Weakened Wherewithal

Say that three times quickly. Heck, say it one-time slowly. And then welcome to my whirled: the world of cancer treatment and survival.. A ‘whirled’ in which, eight years and nearly eight months post diagnosis, I continue to live, breathe and write.

Occasionally it happens, as it is happening now, that some of the most excruciating demands of being a cancer patient, occur simultaneously – or a reasonable facsimile there of. For me that means 24-hour urine collection, pre-chemotherapy lab work, chemotherapy infusion, CT Scan and then the appointment with my oncologist to discuss all the results; occurring over 13 days – with intermittent days off for good behavior.

Typically; meaning every minute, every hour, every day, every week, etc., maybe not every second, I am thinking about cancer; though I wouldn’t say I’m preoccupied (others might). And of course, it’s certainly understandable and reasonable to do so when every day over a fortnight, you are waiting – as we say in the salesmen world, ” for the other shoe to drop.” Having endured this cycle over the last eight and a half years with varying regularity, I can honestly say that whatever symptoms have manifested themselves – or not, have never provided any consistent assurance that my life/life expectancy had not changed for the worse. It’s not until the appointment with my oncologist occurs – or sooner if he emails me the scan results, that I learn the facts of my case. All of that being said, as my friend Frank has often said to me: “You’re in pretty good shape for the shape you’re in.” Don’t I know it.

However, yes there’s always a ‘however’ in the cancer-patient-surviving-against-all-odds ‘whirled,’ there are no guarantees. In fact, there are only two guarantees: death and taxes. The former is way too close for comfort and the latter, I’m already taxed to the hilt, emotionally. Somehow, I have to get through because “the alternative is gloomy” to quote Dr. Mobley, the doctor in Miles City who treated Augustus McCray in the epic miniseries, “Lonesome Dove.” And so I try not to be gloomy.

However, there’s that word again, circumstances/schedules randomly bring down the weight – and wait of my ‘whirled.’ These 13 days can never pass quickly enough. But that presumes a good result, which one would want to know as soon as possible. But what of a bad result, leading to an exponential increase in anxiety – and fear, ultimately leading to a treatment unknown. That I might not want to know so soon. Not that not knowing serves any point or helps coordinate the next treatment plan, I’m more afraid of hearing something I haven’t heard much of since February, 2009. To quote my late mother quoting somebody: “No one gets out of this life alive.”

That of course is the point of this column, and the effect of having all this cancer stuff happen at the same time. I can take it, generally; as my late father used to say: “KB, I have confidence in you. You have broad shoulders.” Nevertheless, I worry about the figurative straw breaking my emotional back. Cancer can do that. It did it to my mother-in-law, Peggy, where over a few days the situation went from bad to worse to finally, the worst.

Somehow, I have to compartmentalize all this negative energy and focus on the positive. And that positive turns out to be an early email from my oncologist basically saying that my lung cancer remains stable. Now we can go to my appointment on Monday “unencumbered,” to once gain quote my late father. The pressure is semi off. Talk about relief. Now maybe I can relax and try not to think about my next infusion, my next scan and my next appointment with the oncologist. There’s no harm in trying, right?


“Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey”

So I’ve been told mnemonically for years. But when you’re home and automotive-repair challenged as I am, everything is much easier said than done, especially when the mnemonic device is easier to handle/figure out than whatever tool and/or schematic is necessary/advisable for the at-home/in-driveway repair. (We don’t have a garage, or much of a basement for that matter. It’s more of a cellar, actually. In fact, I call it “the dug out,” so lack of spatial accommodations can exacerbate the problem)

And that’s sort of how I feel whenever I attempt a home/car-owner-type repair. Soon after I organize whatever thoughts and tools I guess I might need: within minutes of the initial effort, I will have likely complicated the repair and will be forced to dig myself out, sometimes literally. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say, I am a man of my word and that word is disaster. To invoke the great and often-quoted Dirty Harry

: “A man’s got to know his limitations,” (Magnum Force, 1973), and believe me, I do.

Granted, replacing bulbs in my house, as written in the final paragraph of last week’s column: “What To ‘Ware,” ranks pretty low on the home owner’s list of honey-can-you-do?. Nevertheless, challenges do present themselves, especially when height and a ladder – or a step stool, with no spotter, are involved. And when I’m looking up with arms outstretched attacking the problem: light fixture from multiple angles, sometimes, when I place my hand on the bulb, I begin to lose my orientation and am unsure where’s ‘Righty and where’s ‘Lefty.’ And even though I always remember ‘Tighty and ‘Loosey,’ when ‘Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey’ doesn’t immediately bring results, I tend to lose patience – and confidence, and slowly retreat to lower ground to reassess.

Unfortunately, there’s no one to call. I mean, when you fail at the most basic and fundamental responsibility a home/car owner has, it’s difficult, even for someone with as little ego as me, to admit abject failure. Repairing a toilet, installing light fixtures and/or ceiling fans; sawing, sanding, measuring, leveling and drilling; lifting, balancing and carrying; and anything else involving plumbing, electrifying; and even hammering and screwing in general, are tasks I don’t mind asking and/or paying for. Having been down this road many times before, I know it’s a path that won’t lead to my redemption.

So not wanting to make a bad situation worse, or create a problem where one or two previously didn’t exist, I have to employ the simplest of solutions. And what’s simpler than “a pithy observation that contains a general truth:” an aphorism (Dictionary. com), an aid to one’s lack of memory and ability to perform even the most basic of tasks, particularly as it pertains to a home owner: bulb replacement.

Not that this inability is at all defensible. It’s not. It’s totally indefensible and one whose defense is not all explainable by the most offensive of terms: cancer. Which as you regular readers know has been the bane of my existence going back to late Feb., 2009. That’s when my Internal Medicine doctor called me at work to share the results of my previous week’s surgical biopsy. His suggestion was that we met in his office to discuss the results. I shook my head in disbelief. If he wants to meet me in person, the results must be bad, I thought. Otherwise, he’d just tell me, right? I asked him to hold on as I found a private office for us to talk (me to react) and braced myself. He told me the growth was malignant and suggested I see an oncologist as soon as possible. An appointment was set for the following Thursday.

Much has changed in my life ever since that fateful day, but not as it concerns this home/car owner’s inability to handle the most mundane tasks. Might haven actually gotten worse. As for “the cancer,” as “Forrest, Forrest Gump” described the cause of his mother’s death, not so bad. I am alive and reasonably well, eight years and nearly two months out, six years plus past the end date of my original “13 month to two year” prognosis. Of that I’m proud. As for the home and car repair deficiencies, I could care less. I have to admit though, it is laughable – and pathetic.

What To “Ware?”

Recently I received a very generous offer in the mail: a $10 gift certificate from my local hardware store acknowledging my upcoming/now passed birthday. From what I could read, there was no minimum purchase, no exclusions and no small-type print, just a reasonable expiration date: October 31st, approximately six weeks out from the day I received this unexpected gift. More than enough time, one would imagine.

The only problem: what am I going to get at the hardware store, other than the employees’ pity about how little I know about so much? Most of the time when I’m in a hardware store (typically I’m not browsing, unlike the cookie aisle at the supermarket), I’m attempting to solve a problem I have at home for which I have very little experience and extremely poor instincts at rectifying. Not only do I rarely know what I’m talking about, I don’t even know the proper questions to ask to enable/assist the employee in figuring what the heck my problem actually is – other than me, that is.

I’m very much out of my element in a hardware store. A fish out of water doesn’t begin to describe my situation. Tevye, from “Fiddler on the Roof” in speaking to his daughter, Chava, about marrying outside the faith came close: “a bird may love a fish, but where would they build a home together?” Build a home? I have enough difficulty maintaining one that’s already built.

When I’m asked, or when I offer it, usually I say: ” I know two things: sports and chocolate.” I guess I could also add being a cancer patient/survivor, but I don’t want to redirect a perfectly innocent conversation into a totally different direction: me and my druthers. Although, my situation has been publicly consumed in the Connection Newspapers going on eight and half years; in person, I try to not let it be the first or even second thing that comes out of my mouth. And I never initiate, though I’m happy to respond if asked. Generally speaking, I’d rather it not be about me and my cancer. As my mother used to say “It’s enough already.”

But none of this comes up in a hardware store. In fact, the only thing that comes up is my Adam’s Apple as I sheepishly swallow and admit how incapable I am as a homeowner/do-it-yourselfer and how much help I need to do almost anything. At least the parking is free so it’s not a total loss.

As you might imagine, this situation doesn’t exactly lead to an easy conversation or a satisfying outcome. Quite the contrary. I know one thing for sure however, if left to my own devices, either I will cause additional and costly damage in my crude attempt to self-repair, or I will hurt myself in the process. And waste money as well, as the end of the day will likely find me and the problem no closer to a resolution than we were at the beginning of the day. As William Shakespeare might have written: it will be much ado about nothing as nothing much will have been done. In these recurring circumstances, all I can hope for is a safe landing, so to speak, one in which, as pilots often joke: I can walk away uninjured.

Given that I’m a tool twit and have failed miserably at homeowner 101, what then could I possibly buy at the hardware store with my gift certificate? I just got an idea: lightbulbs. I couldn’t possibly screw that up, could I? I mean, they’re supposed to be screwed up – into the socket, right? What could be more natural for me? One last question though: when I place the bulb into the socket, do I screw them to the right or to the left?

A Question Which Begs What Answer

Twice recently, in print, I have been asked the same question. Once on an evaluation of a previous doctor appointment, and within the last week, on a pre-registration form for an oral surgeon. The question: “How is your health?” “Excellent.” “Good.” Fair.” “Poor.” The two times I saw this question, I snickered. I mean, I have cancer: Stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer in fact, the terminal kind. And even though I’ve lived way beyond my original “13 month to two-year” prognosis, (eight and a half years and counting, always counting), I’m still undergoing treatment. I see my oncologist every three months. I’m not in remission. My tumors, so far as I’ve  been told, are not necrotic (dead). I’m still scheduling CT Scans, brain MRIs and PET Scans quarterly, semi-annually and yearly, respectively. And while amazingly thrilled to be still alive, my fate turns on the results of any one of these diagnostic scans so I wonder aloud: how is my health?

In the two most recent opportunities (I’ve had others) to answer this question, I have erred on the side of reality (my reality) and answered “Poor.” Whether I’m up and about or down and out, cancer is sort of the definition of ‘poor,’ isn’t it? Let’s be honest: who wants to receive a  diagnosis of cancer, regardless of type and/or stage. Moreover, it’s hardly the gift that keeps on giving. Quite the opposite. It’s like the houseguest who never leaves. It’s always there and the more it’s around, the worse it’s likely to get.

As much as one tries, a cancer diagnosis is hard to forget. Whether you’re still undergoing treatment as I am, or have been told you’re cancer-free/in remission/N.E.D. (no evidence of disease), the prospect of a life unaltered by the experience is unrealistic, especially so when questions are asked pertaining to your health. It’s not as if you become stigmatized by your cancer diagnosis and/or medical history, but you do become a lifetime member of a club you’d rather not have joined (the more serious and exact opposite of a feeling expressed by Groucho Marx when he so famously joked that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member). If only it were that simple – and funny.

A straight forward question about one’s health which requires a thoughtful and honest answer. Yet, an answer which somehow must, in my opinion, educate the asker. I’m not a normal respondent (no comments from the peanut gallery). I’m a cancer patient/survivor. Presumably, my immune system is somewhat compromised. What’s good for the goose is probably not good for this gander. My life expectancy is all fouled up. Cancer is likely in control. As much as I want to delude myself otherwise, the writing, if not necessarily on the walls, is certainly in multiple books and journals. And not that there aren’t exceptions to every rule (my survival is proof of that), generally speaking, a cancer diagnosis “spells trouble with a capital ‘T,'” if I may invoke the late actor, Robert Preston, from his career-defining role as Harold Hill in the 1962 movie, “The Music Man.” Still, life is going on, and not too badly, I may add. But on any given day … .

I suppose the solution then is an asterisk. But how does one add an asterisk to a standardized form. And given the evolving nature of our almost-entirely inhumane (non-human) electronic contact, where does one go/what does one say, to separate and be heard. I want to be treated equally, but as a cancer patient, I’m not. I’m different. If there’s a box for that, I’ll gladly check it. I want the best outcome, naturally. But not giving me the opportunity to properly define myself/my circumstances doesn’t help either one of us. And does even less for the next respondent.