Malignant: Blue Notes

Hard Work

So, it’s been almost two months since I learned the little black olive pit next to my thyroid gland is cancer. That’s almost two good months of taking the news in, digesting it, and adding it to the cesspool of knowledge that has accumulated inside my coconut.

There are, of course, stages of understanding, very similar to the stages of grief that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross laid out nearly a half century ago. They are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Since EK-R published this little laundry list in 1969, grief researchers have tweaked and even pretzled the five stages. They don’t all come in that order. One or more of them may be absent. In some cases, people suffer very little grief over the death of a spouse or parent or sib — and not because the departee was a son of a bitch. There are models of behavior and reaction, but they’re not written in stone.

The enduring truth, though, is we take in and process bad news in stages. One — whatever it is — follows another — whatever that is.

In a sense, I’ve received two bits of bad news. First the cancer itself. As I’ve mentioned before herein, the nanosecond you hear the word cancer, you think death. It didn’t take long for me to disabuse myself of that notion. In fact, I knew long before I was told I had cancer that the disease wasn’t necessarily a high caliber bullet to the heart. I know many people who’ve survived cancer. The literature — both scientific and popular — is rife with news about modern treatments and the odds in this 21st Century that tumors can be quashed.

In fact, for a time I was even cavalier about the whole thing. I don’t feel any symptoms save the palpable presence of the olive pit. I’m feeling as healthy as an overweight old bear with a congenitally malformed heart can. Hell, I was conveying to the select few I’d told about my diagnosis my belief that this’d be a snap. Shoot some radioactive rays at me and away we go.

That brings us to the second bit of bad news. Radiation therapy is no snap. I’ve laid out the physiological horrors I’m likely to experience over the next couple of months already. When my radiation oncologist told me about them, my eyes grew so wide I was afraid they’d flop out of their sockets and roll on the floor. And should that have actually happened, it might be no worse a fate than what was to come.

That’s when the reality of this thing — coming in stages — hit. My stages are as follows:

● Friday night and Saturday: Numbing, zombie-fying, terrifying shock. It felt as though I’d been hit by a falling safe. I could not think of a single other thing. Steve the Dog would bark and I’d say to myself, “I wonder why he’s barking — and radiation will be hell.” I worked at the Book Corner on Saturday and when I’d greet a customer, I’d say, “Hi, how are you doing?” and then, to myself, “My throat’s gonna hurt so bad I won’t be able to eat.”

After a good 24 hours, I realized I’d lose what’s left of my mind if I continued along this path. My conclusion? I was living too much in the future. I wasn’t alive, psychologically, in the now. The solution? Reduce all my experience to one single minuscule thing: this moment. I’m thirsty? Drink some water. Enjoy it. Savor it. The Loved One’s sitting on the sofa, watching a movie? Look at her. She’s a hot tomato. Enjoy it. Savor it.

I pulled out my well-worn copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s compilation, Just Enough Jeeves. I’ve read all the stories time and again. They make me feel warm and comfortable and Wodehouse’s sneaky humor and creative use of the language is remarkable. Enjoy it. Savor it.

● Saturday Night and Sunday: I had concentrated so much on what was to come that I actually began to feel pain in my throat. Have you ever seen one of those sensory homunculi with the exaggerated features showing how strongly we feel in each distinct part of our bodies and how much of the brain is devoted to that area?


For a while my own homunculus was featuring a throat bigger than my entire head, my entire body even.

Now I decided every time I’d think about Dr. Wu’s words — “It’s gonna be hell.” — I’d immediately force myself to think of something else. The sun. The clouds. Steve the Dog. The Loved One. Bertie and Jeeves. The upcoming baseball season.

Then I read a Pencil comment from Linda Oblack. She told me of her own family’s experience with this cancer stuff. She wrote:

Every day was different, and we took it one day at a time. No looking ahead, no looking behind. We lived in the present time throughout the whole thing. It was all we could do to get through it…. One day at a time, Big Mike. One foot in front of another. It’s the best advice I can give. Don’t get ahead of yourself, and try not to worry about things you can’t predict.

See? I did the right thing! Wahoo! I’ll remember Linda Oblack and her imprimatur for the rest of my life. Thanks, kid.

I worked hard at controlling the flood of thoughts and fears. I’m pretty good at this stuff, having previously learned a lot of thinking techniques when I suffered through a 15-year bout with panic disorder, agoraphobia, and debilitating depression. All those lessons and practices came back to me, as if someone had handed me a third baseman’s mitt and told me to get out there and take some grounders. (Well, truth be told, I could be given a mitt as big as a Chevy Volt and I still wouldn’t be able reach 99.9 percent of the grounders hit in my direction anymore but you get the picture.)

● Sunday Night and Monday: Thanks to my previous training at filtering petrifying thoughts out of my consciousness I felt light and somewhat free. Yes, intellectually I still understood this radiation business would be a non-stop kick in the belly for weeks on end, but I wasn’t living in the pain and fear anymore. Whee!

● Tuesday: I got up, as usual, at 6 AM and let the dogs out. I started washing the dishes from the night before, my normal wake-up routine. Dishwashing first thing in the morning is great therapy at any time of life. It’s alone time, thinking time. And it satisfies the soul; when you’re finished, you look at the dishes and pots and silverware in the drainer and you can say, Aha, I’ve accomplished something already today. It’s a good start.

Oddly, though, merely stacking the dishes so I could wash them in good racking order (I know, I know, I’m OCD about some stuff) seemed so daunting that I had to stop. I was dead tired. I stood, leaning on the kitchen sink, wondering what the hell was wrong. Just the wondering seemed to sap me. So, rather than finish the dishes and then get ready to head out toward whatever coffeehouse would be my HQ for the day, I decided I had to stay home. I began grinding coffee and peanut-buttering some toast. Even these tasks seemed enormous.

Staying home was a bad decision. I was tired because I’d expended gigawatts of energy trying to grasp all this cancer and radiation rigmarole. Being tired made me depressed. Being depressed made me tired. Suddenly, I felt utterly alone. The world beyond the walls of my living room, where I retired to lay back for a while in the recliner, no longer existed. I jumped up and started to write. I drank my coffee. I read the New York Times. I didn’t even want to eat lunch. That’s a bad sign for a big lug like me.

I noticed, too, that my ears were ringing. This is a surefire tipoff that I’m tumbling into depression. Follow me here: Depression is the most selfish state of being imaginable. The sufferer cannot get beyond her or his own pain, loneliness, or existential pointlessness. The universe shrinks to a volume defined by the perimeters of your body. The birds, your friends, the rain — they all exist far away, somewhere else. Nothing else is part of you and you are part of nothing else. Consequently, all that exists are your thoughts and feelings and your physical sensations. At the worst of my decade-and-a-half descent into depression, I felt every sensation on my body as pain. My skin hurt. My bones throbbed. My head ached. My muscles were sore. The blood pulsing through my ears was torturous tinnitus.

Only when one emerges from deep depression does one’s universe expand beyond the self. Only then does physical sensation become distinguishable from pain.

Hey, I reminded myself, I’ve been through this kind of thing before (q.v. 15 years of it). Step No. 1: Don’t let it win. Get out in the world.

I wasn’t going to be trapped in the house — or, more accurately, in my mind and body. I dragged my corpus into the shower. It seemed to take hours to finish. My feet felt as though they were yards and yards away. Brushing my teeth was a crucible. I did it.

I cranked up the Prius and started driving. I went south on State Road 446, over the Lake Monroe causeway, through the S-curves and hills of the Hoosier Nat’l Forest. I turned west toward Hardin Ridge and the reservoir dam. I passed tiny ramshackle churches of indeterminate denomination. Double-wide trailer homes. Every dwelling with a big propane tank next to it. Farther west, the land flattened out to the Salt Creek flood plain. Farms. Fields lying fallow for the winter. Gangs of bovines, standing, lying, chewing. At one point, I saw a little calf — couldn’t have been more than a few months old — scampering to catch up to the adults. At another, a house cat timed my approach and dashed across the bumpy roadway in front of me. Hordes of starlings and crows erupted from this field and that copse.

Past the dam, I head south again on Old State Road 37, a barely-used stretch of two-lane blacktop. At Bedford, I joined the main SR 37 and headed back north. I pulled over several times to gaze at the striated walls of limestone where steep hills had been blasted and cut out to accommodate the road. Each layer of sediment represented — what? a century? a millennium? — some nearly incomprehensible stretch of the Earth’s history. The Earth was around long before I came here. It’ll be here long after I’m gone. I take comfort in that. My fears and pains are as nothing in comparison.

I’m glad I got out. I aired the depression out of my clothes, my skin, my entire self.

Apparently, this cancer stuff is going to be hard work.


One thought on “Malignant: Blue Notes

  1. Julie says:

    Hi Mike. I have no personal experience with either cancer or depression. Other stuff, to be sure, but not this. So I have absolutely nothing to offer except this: I am pulling for you, if that helps at all. It was a very cool thing to have known you a long time ago, and I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with you and following you via Facebook ever since. I think you’re swell. I truly wish you the best through all of this. I’m hoping you’ll be able to continue to write as you battle both sons-of-bitches, cancer and depression (I think one would have been enough, thank you very much). Write for yourself, first and foremost. Write for the rest of us if you feel like pulling people into your struggle, but do what you need to do to survive until you’re on the other side of this.

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