cancer-ribbon

“Did you tie one on last night?” one of my co-workers asked as I waited for the production office coffee machine to conclude its morning ritual.

“No, just scratchy rock and roll throat,” I answered as I, mug in hand, waited for the black liquid to fill the carafe. That fall I paid little attention to the hoarse voice I sometimes experienced at the start of my day. It came with the gig. As executive producer of the entertainment news I still attended concerts, parties, and schmoozes, but I rarely drank to excess anymore. I had spent a significant portion of my years living the rock and roll life without falling victim to it. Well, not completely. Whatever changes were occurring to my physique I put down to growing old in a young person’s game.

My scratchy voice was the least of my problems. The world economy was in financial meltdown and the media company I worked for, like banks and other corporations, was suffering from what economists called toxic debt. My bosses had already forewarned me about potential cuts to staff and programming. It wasn’t just my job that I was worried about, but the fifteen young freelancers I had personally hired earlier that year. Christmas was four weeks away and I wanted to make sure everybody remained in a holiday mood. By the end of day that Friday my voice was back to normal.

On Sunday my wife’s best friend arrived in town unexpectedly. The three of us spent the evening reminiscing and drinking red wine. At a break in the conversation I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror. There reflecting back at me was something odd – a lump the size of half a golf ball had popped out like an internal alien on the left side of my neck. Concerned, but not wanting to ruin the evening, I pulled up my shirt collar and returned to the leather couch and stories from years gone by.

The next day I telephoned my doctor and asked for an appointment for my yearly check up. He replied there was no hurry and we should book time in spring. He then asked if there was something specific I was concerned about. I told him about the lump. He asked if I could see him that lunch time.

Three hours later I was in his examination room.

“Open your mouth and say “Ahhh,” he instructed. With his tongue depressor firmly in place he looked down my throat.  “Oh!” he said. Immediately he turned away, picked up the telephone and punched in a number. “I know who you have to see,” he proclaimed. “Damn. There’s no one there.” He banged the receiver down with frustration like a famous rock’n’roll manager I knew. He immediately pressed redial. Still no answer. He slammed the phone down again. I just stared. “Do you have a cell number?” he asked with urgency in his voice. I gave him my Blackberry number. “My secretary will call you as soon as we have contacted my doctor friend at Princess Margaret Hospital.”

During the journey back to work, with morbid thoughts whirling in my head, his secretary buzzed me three times finally confirming an appointment on Wednesday. I said nothing about the visit to my team. I had to keep my mind, and theirs, on the “heavy hitting” entertainment news and gossip due on the air that night about the year’s most talked about personalities –  the talentless Paris Hilton and the magnificent Amy Winehouse.

Two days later I was seated in the crowded waiting room of the breast cancer department of Princess Margaret Hospital. I was in that particular area because the specialist I was due to see performed his weekly duties on those patients with that specific cancer. I was one of the few men in a room filled with women in various stages of treatment. Sadness and worry occupied every seat. Sitting directly opposite me was a woman, about fifty years of age. She sat silently flanked by what presumably were her husband on one side and her grown daughter on the other. They were talking to each other over the bowed head of the woman, not ignoring her, but it appeared this cancer victim was in no mood for trivial conversation. Her eyes lifted up to mine. There was instant recognition that we were both inflicted with the disease. We smiled at each other knowingly. Her husband and daughter continued their chat. Just then blood started to dribble from the woman’s nose.  She was unaware. I silently motioned with my finger, wiping under my own nose. She understood. A tissue pulled from her pocket wiped away the offending trail. A silent thank you was exchanged. Her husband and daughter continued their conversation unawares. What kind of illness is this, I thought, that you don’t even know you have blood trickling down your face?

My name was called and a nurse led me into an examination room. Three doctors entered and introduced themselves as experts in various fields of cancer. They examined the lump, pulled it, prodded it, and peered down my throat. After numbing one of my nostrils with some form of spray, a tiny camera, fastened on the end of a snake-like wire, was inserted up my nose and then wiggled down my throat. I had my eyes to heaven, moist with tears from the unnatural insertion, and tried hard to relax while the three doctors watched a monitor as they maneuvered the camera around the base of my tongue.

“Take a look,” one of them said.

Gently, with the camera still up my nostril, I glanced at the image on the screen. It was like an over sized wad of bubblegum.

“You have a large tumour,” one of them said.

After the camera was removed I asked the obvious question: “Is it cancer?”

“Oh yes. And it’s very aggressive.”

I said nothing. A needle was lanced into the lump and a sample taken.

“Come back Friday and we will have an update for you.”

Back at home I broke the news to my wife. It was hard for us both to keep our emotions in check, but, for whatever reason, I felt confident that I could beat the disease. We decided not to tell family or friends until I was in control of the situation.

That Friday I was back at the hospital, this time in the head and neck cancer department. Once again the three doctors gathered around me. They confirmed I had squamous cell carcinoma.  While two of the doctors conferred, the youngest of the three asked about my lifestyle and other pertinent health questions. I was still feeling confident that I could beat this.

“What are my odds?” I asked him “Fifty fifty?”

“Not even,” he said matter of fact.

I buckled under the weight of the prognosis.

The two senior doctors finished conferring and addressed me.

“It’s growing quickly”, said one, “something has to be done immediately.”

“We could cut out your tongue,” said another.

“…and then give you a voice box,” said the third.

There was no way I was going to let them do that. I made my living with my voice.

“Well, there is an experimental program going on right now on the eighteenth floor of the hospital. You would be an ideal candidate. There are twenty eight people already under care, but I think they have room for one more. The drugs they administer have yet to be approved by the government. But I think it’s your best chance to shrink the tumour before undergoing regular treatment. All costs are covered, but you have to sign forms not holding the hospital responsible should there be any adverse effects.”

“Where do I sign?” I responded.

Ten days later, in preparation for admittance to the experimental program, I was in the hospital room where blood samples were taken. My wife accompanied me. There was one other person there – a mother of three children whom my wife recognized. The woman, who turned out to be a well-known journalist, mentioned that she had been a long term cancer victim.

“It’s a gift wrapped in barbed wire,” she said.

I had no understanding of what she meant by that phrase. Worried that this person might break the news of my cancer before I had a chance to inform those closest to me, I asked that she not say anything.

“It’s not my story,” she said with the confidence of a writer. “It’s yours.” The woman was then called to give a blood sample. Weeks later, I learned her cancer was terminal. Sadly, I heard she passed, but I never forgot her words.

My experimental treatment lasted nine weeks. Miraculously, it worked. The tumour shrunk dramatically. I then endured regular radiation and chemo for another nine weeks. When I was strong enough I went to work to not only remain in control of the situation, but to maintain a full pay cheque without going on short term disability. But, eventually, I became so weak I had to do exactly that.  I won’t go into all the details but, yes, I lost my hair, and much of  my weight; I lost control of my bodily functions, and my brain would go AWOL particularly when my head was in the bucket beside the bed.  The radiation exacted its toll. Large doses of morphine, administered to ease the pain, conjured up shamanistic dreams that were unsettling. The plastic feeding tube implanted in my stomach and the daily liquid formula (poured in three times a day) gave me no enjoyment, even if I could keep it down. But after six months of journeying me to the edge of death and then bringing me back again the doctors announced that the tumour was gone. I couldn’t thank them enough. My wife’s vigilant care during the sickness, along with loving help from my teenage sons, was also crucial.

I was then able to return to work. My co-workers and senior management had been incredibly supportive. But the toxic debt that had crippled the company was untreatable. The business had fallen victim to the global recession. Bankruptcy was imminent. I laid-off my team and myself. I then spent the next six months trying to re-build my character. I had changed, not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. The metaphor that came to mind was that of a laptop. The hard drive remained, but the interface screen was now wiped clean. It had to be re-established slowly. And it was different than what had been before. I thanked the universe which now allowed me to once again step out into the world with the gift of a new me.

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