Do not worry: what follows is not a depressing lament of woe. I prefer to think of it as a chronicle of the knowable part of The Biggest Adventure. I am 59 years old and recently have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that’s begun to invade my liver. For some reason – and not because I am a Zen Master – I accepted it immediately. I seem to be having an easier time with it (emotionally) than are the people in my life.
The purpose of these posts is two-fold:
1 – to give others a kind of inoculation of thoughts and feelings about what we all must face, sooner or later
2 – to describe the physical and emotional experience so you all may better understand what no doubt at least one of your loved ones will go through. Already, in the few weeks since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve gained much empathy for what my mother went through 30 years ago, even though I was there with her. I don’t know if she kept some of her feelings and thoughts to herself to spare her children’s vicarious suffering, but I do know she didn’t describe her experience with much anchoring detail.
I’m a pretty healthy guy. Of course, I’ve had the flu a couple of times and medical problems here and there, but for the most part, I’ve had no serious issues or problems. At age 59 I’m physically active enough to have much better muscle tone than a large percentage of the men I see walking around in public, including too damn many of the men twenty and even thirty years younger than me. All of a sudden, I am sick. In retrospect there were some signs that things weren’t right, but they were easy to overlook as normal variations in energy levels and minor aches. Then, I got two strange pains.
The first pain was in my upper calf, just below my left knee. It would show up now and then over the past year or two, usually after sitting down after being active. When I would stand again, I would feel an odd twinge, but it would disappear in a few steps. I wrote it off as some kind of strained muscle, tendon, or ligament. I considered it to be a mere annoyance, a little quirk of accumulated decades of leg use. Then, about two months ago, the twinge didn’t disappear. My calf swelled and stiffened. When I borrowed a heating pad for it, my friend told me about Baker’s Cysts, which prompted Google searches, which revealed info about DVT’s – Deep Vein Thrombosis, known in layman’s terms as blood clots. Many articles cautioned to take these seriously because if the blood clot broke free and traveled, it could be fatal. I sought medical attention, and one test led to another, and soon my doctor asked me to come in to discuss results. That’s never a good sign.
By the way, the sonogram of my left leg was fascinating. On TV I’d seen short clips of sonograms, and mommas have shown me printed photos of their pregnancies, but I’d never witnessed a sonogram in progress. It is amazing. You can watch your veins swell and push blood with every heartbeat. It’s like having magic, or Superman X-ray vision, or God eyes. When the screen was showing the area around the pain in my calf, without the slightest education in interpreting the scan, I pointed at a dark spot and said, “That ain’t right.” It definitely was a blood clot. There’s a setting on the machine that converts the images to sound, and higher in my thigh the technician and I could hear a solid thrush, thrush, thrush with my heartbeat. Over the clot, just below the back of the knee, it was more of a gurgling squeak. Oh ya, that’s gotta be a problem. Sonograms are amazing.
The second strange pain was just under my bottom rib on my right side. It appeared a few mornings as I awakened and rose, and it, too, would quickly fade away as I began moving about. Noting there was something peculiar about it, nonetheless I dismissed it as just gas that when I was horizontal was able to gurgle and burble a tiny bubble at a time to collect into a specific corner of my intestines.
Meanwhile, my other doctor and I had adjusted my psych meds. I’ve been using anti-depressants for about 25 years now, without which I would be either living in cardboard under a bridge or dead, so, to put it plainly, people who say depression isn’t real can kiss my hairy ass. For the last 20 years or so I’ve had a nearly an unchanging prescription. For months I hadn’t been at my usual level of productivity, and, thoroughly aware that there are many variables affecting daily, weekly, and monthly mental health, my shrink and I decided to try a supplemental anti-depressant as a fine-tuning experimental measure. It didn’t seem to have any clear effect, so we slightly increased the dosage. That’s about when I started getting that odd pain in my side on some mornings, and the DVT in my leg, and that’s when my cancer was found. It was two weeks later that I remembered that occasionally a side affect of the supplemental anti-depressant was constipation and gas (and by the way, that is NOT a good combination!)
While waiting for official diagnosis I knew damn well something was wrong. One night, as I crunched my gut to lift my legs into bed, I was slammed with an invisible sucker punch under the right side of my rib cage.
Understand that I am not a total stranger to pain. No one who knows me at all would describe me as macho, but neither would they describe me as a total wuss. In my youth I wrecked motorcycles – on the dirt and on the road – until I lost count of the incidents. I’ve broken bones, had concussions, a twisted knee, lacerations, stepped on spiny sea urchins, etc. Once – surely as many thousands of other people have – I had Novocaine shots into the roof of my mouth, which resulted in my head staying perfectly still in the dentist’s chair while all my limbs and whole body rose two feet in the air and shuddered like in a cartoon (okay, an exaggeration, but you get the idea: it hurt like a somnabitch.) Another time, on my back after flash-burning the skin off my left arm from elbow to fingertip, I turned my face from the doctor to see my upright forearm and hand spookily quivering all on its own (burns are a bitch.) During all of those incidents, I may have shouted, or muttered long, spitting curses, or bit my lip and paced until I didn’t feel like a tea kettle about to explode, but I’ve never felt sorry for myself. It’s always just pain, most probably from something stupid I did to put myself in its way. There is no immediate escape from it, and then sooner or later it fades, and life goes on. More than once I have cried and even sobbed over severe heartache, but more than any other emotion, I’ve gotten only angry at myself over physical pain. So, the point is, though I make no claim to being a super-studly man of steel (who doesn’t get himself hurt doing stupid shit), I am not a wuss, and I do have experience with physical pain.
This sucker punch under the right side of my ribs was a pain like no other I’ve ever known. The “Spinal Tap” dial was turned up past the max of 10 to 11. I could feel distinct bands of gut muscle or whatever over-tightened and vibrating. No, I don’t know about childbirth or kidney stones, but damn, this hurt. It lasted plenty long enough for me to have only one insistent, persistent, slow-motion thought: What the hell is happening?! As it eased, next I had only two thoughts: WHAT THE FUCK???!!! and, looking through my ceiling up into the cosmos, HEY! That was totally unnecessary! You had me at, “Ouch!” WTF?! As the pain subsided, in the dark, in my underwear, on my knees and leaning against the wall, I was sweating and panting in very short, sharp breaths. Ya, no doubt about it, all of a sudden, I had a serious health problem. I didn’t need no stinkin’ medical tests to know that.
Go to next post –> Diary of My Death, Post #2