Thursday, September 29, 2011

The C Word

So it’s official, right there on the medical report, the no-no word, cancer. Mind you, the doctor didn’t tell me, I read the report this morning, sort of an afterthought since it is, after all, a synopsis of what was discussed. Or maybe not.

My dad had colon cancer back when you had to wear a colostomy bag, and I remember that when the surgeon came out to tell us that the operation had been completely successful, everything nasty had been excised, my mother burst into tears and said, “But what about metastasis?”  She had surrounded herself with her hundred best friends, all of whom were in the waiting room offering advice and telling her what the surgeon had said was good news, but my mother was inconsolable. My dad had cancer and he was going to die and that was that. She died of cancer a decade later, and he outlived her by five years.

So this is not exactly unexpected. Still, I’m… Well, I don’t know what I am, but here’s how I feel, kind of:  this is like not studying for an important exam, knowing you’re going to flunk if you don’t study, and then hoping in spite of everything that maybe you’ll pass, while knowing you won’t. And then, of course, you flunk.

This is not a cancer that kills everyone it invades; it’s in the bladder, which makes it both operable and horribly boring. There are no good stories to be told about having a bad bladder since, healthy or not, it is connected to a largely unmentionable organ. My friend Paul’s Uncle Lefty had this very same diagnoses and lived to be 91.

According to Medi-Net, “the five-year survival rate for patients with early stage bladder cancer is 85%. Fortunately, most patients with bladder cancer (up to 80%) will be diagnosed with a superficial tumor. If a tumor has grown into the wall of the bladder but has not spread to other organs, treatment usually involves surgical removal of the tumor, or combined chemotherapy and radiation therapy, with a five-year survival rate of 60%-75%.”

Those are pretty good odds but to tell the truth, anything that has the words “survival rate” with a percentage next to it makes me anxious.

Part of the problem, I think, comes from our having demonized the word cancer. We’ve made the illness, nasty as it can be, a catch-all phrase for anything horrible. Cancer has become the Al Qaeda of diseases. It terrorizes. The mere word sends shivers.

But I’ll try to put it into the correct perspective. As Harold Pinter once said, “I could be a bit of a pain in the arse. Since I've come out of my cancer, I must say I intend to be even more of a pain in the arse.” 

Words to live by.

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