Here I am again. At the end of another cycle of chemotherapy, anxiously awaiting next week’s scans to see if the toxic chemicals that have been pumped directly into my veins since May have finally rid my body of cancer.
Last Monday, I completed my eighth, three-hour session of chemo. The last cycle was, by far, the most difficult, since I had originally been told to expect four months of chemo. When my last round of scans came back after two months of treatment, however, there was still about 10 percent of the cancer still in me, though it was not metabolically active.
If there is one comfort, it is that regardless of what these test results show, I do not expect to receive any more chemo after October. At least for a while. The physicians assistant told me that my chemo regimen, ABVD, cannot be given more than six months. After these tests, the doctor will decide whether to continue with the final two months of chemo, or use radiation to destroy the remaining cells.
But the news that my chemo had needed to be extended shattered what had been a string of good news since my diagnosis. The first real setback. I was angry. Devastated. Depressed. The plan was to have chemo through August, not October. Four months. Not six months. I was beginning to wonder whether I would beat his disease. Whether it was even worth the fight.
That attitude, however, only made the treatments worse. The second hand on the clock moved extra slow during treatments, and each drip of the IV seemed like bomb being levied on the battlefield. Nausea intensified, as did fatigue. My body refused to digest food without supplements. I had no hunger.
My only escape, besides my loving wife, was a lone rock in the middle of a blueberry field across from my house, where I began meditating in the morning. There, with eyes closed and empty mind, the visual world disappeared and I could become the sounds, the smells and breeze. It was there, the self pity could be washed away and I could get back on track, at least temporarily.
My attitude got its biggest boost last weekend, when we finally made it up to my family’s camp in Blue Hill, an isolated cabin with no electricity or running water at the end of a rocky, two-mile dirt road. We arrived on Friday night, when the moon was so bright, we could sit on the porch and look at the island in the middle of the pond and Blue Hill Mountain in the distance, both of which were bathed in silver light.
We woke up and made breakfast at camp and enjoyed a quiet sun-filled morning. That afternoon, we were visited by family and friends, until being left alone, again, to the still night, through which we slept to the intermittent sound of soft raindrops upon the rooftop.
This experience has certainly been, and continues to be, a long haul for me. An experience, of course, that I will never forget. My body, mind and spirit have changed as a result of having cancer and I think I am just beginning to realize that. Perhaps the biggest realization over these last few weeks is that this chapter of my life will never be completely closed and placed on a shelf, never to be opened again. Cancer is a reality I will have to live with, even when, and if, it is completely eradicated from my body.
I never had that sense until recently. I had hoped to close the book on this period of my life. The doctors told me there was no reason to believe I wouldn’t kick this cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and live a long life. Not that I don’t believe them, but having cancer, it stands to reason that the likelihood of it returning is higher for me than the average person. Even if it doesn’t return, I will still have to be tested regularly and wonder whether a feeling of discomfort in my chest, neck or bones is cancer making its return.
Over these past few months, I have watched the physical changes. When I started therapy, I had a healthy head of hair and a beard that would have earned the respect of any members of the Dubliners, a legendary Irish folk group know for its bawdy drinking songs and rough appearance. That hair is of course gone. As is my arm pit hair and what little hair I had on my chest. I joke with my wife that I am also looking forward to going through puberty again.
Meanwhile, the dark rings have filled my now sunken eyes, which no longer enjoy a canopy of eyebrows. The crows feet that once only scratched the corners of my eyes have clawed their irrevocable paths deeper into my countenance – long lines that tell a story – the ending and moral for which is not yet known. My cheeks have hallowed out and my muscle mass has deteriorated. At times, I hardly recognize the man staring at me in the mirror.
Throughout this experience, however, my spirit has been fed by the support and generosity of my family, friends and complete strangers. It may sound cliche, but there really is not substitute for a strong support system. Not that doting and pity will help anyone heal. But simply knowing you’re not along in your fight, and that a moment of levity is phone call or a greeting card away, is a tremendous reservoir. Don’t forget the power of that should anyone you know be diagnosed with cancer.
So, here I am again. Here we are. At a crossroads, awaiting the sign.
Aug. 28, 2010