…related to having been diagnosed with stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer, the terminal/“incurable, but treatable” kind, according to my oncologist. The kind whose median life expectancy at diagnosis is eight months. The kind that John Rhys Davis as Sallah from the 1981 movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” might have described as “very bad,” just as he had described the asps slithering below on the floor of the tomb he and “Indy” had just unearthed. So the news I received in late February, 2009 – such as it was, was never very good. In fact, for an asymptomatic, non-smoking, 54-and-half-year-old male with an immediate-family history of NO cancer, it was, well, “shocking” barely scratches the emotional surface of what I was feeling.
Forty-five months later, I am still dealing with feelings – as in still living, for which I am amazingly fortunate. However, those feelings seem to sometimes have a mind of their own, and accordingly tend to take over and rewire one’s brain (figuratively speaking). Moreover, thoughts, actions and behaviors change, and not always for the better, and rarely for the best; most likely a direct result of the cancer’s emotional wallop. Thoughts you don’t want/ never had seep in despite your best attempts at minding them. Behaviors previously uncharacteristic manage to exert more control than you ever imagined. Actions previously unfamiliar cause one to wonder if who you were – pre-cancer, you will ever be again. You don’t want to lose yourself inside the whole cancer culture, but being told you’re going to die prematurely: in “13 months to two years,” has a way of rewriting your record books, whether you intended to or not. Not giving in to this cancer consequence has been my greatest struggle.
Early on, I remember asking my oncologist: “Is it OK to still buy in bulk?” For all you know, based on much of what your doctor is saying, and what you are sensing, your future is tenuous and extremely unpredictable (a version of the humorous advisory to “not buy green bananas”). I mean, the diagnosis is terminal cancer; “HELLO.” What are you supposed to think? This is how your mind takes over and you sort of lose it/lose control of it. As former Vice President “Dan” Quayle said in a speech to the United Negro College Fund (not about cancer), “What a terrible thing it is to lose one’s mind.” Still, it certainly applies.
Another brain drain has to do with specific events scheduled in the future, a future whose guarantee – for me, has been invalidated. I’m watching television during the summer of 2012 and I see ads for Downton Abbey’s third season premiere in January, 2013, and instinctively I wonder, will I be alive to see it?
Road projects are another example. At the beginning of the construction of the Intercounty Connector in Maryland (a cross-county highway being built near my house), regularly I would be stuck in the project’s related road closures/redesigns and bridge-type flyovers and I would always think to myself: “Am I going to be alive when this project is finished or am I just going to suffer its building pains?”
Next May, the LUNGevity Foundation (www.LUNGevity.org), the largest foundation in the country dedicated to lung cancer research (and on whose Web site my cancer columns are now being posted) will be hosting their annual “Hope Summit” in Washington, D.C. I have been invited to attend and/or speak. My first thought upon receiving the invite: “Am I going to still be alive in May?”
I want to be positive. I am positive. But cancer is a huge negative. It’s a constant battle of good versus evil. Sort of like the Indiana Jones movies. But this isn’t the movies. This is real. This is cancer, the true definition of “very bad.”