought a 3.4-pound container of Kirkland-brand chocolate-covered raisins from Costco so my inventory is back where I want it to be. I just wish my Kisses and Rolos were back as well.

And So It Begins — Again

Thank God! Another three months, (13 weeks actually) of wedded-type bliss until my next scan scheduled for mid April. Save for four weeks of pre- and post-chemotherapy-infusion non-bliss in the interim when the effects of the before, during, after treatment will make me feel less like the person I will otherwise be — for the nine or so other weeks, I am indeed lucky to be “stable” and looking forward.

However, I will be off to a bit of a bumpy start as a result of the timing of my most recent chemotherapy infusion and its negative side effects coming so soon on the heels of the previous week’s positive scan news. Not that the negative overwhelms the positive in the slightest, it’s more that it slows down my progression from feeling abnormal to feeling normal; well, as much as one diagnosed and living with a “terminal” disease, non-small cell lung cancer, stage IV, can. Which, as you regular readers know, I’m generally able to do, except when there a blips, and for the next week, I’ll be “blipped.” Having considered the inevitable taste and eating issues I typically face post infusion, I spoke with a nutritionist this past week to see if I’ve been missing a boat somewhere. Unfortunately, other than remaining well-hydrated, it seems there’s very little I can do other than to endure the post-chemotherapy weak.

But of course, it’s the big picture (no tumor progression, no fluid build up) that matters most, not the small picture (the pre- and postscan anxiety and the post-chemotherapy eating issues). And of course, it’s nothing new. I’ve been through variations of this routine going on nearly eight years now, since the diagnostic process began on Jan. 1, 2009, when I first visited the Emergency Room. Pain in my rib cage had migrated from one side to the other and simultaneously I was having difficulty catching my breath. Then, even I knew, I needed some medical attention. Two and a half months later after the usual schedule of tests, interpretations and more tests, I received my diagnosis with which you are all so familiar.

Amazingly, life has gone on and fallen into a sort of routine. The most recent one, going back approximately three and a half years, began with my first and only hospitalization followed up a month or so later with the beginning of my Alimta infusion. For the most part, the infusion/experience has been quite manageable, and according to my oncologist, “great.” So “great,” in fact, that we have been extending the interval of my infusions from three weeks originally to four weeks to four/five weeks to now infusing forward, every five weeks. This will give my body more time to recuperate between chemotherapy and give me more quality-weeks of life (always a concern of my oncologist); minimizing eating and anxiety issues.

For the moment, we’re keeping the scan schedule to every three months. As to our concern about trying to limit the exposure to radiation — per scan; as my oncologist sort of joked, it’s the toxins from the chemotherapy that are more harmful (it’s akin to the line from the movie “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” when Paul Newman snickered at Robert Redford’s concern about not being able to swim — should they in fact jump off the cliff into the raging river below, to escape Joe Lefors and the Indian tracker, Lord Baltimore: “Swim? Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.”)

So by the time you all are reading this column, Thursday-ish, I’ll be mostly back to eating normally — well, normal for me. It’s a routine I’ve become accustomed to and one with which I can live, live being the operable word. Certainly not a life without some hardships and difficulties, but still a life worth living; with some weeks harder than others; this week certainly being one of them. It won’t be pretty but soon enough it will have passed with clear sailing ahead for the next four weeks until you-know-what.