This is one of several essays from my private cancer journal. It is not intended as anything than a record of my states of mind as I struggled with the disease and the effects of the treatment.
Tuesday, November 23, 1999
I was diagnosed with cancer today.
Fortunately, it didn't come as a shock. I don't know how I would have reacted if it came as a surprise. But I already knew it. I've been suffering from growing hip and leg pains that I was chalking up to osteoarthritis, given my age (61). Plus my mother had gone through three hip replacement operations so I figured I had her hips. I had forgotten she died of cancer.
So I finally got the checkup I had been avoiding. The primary reason was cost. I don't have health insurance but then a friend reminded me that since I was a military veteran, I could go to a VA hospital, which I did immediately. The doctor listened to my symptoms and history and then I was given a battery of tests, from blood to xray. That was a week ago. When I got to the blood lab, the technician looked at the order and said, "Boy, they sure want to know about you!" and took nine vials of blood and a urine sample. I knew something was suspected. A few hours later, I was sitting on the front porch and it hit me. I have cancer. That is what has been wrong. That explains the chronic pain for the last year that doesn't really hold a firm pattern. It explains the exhaustion.
Realizing it, I didn't cave in or panic. It was such a simple, quiet realization that I was more surprised at how easily I accepted it. But then, I had already had a chance to confront my own mortality a few months ago with my heart attack and then a second trip to the ER [emergency room], thinking that this was it. I was about to die. I didn't panic then either. It was quite calming. When the diagnosis came back that it wasn't a heart attack this time, I wasn't even relieved. I had already had my personal, life-changing epiphany. I knew I could die and I wasn't afraid, so I couldn't feel relieved.
So when I realized that I had cancer, there was no shock that I might die soon. Been there. Done that. Then the doctor called today to tell me the results of the initial tests. Prostate cancer. Aggressive and advanced. Some count was the highest she had seen, over 1000. I asked her what was "normal." She said 4. She wants to do more tests.
When they do the tests in a few days, they might tell me I have only a few months to live and I'll simply have to decide what to do when they tell me. All I really realized was that I have to start writing, to put my ideas down. This is the start.
I tried to explain all of this to Caren, my friend with whom I've been staying. But first I had to tell her that the diagnosis had come in and I was more concerned about her reaction. That came from some synchronicity in my life. Over the last week I keep bumping into TV documentaries about death and I couldn't figure it out. I walked into my first one when I came back in from the front porch that afternoon when I realized I had cancer, before the doctor called. Then today after the doctor told me the news, I went out on the porch to have a cigarette (yes, I know) and when I came back in, I clicked on the TV and there was an HBO special, "Six Months To Live" about people dying of cancer. And it was yesterday (or maybe the day before) when I saw the large article in the local paper about a person dying from a brain tumor who didn't like telling people because it upset them so much. It was as if the cosmos was giving me a message.
So I had to figure out how to tell Caren. She's been worried about the pain and, like me, was so relieved that the VA hospital here in Cincinnati would give me a complete battery of tests. Now she would get the bad news and I knew she would take it worse than me.
When she came home, we chatted briefly. She commented how good I looked today, which was a bit ironic. When the best time came a bit later, I sat down on the couch next to her and told her: the tests are in and I have cancer. For a split second she thought I was joking but I kept talking, reassuring her that I was fine. But she wasn't. She fought back the tears as I related what the doctor said: It appears to have started as prostate cancer and has spread to the bones of the hips, legs and lower spine. They want to do a prostate biopsy next to see what stage it is so they can recommend treatment.
I tried to keep my voice calm but relatively upbeat as Caren choked back the tears. I told her that I had known for a week so it didn't come as a shock. Plus there were the two trips to the ER this year (May and September) so it's not as if I haven't thought about dying and I'm fine. She still cried.
Maybe I won't be fine tomorrow. Maybe it is like the delayed reaction people have when they are in a car accident. The shock hits them later. Maybe it will hit me tomorrow. That's why I had to start this journal today, two days before Thanksgiving. (The cosmos does have a sense of humor.)
I've decided not to tell my son and daughter-in-law, out in California, until after the holiday. There's no sense in ruining it for them. Maybe I should even wait until the full tests are in, so I know if treatment is possible, my chances and some estimate of life span left.
Life span. The words take on a different meaning when I feel I can reach out and feel the edge of my life. It's always there, of course. One can die suddenly with heart attack or stroke or car accident or some "act of God," as we like to call them. Perhaps it is a blessing to be given the chance to come to know it.
Now let's see what I do with it, starting with this journal.
I do know this: if the cancer has spread so far that it is basically untreatable, the pain will just increase. I won't be able to walk or sit and it might move to the brain. That is what happened to my mom. So I have to write as much as I can, not knowing how long I have. Nor do I enjoy the prospect of dehumanizing treatments that merely prolong the agony. But I reserve all those decisions after the next diagnosis.
And somewhere I will have to plan how to close out my life. There is Mac, a Belgian shepherd, and Jack, a one-eyed tom cat. They are the two dearest friends I have. That day a week ago when I realized I have cancer, Jack began to sleep on my lap more than usual. "You know, don't you," I said to him as he curled up and nuzzled my hand. And then there is Mac. He knew too. There is not a more loyal dog.
I have to find them homes and it will break my heart more than anything else. Jack might be able to adapt to a home where he is the only cat, the alpha male. But Mac will be harder. He and I have been constant companions for nearly two years, traveling back and forth across the US, finding motels and hotels that will accept him, or sneaking him into those who won't. It will break my heart to give them up but there will probably come a time when I will move to a hospice environment. I have to plan for that and do it early. They are my family.
Family. Something I've pursued and lost and abused and disregarded all of my life. How I wish I could right it all. I'll have to see how much time I have. And that also prompted me to think on where. Where do I want to die? With apologies to Caren, I don't want it to be Ohio. Perhaps California. I was born there and there is something fitting about returning to one's roots. I was born in Anaheim, 20 years before Disney told the world of the tiny city. Other than my son and his family (and my granddaughter Summer) there is nothing in particular about Southern California itself that draws me and I don't know if it is right to go there to die. So maybe Washington. That was my last true home, on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, before the divorce and my bout with alcohol, depression and suicidal tendencies.
The divorce. God, I'm jumping all over the place. I've heard of people's lives flashing before their eyes. This isn't as fast but it is badly edited.
My life needs an editor. Maybe a rewrite.
And I call myself a writer! (laugh)