Death threat

death threat

My doctor talked recently about the shock of receiving a cancer diagnosis. “One of my other patients,” she said, “compared it to peacefully mowing the lawn on a summer day and then suddenly being hit by a garbage truck that runs off the road. Where did that come from?” (Amen, amen.) “But it’s not like a murder, or a death sentence. It’s a death threat. Keep that in mind. Nothing can ever be the same afterward, but it’s only a threat, not a sure thing.”


Once more: amen, amen.


To be sure, life itself is a death sentence, last I looked. But most of us manage to keep ourselves blinkered, blissfully looking the other way. Once the word ‘cancer’ enters the conversation, however, things become altogether more serious, and more real. Life becomes far more precious. Those we love become far more precious. Death is a curtain with something mysterious on the other side – maybe something nice, maybe something nasty, maybe nothing at all – but all of a sudden I have very little interest in finding out. I’m far more interested in exploring the things Partner and I haven’t done and seen, the places we still want to go. We used to joke that we’d better travel while we’re both still ambulatory. Now the joke isn’t quite so funny anymore.


Hunger, they say, makes food taste better. Maybe the awareness of mortality makes us realize how sweet the things of daily life are.



And I am lucky: lucky to have had a life full of beautiful things, lucky to have known so many crazy difficult wonderful people, lucky to have traveled to so many places, lucky to have found Partner, lucky to have him with me at this awful time.
Most of all I am lucky to have Partner in my life. I am lucky to have someone to love who loves me back.


How could I ever want to give up so many lovely things?


From A. A. Milne:


“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”


The eve of Saint Blaise

The eve of Saint Blaise

Today is Candlemas, when the Catholic Church blesses the candles to be used during its liturgy. Tomorrow is the feast-day of Saint Blaise, patron of ailments of the throat. Some churches still do the Blessing of the Throat, in which the priest uses the newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of congregants.



Saints become patrons in peculiar ways. Clare had a vision on the wall in front of her and became the patroness of television. Joseph of Cupertino levitated helplessly, yelping and crying, and became the patron of aviators. Blaise miraculously made a child cough up a fishbone, thus making him Mister Throat.




The Church asks and answers the question: Why doesn’t God always cure ailments of the throat, even if you pray for it? Why doesn’t he cure everything, while he’s at it? It’s a mystery.




Mystery schmystery. It’s still a pretty good question.




Disclosure: Partner gave a Saint Blaise medal last year, which I carry with me religiously, you should pardon the expression.




What could it hurt?

Almost better

almost better




I am almost better. I am no longer in treatment, and they are no longer cooking my throat with radiation, and I can actually tell a difference. Chemotherapy is now also a thing of the past, and the nasty side-effects are subsiding. I am still waiting for some of the lingering stuff to pass: the fatigue, the come-and-go voice (I sound, when I speak, something like Tallulah Bankhead and/or Lucille Ball, with maybe a little mid-career Lindsay Lohan thrown in), the inability to swallow. (The latter is coming back a bit; I managed to sip some water and juice the other day without coughing, and I was very excited.)



Anyway. I am also writing again, so evidently my energy is coming back. I can’t promise a daily blog, but I can promise something once in a while – maybe once a week or so – until I am back to my usual rude vigor.



Aren’t you pleased?


R words

r words

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 was the day of my last radiation treatment. I had my final chemotherapy treatment the week before, on Tuesday, December 3.



I am done with treatment. I am now in Recovery.



Recovery would be lovely if it took place in a day, or maybe two. It does not. As one waggish commentator said online: “The radiation doesn’t stop cooking you all at once. It keeps simmering for a while.”






Also, there are the naggingly minor side effects, like the sore throat that makes it almost impossible to swallow, and the bizarrely twisted sense of taste. (I long for real tastes, and for solid food. I was reading the biography of Muriel Spark the other day and found a mention of Muriel having drinks with Edith Sitwell – “iced gin with grapefruit juice” – that almost made me burst into tears.)



My energy is returning, which is not necessarily a good thing. I have lots of get-up-and-go, but very little to do. Christmas is useful, because I can use my time making lists, checking them twice, etc. I can organize books on my bookshelves. I can write little feuilletons like this one, when I can summon up enough brain cells to do so.



And I can day by day think about my improvement. I needed less pain medication today. My throat was less obstructed today. I slept a straight four hours last night!



So much for recovery.



There’s another R word that I don’t even want to think about right now, for fear of jinxing myself: Remission.



Remission is the absence of cancer. My radiation oncologist (who is not normally the soul of Christmas good cheer) tells me, with his gargoyle’s grin, that he cannot see any sign of the original tumor in my throat when he looks down inside. (That is, of course, with the naked eye. He is not Superman and does not have X-ray vision.) This is excellent news, and I will be having several more tests over the next few weeks and months to confirm this. Back in September, when this whole cavalcade began, I had a Stage IV tumor (“roughly the size of a Meyer lemon,” according to another clever little Internet source) under or beside my left tonsil, along with an assortment of nastily swollen lymph nodes. Now – who knows? The whole kit and caboodle appear to be gone.



I say again: they appear to be gone.



We Reassure ourselves with the good cheer of our doctors that the treatments Really Really worked. We don’t ever want to go through that kind of treatment again. (The first month or so was nothing at all. The last few weeks were Repulsive.)



So here’s to the future, and to another day of Recovery.



And you know what? The new season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race begins in a month or so.



So I have something to look forward to after all.



(Also: doesn’t the rhino in the illustration above look like a hippo to you?)


Chemo brain

chemo brain

One of my cancer-survivor friends used the expression “chemo brain” in conversation to me very casually a few months ago. “I came back to work one day,” she said, “and I sat through a meeting, but I had chemo brain something fierce, so I just went back to my office and addressed envelopes.”



Now I know what she was talking about.



Kids, it’s not so bad. It’s like a mild harmless form of dementia. It takes my current charming state of forgetfulness and turns it into a comedy routine.



Example: I take a pill and then stare into my hand, wondering if I took the pill or not.



Example: I go blank in the middle of stirring something, come to, and wonder how long I’ve been stirring.



Example: I bought some kosher salt the other day, used it, put it away, and then spent ten minutes looking for it again. It was adorable, like watching your dog (or your grandfather) spin around in the middle of the room, hopelessly confused. I searched the same shelf four times! I even took everything out of a cupboard and put it back together again! (The next morning I suddenly realized that the salt was in the pantry closet, right where it belonged. Smart mommy after all!)



Ah, the sweet bafflement of the elderly, and those of us under chemical control.



Enjoy our antics, kids.



Someday it’ll be you.


Update, Dec 1 2013


I started my treatments (simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation) in mid-October; I get chemo every Monday (it takes about 3 hours) and radiation five mornings a week (each session is about ten minutes long). The standard protocol for this kind of cancer is seven weeks’ therapy, which brings us to early/mid December.



Weeks One and Two were easy. I was able to work almost a full schedule, and felt almost no side effects at all. (I did notice that Thursdays were bad days for tiredness, malaise, etc.).



Week Three began to get interesting. One evening I discovered that my beard hairs were falling out by the dozens, so I shaved the whole thing off.  My sense of taste went wonky – almost everything tasted awful, like cigarette ashes and cardboard. Acidic and spicy foods were literally painful. Ice cream was okay for a while, and marshmallows, but I was eating less and less because the flavors and sensations were so unpleasant.



Week Four: now I was feeling it. I got very dehydrated (my own fault for not getting enough water). My old friend the kidney stone decided he wanted some attention too, so now I was taking pain medication both for my throat and my kidney. Swallowing was now becoming very painful too; I was reduced to eating soup and crackers, and I knew I was losing weight. Still going to work most days, but seldom for more than a few hours; I was generally very tired most of the time.



Weeks Five and Six: finally decided to stay home full-time and rest. Using my feeding tube now – frankly, much easier and efficient than I thought it would be. My daily menu is six cans of Ensure Plus, two each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus lots of water.



On Friday of Week Five, I got very listless and warm; Partner took me to Miriam Hospital, where they determined that my white blood cell count had crashed over a period of a few days, and I had an opportunistic infection (probably thrush). I spent seven days there, absorbing intravenous antibiotics and waiting for my blood count to get back to normal. (The number in question, my Absolute Neutrophil Count, was around 300 when they checked me in; 1500+ is normal, and anything under 500 is dangerous.)



Anyway, so seven days in the hospital. I was perfectly comfortable, and all of the nurses and doctors were wonderful.  Partner spent time with me mornings and evenings. My voice is terrible – sometimes I can’t speak at all – which made communication with the nurses and nurses’ aides and doctors very interesting sometimes. (I ended up using a “conversation book” – if I wanted to say something more profound than “yes” or “no,” I wrote in my little red notebook and handed it to the person I was talking to.)



I was released on Friday, Nov 29 (ANC count 1000+), and am glad to be home. I’ve already resumed treatments; I have only eight radiation sessions to go, and one (or possibly two) chemo sessions. The completion date is still around December 11.



Good news: everyone agrees that the tumor and the accompanying lymph nodes are shrinking very rapidly. My neck is reddish and looks sunburnt, but everyone thinks the area looks very good. My throat’s painful, of course, and I generate mucus like an opened fire hydrant, but things could be worse. (The header picture was taken this morning a little after 3am. Notice that I have ditched the hospital pajamas. I think I look like Gale Gordon as Mister Mooney, getting ready to reprimand Mrs. Carmichael for something.)



Thanks to all for your kind thoughts and comments.

Costa Concordia

costa concordia

Apollonia, that sweet elfin little thing, was complaining about some situation in her life the other day. “You know what it’s like?” she said. “The Costa Concordia.”

“The cruise ship?”

“Yeah. Think about it. You’re sailing along, enjoying yourself. People are waving at you from shore, so you bring the ship in a little closer to say hello. It’s a nice sunny day, and everyone’s happy. Ciao! Ciao! And then –“ She clapped her hands. “Boom! On the rocks. And the ship tips over on its side. All hands lost.”

We both brooded on this for a while. “Well, it’s not as if they couldn’t have done something about it,” I said. “The captain knew he was too close to shore. He was tempting fate.”

“That just makes it worse. You know you’re tempting fate, but for a long time nothing bad happens. You convince yourself that nothing bad can happen, or it would have happened already, right?”

I hate to admit it, but Apollonia has stumbled on something profound here.

We bumble through life like the idiot captain of the Costa Concordia, steering our ship without a care in the world, as if nothing terrible could ever happen to us. Ciao! Ciao! And then BOOM!

Look at this stupid cancer. It’s probably been growing inside me for a year or more; I only just noticed the problem in May or June, as a sore throat that didn’t get better. I thought nothing of it. I steered right toward the rocks without seeing them.

Not to be a fatalist, kids, but life is full of nasty surprises. Be watchful, be wary.

And don’t sail too close to shore if you can help it.

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