Letters From Cancerland: Not The August Column I’d Planned
Published: Aug 19, 2014 3:53 pm
My August column was going to be funny (well, maybe at least amusing). My oncologist made such an off the wall statement at my July appointment regarding mammals and my sudden inexplicable weight loss (never a good sign) that I had pretty much written the column in my head as I drove home from Chicago following our Big Road Trip.
(For those of you wondering after last month’s column, it was a great road trip. It absolutely wore me out, and I was pretty sick by the time we walked back through our front door. But it was a great trip.)
While away, I was without connection to email or Facebook or even basic news. So I was pretty clueless as to any and all events transpiring during the week, other than catching an occasional headline here and there.
That wasn’t all bad, because times got pretty hard in Cancerland while I was sampling pie in Chicago. Not for me personally. Heck, I’m used to being exhausted, sick, and constipated most of the time. But for friends and colleagues. Once I got back to Ohio and caught up on email, Facebook, and The Myeloma Beacon, I found myself sifting through the devastation.
First was the email from my fellow myeloma traveler, Larry.
Larry is a Vietnam vet who probably got a pretty good dose of Agent Orange and anything else used in that war. He was diagnosed over a decade ago at age 53 after he fell and broke several bones and a doctor asked “so why do you have the bones of an 80-year old woman?” Larry just started Revlimid (lenalidomide). His email was a little about that, but it was really about all the new fractures: a partial compression fracture of his L-3 and two ribs, the latter fractured when he had a lower back spasm that threw him on the floor. As Larry laconically noted: “the spasm was so severe I knew I was going to hit the floor. Unfortunately, on the way to the floor, I fell back into a countertop.”
Then my friend and colleague Doug (relapsed stomach cancer) had an inconclusive CT scan earlier in August, just months after surgery to remove the new tumor, so he had a PET scan and is now waiting for the results.
Doug had already had an emotional setback when his oncologist said he would not remove the port (put in for pre-surgery chemo) because “it’s going to come back again.” So an “inconclusive” CT scan just weeks after that little ray of sunshine was not the kind of news Doug needed or wanted. I totally understood why, in the midst of a phone conversation about a joint project, he suddenly hung up on me when his cell started ringing. (It wasn’t the PET results, unfortunately.)
Dang, I leave the state for JUST ONE WEEK, and all hell breaks loose.
And then the rest of the sky fell in.
Catching up on Facebook the morning of August 11, I saw the Myeloma Beacon post announcing the death of fellow columnist Stephen Kramer. The news hit me in the pit of my stomach. My stomach took an even harder blow a few minutes later when I went to The Beacon saw the notice about Arnold Goodman’s death a week earlier.
Now I was reeling.
Both Arnie and Stephen?
Look, I never met Arnie or Stephen. (I’m not on Pat Killingsworth’s A list either.) But through their columns, I knew them. Arnie especially had made a big impression on me; his columns were the reason I contacted The Beacon and started writing a column myself. From their recent columns, it was apparent that the myeloma front was becoming grimmer for both Arnie and Stephen. In Arnie’s last few columns, he made it clear that he was running out of options and time.
That was a pretty bold move. We don’t talk about death a lot in our columns. It is a taboo topic by tacit agreement. Death is too grim, too depressing. It’s not pretty. We do not embrace it easily or readily. In Cancerland, death is a constant presence. With myeloma, it is often the end game.
The poet John Donne wrote “any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Doug thinks he’ll get five more years, “maybe.” Larry reflects that the myeloma is “ganging up on” him. I don’t know where my disease is going right now either. Losing both Arnie and Stephen in the span of a week makes life feel all the more transient.
Indeed, it’s been a difficult week in Cancerland. Difficult enough that I shelved my original column and wrote this one instead. Two colleagues are gone and the world is a little emptier.
Life goes on and on. There are still columns to write, Revlimid to swallow, pies to bake, days to complete.
Someday I might even tell the funny story about my oncologist. Just not this month.