Six years ago I had a pocketful of platinum for a few hours. A priest and a rabbi looked at me wearing a rented tuxedo and asked for the contents of my pocket. I handed the rings over, and two very close friends placed them on each other’s fingers. Decades ago, it was a very uncommon sight indeed to witness the wedding of a Jew and a Catholic. It was equally uncommon to see a platinum ring ground up into a powder, processed, and injected into the veins of a testicular or ovarian cancer patient. “Love conquers all” is the common expression. As we evolve and learn that religious affiliation does not, in fact, have anything to do with love, and that love alone does not, in fact, conquer cancer, I still cannot get the notion out of my head that “jewelry conquers cancer”.
When you’re diagnosed with cancer, friends and family alike are instantly divided into two groups. After breaking the news, and placing the platinum ring on your finger, so to speak (that means starting chemotherapy), you instantly become invisible for one of these groups. They mean no harm, but for some people the concept of impending death is just too much to handle. You have cancer, the subject is inevitably going to come up in conversation from time to time, and it is simply so uncomfortable for them that they have no choice but to cut you out of their lives, like a tumorous testicle.
The other group of course becomes more important than ever. They are your Fellowship of the Ring. When you cannot fulfill your daily obligations, they gather to help. When you wake up from a nauseous sleep, they are there by your bedside. You become truly thankful for their love, for their patience, for the simple fact that they do not fall prey to the powers of the ring. You are not invisible to them.
And for the lucky ring-bearers who survive, it is truly amazing how, when the day comes that you remove the ring, both groups are once again united in their ability to see you. This is not intended as a slight, I’m just pointing out what to expect should anyone in my shoes, or rather pants, be reading this, looking for what to expect. It’s funny though…you’ll be very pleasantly surprised at which of your mere acquaintances become good friends.
I showed up at the hospital early Friday morning to have a cannula inserted in my arm. My oncologist had not told me to avoid eating or drinking, and I had not thought to ask. But Thursday night, I figured it would be a good idea to not eat after dinner, and wait till after the CT scan. “But shouldn’t I have drunk some of that radioactive contrast?” I asked the nurse as she poked the needle into my arm. She informed me that it wasn’t necessary. “But they made me drink stuff for an hour in Tallinn.”
—Yes, they do things differently there. Here in Tartu, you don’t need it.
Obviously I found this a bit strange. One might even say “bizarre”. I went downstairs to Radiology and handed my hand-written paper to the registration lady. Ignoring the computers on her desk, she instead opened a hand-bound book so old it most certainly contained the ancient spells of Gandalf the Wizard, and searched for my name. Three minutes later she found it, and instructed me to walk three meters down the hall and wait.
A moment later a nurse came out and asked if I had swallowed the contrast. “No,” I told her. “No one said anything about it, and I even specifically asked.”
—Of course you can’t have a CT scan without contrast, she began to lecture me. Instead, I interrupted.
“It’s not my fault. Oncology specifically told me I didn’t need it,” I insisted. She huffed and walked back through her door, only to appear a moment later with two plastic cups each one-third full of clear, cardboard-flavored liquid. Why she didn’t combine them into one cup was beyond me. But whatever. I drank them. A few minutes later she brought me two more cups, and I was instructed to come inside and pull my pants down.
A French friend had given me a personalized T-shirt that said, in French, “I may have lost a testicle, but not my sense of humor”. I could think of no more appropriate shirt to wear on this day. So there I was, wearing this shirt, my pants pulled down, laying on a table under a machine with large letters printed on the top that said, “SIEMENS”. The nurses didn’t understand why I was laughing to myself in this situation. Had I tried to explain the concept of irony to them, they surely would have checked me in to the Psych Ward after the scan.
As the table was thrust repeatedly into the giant hole of the Siemens machine, an invisible man (was he too wearing a ring?) from behind the protective glass repeatedly droned on the microphone, “Breathe in and hold your breath,” followed by “Exhale”. He had all the enthusiasm of a bus driver. Years of medical school, and this was his job. To say the same thing again and again and again. I understood why he didn’t want to be seen. I would have felt ashamed too. Maybe he should have studied more.
I went home, knowing that today would be hard in terms of concentration. I was at work, after all. I worked quickly, fully knowing that when the call came, I would be unable to work for a few hours, either due to excitement and relief or distress due to impending surgical horrors. The call came a mere two hours after the scan. It was more or less word for word the same as in the previous post. I hung up the phone, Mrs. Mingus watching my face for clues. I told her, she hugged me a little too hard, and I just kind of stood there, no smile on my face. Nothing. My vapid expression would not change. Walking around our home for a minute, I just could not think. I found myself making an announcement on Facebook. I hadn’t even had a chance to stand up and there were already three “likes” and three comments. Within the hour, that number was over forty. I went outside to the balcony to get some fresh air. The leaf on the ground was particularly interesting. The pattern of the colors was both typical and unique, like a fingerprint. I could not stop thinking about it. Suddenly I knew the moment had come. I sprinted into my home, threw off my shoes and sat on my bed. The tears were already flowing. I was already laughing. Tears and laughter. I had a tear or two when my daughters were born, but nothing like this. I was crying with joy for myself. Did I deserve this? Did I deserve to appear happier for myself than I was for my daughters’ respective births?
This was the start of what I’m referring to as a mild case of “survivor’s guilt”. Of course I was happy. I was thrilled! But did I have the right to advertise this, in lieu of so many who have not been so lucky? Who have actually undergone extensive surgeries, only to meet a bitter end? People I have known. Friends and family of people I have known. My own friends. My own family even, although none were close family.
I won’t call myself a “cancer survivor” just yet. When, or rather if, I get the “all clear” in about five years, then I will refer to myself as a CS. But with cancer, every victory has to be savored. I came to the conclusion that yes, I did have the right to be happy for myself, despite the multitudes who were not victorious. If even one can survive—no, let me start that again. Every individual victory should give hope to others. I am part of the fight against cancer. It is not in any way my responsibility or my doing that determined which role in this fight I played. That is blind luck.
Life will soon start to return to normal. My hair will soon start to look normal. Yet what is “normal”? Normal is the way it was. Do I want that again? For the longest time, my answer was a resounding “Yes!” That was before perspective slapped me hard in the face, and it really hurt. It was just what the oncologist ordered. If I can manage to live my life the way I want to, then I will happily say that getting cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me. If. If I can manage that. Now begins the real test. Not to survive cancer, which I wanted to do. But to survive life, the way I want to.
Life is full of cancer, I have learned. Full of tumors. If you do not cut out these tumors, even at the microscopic level as with platinum, your life will not be a success. “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” These words were recently rediscovered in a speech given by a rather famous man who built the computer I’m typing on right now, years before his cancerous demise. Yet he did not write them. He didn’t have to. He just had to remind us that these words had been said before. Hunger is youth. I will stay young and foolish for as long as life will allow me. He did say, however, that if you do not love what you do, keep looking. Don’t settle. Do not settle. I did not go through chemotherapy so I could devote my life to my current day job. I will continue to do this job well, of course. That’s not what I’m saying. But I will instead devote my life to my children and my wife, which admittedly I did not do as purely as I should have. That’s what I’m saying.
I find myself increasingly in the business of making people laugh. I have never done anything more fulfilling, more rewarding. I do it not for vanity, but for altruistic love. I am not rich, I cannot give money to help people. But I can instead give my thoughts, my words, to help others enjoy life more.
A few days ago I said I was looking forward to ending this blog with the words “The End”. That will not happen. I will forever be looking over my shoulder for cancer. “You will always have that worry,” several people have told me. I think a better way to describe it is, “You will always have a very good reason to be at your best.” I am lucky. I am lucky to be alive, and I am lucky to have had cancer, and I am lucky to have lost a testicle. It doesn’t hurt as bad when life kicks you where it counts.