How Do I Know Then What I Don’t Know Now?

Recently I went online to book a trip to Topeka, Ks. to meet our new niece, Sabella Rey. I went to Trivago for the hotel reservations and Expedia for the plane/rental car reservations. That’s what I’m supposed to do, right? The process seemed simple enough and without too-much further adieu, I was able to make all the arrangements, including renting a car for the four days we’d need one. And I even booked my father-in-law’s hotel reservations as well, almost as if I knew what I was doing. Subsequently, I received all my email confirmations indicating that I had in fact succeeded in one of my least favorite endeavors: computing my way to safe and secure travel plans.

For a few days, especially after receiving the site’s emails and reviewing them for accuracy, I thought all was right in my travel-plan’s world. Then I started receiving multiple emails and pop-up ads from sites promoting their hotel and flight reservations/rates. Expedia, the site on which I made my plane reservations began bombarding me with flight and rental car deals. Trivago, the site on which I made our hotel reservations, began bombarding me with hotel and rental car deals. None of which I needed. All of which had been completed when I went on their sites originally and made my hotel, flight and car rental reservations.

Given the way in which the Internet has changed the world and provided computerized access to almost everything, I was only slightly surprised by the bombardment. I’m clear on the concept, just not confident in the process. Nevertheless, I realize there really isn’t any alternative these days to researching goods and services — and prices. My dilemma arose after the fact when I received all these offers on the exact goods and services I had ALREADY booked. What had I done, and how much extra money — and hassle had I done doing it?

I thought I was solving a problem (travel plans which involved coordinating our flight arrival in Kansas City from Baltimore, with my father-in-law’s flight arrival from New York City), not creating one. After receiving all these offers and inducements from Expedia, Trivago and others, I’m now wondering if I missed an opportunity to simplify our travel plans and spend less for having done so? Obviously, I don’t have an answer since I never clicked through the ads/opened the emails to see what the solicitation was all about. I didn’t have the patience and besides, certainly concerning the airlines, wouldn’t there be penalties for changing/canceling a flight? And what about my father-in-law’s airline reservations? It was all too much to juggle so I stood pat. Soon, the ads and emails slowed down to a trickle and I was no longer remained — regularly, about my presumptive incompetence.

But I’m thinking about the next trip now, and perhaps that was the point. Maybe there is a better way to minimize travel expenses and maximize benefits? But how do I accomplish that, really? It’s not like I can fake hotel/plane/car rental reservations in hopes that the site’s artificial intelligence will think I’m still a potential buyer rather than one who’s already bought. What good would that do? The solicitations are designed for current action not for a definite maybe sometime in the future, aren’t they?

I’m certainly more aware now of how the process sort of works. But I’m less certain how I could actually change my behavior in order to become less of a victim and more of a beneficiary. I imagine it has to do with making my computer more of a friend, which doesn’t interest me in the least. Of course, I want to pay less for my travel plans, but I’m not sure if the cost of doing business that way is worth the pain and suffering it inevitably will cause.

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I Can’t Forget What I Don’t Remember

I wouldn’t say I’m forgetting things, but according to my wife, Dina, I certainly don’t seem to be remembering them, at least as she does. Naturally, this “misremembering” could be attributed to the condition which likely affects many couples who have been over hill, over dale and over many dusty trails in nearly 39 years of marriage, as we have. Nevertheless, identifying the condition doesn’t soothe the savage beast. Another possible/probable explanation is the ever-unpopular, recently-confirmed actual occurrence common to many cancer patients receiving chemotherapy: “chemo brain.”

Even though I’m a veteran of these cancer/chemo wars apparently doesn’t make me immune to its harmful effects. Quite the contrary in fact. Survival is wonderful, but yearslong treatment does take its toll. And for a cancer patient now in his ninth consecutive year of treatment, the bell tolls for me. Fortunately, I can still hear the bell. The question is: will I remember having heard it? I say, absolutely! My wife says: not so fast.

All kidding aside, I can see this difference of opinion becoming a problem. At present, I’m not the least bit (well, maybe a little bit, otherwise; why would I be droning on about it?) concerned about a few of our memories fading since I don’t believe that they have. I’m inclined to invoke an opposite-George Costanza here and say it’s her, not me. Not surprisingly, my wife will play the part of one of George’s ex-girlfriends and say it’s definitely me. So what else is new? Nothing. The question/worry is: will this become a chronic problem?

Which in a way is what all us heretofore “terminal” cancer patients want. Obviously, a cure for what ails me/others similarly diagnosed would be ideal, but the more realistic scenario is that one day, cancer will treated as a chronic condition, like diabetes, not a terminal disease as my stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer was originally characterized by my oncologist on Feb. 27, 2009 (you bet I remember that date!). Oh yes, that is a date that will live in infamy. Unlike Pearl Harbor, however, where thousands died, and unlike the message delivered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt that same day, when the sober news was first heard by a nation then at war, only three people heard what my oncologist said to me that day, and only my life was at stake, though certainly my wife, Dina and my brother, Richard were impacted, even though they weren’t he ones receiving a grim prognosis.

As Dina and I regularly reminisce about our life together, we regularly have different recollections. She’s entitled. I’m entitled. There might be a right. There might be a wrong. But without Warner Wolf around to “go to the videotape,” the chance that we’ll remember a shared memory similarly or at all considering there’s now almost four decades worth of stuff is unrealistic, isn’t it? I mean, we’re different people. We process and store information differently. In fact, I might say, it’s likely a miracle if we did actually remember, identically, people, place and things.

The older one gets, the greater the cumulative information in our brains and apparently, the less chemical/muscular ability we have to access/retrieve all that information. Not remembering or remembering differently is nothing more than the passage of time rearing its ugly head. Now combine that inevitability with the toxicity of chemotherapy — and God knows what else my cancer is affecting, and what you have here is a sitting duck. If I were to believe totally in this inevitability or in my wife’s assessment, I would say there’s disintegrating hope for me. But I don’t. I believe in the power of me. I believe in the power of positive thinking and in always seeing the bright side — and joking/laughing about all of it. So what if I don’t remember or remember differently, it probably wasn’t worth remembering anyway.

“Literatti”

A not-so-necessarily fashionable set of people involved in the care and feeding of cats; more specifically, the purchase, cleaning, replenishing and discarding of their leavings/litter.

At present, and going on for nearly five years now, we live with five indoor cats: brothers Biscuit and Chino, siblings Andrew and Sloane, and one single female named Twinkle. Having lost our previous cat, Smokey, prematurely to outside effects: cancer at age 10, we decided on our next feline go ‘round, that we would not let them out. It’s much healthier for the cat, we were told, and so as our current brood grew, we committed to keeping them all inside. And inside cats, like Forrest Gump in The White House, have to go. And if their box/boxes are not cleaned and refreshed regularly, you might not be so happy about where they do go. Therefore, to avoid the inevitable, we are extremely litter centric. Although we may not have the requisite number of boxes available for their disposal (the unofficial mandate is one box per cat), nevertheless, we try to be extra busy with the task at hand. After years of this arrangement, the cats and our house seem none the worse for wear. It’s not exactly a small price to pay (litter is not inexpensive and its weight sometimes makes for an awkward transport home), but there is absolutely no alternative.

With respect to the cats’ litter box-use and occasional abuse, their behavior really is remarkable. Getting them to use their litter box doesn’t require any training per se, as in house-training a puppy. In our experience, it’s simply been a matter of availability and proximity, though I can’t say for sure if unboxed residue has anything to do with location. If anything, it has to do with their owners negligence in providing a freshly scooped box. All we have ever done is place the kitten in the litter box and then they seem to know how to do the rest. Except for the cleaning of the box. They don’t exactly fend for themselves. However, so long as the owners scoop and refill regularly, the cats are relatively low maintenance. The litter box remains high maintenance though.

To secure that maintenance, there are a few tools of the trade to consider. One is the litter scoop. Having broken numerous plastic scoops over the years, I made a commitment (in money) years ago to an industrial strength, commercial grade-type scoop; a metal scoop with a rubber handle. I haven’t looked backwards since or forwards in a store. That scoop has been indestructible and has been worth every penny/dollar of its extra cost. My advice: don’t skimp on the scoop.

As for litter boxes, size probably does matter, so far as avoiding “unpleasantness” is concerned. As to using boxes with covers (rather than the standard open-air boxes) or moving parts, recently, for the first time in our respective 50 years or so of cat ownership/accommodation, we bought a box with a cover and a swinging flap, providing the cats privacy, and access to go in and out (like a doggie door) and also to control litter spillage and to manage odors. Skeptical at first about the cats’ likely reaction, within a very short time, all five were “flapping” and “littering” without any further adieu or mess. Initially, I thought the flap would intimidate them and the cover would crowd them. Moreover, I thought one or another would have a problem with something or other causing us to scrap the whole project. Amazingly, the exact opposite has transpired.

As much of a success as the metal scooper has been for me, I am now able to add, without any hesitation or reservation, that the cover/enclosed box with the plastic flap has similarly breathed fresh air (literally) into our multicat, litter box existence. There’s also a charcoal filter in the box to absorb odors (to which we’ve likely gone nose-blind). Turns out to be a winwin, when one (this one in fact), might have thought (did think) it would be a lose-lose. However, unless we remain vigilant with the scooper, this situation could certainly take a turn for the worse.

No More “Dating”

Not until next year, anyway. Besides, there will be enough water gushing under that bridge, almost as much seen a few weeks back flowing onto the Oroville Spillway in Northern California. At least I hope so. Because if there’s no more ‘gushing,’ there’s likely no more, well; we don’t have to talk about that. Not talking and planning for one’s future is bad for a cancer patient’s business; self-fulfilling prophecy and all that presumptive karma. And with all the dos and don’ts and hopes and prayers in the cancer world, my general philosophy has been not to mess with Mother Nature, too much, if you know what I mean? I don’t necessarily believe in leaving well enough alone, but neither do I believe in poking the bear.

I mean, I acknowledge that I’m dying, but aren’t we all really? Reminiscent to a few years back when a former ESPN Sports anchor (Dan Patrick, I believe it was, now of NBC Sports) made famous a similar characterization concerning a ballplayer’s injury, when he said: “He’s listed as day to day, but then again, aren’t we all?” Oh yeah. A little perspective goes a long way, even a decade or so in arrears. I guess that’s what’s so enriching about reading. Unfortunately, reading is not fundamental for me, writing and listening is. And as with my unexpected non-small cell lung cancer diagnosis at age 54 and a half (lifelong non-smoker, no immediate family history of cancer or premature death; I know, any death is premature), I make the best of my situation and endeavor to strive to stay alive. I don’t dwell on the negative. Sure, I accept and understand my reality (maybe in some dispute, but not in my head though), but having been raised with a positive attitude by both my late parents, I am able to endure until science/medicine finds a cure. It’s not ideal, but it’s a living — thank God!

And even more so the day after chemotherapy, as I sit and write on Saturday, March 4. Reminded as I am of the situation I find myself living in and trying to learn from to cope and always hope. Somehow trying to find a way to continue to take cancer in stride while not hiding from the harsh realities that affect many cancer patients. Just as occasionally looking in the mirror is not a pretty sight, nor is droning on and being cancer-centric. Though I am mostly cancer-centric in my weekly column, I hope its contents provide enough context that it sheds some light on how one lives with a terminal disease rather than how that same one puts off death.

I don’t mean to imply that being diagnosed with cancer is akin to having a bad roommate where you can sort of close their bedroom door or try to ignore their comings and goings except as it concerns rent and utilities, but similar elements have to be enforced. ‘Enforced’ may be too strong a word. Maybe ingrained would be a better word? You have to own the responsibility of living with a terminal disease, but somehow try and not believe it. It sort of invokes the quote about minor surgery: “Minor surgery is someone else having it.” When it’s me having it, it’s major. Compartmentalizing one’s cancer diagnosis/prognosis is crucial to its acceptance. Obviously, it dominates your thinking and awareness, but it can’t be allowed to control it. You just hope when you peel away the emotional layers you impose to maintain an even/humorous keel (in my approach, anyway), it won’t resemble the damage seen on the Oroville Spillway.

Still “Dating”

It’s not as if I haven’t written about this date: 2/27, before (try last week, Ken), but as I sit at my desk and stare at the calendar hanging on the wall to my front right, the date jumps out at me. Not that I approach it with any fear or trepidation, but I do approach it for days, weeks and even months, calculating my past and contemplating my future. Cancer has a way of marking time, and leaving marks — figuratively and literally.

Mostly I have weathered the cancer storm, eight years and counting/hoping. And as much as I don’t want to define myself as a cancer patient/survivor and live my life waiting for the other shoe to drop, it’s difficult not to when your feet are so swollen from years of chemotherapy that you’re now forced to wear your sneakers without laces. What I lose in support, I gain in comfort. Shoes I can’t wear any more. The leather soles don’t cushion my feet enough to not fatigue my legs. The shoe can’t drop if I’m not wearing it, right? Hardly. It can drop at any time. Certainly it can drop after my quarterly scans, hearing that tumor and/or fluid growth has recurred or anytime in between when new symptoms appear and persist (for two to three weeks, my oncologist has advised). The trick is; heck, there is no trick.

And as much as I’d like to live this date as any other, the date on which one is diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer, stage IV and given a “13-month to two-year” prognosis by an oncologist, is a date that cannot be lived normally. February 27, 2009 is a date, to invoke Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that will live in my infamy. February 27, 2009 was a Friday. We had scheduled a mid-morning appointment. My brother, Richard (my one surviving immediate family member), met my wife, Dina and I (Team Lourie as I’ve become accustomed to calling us) in the lobby of the HMO and together we took the elevator up to the third floor (can you say somber?) where we were to meet an oncologist — a man whom I had never met or heard of before, to learn exactly what the previous week’s biopsy being malignant, meant.

After the awkward introductions, the oncologist spent the next 10 minutes or so examining me in an adjacent room. Upon completing the examination, we all reassembled in the doctor’s office where he proceeded to review/read the results/assessments from the previous seven weeks of tests/examinations from the pulmonologist, the radiologist, the thoracic surgeon and the associated diagnostic procedures completed: X-Rays, CT Scan, P.E.T. Scan, and of course, the biopsy. The medical opinions started off bad and got worse: stage IV, non small cell lung cancer, a “terminal” disease. In listening to the reports, there seemed to be little doubt as to the diagnosis. And so it was clear to my oncologist how to proceed: chemotherapy infusions to begin as soon as possible; to occur every three weeks for six cycles with face-to-face appointments and CT Scans to follow. And though it wasn’t, and it hasn’t been pretty, generally it has — presumably, kept me alive and in reasonably good spirits, all things considered, and some of those things considered have included some nonWestern alternatives.

So here I am, nearly eight years to the date when my old life (pre-diagnosis) ended and my new life — as a cancer patient, began. I wouldn’t call it a metamorphosis, more like an upheaval. Somehow though, as the time, treatment and routine passed, I began to assimilate and integrate my new reality into my age 54 and a half head and figure a way forward. I can’t say it’s been fun, but the more I can laugh and find humor in my less-than-ideal circumstances, the more positive I can be about the negative. A negative which has already done enough damage on its own.

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.

“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.