Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cancer Can Be a Lonely Disease

At my cousin’s birthday party in Washington last week, I got to spend some time with Susie, an old friend from Savannah. After sharing childhood memories and a quick synopsis of family news, our conversation turned to health—which is pretty often the case with those of us over 60. Susie’s health has not been good. She is suffering from multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects the red blood cells and bone marrow. She has had a rough time, and continues on oral chemotherapy accompanied by steroids. The disease has forced her to quit her job as a synagogue administrator to focus on getting well, or at least on trying to build up her health. When I noted my own experience with chemo and steroids, she looked amazed. “You’ve had cancer?” she asked in a tone of surprise. I was a little surprised myself that she hadn’t known about my nearly 10-year-old bout with lymphoma. Of course, I had never talked directly to her about it. I just figured the news would have passed along the Savannah Jewish network and reached her.  

This got me thinking about the solitary nature of cancer. Millions of Americans are going through cancer or have experienced the disease. But no one really wants to talk about it. The word is scary. So we often use euphemisms when we refer to it. An excellent Showtime television show starring Laura Linney is called “The Big C.” And sometimes we don’t want to think about it. When I was going through chemo in 2003 and shaved off my thinning hair before it all fell out, a clueless colleague in my office said, “I think it’s great that you cut your hair off; bald is a good look for you. (Trust me, it wasn’t – as you can see below.)

You could go blind from the reflection off of that dome

Because we know how others feel about cancer, people going through the disease don’t tend to talk about it too much. I would discuss my experiences only through anecdotes that I tried to make as entertaining as possible. Like the time Amanda made me a CD mix, the first three songs of which were Bob Marley”s “Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright,”  The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” When Brett questioned the third selection, Amanda said, “But Daddy really likes Billy Joel.” My friend Steven Griffel suggested that maybe she was indicating that I wasn’t that good and therefore wouldn’t be risking an early end. Either explanation works for me.

The solitary nature of cancer gets some emphasis even in a very busy cancer center, such as the one I still go to at Hackensack Hospital (though only once a year now). We are moved efficiently through our blood work and weigh-in processes, one at a time. And we seldom look at the other patients in the waiting room with us. Our minds are on our own issues and vital signs. Out of the corner of my eye, I could spot the people who looked to be in far worse condition than I, but I didn’t really want to think about them. This was MY cancer.

(Not coincidentally, the cancer center has moved into a new building since I started my treatment. This one is much larger and quieter and more private. Patients don’t really confront too many others. Do we really want to?)

I feel guilty that I seldom focused on my children’s feelings when I was going through chemo. Were they worried, frightened, disturbed? I know that the caring fathers on TV shows would have sat down with the children for soul-searching discussions. We never went through those in my family. I was focused mostly on me. Audrey and I didn’t talk about it too much either. Luckily, I didn’t have a lot of nausea or negative reactions to the chemo. And I was always at work the Monday following my Friday chemo session. So we went along as if nothing was amiss (though the 800-pound gorilla was in the room to be sure). When I went through a blip, and the chemo seemed to have not been successful (and a bone marrow transplant might have been the next step), Audrey freaked out a little bit. She canceled a family gathering in Vermont, though I thought it should still go on. Since I continued to be in denial about the whole thing, I wasn’t that worried. Subsequent tests revealed that the “hot spot” that the PT Scan found in my abdomen was just a false positive, so my health was indeed on the mend. Audrey’s blood pressure returned to normal, and we could keep the cancer talk down to a minimum again.

It has now been nearly 10 years since my last chemo session. My oncologist says that I will graduate from his “class” next June and won’t have to see him again. I was tempted to add an “unless” to that last sentence, but I have decided not to do that. Instead, I plan to write some more anecdotes about the time in the distant past that I had cancer. Or I may share some symptoms with Susie and try not to top her stories with ones of my own. Instead, I’ll try to keep quiet and just listen to her—if she really wants to share.

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