A Little Something from my Cancer Diary
On September 23, 2005, I underwent a surgical procedure to remove a lump that I found in my abdomen. It was in an area of the colon called the “caecum.” I felt the lump during the late summer of 2005 while I was in bed one morning. I felt it again later that day while showering. I assumed that it was merely a strained muscle from my ab workouts at the gym, or one of those benign cysts they tell everyone about. During the time I awaited the surgery, all of my friends and family had little theories about what this lump might be: an absorbed twin, an ovary, or a clump of undigested Brie. My friends have colorful imaginations.
The surgery was the most traumatic experience of my entire life. No one can prepare you for surgery. You fall asleep and your entire body falls under the control of someone else. But the trauma begins even before that. While relaxing on some version of valium, the nurse and anesthesiologist asked me to roll over so they could insert the epidural. This requires sticking a long needle between your vertebrae. “Arch your back like a cat,” the anesthesiologist said with his Hindi accent. It doesn’t hurt, actually, but the thought of it alone (and the noise it makes going into your back, a short, quick “pop”) can make you sick to your stomach if you ponder it long enough.
When I awoke from surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elgin, Illinois, I had a tube going through my nose, down my throat and esophagous, all the way into my stomach. This “NG” tube was attached to a hose, and if I crossed my eyes, I could see the bile it was pumping from my stomach. I was, additionally, hooked up to oxygen, which made my throat very dry, compounding the discomfort of the NG tube, and making swallowing and salivating nearly impossible. I also had an IV, which fed me nutrients for the 2 days I was bed-ridden. I had a catheter, so I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom. Of course, every nurse who walked by my bed managed to bump the hose of this catheter, sending shivers down my spine as I felt the strange sensation of my bladder twitching back and forth with the rhythm of the moving hose. This little game continued until I forbade everyone entering my room from approaching the side of the bed with the catheter hose on it. And I had a contraption hooked to my right index finger which constantly measured my pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation. When my Oxygen saturation went below 90%, the machine would honk at me, obnoxiously, reminding me to breathe more deeply.
All of this nonsense was attached to me with surgical tape. I had tape on my back, from left hip to right hip, and all the way up my spine, securing the epidural. I had tape on the bandage which covered my incision. Tape on my hands securing the other gadgets that kept me alive and monitored. Now, what they don’t tell you is that the glue on surgical tape is toxic. It’s not like scotch tape. The stuff could eat through lead. And it burns. By the time I was finished, I had burns on my wrists, back, and stomach, all of which were far more tender the new 4.5 inch long incision which went from beneath my belly button to my right hip. Even now, 4 months later, I still have a scar on the left side of my stomach, not from the incision, but from the tape burn!
Finally, I had two leg-warmer-looking devices attached to my legs. They looked like something Jane Fonda would have worn during one of her aerobics exercise video tapes from the 1980s. Only my leg warmers were plugged in to an air pump. About every 10 seconds they would fill with air, and then release. Psshhhhh, fwump. Psshhhh, fwump. Every 10 seconds. Try sleeping through that.
None of this mattered to me, because I figured once I was walking again, and once my little stomach started processing food again, I would walk out of the hospital and go back to my old life, with no changes.
That changed very quickly when, on Tuesday, September 27, 2005, at 12:15pm, my surgeon – a man named Preston Scott Reilly, came into my room to give me the results of my pathology. The lump I discovered in my abdomen was called a “mucinous adenocarcinoma.” It was cancer. A tumor. Not a benign cyst. Not an absorbed twin, and not undigested Brie de Meaux. This tumor, he explained, was an aggressive one. It had spread to 6 of the 11 lymph nodes they had cut out of my 32 year old ascending colon. Once it got in the lymph system, Dr. Reilly explained, it could go anywhere. “It’s like throwing seeds into the wind,” he exclaimed, proud of his metaphor. I had stage III colon cancer. I would have to have extensive chemotherapy, which might or might not help me survive.
As I lay there in my hospital bed listening to him, all I could focus on were the trees outside of my window, which had just barely begun turning colors. I was amazed at the way just one orange leaf on an entirely green tree could stand out and look so beautiful. And the sky that day was so brilliant blue; it was like standing on the inside of a marble. I remember thinking that it was as brilliant-blue as it was on September 11th, the day terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I felt like Preston Reilly had just flown a plane into my brain – and my heart. I didn’t even realize I was crying until he handed me some Kleenex and place his hand on my leg, a hand which felt as cold and clinical and invasive as the NG tube had felt days before.
The percentage of people between the ages of 30 and 39 who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer is .07%. That’s 7 out of every 10,000 people.
I have never been a fortunate person. I was born into a working class family and I was the first person in my family to receive a full college education. I was also the first person to receive a PhD, to publish anything, to earn above the American median, and to have 20-somethings call me “Professor.” But I didn’t get any of this due to luck. I worked for all of it. I was always determined, from the time I was a young boy, to escape the conditions under which my parents had labored their entire life. Conditions which I, at the time, considered pathetic and mean. I cannot remember either of them being happy to go off to work. Nor can I remember a time when life had been easy for them. To this day, they still owe a mortgage on the little modular house they own in Sinclair, Wyoming, a house that most people in my “circle” would silently turn their noses up at because it resembles a double-wide trailer attached to a cement foundation, but which is the absolute pride of my parents (my mother can talk to you for hours about the flowers she’s going to plant in the yard). None of what I’ve ever had was due to luck – I worked hard to try to create a better life for myself, but also to give my parents something better through me.
And so, I suppose, I’ll have to work at this, too. Luck won’t save me, just as it didn’t put me through college. I have to save myself, but I also have to save my parents. I’m the only reason either of them believe that there is hope in this world. I’m the only reason either of them believes the American myth: that if one works hard, a good life is possible. That myth never worked for them; it cheated them. Asa and Heidi Meeks are people in their 50s who, due to the frequently hard nature of their lives, look more like they’re in their 60s. My Dad has rough, calloused hands and deep wrinkles under his sad eyes, and my Mom frequently sounds tired whenever I talk to her on the phone, and she complains about aches that, in my view at least, are due not to anything physical but rather to the stressful nature of her life. They get depressed about bills they still can’t afford to pay. They rarely take vacations. They view the world as a corrupt one which didn’t give them a fair shake – because it is, and it didn’t. I’m the only, single reason that they believe there’s any fairness in the world. So I have to live. Because if I don’t, their hope and faith and everything else that makes them beautiful human beings, will die too. And no matter how unfair the world really is, their humanity is real too, so that cannot happen.