Cancer

February 14, 2018

I have cancer. No, that’s not entirely accurate. I have lots of cancers. Let me explain.

I’ve known and still know a lot of people with cancer. Many of them worry about their cancer. They give it names. They talk about it. The obsess over it and they seem to get sicker and sicker until some of them just die. I don’t do that. I ignore my cancer and never think about it. I make jokes about my cancer and laugh and then laugh some more. I’ve got better things to do that worry about cancer.

In September of 2001 I had a funny-looking mole on my back. Turned out it wasn’t funny at all. It was melanoma. When it was diagnosed I was on vacation at a cabin on a lake in Maine with no electricity. When my doctor’s office on Cape Cod finally reached me it was on a Saturday. They said they wanted to see me in their office at 8:15 on Monday morning. When I told them I wouldn’t be back until Wednesday they insisted that I cut my vacation short and be in their office on Monday.

They were right. When they cut out the melanoma it was .96 mm deep. This is a concern because melanoma usually starts to metastasize and spread when it gets to 1mm. They caught it in time and it didn’t spread, so this cancer’s just fine.

I was diagnosed with extranodal marginal zone lymphoma on April 5, 2007. When they tell you that you have cancer you tend to remember the exact date and time. This time it was a blood cancer that had settled in my lungs, of all places. I was told that I needed to start chemotherapy immediately, and that if it worked, I might have a few good years. If it didn’t work . . .

The very next day I started chemo, and I would do that for one week every month for the next six months. It was not a good six months. They gave me several different kinds of anti-nausea medicine, but they didn’t really work, and I felt sick for most of those six months. In September when the chemo was over they told me that the tumors had not shrunk. Marginal zone lymphoma is what they call an “indolent cancer.” It doesn’t grow very fast until all of a sudden it takes off and grows like crazy. I had to go back every three months for a CT scan to see if my cancer was taking off.

It didn’t take off, and eventually I only had to go every six months. It didn’t grow, it didn’t shrink. It just sat there doing nothing. According to my last PET scan, its still sitting there doing nothing, so I ignore it.

In the fall of 2010 my PET scan showed something else in my lungs. This time I got a new diagnosis: plasma cell dyscrasia, another blood cancer that is the precursor to lots of different cancers. The concern was that it might be symptomatic of leukemia, so I had more tests. Turns out it wasn’t looking like leukemia, so they’re keeping an eye on it to see what it turns into, if anything. So far, it too is just sitting there doing not much of anything, just like the lymphoma.

2014 rolls around and a blood test shows that my bone marrow is producing too many red blood cells and my hemoglobin (the measurement of how many red blood cells you have) has gone through the roof. The diagnosis was polycythemia vera, another type of blood cancer. If something isn’t done your blood becomes like sludge and you’re at great risk for heart attack and stroke.

So, what’s the treatment? You’ll love this. They give you a therapeutic phlebotomy. This means they take a pint of blood from you every two weeks until your hemoglobin is back to normal. Personally, I was hoping for leeches. Louise loves this, and takes great delight in reminding me to go to the hospital for my “lobotomy.” Funny girl that Louise.

In 2015 there was strange growth on my arm. Yup, another cancer. This time it was squamous cell carcinoma. This is not really a big deal. They just cut it out give you some Neosporin and Band-Aids then send you on your way. If you’re going to get cancer, this is not a bad one to get.

Last summer, my PSA test took a big jump. The PSA test is one they give you to check for the possibility of prostate cancer. My doctor wanted me to have a biopsy to see if I had another cancer, but I put the hold on that one. If you know where the prostate is you’ll know why I don’t want the biopsy. There’s only one way in, and to me, that’s exit only. Eventually I’ll probably need to do it, but I want a couple of stiff bourbons to make the doctor look a little more attractive.

Today I went to see my dermatologist, and they didn’t like a couple of moles on my back, so they numbed me up and took some biopsies. They also checked my lymph nodes very carefully, and they don’t normally do that. I’ve been around enough to read between the lines, and it seems clear that they suspect the melanoma has come back. I’ll know in three weeks.

That’s the other sign. Usually they tell you they will call you if the biopsy shows anything serious. This time that was not an option, and they insisted on making an appointment for me to get the results. Yeah, I get it.

So let’s see. That’s melanoma, lymphoma, plasma cell dyscrasia, polycythemia vera, squamous cell carcinoma, and  possibly prostrate cancer. By my count that’s five confirmed and one possible. Its looking like I’m trying to set a record. The best part is … I feel great.

Why am I telling you this? I may not actually tell you this at all. This is pretty private and personal stuff, and I don’t like exposing myself like this, so I will probably never publish this one. If I do, it’ll be for one reason only: to advise you that if a doctor ever tells you that you have cancer, don’t panic. While it may or may not be serious, its not necessarily a death sentence anymore. I want you to look that doctor in the eye and say, “What? Only one? Cliff has half a dozen and he’s doing great!”

* * *

It’s been a few weeks now, and I got the results of the biopsy. Good news: it’s not cancer. And so I shall go on ignoring all of them. Its okay, they don’t seem to mind.

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