Saturday, March 23, 2013


“Well,” said the The New Doctor, “bladder cancer can be fatal.”

            Ah. There it is, the statement never openly made before, never really even hinted at. “We can take the bladder out,” he continued. “But that’s a serious change in quality of life.”

            “No.” I’d given this some thought ever since being diagnosed more than a year-and-a-half ago. “No. I don’t want to do that.”

            “Ok.” TND didn’t argue. “The thing is the tumor was very close to the entrance of the bladder and so it’s conceivable the cancer spread to the colon. I didn’t do a biopsy of the colon during your last surgery, so now we’re going to have to do that.”

            Ah. More surgery.

            “Let’s have you go through the scheduled BCG treatment for six weeks, starting Monday. Hopefully that’ll work.  Then two-and-a-half months from now, we put you under and go in again.” So, chemo again.

            This is not good. Five surgeries in 20 months, five times under full anesthesia, each time waking up with a catheter. I hate catheters. The last bout with the scalpel left me debilitated and five weeks later, I still have not recovered my energy. I also went through a two-week long post-surgical depression that bordered on the suicidal. A woman friend whose health history is far worse than mine told me it was the depression she feared the most, not the surgical procedures. Another friend, a man slightly older than me and far more accomplished, said he had questioned his entire life’s meaning and found it all wanting after an intervention to implant a Pacemaker. Strangely, at no time was I told by medical personnel that depression was a common side-effect of surgery though when I mentioned it to TND, he was unsurprised.

            And then, there’s the fact that I’m old school. Being ill in those never-discussed nether regions is embarrassing. I don’t do urinary tract and intestinal stuff well; this is not the stuff genteel people discuss. Plus, my digestive structure and I had an understanding: Put relatively good stuff in it and it would not balk, nor need much attention paid to it. Now there’s something terribly wrong with the system; it’s failing me, betraying a never- stated trust. I’m shocked, angry, resentful. Eighteen months ago I was told this was a good cancer to have, if there is such a thing. It was non-invasive, easily treated; the original doctor had gotten all of it and after the second surgery called me on the phone to tell me I was cancer-free. Now I’m not.

            Some decades ago when oncological surgery was messier and far more invasive than it is now, my father underwent an operation for colon cancer. For weeks he was forced to wear a colostomy bag and I saw the effect it had on him. He became a shadow of himself, abashed and embarrassed by his lessened stature, and even my mother found it hard to be as supportive as she should have been. My father recovered. The doctors stitched him up and within a few months he was almost his former self.  Almost, but not quite. Something changed within; a terminal tiredness set in and the joys he was familiar with and could depend upon deserted him. I swore back then that I would never subject myself to wearing a waste-collecting bag, ever. There was no reason to think I would be put to the test.

            Recently someone asked me how it felt, this invasion that ideally should happen only to others. It’s a worthwhile question that forced me to step away from the engulfing fear that wakes me in the middle of the night and that plays hide and seek with me most of the day.

            What it feels like is all-encompassing. Its reality is everywhere, inescapable, the foreign presence in your home of an unpleasant guest who was never invited but somehow snuck into a basement bedroom. I might not feel the cellular invasion, but I know it’s there, blind and mindless but eager to spread. And then, for a while, if I’m engaged in a good book or conversation, when I’m writing, when I’m playing music with friends or walking in the woods, it goes away. Life returns to normal for minutes at a time, though rarely for as much as an hour. And then fear returns.

             I suspect I’ll get over it, but right now, that’s what it feels like.


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