The Cancer Chronicles

All the famous folks tell their hard-luck stories in this country. Why not me?

lt_0“How?” my doctor asked over the phone, her tone too urgent for comfort. “How are you still standing?”

Damn good question. Especially when my body’s screaming, Pay Attention, Schmuck!

Fatigue took a tire iron to my stamina as I increasingly collapsed into whatever chair or floor was near enough to catch me. Violent coughing felt like my lungs were staging a prison break from my chest. Food turned to chalk in my mouth, my taste buds declaring a work stoppage. Pals, co-workers and a motherly pharmacist remarked that I looked “washed out,” my face the shade of an unripe pear.

Medically speaking: I felt like shit. And pretended otherwise. Being vertical meant being functional, which meant being fine.

Finally, in late 2011, following months of living in slower and s-l-o-w-e-r motion, I succumbed to tests, nervously awaiting the verdicts. Bloodwork verdict? Internal bleeding, extreme anemia, iron infusion required. CT scan verdict? Suspicious abdominal “mass.” Colonoscopy verdict? Tumor. Large. Malignant.

Yet this diagnostic juggernaut didn’t set off the emotional earthquake triggered by Those Words. Strangely, no one uttered them. Not a doctor. Not me. Though my brain comprehended, my psyche was in denial until Those Words turned up in stark black and white on a work-absence form completed by a hastily summoned surgeon, who insisted on cracking me open before the week was out.

“Reason for Absence: Colon Cancer.”



Why share this?

First, the news peg: March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and the American Cancer Society expects the disease to kill nearly 51,000 Americans—including 450 Nevadans—in 2013. (PSA alert: You’re 50-plus? Get your colonoscopy. I delayed. I paid.) Second, the professional instinct: Writers raid their own experiences to interpret the world.

Third … why not? Confession is what everyone on every network, cable channel, radio station, podcast, webcast, website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed and supermarket rag does in contemporary America. Once our innate self-absorption was sanctioned by Oprah, multiplied by reality TV and amplified by technology, confession became a national passion.

Celebrity disease? Juicy tattletales.

We’re past decorum dictating what private matters get public airings. What’s left is determining motives and consequences.

Tangible good came from Christina Applegate’s breast-cancer battle when she created the Right Action for Women foundation to provide inexpensive MRIs. Ditto coverage of Robin Roberts’ bone marrow disorder: On the day it was revealed, donations to the Be The Match Registry spiked a mind-boggling 1,800 percent.

Conversely, crass self-promotion marred ex-Monkee Peter Tork’s disclosure of a rare form of head and neck cancer—announced in a press release, along with tour dates. More damaging are marquee personalities spewing medical voodoo. Consider Suzanne Somers, a cheerleader for unproven alternative cancer treatments. Or Ryan O’Neal claiming ex-wife Farrah Fawcett’s death from anal cancer was linked to their relationship stress. As if you could be henpecked into cancer.

While well-intentioned, those Stand Up to Cancer specials that blanketed TV in 2008, 2010 and 2012 featured celebs’ earnest pleas to get tested—with no physician lending advice on who, exactly, were viable candidates for screenings. Famously, Katie Couric broadcast her colonoscopy, suggesting we likewise schedule ours starting in our 40s. Doctors say they aren’t recommended that early unless someone has severe symptoms or family history of colon cancer, making the procedure costly and unnecessary.

Public confessionals also foster a sense of solidarity between stars and fans, an illusion given the enormous imbalance of resources and circumstances.

Friends and family root for you. The world roots for them. Yes, they endure it under the public gaze, but their support system is millions-strong. Celebrities also can afford superior health care that’s out of reach for fans often screwed over by insurance carriers. Angling for sick time at work puts many people in a financial vise and can even endanger employment. Stars postpone concert tours or movie roles that might cost them some green but don’t threaten their corpulent bank accounts.

Worst-case: They’ll sell a vacation villa. You’ll get a foreclosure notice.


My own confession as a garden-variety cancer survivor? Before my surgery, an ex-colleague suggested that in the service of reassuring fellow patients, I chronicle my experience, including interviewing my doctors as they wheeled me into the operating room. Sorry—too raw, too of-the-moment, smacking of voyeurism. (Nor did I want to distract a doctor about to tiptoe through my innards.)

Now, hindsight allows perspective and perhaps that reassurance for new—and frightened—patients. My epilogue:

Owing to an A-1 surgeon, my tumor was ousted from its cozy niche in my abdomen. Though its march through my body penetrated the colon wall, it hadn’t breached it to invade the lymph nodes and metastasize. Category: stage 2. Recovery required several weeks, and my sole souvenir is a surgical scar etched across my navel (lending it a je ne sais quoi most belly buttons lack).

While chemotherapy was suggested, I declined after learning that doctors are divided over whether it provides tangible benefits at stage 2 colon cancer (it does at stages 3 and 4). Instead, I settled on regular monitoring. (Caveat: Each case is different, so patients should discuss options with their oncologists.) Another lab test on the tumor tissue placed my odds of cancer recurrence at 20 percent over five years—higher than the 15 percent average my doctor estimated for stage 2, but still a four-in-five chance the creep stays in the shadows. Meanwhile, I wear the “in remission” label.

Whatever your stage, treatment or support system, cancer is a profoundly lonely experience and nerve-wracking showdown: You vs. The Body’s Ultimate Badass. You know it needn’t be to the death. Yet it could be. Stalking the vulnerable corners of your mind, cancer is this insidious nocturnal creature that hibernates in daylight when the world diverts you, and whispers at night when the world recedes.

Peekaboo, I’ll see you … again.


Don’t plan on it, you prick.

Hopefully, my confession yields useful advice: Don’t ignore symptoms (I did). Get a timely colonoscopy (I didn’t). Should it still slip past your defenses? Stare the bastard down (I do, every day).

I crawled through cancer’s dark tunnel and came out the other side. Many others do, too. Life goes on, even for those whose names aren’t lit in neon. Me, I’ll just be grateful to remain “still standing.”

As I write this, I still am.

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