Hot Air: Five Years

When I went through chemo-radiation therapy for cancer in my neck, I marked the posts on this global communications colossus journaling the ordeal with the label My Olive Pit. That, in fact, is what the malignant lymph nodes surrounding my larynx felt like. And, yeah, I should have called them My Olive Pits, plural, but from the time I sensed the first one growing in me — I found it while in the shower and, at that moment, every hair on my body stood straight out with the seeming bristle of steel wool — the singular just sounded right. Here’s the logo I developed for that series:

And when I’d type in the label, I’d place a little trademark superscript next to it — like so: My Olive Pit™ — which tickled a lot of my readers. The whole idea was to treat the thing with as much humor as I could muster. In fact, when I learn about friends and acquaintances joining the Cancer Club, I advise them to find the humor in it as well. Jokes, irony, laughter, and amusement can be found there. They can be found anywhere.

When people fear they may soon be staring death in the face, humor just may deter them from speeding that appointment along by their own hands. Indeed, cancer can make us want to throw ourselves necktie parties. Even when the doctors tell us the treatment is coming along fine, the pain, the discomfort, the nausea, the grossness of it all can make us want to lament, Dang, I’d just as soon not wake up in the morning.

Squeezing a touch of humor in among the constant tears and gnashing of teeth is a survival mechanism. It worked for me. And should you ever be informed you’ve joined the Club, it may very well work for you.

Anyway, I was diagnosed in November, 2015. From that moment on, I was examined, treated, studied, fussed over, palpated, zapped, poisoned (yes, poisoned; what do you think chemotherapy is?), sliced open, glued, stitched up, probed, prodded, jabbed, punctured, and a hundred other unpleasantries by no fewer than 15 different doctors. That’s the way these things go.

Let’s see, there were my…

  • Family practice physician (who pegged the Pits as cancer)
  • Ear, Nose & Throat specialist (otolaryngologist)
  • Pathologist (who examined the cells in my lymph nodes)
  • Radiation specialist
  • Oncologist #1
  • General surgeon (to implant my drug port)
  • Gastroenterologist #1 (to examine my throat, esophagus, and stomach for irregularities)
  • Gastroenterologist #2 (to insert a feeding tube into my belly)
  • Dentist (my teeth had to be in top-notch condition before radiation would start)
  • Periodontist (my gums, too)
  • Cardiologist #1 (to make sure my pre-existing genetic heart malformation wouldn’t complicate things)
  • Oncologist #2 (because Oncologist #1 was on vacation)
  • Cardiologist #2 (because Cardiologist #1 moved)
  • Cardiologist #3 (because Cardiologist #2 retired)
  • Oncologist #2 (because Oncologist #1 moved out of state)

The whole shebang continues to this day. And I really mean this day; I saw my ENT guy — a big Cubs fan, BTW; he’s got posters and pix of Wrigley Field and Kyle Schwarber on his office wall — this morning. My oncologist and my ENT guy alternate with each other, one and then the other seeing me every few months. They feel around the outside of my throat, they dig with their fingers under my tongue, they look at all sorts of scans and X-rays. The ENT guy occasionally shoves a hose up my nose, down my larynx, and into my trachea to make sure no new Olive Pits are growing there. Oh, sure, his nurse sprays my nasal passages with local anesthetic but I still gag every time he jams that little hose in me. After a while, a cancer patient learns to accept these kinds of intrusions with a shrug.

Before every single visit with one or another doctor, I fret. Sometimes it’s just a general fretting. There’s a background dread that cancer will reappear in my neck or will develop somewhere else. Hey, one of the primary causes of cancer is radiation exposure. Ironically — humorously ironically, I might add — I was strapped under a linear beam accelerator, a multi-million-dollar ray gun, every weekday over a six-week period during radiation therapy. It was hoped that the ray gun in conjunction with the poison (okay, chemotherapy) would blast the tumors into smithereens. The cure might well become another cause if my luck runs out. So there’s that worry.

Another is my nearly constant search for new lumps. I run my hands over any and all bodily locales that might get cancerous when I’m in the shower, in the car, in my recliner, hell, sometimes in the grocery store, looking for the next Olive Pit emergence. You’d be shocked how often I find little lumps, suspicious but minuscule irregularities on a bone, in some soft tissue, on my tongue, anywhere really. So, I wring my hands until the next time I see either my oncologist or the ENT guy. Sometimes the lump is scary enough that I call for an unscheduled visit. The doctors insist I do that and I’m happy to because if I don’t, getting a good night’s sleep becomes problematic. I ought to play the Lottery because so far, knock on wood, none of the little lumps has been proven malignant.

Alright, so I’m now nearly five years into this mess and, yep, five years is the generally accepted length of time the cancer experts call for treating and monitoring my particular cancer. After my chemo-radiation therapy was completed in the spring of 2016, I was declared in remission. And, lemme tell you, hearing the word remission after all that was like being told I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and a lifetime free pass to every pizzeria in the nation.

This coming November will mark exactly five years since I was diagnosed. If my luck holds, the next time I see my ENT guy, he’ll tell me I’m cancer-free, and that’s the official term for it. He’ll still want to see me every year for the rest of my life but that’ll be cool. It’ll be like visiting with a fellow soldier who shared a foxhole with me. I ought to bring a bottle of bourbon in for those visits.

The years 2016 and 2020 are the bookends in this five-year struggle. That first year (I don’t count ’15 because I found out about my cancer so late in the year) I suffered through treatment, rejoiced at its effectiveness, went delirious when my Cubs won a World Series, and then fell into a funk when You-Know-Who was elected to the presidency on a technicality six days later. What a year.

Yet ’16 was almost as nothing compared to 2020. There’ve been natural and man-made disasters galore, a pandemic and lockdown, a recession bordering on a depression, street rebellions, and even a Saharan dust cloud sweeping over the country. Yet come November I might be declared cured of cancer and that You-Know-Who knucklehead just might be evicted from his palatial Washington DC digs. What a rollercoaster this year may be!

I can only hope 2021 turns out to be a bore. I need a little rest.

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