Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of columns by former Journal columnist David Rooks, who is now getting treatment for esophageal cancer.
Wednesday, finally, came a break in the sickness, a slight lifting of the drizzle of nausea. The cloud ceiling rises and I anticipate patches of blue. My sinuses and esophagus are clearing; pain accompanies but without the rain: Praise God.
Nearly three decades ago, when Sandi and I lived in Portland, Oregon, winter rains would last for weeks. When, at last, the sun heralded gloriously, it brought the majesty of Mt. Hood to the east. Like a big brother, kind and watchful, Mt. Hood kept keep over the Columbia River Valley.
Meanwhile, to the north, hunched and ominous, sat Mt. St. Helens. In the absence of rain, Mt. Hood drew and comforted the eye; recalling rain, Mt. St. Helens gives a reflexive flinch. Now, well enough to physically hope for better days, my impending surgery comes into view. The “not knowing” no longer lies dormant.
As it’s been explained to me, the plan ahead seems simple enough. On Wednesday, Nov. 6, I will have a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan. At 8 a.m., I will drink some radioactive material — a white, milky-looking substance — wait a half hour, then be placed inside a large ring which sees and records the radioactive markers which, for reasons unclear to me, attach themselves to the tumorous tissue in my throat.
This should provide the most comprehensive view available of the battlefield my esophagus has been for the past ten weeks. Whether or not any cancer remains, surgery is inevitable. This means some portion of the lower third of my esophagus, close to where it attaches to my stomach, will be cut out. Then, using tissue from the outside lining of my stomach, a replacement tube will be fashioned and then attached to my remaining esophagus.
Seems simple, and terrifying. Should I survive the surgery, recovery, I’m told, will be anywhere from 4 to 10 weeks and will mean total reliance on IV fluids and feeding through a tube. Throughout, the main threat is sepsis, an infection caused most potentially by a leak or tear in the reconstructed tissue which allows fluids to go where they really shouldn’t be.
Weeks back, it was shared with me that the pain from sepsis is nearly unimaginable. I have not found that information useful — in any way. This is the Mt. St. Helens that chemo and radiation hid from view; it looms as it approaches. Surgery is scheduled for the first week in December.
Meanwhile, I am in the interregnum, the period of recovery. Lyrics from an old Willie Nelson song play in my mental background:
“It’s been rough and rocky travelin'
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but I’ve finally got my feet back on the ground …”
However long it lasts, I’ll take it.
Since this is the time to regain strength in preparation for the surgery and what follows, and since I have vowed to be in the fight, so as to honor the prayers and good thoughts for recovery of the many generous souls who send and offer them, I’ve been giving the details of this preparation quite a bit of thought. Food still tastes horrible, and the severe arthritis in my right hip complicates any plan of exercise. Advice would be welcome.
Then there is always the matter of the attitude I choose. The nearest similar experience to this one was Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood in the mid-1980s. I chose my attitude the day before I got on the plane to fly to St. Louis. I had to re-choose it, upon waking up, every day after until graduation.
So it’s been with cancer. There are mornings I awaken to the grim disappointment that it has not all been a dream, that I am restored to the land of not knowing. For a long, slow moment I stare up at the ceiling and sigh. Then, upon the quick evaporation of this chimera, I again see my trials as a cross and take them up. The choice is in the embrace, and I pray I’ll do so until the end.
These last few days of fairer weather bring another lesson. Certainly, what I have suffered softens me and renders me suppler to grace; but, compared to what it might have been, and could still be, my trial has been slight. Others, many of whom I have recently seen and visited, are being ground to powder. I am humbled by the life in the Lord they tenaciously embrace.
And for that I hold them aloft. Your prayers, please, for these souls — known and unknown — yet loved most intimately by the crucified heart of our Lord. They endure the winepress of sacrifice; accepting every indignity and doubt with the meek faith that believes whatever comes is reconciled in the whispered echo of an ancient obedience: Thy will be done.
God love you.
Next: Scanning the future