Commentary: A Difficult Line to Walk
The following is a commentary that aired on Morning Edition, May 11, 2006:
My doctors are trying to poison me. Oh, they have the best intentions. They call the process chemotherapy. The idea is to poison the body enough to kill the cancer, but not quite kill the patient. Best I can tell, it's a difficult line to walk.
Just before Christmas I had a brain tumor removed, but then more bad news. They found tumors in my lungs and in my liver too. A lot of drama. I was given a couple of prognoses, all of which were pretty depressing: six months, 12, 20 on the outside. The latter prognosis was the one that was supposed to make me happy.
But I kept asking the same question: So what's going to happen? What will kill me? Like a lot of cancer patients, I've been told I may never have symptoms. It turns out that the chemo will probably play as big a role in killing me as the cancer does. Maybe more. They're trying to destroy my body in order to save it.
When I had cancer the first time, four years ago, I never used the term survivor. I simply had a disease, like having the chicken pox when you're young, and then I didn't. It wasn't who I am. It wasn't my life. Now that's changed.
It has taken over my life to a huge degree. Every three weeks, I go up to the hospital at Johns Hopkins and I end up in a big room full of overstuffed chairs. People just sit there plugged into their machines. There are TVs. The Price is Right seems to be a favorite. I'm a regular now. Some people I recognize and they recognize me, too. I feel bad when the hospital garage is full; that means there are a lot of sick people in today.
I laugh at the T-shirts and coffee mugs they sell in the store, next to the wigs and hats, the ones that say "Cancer Sucks." They got that right. And I'm sort of getting used to always feeling bad. The pills make my stomach queasy. One strange side effect makes me intolerant of cold food. And of course, as soon as you're told you can't have something, that's all you want. The thin mints in the freezer haunt my dreams.
Now, the only reason I feel sick is because of the chemo. I have never had any physical indication that I have tumors in my chest. If I stopped the chemo today I'd probably feel great. But I can't. Or can I?
We don't know if it's working. If it is, great. If not, then what? Quit? Try something new? Go to Hawaii, slap down my credit card and tell them to keep the mai tais coming?
It's exhausting, debilitating, depressing. After a while you forget what it feels like to not feel sick. My friends are all going on with their lives: new jobs, new relationships, new plans. And in the dark hours of the night, God help me, I resent that so much. But I have a different task now. I have to try to take my body just up to the point that it can't take anymore, and then hope I can step back from that chemical abyss.
I'm a gambler, always have been. But I have to admit, I never thought Russian roulette would be my game.