Fifteen years ago I got a call from my doctor. He asked me, "Are you sitting down?" Then he added, "I have some bad news from your tests." Two days later I was in surgery having a tumor removed.
Our kids were small, we were young, and I was in my second year of grad school at St. John's College. I earned an hourly wage as a substitute teacher at a local prep school, which I supplemented by teaching Spanish to a group of kindergarteners, giving Greek lessons to a high school student, and occasionally working as a fly-fishing guide in northern New Mexico. Like many graduate students, we lived far below the poverty level. We were fortunate to have basic health insurance, supportive families, WIC, and a great local church. Even so, we knew we had an uncertain road ahead.
Since then we've moved twice, I finished grad school at Penn State, and have been awarded tenure at a fine liberal arts college in South Dakota, Augustana College.
And over the years I've lost track of how many times I've been stuck with needles or made to swallow barium sulfate contrast. Each time I drink that stuff it's worse than the last time. It makes me feel like it's stripping my intestines of their very lining. At first I could go to work afterwards, but the last few times I've had it it has left me too weak to walk for much of the day.
Who knows how much iodine radiocontrast I've had injected into my veins? You feel it enter your vein, and the mild burn pulses, lub-dub, with each heartbeat, up your arm and then crashes into your heart. A moment after it hits your heart, it explodes outward across your whole body. It shoots up your neck, setting your throat abuzz, and then you taste metal. At the same time it rushes downward and you feel like you've just wet your pants. (I'm told many people do in fact become incontinent at this point.)
I've taken it all more or less in stride, because, as they say, fighting cancer beats the alternative. In some ways, it was probably easier for me than for my family, since there wasn't much I could do about it other than submit to the treatment, and when I did, it left me too weak for worry. My wife was nothing short of amazing when I was first diagnosed, taking care of three small kids and one sick husband. She has a long and deep habit of prayer, and I think that was her sea anchor in a rough storm.
Each time we've moved I've had to find a new oncologist, and again, I've been fortunate to find good ones, serious physicians who really showed concern for me. (Michael McHale in Sioux Falls always took the time to ask me about my life before he asked me about my body, and I am grateful for him like I am grateful for friends and ministers and counselors. Our insurance wouldn't let me keep seeing him, unfortunately, so I've had a few other oncologists over the last three years.)
Last week, my current oncologist and I looked over my medical history together. It's an annual ritual: we look at my tumor markers and my other bloodwork, my most recent X-rays or CT scan. The doctor nods and says that nothing has changed, and he'll see me again in six months or a year.
This time, it was different. "It has been fifteen years, and we haven't seen any new tumors," he said. "It's possible that it will recur, of course. You're in a higher risk group, and there could be some cells in some other part of your body that are slowly growing." I'm used to hearing this, so I nodded, and looked in his eyes as I always do, to see if there's news I should brace myself for.
Having cancer at a young age was like an early midlife crisis. It sharpened my focus and made me see that there was no point wasting whatever time I have left. If there is something I should be doing, now is the time to do it, not later. I'm trying to live fully now, not postponing life until I feel more rested, or more financially sound, or more ready for it. I don't think I'm being reckless, but I'm trying to live well, and without regrets. The days of my life are numbered, but I am unable to count any of them but the ones in the past, plus today.
It's not like I spend a lot of time thinking about my own mortality, mind you. But every visit to the oncologist is a reminder that I am still alive. My first oncologist told me, "you drew the historical long straw," explaining that only twenty years earlier my cancer was one of the least curable forms, but thanks to recent research it was now one of the most curable.
(As an aside, thanks for giving to that research, and please keep giving to organizations like the American Cancer Society. I advise the Augustana College Chapter of Colleges Against Cancer, so I'd be remiss if I didn't put that in here!)
"But everything looks good. I don't think you need to come back, as long as you and your regular doctor keep checking for lumps."
I think I must have looked like a cow staring at a new gate*, or a deer caught in the headlights. He smiled at me. "If you're okay with that, I mean."
"Yes, I'm okay with that," I stammered.
"Then we're graduating you. No need to come back," he said. He extended his hand to shake mine, and then he and his resident, congratulating me, left me to consider a life without coming back to his office.
I've lost a lot of friends and family to cancer, including my beautiful, wonderful mother. A number of my friends and colleagues or their spouses are afflicted by rogue cells in their bodies right now. It's a frightening, ugly thing to hear your body is growing itself out of its own orderly bounds, that some part of you is growing towards death, that your body has become entangled with a worse form of itself that threatens to overshadow all that is good in you.
So for now, I am still basking in the warmth of this best break-up ever. I'm glad to hear my oncologist has dumped me. I'm delighted to hear that those misfiring cell divisions have been banished from my body.
And I'm hoping that more and more people who long for such news will come to hear it soon, mindful that many who deserve to hear it never will.
Now, if you will excuse me, I have a fresh today to attend to.
* This is from Martin Luther. He writes, wie ein kue ein neues thor ansihet.