Saturday, October 26, 2013

Not Just An Academic Exercise


There are only so many ways to say, “Cancer Sucks,” but it doesn’t change the facts about the illness and it doesn’t change how I got mine and it doesn't change who else will find themselves dealing with all the less-than-fun aspects of “The Emperor of All Maladies.” With some exceptions, it just seems so random. Having been on the cancer battle lines most of the year, there’s just no getting around it and it seems like everywhere I turn, people I know are battling with me not simply as someone who is encouraging me in my own fight, but as someone who now has entered the fray with their own cancer. It's kinda like all of a sudden noticing the model care you just bought when before they were all invisible.

I gotta say though for me, it’s a truly helpless feeling to witness someone’s processing that they have cancer, but all I can do is be candid in offering what I have gone through and be a source of encouragement, hope, and empathy to others who are now in the fight…and that’s provided I’ve been invited to be part of that discussion.
 
The aspect of cancer I haven’t been able to move past is the obvious – cancer kills. Academically, in my mind, on paper, I get it. Naturally, that’s one of the first places I went when I made the connection that leukemia is a blood cancer. What were the statistics that I would survive? Wasn’t it enough that the hem/onc doctor in front of me pronounced a death sentence on me of 90 days? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it all. Shoot, I didn’t even know the questions to ask. My prognosis was pretty positive with a bone marrow transplant, but even with that, I almost died twice in the space of a week. And yes, I still haven’t wrapped my head around that either. I just haven’t quite come to terms with it except that’s what people have told me. It has been a purely academic exercise, yet it really happened.

Then there are those who really, no-kidding, don’t make it.

Twice this week, I’m facing that situation and I’m truly at a loss for words, but I can’t avoid it. You see, walking into the MTU, it’s not unlike being a big family.  The caregivers and the patients alike are all part of something bigger than ourselves and we have a good idea of how everyone is doing. We can’t help but get emotionally attached to each other. People knew more about my situation than I did when I emerged from the MICU and eventually into outpatient status. Many of us stay at the same extended stay hotel and we swap stories and ask after one another. Earlier this week, I met up with a caregiver outside the laundry room who was commenting how good I looked. I asked after her husband and she was rather candid in that he wasn’t doing so well as he was out of remission and rather disappointed because of where that put him in the transplant process. Somewhere inside of him, he knew there was more to the picture and even said that he might die. She, rather matter-of-factly acknowledged as much that it was a possibility, not knowing that the next day, she would be getting the news that he, in fact, was no longer a good candidate for a transplant, which essentially translated into him being now a terminal patient with just a couple of months left on this blue ball. I was just outside the MTU moments after she received the news.

What do you say?

I sure don’t know…except to go with my gut and simply be honest. It’s a tough thing to face death, but I have to say that now having done exactly that, it gives me a sense of peace, but clearly others aren't where I am. I can't impart how I'm feeling to someone else and things can change, too. Shocking, end-of-life news is something everyone processes differently. I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again, I have a lot left to do on this earth before I meet my demise and I honestly hope I get to do it all. But just like the caregiver I refer to above, the possibility that I may die before then is a possibility.

But I don’t know. I really don’t, so I asked a couple of nurses on the MTU how they've handled the situation over their tenures. Both have been working in transplant for years and it wasn’t all that long ago that the kinds of conditions that call for bone marrow transplants weren’t as successful as they are today. Advancements in pharmaceuticals have saved countless lives, but the nurses had to be the one to get families together to say their good-byes many times as the doctors either couldn't or wouldn't. In their experience, it again came down to being honest with the patient. They said that more often than not that the patient already knew things were pretty bad before it came to the point of ‘the talk’ and getting the family to a point of releasing their loved one with their blessing to move on.

Death and dying aren’t topics that people enjoy talking about, but evading them can be insensitive at best. Having come close to dying, myself, I can appreciate how important it is to make final arrangements so that those who are left grieving don’t have to second guess me, so yeah, I think it’s vitally important that people know what I think both in the legal and personal constructs. It’s not a morbid topic, unless of course, I were to dwell on the topic. With the experiences I’ve had this past week with incurable forms of cancer striking people I know as well as a couple of others where others are now starting their dance with the big “C,” I’m scratching my bald chemo-affected head a bit more than usual. Suffice it to say, there just seems to be no element of fair play, but then again, when did anyone say that cancer ever plays fair?


You can imagine that I’m a bit bummed about watching a member of our MTU family head home to live out the remaining few months he has…but at least he has a couple of months left. It’s definitely not a glass-half-full moment, but there is something in that glass. I’m bummed that I’m hearing from people I know are finding they are now fighting cancer like I am. But I’m still filled with gratitude that I’m making it and that there’s hope ahead and that there’s always some modicum of hope for those just finding out they’re now enlisted in a battle they didn’t choose either. I still don’t know what to say to the dying except the honest truth from my own heart because it really isn’t some academic exercise.

It’s very, very real.

Be well, stay strong, and much love to you all.

Music for the day from Craig David – Rise and Fall



Sometimes in life you feel the fight is over,
And it seems as though the writings on the wall,
Superstar you finally made it,
But once your picture becomes tainted,
It's what they call,
The rise and fall

I always said that I was gonna make it,
Now it's plain for everyone to see,
But this game I'm in don't take no prisoners,
Just casualties,
I know that everything is gonna change,
Even the friends I knew before me go,
But this dream is the life I've been searching for,
Started believing that I was the greatest,
My life was never gonna be the same,
Cause with the money came a different status,
That's when things change,
Now I'm too concerned with all the things I own,
Blinded by all the pretty girls I see,
I'm beginning to lose my integrity
Sometimes in life you feel the fight is over,
And it seems as though the writings on the wall,
Superstar you finally made it,
But once your picture becomes tainted,
It's what they call,
The rise and fall

I never used to be a troublemaker,
Now I don't even wanna please the fans,
No autographs,
No interviews,
No pictures,
And less demands,
Given advice that was clearly wrong,
The type that seems to make me feel so right,
But some things you may find can take over your life,
Burnt all my bridges now I've run out of places,
And there's nowhere left for me to turn,
Been caught in compromising situations,
I should have learnt,
From all those times I didn't walk away,
When I knew that it was best to go,
Is it too late to show you the shape of my heart,

Sometimes in life you feel the fight is over,
And it seems as though the writings on the wall,
Superstar you finally made it,
But once your picture becomes tainted,
It's what they call,
The rise and fall

Now I know,
I made mistakes,
Think I don't care,
But you don't realize what this means to me,
So let me have,
Just one more chance,
I'm not the man I used to be,
Used to be

Sometimes in life you feel the fight is over,
And it seems as though the writings on the wall,
Superstar you finally made it,
But once your picture becomes tainted,
It's what they call,
The rise and fall

As a post script, here are some thoughts on what to say to someone who is dying. It’s not the end-all, but it’s a good start.