Today, February 21, marks the first anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. An eventful year, as you might imagine. It’s all better now, but for a while it very much wasn’t.
For some folks, a cancer diagnosis is a bombshell, a bolt from the blue. Mine was more like the confirmation of a nagging suspicion, following years of minor but mostly negligible symptoms that had lately taken a turn for the worse.
The notification came by phone early on a Monday morning, following a routine colonoscopy the previous Friday. The call came in at around 830 am, under the caller ID “Austin Colorectal Surgeons,” so I had a pretty good hint that the news wasn’t going to be good.
But even if you are prepped for it, it’s still quite a jolt. Everything fades to grey and time stands still for a very long moment while you process the realization that your life has irrevocably changed, that you are about to experience a genuine ordeal, and that despite everyone’s best efforts, your days might now be numbered.
You continually swing between blind optimism and bleak fatalism, sometimes in the space of only a few seconds. To be fair, there were little hopeful signs, indirect but telling, from the beginning. The doctor’s tone was casual, betraying no concern. So either he had the worst bedside manner, ever, or he had judged that it probably wasn’t too serious. The follow-up visit was also initially scheduled for a leisurely couple weeks out, following bloodwork and imaging.
The first decision you face is: Who needs to know? I called exactly two people that morning, my brother and my girlfriend, in that order. Brother was surprisingly un-surprised, but supportive. No big deal. You probably caught it early. Cancer is much less of a threat than it used to be. You’ll beat this. That sort of thing. He had a bit of experience in this area, as his wife had only recently recovered from an aggressive uterine cancer. Notably, her doctor, on receiving the initial diagnosis, had reacted very differently than mine. “We’re operating tomorrow,” he had informed her, without preamble. Carolyn accepted the news calmly, which was no surprise since she had accompanied me to the colonoscopy, and was there when the doctor revealed that he had found an abnormal growth.
Due to scheduling blips and insurance issues, the follow-up consult didn’t happen for a full month. Most months are either thirty or thirty one days, but somehow this one lasted at least a hundred. Einstein could probably explain it. Every bit of energy not reserved for metabolic activity was redirected to maintaining composure. I hovered on the edge of panic every waking moment, which was almost all of them because sleep proved elusive. But even in slumber there was little relief, plagued as it was by unsettling, nightmarish visions. I was close to exhaustion by the time we sat down with the doctor to hear the prognosis and the plan.
The news turned out to be about as good as can be in these cases: Stage one, well-contained, bloodwork clean, no need for chemo or radiation. Surgery was scheduled for three weeks out.
It should have been a routine surgery followed by a routine recovery. But as a wit once observed, life happens when you make other plans. For reasons that are still unclear, after a few days the sutures in my colon failed, allowing bowel contents to spill into the abdominal cavity, leading to a nearly fatal case of sepsis. I was just a few hours away from complete organ failure when they heaved me onto the operating table for emergency surgery. I woke up to a changed world. For the first time since infancy I was completely helpless, dependent on the kindness and competence of strangers to keep me alive.
But ten months and a few days downrange, life is closing in on “normal,” which returns in stages. One day you find that rising from your easy chair doesn’t automatically generate excruciating pain. Crossing the room no longer requires every ounce of strength. A few weeks after that you find that you are once more able to sleep in the fetal position, though only on one side. A week or two after that you find that you no longer have to grip the handrail while climbing or descending the front steps. The persistent infections finally peter out. The brain fog begins to lift. Your appetite returns. You start to think about sex again. One day you find yourself humming a tune as you go about your routine. And so on.
There is still some work remaining. The emergency colostomy has yet to be undone, which will require a pair of surgeries, one minor, one major, with months of recovery to follow. It is also possible that the sepsis did sufficient damage as to eliminate this option. Scans are pending that will resolve this question one way or the other.
But early indicators are promising. My surgeon, who has described my recovery so far as “spectacular,” is saying encouraging things. Thanks to good genes and good luck and excellent care, I am months ahead of schedule on the healing curve.
And above ground.