Fear and Mortality

This essay was originally published on February 19, 2015.

I’m beginning to think roasting is having a negative effect on my brain. For the past few days, I’ve felt more annoyed, pissed off and agitated than I’ve been in recent months.

The thought of shutting the laptops and avoiding social media has crossed my mind, but without access to both, I am not capable of working. I suppose I could go get a job as a greeter at Wal Mart, or a barista at Starbucks (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but that would be treasonous to my education, not to mention my body. I’m still not physically capable of all that much, and if the Internet did not exist, I’d be standing on an entrance ramp to Interstate 5 asking for spare change.

Why am I telling you all this? I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by information right now. I’m almost halfway through my 31 roastings, and I’m thinking about the next phase of treatment.

Shortly after roasting concludes, I will embark on a five year course of Tamoxifen, an estrogen suppression drug which will hopefully prolong my life and prevent a recurrence of my cancer. I’ve never given much thought to the “prolonging my life” part of all this; it’s been more like, okay, when I’m done, I’m done. Next? At the same time, I’m not ignoring my mortality, I’m just not engaging with it. I stole that from Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose moving essay was published this morning on the New York Times Web site.

You might be familiar with Dr. Sacks’s work from his 1973 book Awakenings, and the 1990 movie of the same name that was based on the book. That movie starred Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer, and Robert de Niro as Leonard Lowe, one of his patients who was left in a catatonic state after an encephalitis epidemic during the early 20th century.

I’ve never read Dr. Sacks’s book, but I loved the movie, and Robin Williams’s portrayal of a neuroscientist who wanted to treat victims of encephalitis, whose minds were being held captive by their bodies.

In his essay, Dr. Sacks, 81, told the world that he has terminal liver cancer. He said that at his age, he still felt that his health was robust, despite an earlier bout of a rare ocular cancer that left him blind in one eye. He talks of the unlikely recurrence of his type of cancer, but it found a way.

I don’t want to give away the brilliance of his words, but Dr. Sacks managed to articulate two things that I’ve been thinking about, but haven’t managed to get down on paper. He talks about feeling “a sudden clear focus and perspective”, along with a “detachment” from things that are not that important anymore. He says there’s still plenty of life left, which he intends to live with “audacity, clarity, and plain speaking”, along with some “fun” and “silliness”.

I realize that Dr. Sacks has a few decades on me, but when cancer enters your world, you can’t help but think about the specter of it recurring. I get that. I could go the rest of my life without it returning, or I could find myself in a pickle again at any time. The trick is to not let it rule your life, and to realize that it is okay to be afraid.

Despite coming to terms with all that goes along with a cancer diagnosis, it’s still possible to have a bad day or two on occasion. As I said, I’m annoyed, pissed off and agitated. The lymphedema in my left arm is not getting any better, and I must admit I’ve been neglecting my wrapping. My substitute radiation oncologist (my regular doctor is on vacation), and a couple of nurses, are waiting for me to admit to fatigue, and for my skin to break out in a sunburn-like rash. “You WILL have a reaction”, a nurse told me today. I felt like responding, “Maybe you WILL have an aneurysm.” I’ve gone from hearing the “oh it’s not that bad” approach from the chemotherapy people to Schadenfreude from the radiation people. You can see why I’m so irritated.

And so it continues. Fourteen roastings down, 17 more to go.

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