I spent five months in drug rehab in 1987. I was seventeen years old. The youngest person in the adult unit, I was a little too mature for the adolescent unit. The idea of being locked up had never occurred to me as a thing that would actually happen. Looking back on it, I consider myself lucky that I ended up in there instead of jail. It was a mental hospital, so I met a lot of interesting people.
Life in the hospital was interesting. I smoked cigarettes with a NASA scientist (I’ll call him Jack) in the common area. He came to the hospital to get his medications adjusted whenever he had a manic episode. Part of his mania was writing nasty limericks on the whiteboard (it might have been a chalkboard). I would go to the common area to talk to Jack when I couldn’t sleep which was often. Jack would be there suffering over his latest limerick that he had written for us all to see.
“Larry. What do you think?” Jack would ask me.
“I don’t know. Give me a minute.”
These limericks were always about some scantily clad girl by some famous river becoming more scantily clad in some clever turn of words. I was expected to laugh and appreciate the depths of his lewd genius. I did my best to express my appreciation as he would be disappointed if I didn’t absolutely love his poem. Then we would have to discuss what was wrong with his five line poem in detail. I made sure to laugh loudly to avoid this. Then we would move on to the ten games of chess that he would insist that we play. Jack always won, but one time I felt like a winner when I made it seven moves before being beaten.
Then one night, I went to the common area and Jack had filled the board with equations.
“What do you think of that Mr. Lines?”
“I don’t think I understand any of that.”
“Well let me explain it to you.” Then Jack explained each step from the beginning in great detail. I’m not sure I understood it, but it looked impressive. A week later Jack was gone. He was well enough to go home.
Last week, I ventured out to Tomball to return a bass guitar that I had borrowed from my friend James. I haven’t been anywhere in months except MD Anderson and the grocery store for curbside pickup. It took about an hour to get there with traffic. The frenetic pace of the freeway had me feeling exposed and fragile. When I pulled into the neighborhood, I saw a man walking his dog, unmistakably James. We exchanged greetings and then I continued on to his house and parked.
“I was about to light a fire in the yard if you want to stick around for a bit.”
The night was overcast with the first real chill of autumn. Sitting around a fire talking to an old friend seemed like a perfect way to spend a few hours, so we loaded up some firewood and took it out into the yard with some chairs. We listened to some music, talked about the weather, caught up on some current events in each other’s lives, and stared at the fire. I wanted to stay longer but I also felt a little shaky being out, like I was on a pass from the hospital. I also had obligations in the morning. Iggy had his SAT in morning and Lucy had school. James and I parted with promises of future engagements around this same fire with guitars and beer, then I drove back into the city.
I stopped at Troy’s house to drop off an external hard drive reader. He had a computer that had crashed, and he needed to retrieve some files off the disk. I sat with him for a short time to discuss how he might go about getting the files, something I have done with Troy hundreds of times, but I felt exposed again. My anxiety built as I sat there.
Ashley was watching television in the next room and kept asking me questions about cancer, the kids, and other things. I referred to my previous blog post a couple times.
“I’ve been meaning to read it, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe I’ll do that now.”
For the rest of the time I sat with Troy working through his computer problems, I could hear Ashley in the other room laughing and exclaiming at the appropriate places. There was something comforting in the exchange. I don’t get to interact with that many people in my strict quarantine. Outside of hearing Yolanda’s reactions, my discussion with the world in my blog is one-sided. I experienced an odd satisfaction when she reached the more cringe-worthy parts.
On Thursday, I went to MD Anderson for bloodwork and a CT Scan. I made Yolanda laugh on the way as I ranted about the general anxiety brought about by this election season. I don’t think there is any good way to frame this experience. We are all in the middle of it. I wonder how I would describe it in twenty years. I wonder if I’ll be here in twenty years.
As I went through the stations at MD Anderson, I wondered how many times I have had my blood drawn in the last fourteen months. How many more times would I have my blood drawn? How many more CT Scans? And of course, my thoughts turned to the results of the bloodwork and the CT Scan.
The next day, I met with Dr. Kee. I couldn’t help getting a little wound up about this discussion. I try to give myself room for these feelings since his assessment could mean so much.
I met with the nurse first. He was thorough as usual, “Are you in any pain?”
“As a matter of fact, my shoulder has been hurting.”
“On a scale of one to ten, how does it feel right now?”
“Well, it is only when I’m raising my arm, so it doesn’t hurt at all right now.”
“So. On a scale of one to ten, how much does it hurt right now?”
“Um… A one. I guess.”
“Have you fallen in the last thirty days?”
I often wonder about these questions. There is a questionnaire that I am asked to fill out every second or third visit that asks about abuse and neglect from my primary caregivers at home. I like to joke about it with the kids.
“Why you gotta give me a hard time? I’m gonna report you to MD Anderson!”
After we got through these questions, he told me that Dr. Kee would be in shortly. I tried to pay attention to some social media apps on my phone. Toyed with answering a few emails. Dr. Kee entered with a few printouts in his hand. We exchanged the usual social greetings then got down to business.
“How are you feeling?”
“The Irinotecan really messes me up. I think it gets a little psychological as well. I get nauseous at the mention of it. But overall I am all right. I am meditating more to get through it. I can’t help but puke at least once even with all the anti-nausea medication.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. At least you’re staying hydrated. Your liver and kidney function are at least near normal.”
“Well. That’s good.”
“Your CEA is down to 4.4.”
CEA is a protein that colon cancer cells produce. This is the lowest that number has been since they started measuring it over a year ago. It was encouraging news.
“The scans don’t show any new growths that we can see, and the nodules in your lungs are completely unchanged.”
I could feel relief wash over me. These nodules have been a question for some time. They are too small to biopsy, but they have to be treated as if they are cancer since there is no evidence that they existed before I was diagnosed with cancer. Unchanged doesn’t mean that they aren’t cancer, but it does mean that they aren’t something to worry about right now. It has been almost a year since they were first discovered.
“So what we are going to do now is go to what we call a maintenance regimen. We will remove the Irinotecan from the chemo that we are giving you which leaves the Flourouracyl and the Avastin. We’ll do that for a while. If your numbers come back up, we will put you back on the Irinotecan.”
This was unexpected news. “Oh wow. It will be nice to have a break from that.”
Dr. Kee started looking at a calendar, “Also. It looks like at the end of November your treatment will fall on the day after Thanksgiving. Do you want to delay that for a week?”
“I don’t know. How does that play out around Christmas?”
“If we were to stay on the same schedule, you would end up with a treatment starting on Christmas day. Let’s delay the one at the end of November. That puts you on New Year’s Day.”
“That sounds great.”
“Anything else going on?”
“I am getting dizzy from time to time, but I think it is from fluid moving around in my ears.”
“Well, let me know if this sticks around. We’ll do a scan of your brain if we have to. I had a guy one time that ended up with a lesion in his brain. It’s really unlikely with colon cancer cells to go to the brain, but it’s worth watching out for.” Cancer news is always like this. Everything is something to watch out for. “Anything else?”
I described the pain in my shoulder. “I’m not sure if it’s relevant to the cancer, but I thought I would bring it up.”
“The CT Scan won’t pick up anything like that in your shoulder except for a bone cancer or something like that. We didn’t see anything, so it’s probably something else. You would have to go get an MRI and talk to an orthopedic doctor.”
“Okay. I’ll do that if it persists.”
“Okay. Well. I think you’re doing all right. Any other questions?”
“How long can this kind of treatment work? Is it just how long I can tolerate the chemo?”
“No. It usually just stops working. I have had patients go as long as ten years before that happens. Then we have to move onto something else.”
“I can handle that for now.”
“Okay. Then I will take the Irinotecan out of today’s treatment, and we’ll see you after the holidays.”
I am sure that with as long as Dr. Kee has been doing this, he is aware of what a relief such a small gesture can be. Removing a drug that has really crushed me, even temporarily. An extra week without chemo during the holidays. What great news. I went home, ate lunch, and returned to MD Anderson for the treatment at the allotted time. I went home with the bag full of Flourouracyl and had a much better weekend than I had two weeks ago.
Even without the Irinotecan, I was exhausted last night with the treatment over and went to sleep early. I woke in the morning after a disturbing dream.
“What’s wrong? You okay?” Yolanda asked.
In all seriousness, I said, “I had a dream where I had six testicles.”
Yolanda couldn’t even contain it. She laughed for a long time. I definitely saw the humor but was unable to feel it at the time. My mind drifted to Jack. I wondered where he was. Could he even still be alive? How long did the adjustments to his medications continue to work?
“There was a young man from Houston…”
You see where this is going.
It has occurred to me that some people have the impression that I will be at the benefit concert on November 8, but I will not be. The current autumn outbreak of COVID-19 makes it a little too risky for me. I have been really humbled by the people that have donated to the GoFundMe, the Patreon memberships, and even the email subscriptions. A big thank you to everyone.