There are few journeys more “narrow to the bone” than a cancer diagnosis with an uncertain future. Like the crack of a gavel, this sentence was handed to me by my oncologist, Dr. Mark Schroeder, in early August. I completed my third week of radiation treatment and chemotherapy on Friday.
Whether or not to write about the experience troubled me for weeks. As a Journal columnist for 20 years, I had publicly opined on many far-ranging life events: my divorce, marriage, the births of my children. Sensitivities could be handled with prudence, especially the privacy of others, I felt — but to what end?
The answer to this formed two days into chemo and radiation. Fifteen years past, my Dad underwent treatment for cancer at this same Vucurevich Center I now daily attend. So, too, my twin brother, James, who succumbed to his cancer 10 years ago. At the time, I was very aware my grasp of the depth of their struggles was painfully inadequate. It felt like a failure of caring.
Here is an opportunity to report from beyond this veil, as it were, and provide details and observations from the battlefield. Experience tells me it would be useful. A Cancer Story starts today and will run regularly in the Journal until this journey ends.
It began as a scratchy throat. Last October, I seemed to have a lingering flu, chronic cold — something. I kept an open bag of cough drops by my chair. They’re not good with coffee.
In December, I began to lose weight. Given I weighed 335 pounds, it seemed like a good thing. By mid-April, I weighed 280 and was having difficulty swallowing solid food. I adjusted, ordering two soup cookbooks from Amazon.com. Two months later, I was down to the broths.
In mid-June, Brian Alexander, my provider at Sioux San, ordered a throat swallow study with a radiologist at Regional Health's hospital in Rapid City. When the radiologist entered the room to relay the results, his eyes told the story: Something was wrong — and it was likely bad. On to my gastroenterologist, Dr. Stephens. Her I knew. I entered Valerie Stephens’ orbit through periodic colonoscopies. She is a consummate professional.
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Again, came the look. After an endoscopy with a CT scan immediately following, Dr. Stephens entered my room. Her gaze was bereft. I had a tumor in the lower third of my esophagus. She worried about metastasis. Still, the CT scan provided a glimmer of hope that it hadn’t spread to other organs. Further tests, including a PET scan, were ordered.
A week later, the PET scan indicated no metastasis, no spreading. Hopeful news. I was left bargaining with the “C” word. I’m not in Kansas, maybe not even South Dakota, anymore. Now, my days are filled inhabiting rooms with machines from the set of Star Trek, while swirling around me I hear jargon that disinfects all but the raw reality: I have cancer. I am a cancer patient.
The human question, the pitiful plaint, rises daily from a swamp gas of fear: “So — what are the odds? What are my chances?” Doubt permeates like a decaying scent. Further, this repeats over and over like the ringing bells in a casino in Deadwood or Las Vegas: Dare I hope? But there’s no rolling the dice here, no popping in a token. There is no algorithm for mortality.
What are my chances? Who knows?
There are days to be lived, that is all. Until very recently, I’ve lived Dylan Thomas’s vivid line: “Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea.” Now, I’m a little less green, a little more dying — yet still I sing. The clinical answer to the question “Will I survive?” is indeterminate. Meeting with my oncologists, Dr. Mark Schroeder and Dr. Daniel Petereit, it hung over the room like a pall. Their answer to do I have a fighting chance: “Yes.”
I can work with that.
Next Sunday: Beyond the veil