Monday, February 03, 2014

A Bologna Sandwich

Shortly after I returned home from Mayo Clinic after my successful treatment for tongue cancer in 2003, I had the indescribably overpowering craving for a huge glass of orange juice, which lasted for days. I was at that point still taking all my nourishment through a stomach tube and was unable to swallow anything. I probably could have poured it into the stomach tube, but it was the taste I wanted.

And then when, months later, I was slowly able to resume drinking, I discovered that the acidity of that long-anticipated glass of orange juice burned my mouth. 

Today, for some unexplained reason, I had an overpowering urge for a bologna sandwich...white or sourdough…yeah, sourdough!…bread, two thick slices of bologna, a slice of cheese, mayonnaise, a little catsup and mustard between the bologna slices, maybe a lettuce leaf. I fantasized about opening my mouth wide, taking a big bite, chewing, swallowing, then another big bite, chew, swallow until the sandwich is gone. 

It is going on eleven years now, and I still cannot believe that I will never again have a bologna sandwich...not a whole one, at any rate, and even then not even one single bite without having to take a sip of water to accompany the act of swallowing, to wash it down. And never with the ease and pleasure I associate with the thought of a bologna sandwich.

I know, I know, it sounds like I'm doing one of my “Roger at the Pity Pool” numbers. I never have been one to suffer in silence. But really, I'm not writing this to solicit sympathy. Sympathy is not called for in any event. I'm just trying to convey to everyone who takes such ordinary, simple actions as having a sandwich for granted the incomprehensibility of suddenly being unable to do so. 

I bitch a lot...a lot...about the things I have been deprived of, and how incredibly much I miss them. Yet  I also realize how lucky I am compared to so very many people whose limitations are far greater than my own. Only people who have been deprived of things they have always taken for granted can fully appreciate what they no longer have or can do.

My "afflictions" are to a large extent limited to such simple things as swallowing and eating. I cannot imagine what so many other people endure without nearly so much complaint, and I know I should be ashamed of myself. I am truly in awe of what those countless numbers of people suffering fatal illness or severe physical limitations must go through every day.

But rightly or wrongly, I justify my eternal bitching in these blogs as being a cautionary tale of how quickly and how completely one's life can change, and how very important it is for each of us to realize that. I cannot urge you too strongly to take just a moment in the middle of any simple, un-thought-of daily action, like eating or running or turning one's head, and think of the myriads of tiny interactions of mind and body which are involved in and necessary to accomplish them. Of course you can't possibly stop to consciously think of every single action you perform; that's why they are for the most part totally automatic—so you don't have to. But to give an occasional moment’s thought to how utterly fascinating it is that we can do them at all can give a far greater appreciation to life.

And the next time you see a person with physical disabilities, resist the all-too-common reaction of pity, which too often is really just glorified condescension, and replace it with empathy by putting yourself, for just a moment, in their place.

Agreed? Okay, now go have a bologna sandwich for those of us who can’t.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (


Kage Alan said...

I don't remember, but did they ever found out what caused your cancer?

And I can only begin to imagine what it must be like to have cravings like that and not be able to satisfy them. There are many things I would miss in terms of food. The beauty, I suspect, might be finding new vices.

Dorien Grey said...

The 5-year protocol I entered when I went to Mayo for treatment was intended to zero in on the causes of tongue cancer. At the end of the protocol, they determined that my tongue cancer was caused by the HPV virus....the same virus that causes cervical cancer in women. It is most commonly spread by oral sex, and those tongue cancers so caused, if treated properly, have an 88 percent survival rate, as opposed to 66 percent survival for tongue cancers caused by other factors such as smoking.