Hey, baby! Whether you’re here because you like the comedy or the train wreck, it’s Cancer Monday! And this week is a double whammy because you’re getting chapters 7 and 8 together! Oh, my goodness. What a deal.
So. If you’re all caught up and want to continue reading, please do! If you’re new here. WELCOME. This is a story about when I had cancer. Sometimes it’s happy. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes there is just fierce ambivalence to the force of life. Click here to jump to the beginning and start reading this tale of wonderful woe from the very top.
For the past few days, I’ve been drinking a radioactive concoction called barium and trust me, there is neither anything berry or yum about it. Seventy-two hours ago, a small yellow package showed up at my front door postmarked from the hospital, asking that I mix this powder with water and drink deeply. How to describe it? So many competing tastes and textures. If I were being polite, I would say it has the consistency of semen swimming in powdered eggs (powdered lumps included) and tastes of Elmer’s glue with just a hint of mint.
So no, it’s not terrible but it is bad enough to make me plug my nose and gag while I try to chug it as quickly as possible lest flies mistake it for what it smells like and begin to lay eggs in it.
The chemical drink, I’m told, causes my insides to “light up” and reveal any inconsistencies with a “normal, healthy human,” which, as far as I can tell, I am not. I’m not exactly sure what this procedure will be, but I assume they have some kind of machine that will take pictures of my insides; some kind of giant X-ray. I’m imagining lying on a bed and smiling; it’s school photos all over again. THEN I’m imagining going across the street to Denny’s because I saw that they’re featuring their seasonal pumpkin pancakes right now, and I feel like I deserve a little comfort food.
A male nurse with black hair and a soul patch approaches me with a gown and says, “OK, Mr. Brookbank, we’re going to get you in and out with your CAT scan. First, we’ll have you put this gown on and then we’ll get you all hooked up with your IV and blah blah blah.” Everything else he says turns into static. My eyes shift to my wife, who grimaces. I say, “Uh . . . OK . . . OK. Do you . . . do you have a restroom I can change in and, uh . . . have a panic attack?” and the male nurse with the soul patch says, “Yes, absolutely. Right this way.”
Inside the bathroom I change into the knee length, butt-revealing gown and stare at myself in the mirror; blue eyes filled with fear, wispy beard standing on end, skin the color of bad eggs. I don’t give myself a pep talk. I don’t say anything. I just stare at my reflection and try to imagine what it feels like to not be afraid of needles.
“Everyone is afraid of needles,” my wife says and I respond with, “No. Nobody likes needles. Not everyone is afraid of them. I don’t like the cold. I’m not afraid of it. You don’t like onions. You’re not afraid of them. My fear is deeply psychological and . . . it’s very . . . you wouldn’t understand. They’re pointy and silver and . . . They’re just so fucking pointy and silver!”
The Internet tells me the complex is called trypanophobia, an illness so foul that they actually had to give it a name no one could pronounce.
Soul Patch calls my name and escorts me into The Room. The door shuts and clicks behind me. In the middle of the floor is a giant Mechanical Donut, 6-and-a-half-feet high with a bed that rolls in and out of its delicious center. Next to the circular, steel pastry is a robotic arm that has a bag filled with clear liquid dangling from its “hand.” It is this clear liquid, I understand without being told, that will be shot into my veins to assist and activate the barium.
I ask Soul Patch how long he’s been doing this and he says, “Coupla’ years,” and I say, “I mean IVs. How long? Are you good at it?” and he says, “Oh. Yeah. Couple years. I’m good.”
Yeah, right. Your voice has the confidence of an eighth grader buying beer. Intern! Intern! Intern! And for the first time I find myself intentionally trying to focus on the pulsating lump of my lump, trying to distract myself from the needle.
I ask him what the CAT scan is for, and he noncommittally answers, “Oh, you’re a new patient, and we just like to do preliminary work on everyone prior to surgery,” and I say, “But specifically my pelvis, abdomen, and lungs?” and he says, “Uh . . . yeah . . . sort of everywhere, but yeah. There, mostly,” and I think, “Shame on you, kid. You’re not old enough to buy beer and that is a fake ID.” I think, “I know what you’re looking for. You’re looking to see if it’s spread anywhere. You’re looking to see if it’s growing. You want to know what to do if the surgery doesn’t work or if you’re too late.”
Soul Patch tells me to lie back and I do, reluctantly. He tells me to hold out my arm and I do, reluctantly. He holds my wrist and starts to slap around my forearm with two fingers. “How,” he asks, “are your veins?” and I tell him I don’t know. He asks if I’ve drunk any water recently and I say, “A little,” and he says, “Uh, OK. This is usually a bit easier if you’ve been drinking water but we’ll see what we can—” slap, slap—“do . . . . ”
My eyes are the size of dinner saucers, and my hands curl into fists of fear. I want to scream for Jade to bring me water, water, WATER!!! A cup, a glass, a gallon, a hose, anything. We’ll see what we can do??!! What does that mean?? I imagine him sliding the needle under my skin and into my vein, missing and probing, fishing, hooking, sticking, stabbing, wiggling, my wrinkled and hibernating vein exploding over and over, blood leaking out and running all over the floor. In my mind, Soul Patch keeps saying, “Oops, oops, sorry, again, once more, my bad,” until I finally just pass out.
“There ya go.” I look down, and it’s done. He tells me to lie back and keep my arm with the silvery, pointy needle sticking in it above my head. “Keep it pointed at the ceiling,” and I say, “The needle—is the needle still in my arm?” and he says, “Uh . . . no. It’s just a small rubber hose,” and I say, “Can I bend my arm without getting poked?” and he says, “Uh . . . yeah. I’ll be in this room over here and I’ll give you directions over the intercom.” I try to bend my arm and feel a little poke. Intern! Or maybe it was just the tape pulling at a hair. I don’t know. But I bet that needle is still in there. In my arm. In my vein.
Soul Patch’s voice comes over the intercom, and I turn my head to the left. He’s in a booth that looks like it’s being protected from radiation caused by nuclear fallout. I have to pause and wonder what sort of danger my body is currently in, what sort of rays I am about to endure. I try to remember what it was that The Fantastic Four were hit with when my train of thought is interrupted.
“Remember to keep your arm up—at the ceiling—like you have a question.” The only question I have is, When will this be over?
I have no idea how unanswerable that actually is.
The tech, from his bomb shelter, says, “And here comes the dye.” I watch the fluid come down the bag, through the tube, and into my arm, and then I’m pretty certain that I have legitimately shit my pants. Everything from my abdomen to my thighs is steaming hot.
The intercom comes back on. Soul Patch says, “The dye may cause you to feel like you’ve . . . wet . . . your pants,” and I shut my eyes and take a deep breath, trying not to focus on the warmth in my pelvis.
The bed jerks and slides into the donut. I open my eyes and read a sign taped to the top of the donut hole: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY INTO THE LASER. A female robot voice comes through the donut, The Bakery God, and says, “Hold. Your. Breath.” And I do. And I shut my eyes. And I pray. Not to the bakery god, but to That Faceless And Eternal Being. I do not blame you. I do not understand. Help me.
“You. May. Breathe.” The robot says and the bed pulls me out of the donut sanctuary. “Doing OK?” Soul Patch asks, and I say, “Yeah,” but in my head I think, Not so great . . . . Did I shit my pants?
The bed jerks forward again and the robot tells me, “Hold. Your. Breath.”
What hangs in the balance of this test? What will these results reveal? The thought of this being the beginning of something bigger crosses my mind, and I try to push it away. For me, surgery is the end. There is a definitive period afterward, and I go home and go back to work and that’s it but . . . .
What if . . . .
What if the cancer has spread? Lungs? Stomach? Liver? Is this possible? Yes. Yes, it’s all definitely possible. But is it probable? I pause, trying to be logical and not emotional and yes, I realize, it is probable.
“You. May. Breathe.”
Will I die in six months? Could I die in six months? I could die in six months. If it has spread, what are my chances for survival? The Internet tells me that, depending on what kind of cancer I have, it could be anywhere between 30 percent to 90 percent survival rate, which is basically like saying, “Maybe you’ll die. Maybe you won’t,” and then shrugging unapologetically.
“Hold. Your. Breath.”
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Like all good hospitals, ours made us wait the entire weekend before giving us the (maybe) life-changing results of our test. Over those three days, every stomachache turned into stomach cancer, every pain in my finger exploded into bone cancer, every headache transformed into brain cancer. By the time they called back late Monday afternoon, I had diagnosed myself as a tumor wearing clothes.
“What are my results? My, uh, my test results?” and the lady on the phone says, “I’m not allowed to give out that information, sir,” and I say, “I know. I know you’re not. But it’s OK. It’s me, er, my body. It’s my body. It’s not a secret to me,” and she says, “I just really can’t, and actually, I just don’t have access to the information. The doctor would, however, like to speak with you.”
Outside, thunder claps and lightening strikes and the camera zooms dramatically into my face and I hear the soundtrack of my life play dun-DUN-DUUUUUUN!!!
I take a half-day off work the next day and drive back to Arcadia to visit with Dr. Honda, the friendly neighborhood urologist. When I arrive, all the receptionists know me by name and smile and welcome me in and everything is just too friendly. Jade and I sit down and she picks up the same copy of Better Homes she’d been reading previously and opens up to the page she had habitually dog-eared.
A woman calls my name and both my wife and I stand up. I start walking forward while Jade casually slides the magazine into her purse. The receptionist leads us back through a narrow corridor crowded by old people with various urinating issues. We take a seat in the room where I was told I had cancer and Jade says, “Is this where he told you?”
And I say, “Yes.”
And she says, “Where were you sitting?”
And I say, “Here.”
And she says, “And was he right here?”
And I say, “Yes.”
And she says, “Did you cry?”
And I say, “No. I said, ‘Rats.’”
She glances suspiciously around before sliding out her hot copy of Better Homes just before Dr. Honda knock-knock-enters. Jade shoves the magazine back in her purse like she’s just been caught trying to purchase extra-tiny condoms. The doctor shakes my hand, and I introduce him to my wife. He smiles and says, “Nice to meet you,” and takes a seat.
To his right he sets down a regular manila envelope with my name scratched onto the tab. Inside that envelope, I think, is everything. My future is just out of my reach.
He makes small talk with me and asks how my job is going, and I answer in short but courteous statements. He finally says, “Welp!” and grabs the folder and opens it on his lap and here comes The News.
“You have,” and he slides his finger down the page, turns it, examines the second page, “stage one cancer.”
I drop to my knees and tear my shirt and wail and scream and curse the Earth and the doctor says, “That’s . . . uh . . .that’s the kind we already knew you had,” and I immediately sit back on the paper-covered table and compose myself and say, “That’s great!”
Dr. Honda says, “It hasn’t spread. We’ll do the surgery and that should be it.”
“YES!” We are going to (literally) cut this villain off at the pass and bury it alive. Goodnight, dickwad!
“Just out of curiosity,” I ask, “How high do the stages go?” and the doctor says, “Four. They go to four.”
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If you’re reading this with us weekly, thank you. The above chapters were such a bizarre place for us. Fear, uncertainty, anxiety. What is going to happen is a good question but what IS happening is maybe the better one.
Next week we’re going to get into sexy finances. That’s right, sweetheart. Chapter nine is about sperm banking. World’s most awkward excerpt below . . .
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The woman behind the desk hands me a cup and says, “Back through that door on the right. No lubrication. No spit,” and she looks directly at my wife and I say, “Oh . . . Ooooooh . . . . ”
We walk through the appropriate door and find ourselves in a room roughly the size of a hotel conference hall. Everything is white. Everything is sterile. The fluorescents buzz in the ceiling. On the walls: Georgia O’Keeffe.
Sitting next to the door is a small table cluttered with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editions. Motivation. In the center of the room is a chair that can only be described as something you would get a root canal in. It’s black, leather, and constantly at a slight recline. I sit in it and assume that this specific posture has been scientifically proven to help nervous men climax in public places.
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