Friday, April 16, 2010

In the House of Cancer

I received a routine letter today from the Mayo Clinic and was reminded that this coming June 3 marks the seventh anniversary of my diagnosis of tongue cancer, and there are no words that can possibly express how grateful I am to still be alive, and cancer-free.

I was admitted to Mayo--without question one of the best hospitals in the world--within days of the diagnosis. Upon arrival, I determined to keep a daily journal of my progress. I didn’t really get that far into it...I was a bit less than peppy there for awhile. But today's letter prompted me to look for what I had written, and I came up with one short entry, a little more than one week into my seven-week radiation therapy schedule, that I thought I’d share with you.

Wednesday, 11 June, 2003

Odd how we go through life automatically assuming that the way things were yesterday and the way things were the day before that and the year before that is the way things will always be. And when confronted by the reality that this is not a universal truth, it shocks us to the core.

I had no idea, when I arrived here, how profound the problem of eating would be. Eating is more than a chore. It is a struggle. Chewed food becomes a thick, tasteless paste (imagine a mouthful of crackers and peanut butter, but totally devoid of taste) which sticks to the roof and sides of the mouth, to the teeth, to the gums. Even accompanying each swallow with a drink of water is not satisfactory. Incomprehensible to those fortunate enough not to have experienced it.

I was just in the communal dining room [of Hope Lodge, run by the American Cancer Society, which provides free housing to cancer patients] trying to have dinner—cheesy potato soup, 240 calories, two slices of toast, water. Ate about half of the soup, one of the slices of toast. One of the other residents came in to join a group at a nearby table, and when someone asked how he was doing, he proceeded to tell them. A long, gothic tale of removed esophagi and recreated stomach and tubes running thither and yon into and out of his body. Did I mention I did not finish dinner?

I’ve become obsessed with calories, since I do not dare lose any more weight (only 8 pounds, but that’s not good) [I entered Mayo weighing 185; I left weighing 145. Cancer is a highly-effective weight-loss program, but I wouldn’t recommend it]. Stopped at Dairy Queen, where one of the staples of my diet has become a hot fudge sundae with marshmallow topping. I asked if they had a nutritional chart, and they did. I see that I will be switching from the sundaes to malts and of which has 900 calories.

Which, of course, opens the door to the possibility of diabetes when the bulk of one’s calories come from sugars. Sigh. Life ain’t easy, kid. Still, no matter how I bitch and moan, I am far better off than a great many people here.

At one of my appointments today, in the waiting room with his mother was a little boy about 7 years old. Totally bald, hooked to a portable machine which he kept on a chair next to him, and from which a tube ran under the waist of his shirt. Seven years old! He had the mildly lost expression of someone waiting for something, and I fear it was not Santa Claus.

Now, nearly seven years later, whenever I am tempted to feel sorry for myself, all I need do is to remember that small boy, and though I am a confirmed Agnostic, I pray to the little boy's God that he, like me, made it.

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