One of the best things about having cancer is that people keep talking about “Young and healthy” I am. It’s like a mantra, and it’s awesome. In no other part of my life am I remotely considered ‘young’. I mean, not many people are calling me ‘old’, but I’m the gray-haired guy in most of my social circles, “Mike the Elder” at our church (which I share with at least two other Mikes), and I’m old enough to be my daughter’s soccer coaches’ parent(s).
It’s a nice reversal and reminder for me, a person who’s been spending the last several years settling into middle age: making peace with the white hair in my beard, accepting a general decline in my physical abilities, driving a station wagon, and taking on an intern. All of which feels pretty strange to a guy who still thinks of himself as in his early thirties (I thought this was a pretty common phenomenon and so referenced it in my book, but my editor acted like I was speaking Klingon or something). But true, I’m not exactly old and I have some living yet ahead of me. I am “Young and healthy”. I’ll take it.
Still, it’s been more than a little mind-bending to start to come to terms with this thing that’s in my body: cancer. It seems very different than what I’ve been coming to terms with, which are basically degenerative experiences: my eyes don’t focus as fast, my back doesn’t straighten as quickly, my taste buds don’t talk as loudly as they used to, and I say ‘huh?‘ a lot. What I’ve been coming to terms with are my own deceleration and occasional misfires. But this cancer thing is something altogether different, and more sinister. It is a betrayer in my midst, an uninvited saboteur, an unwelcome enemy. When it’s quiet at night– and especially when I’m trying to go to sleep– it feels like I can almost talk to this thing in my leg, and it’s not a friendly conversation.
The leg, by the way, isn’t what it used to be. It looks like something has taken a bite out of my thigh, which when you think about it is pretty much exactly what has happened. My new leg still shocks me, with it’s black sutures staring up at me, and it’s alarming and unnerving to see such a familiar part of my body so altered. But at the same time it feels good to have *done something*– and something radical– to remove this invader from my flesh. I’m sad that I’ve lost something, but more than that I’m happy to have gotten rid of something dangerous.
Part of the surgery last week was a visit to Nuclear Medicine, where a radio-traceable dye was injected in four places right around the site of the melanoma. After which an amiable tech and I watched on a screen as the dye steadily moved up my leg to one of my lymph nodes (which was removed later that day for biopsy). It was unsettling to see how quickly the fluid moved up my leg, and a bit scary to see that it didn’t languish in that lymph node for long, but continued on a pathway up into my body. And once the images were captured and I was propped back in my wheelchair, the tech excused himself to finish his report in another room for 10 minutes. Sitting there in a very empty room with no wife, no kids, no family, no friends, no phone, no iPod, no book, no TV, no nothing was by far the hardest part of the experience to date. All by myself, just me and my cancer. It wasn’t a friendly conversation.