I was recently at the University of Wisconsin cancer center receiving my three month check up. For those of you who find yourself luckily unaware of what I am referring to, let me explain.
If you are fortunate enough as I have been so far, to be a current lung cancer survivor, you are asked to come in once every three months for a CT scan and blood work. The immediate impact of the three month visit should be obvious. Due to the rate in which lung cancer can start up and then spread throughout your body, it’s best to keep a close eye on it at all times. Lung cancer seems to be the Jesse Owens of cancer. It moves fast and with purpose. It’s purpose is easy to explain, cancer cells wish to spread out into different parts of your body and lay there waiting. Just like a cold war spy thriller where the sleeper agent gets a mysterious phone call and an even more mysterious voice utters a code word that activates the spy, cancer cells are waiting to be activated. They can be patient, or they can come right back at you shortly after your treatment has ended.
The overall goal of the three month check up is to continue you on your path to the magic five year mark where they say that you have a pretty good chance of beating it for good. But don’t count your chickens just yet, there are plenty of pitfalls and traps along the way and the reluctant traveler on our path needs to be constantly aware and ever vigilant. Am I watching my diet? Am I getting enough rest, enough exercise? Taking the right vitamins am I doing the things that I need to do to ensure that I will be one of the fortunate few to see the five year mark?
So off we wander down the yellow brick road of our life, hoping we are as lucky as Dorothy was to continue to have people around us who will help keep us on the path. Our price to pay now is simply to take care of ourselves, continue to attempt to discover who we have become and show up every three months and let the people who have managed to keep us alive so far continue to do their thing.
The down side is very small and seems even ridiculous to mention, but for me the worst part and what I spend a lot of time complaining about now is the blood work. I opted not to have a pic line installed when I went through treatment and therefore have destroyed my veins down both arms. I am now what the nurses refer to as “a hard stick.” What is a pic line you ask? To the best of my understanding, and keep in mind that I did not have one, a pick line requires a small medical procedure where they place a tube with multiple ports into a main artery for chemotherapy so they don’t have to continue to put you through setting up I. V. lines every day.
Now when I give up my blood, I get a nice bruise as a remembrance of where I was the day before. Again a small price to pay for the piece of mind that follows a visit where the doctor says something as soothing as “no noticeable change” which is enough to make me want to dance on a table (if it wasn’t for the fact that I only have a half of a functioning lung to work with). I would be out of breath trying to climb onto the table and if I did not immediately fall off of it, would defiantly need assistance getting down.
As much as I appreciate all of the doctors and different care givers who have helped me along the way, I must say that the days leading up to my three month visit all the way to the doctor reading the verdict are the most stressful days of my life.
Maybe I’m alone in this, maybe I’m more of a coward then I care to admit. I am so very grateful to be alive and everyday that I wake up breathing is a great day, but the fear that one day my doctor is going to tell me that things have changed terrifies me. I generally tuck that thought way in the back of my mind, I’ve only spoken about it with a few other people that are walking the same path as I, and I feel like I’m coming out of the “cancer closet” by talking about it now. Those two weeks before my check up I start wondering, worrying, and basically become a paranoid lunatic until after my appointment is completed. Then comes the relief factor, where if there was a podium set up in the waiting room I would be strolling up to give my “thank you” speech as if I were an Academy Award winner, “I’d like to thank the medical staff at the University of Wisconsin, my wife, the RN who drew my blood, the lab techs who took their time to analyze it. The fine people in the radiation dept, the lady that validated my parking and all of you just for being all of you.” Once the euphoria of being told “no change” wears off, I go back to who I was a couple weeks prior, a normal guy trying to remember who I am or better yet trying to find out who I’ve become, working my way down the path hoping the trees don’t throw apples at me or the flying monkeys don’t carry me away.
I was scheduling my next appointment and met a woman in I believe in her late 60s and her daughter who were doing the same, scheduling the next three month appointment. We struck up a conversation, the usual clinic stuff, “Whatda ya got,” I ask, “Lung” she replies, “Me too”, I answer. “Spread,” she asks, “No, Lucky,” I reply. “Radiation”, she asked? “Twice a day for a month then a series to the brain,” I answered. “Yikes,” She answers. Once a day and chemo”. she answered. “Lose the hair,” she asked? “Twice”, I stated. After that question she seemed to take a moment to size me up and after that moment of serious consideration stated, “You seem to be doing ok,” “You also”, I answered. We then went on to have a nice conversation about herbal tea and blue/green algae supplements and I felt good. I realized that her daughter had basically been left out of the conversation even though she sat on a chair in between us. The majority of the conversation was spoken as if by two people belonging to the secret society of cancer survivors and if you don’t know the super special handshake, you are not part of the club. A simple conversation in which I found another friend wandering down the path and although the chances of us ever seeing each other again are very slim, she’ll stick in my mind as my new life continues to unfold and forever hold a place at that spot on the path of my life. Her friendly smile and pleasant demeanor masking the reality that she as I came very close to being dealt the same fate but instead were given new paths to find our way down.
Every three months I seem to meet someone under these conditions, footsteps across an altered path. These are the people you meet along the way, that maybe in my previous pre-cancer life I wouldn’t of made time for and therefore would have missed the connection.
I have crossed paths with so many people during my life that it makes me think about all the times where I could have made their path a little easier to walk and failed to do so for the variety of reasons that at the time we convince ourselves are so important. It puts your life in a new perspective, living three months at a time. You see things and people a little differently, you appreciate things a little more.
For me there is a dark side to the whole thing and it was pointed out to me by my wife therefore I know it to be true because of all people she is the expert of my life. She noticed a change for the worse in my personality after treatment that I wasn’t aware of at the time but now try to take into consideration. It seems that my patience is much shorter with people and things then it once was.
After she brought it to my attention I realized that she was very much correct and set out on a trip of self-examination to find out why. This is my story and I’m sticking to it.
When I was going through treatment, I picked up a sub conscious desire to move my life along at a quicker pace, to try to cram as much in as possible. I felt that time was of the essence and that I needed to get things in order as quickly as possible. As I felt my life spinning and speeding out of control, I did things, some strange things. As I had told my fellow traveler in the clinic, I went through radiation treatments twice a day for thirty days, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. I found myself constantly starring at my watch. It had become the symbol of my approaching demise, time quickly ticking away, my life moving faster then the hands on my watch could keep up with. One day I simply went to the dresser in my bedroom, slipped the watch from my wrist and carefully placed it out of site in the top right drawer under my socks. I immediately started to feel a sense of relief as if I had prolonged my own life by this act of defiance. When my wife had inquired about my watch I lied and told her that it was bothering my wrist from the constant poking and prodding for blood, which I guess held some truth but not THE truth. The truth was that it was bothering my sole much more then it was effecting my wrist.
Anyway, I developed a ” no tolerance” approach to life and I hadn’t realized it. I did not have time for other peoples mistakes, I did not have time for frivolous conversation, I did not make time for things I felt were not a necessity in my life at the moment and in essence had become a colossal jerk. I wasn’t aware of what I had become until my wife could take it no more and gave me a proverbial, ‘slap upside the head’. I now try to make sure that I stay conscious of this fact as time goes by, but to this day I still refuse to wear a watch and doubt that I ever will again.
I do many things differently now a days, I appreciate and value my life very much and I understand that I was given a gift that I cannot explain when I stepped off the path of victim and started down the path of a survivor. I am reminded daily by the work my wife and I do with our non profit organization for lung cancer research. I am slowly accomplishing the things I want out of my remaining time and although I always thought it was all about me, I’m finding out that what truly is making my life complete is the work we do for others. If I can now help fill the potholes and remove the stones from someone else’s path it helps to justify my continued existence while others as my Father had, lose their battle with cancer. Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of, other times it’s all crystal clear, I’m basically the same as every other person on the face of the planet, trying to stumble their way through life.
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