A February Without a Valentine

My apologies for the delay in posting. I just concluded the four toughest weeks of my cancer journey so far.

You may recall, I was relaunching chemo after a five month break to deal with spinal and brain tumours. On February 4 I underwent three days of chemo in hospital, loading up on toxins. I also underwent my first CT scan of my lungs in nearly six months. I had expected some growth after five months of no chemo, but I was surprised. My lung lesions were more numerous and more tumourous. One had sprung up next to a kidney. My oncologist, known for not giving up easily, said we will get a few chemo rounds in and give it a chance to shrink the tumours, which has been my pattern over and over.

I went home, and began my worst chemo reaction ever, one that made me think more realistically about death and fear Paul Newman.  White and red cells dropped, plasma fell and my blood-clotting platelets plummeted. I was exhausted, and short of breath. The breathing was getting tougher every day. I bled urine. That sent me to emergency (empty!) where the nice admissions nurse and I had this exchange:

ME: “I have stage 4 cancer and just completed three days of chemo. I went home, where I suffered the usual nausea, constipation, fatigue, combined with this mounting shortness of breath and sharp pain in my ribs, but the reason I am here now is that, for the first time ever, I just filled a toilet bowl with blood.”

HER: “But apart from that you’re healthy?”

Robin and I laughed at her cheery optimism.

I was sent home with a referral to a urologist.  I returned days later about the worsening breathing. I was told the tumour was producing fluid, filling my right lung. Maybe it could be drained, but the specialist was away for the long weekend. Two days later I returned, coughing blood. It seemed to go away after a day, and so did we. Everything was a daze of illness and hospital visits.

One of the things I learned: no more Paul Newman. Two years ago, I watched Cool Hand Luke. The next day I had a CT that showed, for the first time, tumours were returning. Then, a week ago, I watched The Hustler. The next morning, the skin began tearing off my penis in bloody little patches. (Photos available for purchase). No more Newman movies! He is a blue-eyed harbinger of doom.

I returned to hospital February 16 and stayed for three days while they concluded fibrous pockets of fluid in my lungs could not be drained successfully. Within hours, I was accepted into the home oxygen program, where I realized my new reality was no golf, no long family walks, and as few trips up the stairs as I could manage.

I was a shut-in. Me and all the blue-haired old ladies, watching TV too loud and eating tinned nuts. We cancelled our trip to Hawaii.

Last Friday, I developed chest pains. We called an ambulance, whose staff determined it was not a cardiac event. It might be anxiety. What do I have to feel anxious about?

First thing Monday morning I met with my oncologist for my onward and upward pep talk.

It didn’t go that way.

“Mike, We’ve reached that point we’ve dreaded for years. I’m stopping your chemo.”


“Because it’s killing you.”

“Can’t we just reduce it?”

“It wouldn’t be nearly strong enough to eliminate your disease, which is worsening every few days. So I’m moving you into the palliative care program.”

And that’s where we are, waiting to see what that will mean. And how long that means (no one knows.) I pictured palliative care as 10 people living in a beach house, wearing white gowns and staring at the ocean while someone plays a harp.

More likely, it is going to be lovely home care people visiting, making sure I am not in pain and can move around the house comfortably. I want to see old friends, but mostly I want to hug Robin and Will, as we have some things to explain to him.

I will post again.

Tell it like it is

We are so polite, as a society; so gosh-darned polite. Pardon the language.

We refer, in whispers, to someone’s alcoholism as their “condition.” An obese person is “unhealthy, but sturdy.”

I’ve noticed few people are willing to use the word “cancer” in front of me. They’re more likely to say  “How are things?” with a slight elongation of  the final word. “How are thiinnggs?” Or “How are (pause here) you (or here) doing with (definitely here) everything?” Everythiinngg.

I wouldn’t mind a refreshing “I thought you were dead.” Or even “I’m sorry about your cancer and also wondering how long before Robin might be ‘dateable’ again”?

I realize people feel uncomfortable discussing a sensitive topic. Many times, I’ve mumbled “So, is it true that you…you plan to vote for the (pause here) current federal government? Like, for real and not ironically?”

I get it. Some things are too dark to talk about.

In my case, I have no problem being all Chatty-Cathy about what ails me. I have no reservations about using the C word (cancer, not Conservative).

What really surprises me is how many of my health care providers avoid these direct words and phrases. My own oncologist, normally as plain-spoken as can be, repeatedly refers to my “disease.” It might just be a matter of preference for him, but I’ve noticed most nurses and other cancer specialists do the same. In fact, I rarely hear the word “tumour.” It’s usually a “lesion” or a “mass.”

I like the word “tumour.” It’s concrete. I know what I’m dealing with. It makes the intruder sound small, and beatable. “Mass” sounds like a piece of carry-on luggage hiding inside of me.

And referring to my “disease” makes me sound… diseased.

I have cancer folks.