When diagnosed with cancer, I paddled along with the flood of advice–except when I didn’t

Being diagnosed with cancer after a routine colonoscopy was enough of a surprise, like taking the car in for service and finding out they’d crashed it during the test drive. Even with a family history of colorectal cancer and the removal of precancerous polyps in previous colonoscopies, I didn’t think I’d be hearing what I heard on Jan. 11.

“You’ll need chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery,” the gastroenterologist said as the twilight sedation lifted.

At the Mission Inn, in Riverside, with Aunt La Rose and Aunt Helen, Feb. 24. Uncle Chuck photo.

But beyond the diagnosis itself, one aspect of suddenly becoming a cancer patient, the social aspect, was impossible to foresee. People expressed their sympathy and concern, of course, and they followed up with an abundance of advice. Sometimes it was practical, other times not.

After the shock of diagnosis, I felt a sense of peace about placing myself in the hands of the aces at Eisenhower Medical Center, in Rancho Mirage, and on the motorized trays of their imaging and radiosurgery devices. As my Aunt La Rose put it about EMC, “With all the old people out there, if they don’t know how to treat cancer, nobody does.”

I also benefited from other expertise. One friend, Litsa, had worked as a cancer-support counselor and knows her way around. She told me of a specialist for a second opinion and of a patient advocate in the hospital. As I moved through the tests and treatment, Litsa also met me for brunch or lunch, just to hear how it was going.

Before a CT scan on April 6. 

There was also my friend Judy, who’d started chemotherapy five days before my cancer was detected. I remember Judy saying I was lucky the diagnosis came early in the calendar year so I would quickly reach my out-of-pocket maximum. She also tipped me off as to possible chemo side effects. Another sage was Uncle Chuck, who was encouraging, saying, “They’ve gotten much better at treating this.”

Nevertheless, cancer remains a powerful mystery and inspires skepticism. Why won’t those fool doctors listen to vox populi? The advice that came my way reflected this skepticism. But when it wasn’t somewhat outlandish, the advice was simply not applicable–things I would never do. Praying, for example. If prayer worked, Jennifer Anniston would be sprawling on my sofa, sipping coffee and reading me lines from today’s paper.

I wake up every day in the same pretty good mood, without physical complaints, and am preoccupied with my list of things to accomplish. And there you by and large have the extent of my spirituality.

But that doesn’t mean my consciousness can’t be tweaked, right? Someone whom I think the world of directed me to a lecture by Louise Hay, a former model who became a self-help author. While ironing shirts one evening—it’s like meditation—I played the lecture. Hay’s draggy voice, intended as soothing, was soporific. During the preamble, I managed not to scorch a collar until she asserted that all cancer comes from the mind. I’d heard enough. During the first consultation with my surgeon, I had a look around his office. A Green Bay Packers cheesehead hat was on one shelf. There was also a poster listing the causes of colorectal cancer. Unless your head is up your ass, the mind has nothing to do with it. Number one is genetics.

At halftime it’s Dr. Cheesehead 7—Hay for Brains 0.

img_9156You’re probably wondering where your own advice is. See if you made the list:

  • Don’t let them give you chemotherapy or radiation. So I should go to a clinic in Tijuana and have fruit juice enemas?
  • Read such-and-such. The radiation oncologist, who fist-bumps, said it’s best to try to live a normal life during treatment. So instead of inspirational matter, I was reading John Dryden, including an amusing stage comedy. I also treated myself to the rare pleasure of a potboiler novel. (Usually, with my kind of reading, the pages don’t exactly fly by.) Most recently, I got mired down in excerpts of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the closest thing to lethal since all this cancer business started.
  • Join Caring Bridge for updates. I probably told too many people about the diagnosis in the first place, overshared with a couple of them, inviting a confidence they hadn’t sought. Maybe the Louise Hay thing was retribution.
  • Drink this (wheat grass juice, turmeric-and-ginger tea, alkaline water). A website says, “Alkaline water helps balance the body’s pH, which tends to be acidic because of our high acid food diet, stress, and exposure to environmental toxins such as smog. Alkalize your body pH from acidic to alkaline pH, because cancer and many other illnesses cannot live in alkaline.” Hold on. I have a pH factor? Please, not something else to manage. Now, in addition to appointments with doctors, the nutritionist, and the faith healer, I’ll have to start seeing a pool guy.

    My radiation sled. 
  • Get a second opinion—I know someone at UCLA. My second opinion was from a specialist 10 miles away, not 120 miles. As one friend who happens to be a doctor said, university medical centers are good for exotic diseases, but I’d be in fine hands at Eisenhower. Besides, some IkeMed clinics have celebrity donors: Bob and Dolores Hope, Frank and Barbara Sinatra, the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center, and more. My hospital has star power.
  • Medical marijuana. Two dispensaries have opened up in the nearby shopping plaza. I could walk there and not even get lost on the way home. But what about my daily to-do list? I’d get too disorganized.
  • Shave before your hair falls out. On the first day of chemo, a nurse gave me a nice surprise, saying, “You won’t lose your hair.”
  • Schedule all radiation appointments for first thing in the a.m. before the really tragic-looking patients are loaded into the waiting room. Indeed, someone really said that. And the Sisters of Mercy have an award for this benefactor of humanity, including a two-week vacation at the leper colony.

When chemo-radiation started in mid-April, I …

The PICC, inserted on Apr. 12 at interventional radiology.
  1. Felt thankful for my health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
  2. Stopped drinking alcohol. Maybe this helped; nausea never became an issue. The only discomfort was from the peripherally inserted central catheter, the line in my arm to continuously induct fluorouracil, the cytotoxin informally known as 5-FU.
  3. Had radiation and chemo visits after lunch, fraternized with the other patients, and developed a lot of empathy for children with cancer.
  4. Had houseguests during the six weeks of treatment, saw the sights, shopped in secondhand stores, dined out. Every Wednesday before treatment, Aunt La Rose met me for lunch at Sherman’s Deli.

If anyone ever asks for advice about cancer treatment, I’ll say: Try not to worry about money. At first I wondered if I could afford the co-pays, if I’d miss work. But then, for no good reason, I simply stopped worrying. I had to turn down a couple of assignments that involved travel, but mercy rained down when editors like Yoav Gilad came through with jobs I could do at my desk. The editors of Robb Report gave me reason to look beyond treatment, dangling assignments in Italy for the latter half of June. (One of them had me astride a Ducati for several hundred kilometers, which is preferable to riding a Varian RapidArc linear accelerator.) And on top of everything else, I benefited from unforeseen generosity. My sister Kate sent a check for $100. Naturally, I’m still looking for the missing zeroes to the left of the decimal point.

Astride the Ducati on Italy’s Adriatic coast, July 3. 

They said the treatment was aggressive because of my, ahem, relative youth. Since it ended on May 26–the treatment, not my youth–I’ve had two CT scans, an MRI, and an exam and biopsy under anesthesia. The biopsy result was negative. “Complete pathologic response,” the report says. Drs. Cheesehead and Fist Bump have told me I’m their fourth patient who’s shown this. No low-anterior resection for me yet. A PET scan before year’s end will let them keep an eye on things.

Instead of spending six to eight weeks this autumn recovering from a difficult operation, I get to work on house and garden projects, push the wheelbarrow around, mix cement, and climb the ladder.

Ride motorcycles, too.

Here’s to appreciating every moment of everything you love and all the people, too.

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