I’m a big believer that cancer intensifies everything, and almost overnight. A journey in treatment is a microcosm of a life, but instead of taking eighty years, it can happen in as little as eighteen weeks. You love harder, hurt more painfully, fall more rapidly, grow more quickly, and pull off the stupidest of the stupid with a flick of the wrist.
It’s the stupidity that I’d like to focus on today, primarily because I’m so good at it, but secondarily because I went to help you avoid the very real potential of alienating every person around you. And the really amazing thing is that it can happen so fast. So don’t blink or you might miss out on all the fun.
I went from finding a lump in my abdomen to starting a chemotherapy drip in seventeen days, which had to be some sort of record for the time. And in those seventeen days, I had an emergency C/T scan, a balltrasound, two surgeries, and enough needle tracks in my arm to make anyone think heroin and I were lovers.
I also asked my wife to marry me. Why she said yes to my kinetic ball of suck is still a wonder to me.
And once the chemo started and the side effects kicked in, all bets were off. If the host of the dating game would have asked, ‘What’s your favorite position, Dan?”
I thought I was going to die, and I found myself in this downward spiral of regression to my childhood. All I wanted was to be held and cuddled and told that everything was going to be okay. Thankfully, I had an amazing family and friend support system, so whatever I wanted, I received. I knew I was one of the lucky ones. I had all the love I could wish for, and for the first time, in a long time, it just felt good to let go and to have people care for me.
And then a funny thing happened: I didn’t die. In fact, once I stopped throwing up my shoes, I was on top of the world!
And not only that, but the chemo was doing a number on my tumor. So much so that after the first round of five days, it had shrunk by half. My pain, or at least my recent level of pain, had ceased. If someone asked me to fly at that moment, I probably could have done it.
But people didn’t ask me to fly. Looks are deceiving. My first reprieve from the chemotherapy made my insides feel like a million bucks, but on the outside, I still looked like a cancer patient. Complete hairlessness will do that to you.
“I’m well enough to go out,” I told my mother one night.
“What?!” Marie said, doing her best to hide the shock and awe of my previous statement.
“I feel great!” I said.
“Isn’t a little soon?” she reasoned.
“Maybe you’re right,” I reassured while secretly stewing in my pot of resentment broth.
During cancer, everyone freaks out. It’s understandable and unavoidable. The patient, however, gets the little added bonus of having insider knowledge of what this shit actually feels like. And no matter how hard you might try or how brilliant an orator you may be, you can never make people understand the suck of it all.
This was reiterated by, of all people, my own oncologist. Years after treating me, he was diagnosed with very rare bladder cancer. After his treatment, he told me that the one thing he totally misread was the sheer ferocity of the side effects, especially lethargy.
I’ve heard that people get tired, but you only realize how bad it is when you start to tell yourself that it’s going to take you twenty-two steps to go to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and you reason with yourself that it might not be worth the effort.
My biggest problem was that I knew my illness really threw my family and friends for a loop, and I spent way too much time coddling them as they coddled me. What I should have been doing was simply being honest, in all aspects. This factoid was lost on me.
“Maybe you should stay home,” said my mom.
“Maybe you just need some tequila and strippers,” said my friends.
“Maybe you should…” said everyone.
And with each “maybe,” the resentment grew, rapidly, into a monster that I could no longer control. I can’t tell you how many outbursts I had at the people who loved me the most. I made my mother cry on at least two occasions, which was even worse than the look on my dad’s face when he saw the 1.4 cumulative GPA on my sophomore end-of-year report card.
No, I’m not kidding.
And before I knew it, because of my wanting to please and my lack of honesty, I had alienated every single human being I knew. And if I thought I was miserable before, now I was in the seventh bowel of hell.
Apart from the fear of death, for me, there is no greater fear in a cancer fight than feeling alone. And here I was, the sole inhabitant of my own private island of despair. You know it’s bad when your body is getting better, but your soul is getting worse.
And I know I’m not the only one who has gone through this. I have talked to countless people who have said the exact same thing… that they saw the tsunami coming, and they simply couldn’t get out of their own way, even when higher ground was achievable.
As I look back, only one thing could have saved me from the misery that was at least partially self-inflicted: the truth. I’m not saying with 100% accuracy, but if I had just been truthful with people, had trusted my instincts instead of trying to help those close to me, I think things would have been easier.
“Maybe you should stay home.” There will be plenty of time to stay home. I feel good. I want to go out.
“Maybe you need Tequila and strippers.” I vomit enough as it is. The gesture is lovely, but I’m not myself, so I’d prefer you come over, we’ll have some green tea, and we can look up strippers online.
“Maybe you should…” I will be honest and tell you exactly what I need, because you are offering what you think I need. If I’m honest and upfront, and you have the information you need, maybe we avoid a lot of unpleasantness.
I’ve always loved the saying, “If you tell the truth, you never have to remember the lie.” The same goes for talking with loved ones when you have cancer. It may be hard at times, but Colonel Nathan R. Jessup had it so wrong when he said, “You can’t handle the truth!”
Actually Colonel, they can.
If you don’t see a new blog within a few weeks, you’ll know I’ve been Code-Redded. Send help.