Category Archives: Cancer

Torture: Being forced To Watch TV

The day before Thanksgiving I found myself watching broadcast television. Not by choice, mind you. I haven’t had my own broadcast-receiving TV since, oh, the spring of 1997. A few years before that, I’d already eschewed broadcast news and found my mental health much improved for it. By ’97, I realized that all of broadcast television is designed to make the viewer feel profoundly unhappy with one’s lot in life — his car, her body, the cleanliness of their toilet, the smell of their armpits, the whiteness of their teeth, their lack of bravado in gunfights, and their inability to fuck every comely or handsome figure who saunters into the room.

I haven’t regretted for one nanosecond my decision to boot broadcast TV.

But Wednesday, I was in a position wherein I was unable to run, shrieking, out of the room when the TV, tuned to WTHR in Indianapolis, was turned on. See, I’m in the middle of a six-week course of daily hyperbaric chamber treatments. Also known as HBO (for hyperbaric oxygen), the treatments are a must for the likes of diabetics who’ve lost or are at risk of losing toes or feet, say, to their ravages of their horribly unfortunate disease or, for those like me, who’ve undergone cancer radiation treatment. In my case, my cancer was in my neck so I’d had to submit to a month and a half of daily linear-beam radiation therapy. The result was the smashing of a number of malignant lymph nodes surrounding my thyroid gland as well as the weakening of my jaw to the point that the bone now has the structural integrity of styrofoam and the blood vessels supplying said mandible have been shrunk to a thread, making me vulnerable to tooth abscesses and unable to heal in that locale should any dental work be done. Turns out, I indeed do have an abscess now and that work can’t be done until, through HBO, my mandibular blood vessel has been strengthened and enriched.

The HBO treatments work like this: I lie in a coffin-like airtight container for hours a day breathing pure oxygen at twice normal atmospheric pressure. Every day, I strip down, take off all jewelry and my glasses, get questioned about whether I’ve put on underarm deodorant or skin lotion, get physically examined, and then lay down, flat on my back, my arms at my sides, and sealed into this clear tube. The hope is at the end of six weeks the blood flow in my jaw will be so enhanced that I’ll be able to get my broken tooth removed and then start scheduling three other surgeries that can’t be done right now because of that abscess. Phew! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient.

A Hyperbaric Chamber.

You might notice the TV screen suspended above the HBO tube in the photo. That’s cool. The people who run these devices realize people like me would probably prefer to leap off tall buildings to lying in a coffin-like tube for hours every day so, to ameliorate that unhappiness, they provide TV. I can’t bring a book or my crossword puzzles into the tube because, for the same reason I have to strip and have no oily substances on my body, the pure oxygen environment is highly flammable. (Those of us of a certain age might remember the fatal fire that took the lives of the three Apollo 1 astronauts in January, 1967. During a practice run, they were sealed into their capsule breathing pure oxygen and a stray spark set off a conflagration within it. The astronauts died of asphyxiation within moments.)

The Interior of Apollo 1 after the Fire.

The people at my HBO facility (ironically, just yards from the cancer treatment center where I did my radiation stint back in 2016), allow us patients to bring in DVDs to watch during our sessions. And for those who don’t collect movies, the facility actually has a library of DVDs, donated by angels and past patients. I bring in my own DVDs and Wednesday I’d been watching On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Karl Malden and scored by Leonard Bernstein. I’ve seen the movie a dozen times but each time, I’m blown away by the acting chops displayed therein.

Steiger (L) and Brando, Playing Brothers in On the Waterfront.

Brando’s performance, along with a couple of other films he’d done around the same time, essentially redefined how actors act in movies. For that matter, all the main players were adherents of the then-revolutionary Stanislavski system or method of acting. They were no longer “stage actors” but fully immersed themselves into character.

For my money, if someone wants to assert that On the Waterfront is the greatest movie ever made, I wouldn’t argue too much

In any case, the movie ended with about twenty minutes left in my HBO session. The attendant then switched the TV to broadcast and I was treated to a program called Daily Blast Live, wherein four people sit behind a desk and blather. The four seem to be straight out of a TV producer’s dreamworld of diversity, with a black man and woman and a white man and woman, ranging in age from early 30s to late-ish 40s, all imbued with nice, clean, middle-class values, competing with each other to convince us that they’re just like you and me.

Watching these four was a revelation. I should have known, but have forgotten in the last quarter century, how godawfully vacuous broadcast TV is. I felt as if I were watching an over-the-top satire of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. In fact, for a hot few moments, I actually thought I was watching some take-off on all these daytime TV shows. But no, this was the real thing and, for chrissakes, if this is what America watches on a regular basis no wonder so many people are thrashing about, subscribing to conspiracy theories, voting for carnival barkers for president, refusing to wear masks during a pandemic, and every other sin we’ve been committing for decades in this holy land. Broadcast TV has warped peoples’ minds, shattered our collective view of reality, and turned us into slack-jawed zombies.

None of this, of course, is any breaking news, but, as I say, I’d so completely divorced myself from this sick oeuvre that I’d forgotten how bizarre it all is.

The four were talking about the next day’s Thanksgiving meal and, swear to god, they spent at least ten minutes discussing whether one should eat like a pig, stuffing one’s self to near nausea, or perhaps take it easy and eat in something akin to moderation. They argued this point with all the passion and ferocity of Karl Marx and Sen. Joe McCarthy in some fantasy world fighting about communism versus capitalism.

A Knock-down, Drag-out Battle.

One of them, the black man, posited, “I think it’s Thanksgiving (quite an astute observation, I might add) and we should eat to our heart’s content!” He uttered this with all the conviction of a man calling for an end to the child sex slave trade. The white man shook his head vigorously and countered, “No, no, no, no! It’s better to eat small portions. That way, you can enjoy your food and not suffer afterward.” He offered this position with the assurance of Einstein chatting about his special relativity theory. This went on for long minutes until the black woman said , “Well, let’s all agree there’s nothing so satisfying as sitting back on the sofa with your belt undone.” The other three nodded as if she’d advocated for an end to all wars.

The white woman then shifted gears and introduced a remote interview with a women who starred in one of those Real Housewives shows, which I didn’t even know was a thing anymore. This woman was from Orange County. Leaning forward toward the camera, the white woman asked, earnestly, what the Real Housewife lady was going to do tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day. Get ready for a shock: the lady said she and her family were going to eat a big meal!

After running down the list of things she was going to have on her table — all of which were typical Thanksgiving fare, to which the Daily Blast panel oohed and aahed as if she were ticking off exotic treats from distant foreign lands — the Real Housewife lady turned deadly serious and asked if she could be indulged in crowing about her young daughter’s recent fabulous accomplishment. Given license to crow, she then revealed her daughter had participated in an event that raised money for some life-threatening disease research. The Daily Blast gang gaped and gasped and, honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if one or more of them demanded she be nominated for the next Nobel Peace Prize.

Mercifully, my HBO session had come to an end and while I was being de-pressurized, the speakers within my tube went silent.

When the attendant brought me out of the tube, I resisted with all my might the urge to ask her if she watched this show every day. And, if she’d said yes, I was fully prepared to yell, “What in the goddamned hell is wrong with you?”

I dunno, maybe none of this is news to some of you but I drove away from the HBO facility in a daze. I still can’t believe this is how we entertain ourselves, this is how we get informed about the world around us. But I really shouldn’t be surprised. Look at what in the hell we’ve become.

Hot Air: Melange, Olio, Medley, Miscellany…

And The Answer Is

In the wake* of the death of host Alex Trebek, I’ve learned the correct Jeopardy! answer is, “What is robbing the cradle?”

Jean Currivan (L) and Her Husband, Alex Trebek.

[ * You’ll pardon the pun.]

Customer Service

When I worked as a bartender for Club Lago, a delightful Italian family restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, one of the owners, Guido Nardini, said to me one night, “There’s a reward beyond money in serving people.”

Now, a cynic might respond that’s a boss’s way of saying “You should learn to be happy with the peanuts I’m paying you,” but, no, I earned a nice chunk of change pouring drinks at Lago. No complaints there; from the sheer volume of customers to the fact that a lot of people used to love to throw c-notes around as tips, I was able to stash big piles o’cash in my home safe.

Guido meant what he said because he and his co-owner bro., Giancarlo, loved to serve customers well. And, yes, it did please me to please my customers. I treated everybody with great respect and care regardless of what I thought their largesse capacities were.

At the Book Corner ( ✯ more on that later) I continue to take great pride in going out of my way to satisfy customers and nobody (except for one guy — I’m looking at you, J.D.) tips me. I like to call myself “the book detective,” often standing on my head to find something rare or out of print or unheard of for customers. When they tell me they appreciate my efforts and I see the looks on their faces, that’s a reward in and of itself.

So, I’m particularly attuned to people’s customer service skills. The following are some encounters I’ve had recently. I’m not complaining or indicting, simply observing.


I saw my oncologist last week. As an aside, I’m right at the time when I should be declared cancer-free. It’s been five years since my bout with squamous cell cancer leading to malignant lymph nodes. You may recall my long series herein called My Olive Pits™. For five years I’ve existed in a limbo the docs call remission. Once my latest PET scan results are in, it is to be dearly hoped, I’ll get my parole. Anyway, there’s an impromptu check-in desk positioned down the hall from the oncologist’s lair where a masked receptionist takes patients’ temperatures and grills them about possible COVID symptoms. I wheeled up (Aside #2: Yes, I use one of these⬇︎ now because my hip arthritis has reached crippling dimensions)…

…and presented myself to the woman at the desk. The first thing she said was, “Do you come here often?”

Well, jeez, that’s a straight line if I’ve ever heard one. Besides, I’m always nervous as hell when I visit either my oncologist or my ENT doctor so I look for any excuse to lighten the mood. I responded, “Ha! Is that a pickup line?”

The woman stared at me.

Being met with a stony face is the ultimate negative feedback when delivering a joke. And, sure, the joke was lame and predictable. I wasn’t looking for reassurance that I’m the liveliest wit in South Central Indiana, just an acknowledgement, a sign of bonhomie, I guess. So I doubled down.

“That was a joke,” I said.

The woman continued to stare at me.

Rather than retreat then and there, I pushed further into the realm of red-faced-ness.

“Which you didn’t get,” I said, nearly sotto voce but not quite.

Her stared bored a hole through me.

Somehow we got on to the business at hand. My temperature was normal and I swore I had no coronavirus symptoms, so she passed me through.

In her defense, I’ll admit it’s a little more difficult these days to tell if a person is smiling or grimacing under the mask. But a smile is as readable in the eyes as it is by bared teeth. The woman’s eyes were not smiling.

Someone might say, “Well, maybe she thought it inappropriate that you were coming on to her.” Which is utter nonsense. I’m a crippled old goat with hernias galore, a bald head, barnacles on my scalp, and an implanted defibrillator in my chest. Only the most neurotically sensitive 20-something could interpret the joke as a come-on from the likes of me. Here’s a bit from Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry tells an attractive receptionist he’s talking to her because human-to-human contact is the goal, not because he’s hitting on her. (Go to the 1:30 mark of the clip for the exchange.)

Have I ever mentioned I believe Larry David is a dybbuk that resides in me and that my growth as a human depends on expelling said dybbuk?

On to the next encounter.


Last week was an orgy of doctors for me. I’ve finally been okayed to go into surgery for my right hip total replacement. I’d originally been scheduled for surgery on June 8th, only a cancer-related CT scan the week before revealed I was suffering from pulmonary emboli. These obstructions in lung arteries usually are caused by clot particles that travel up from the legs. They are life threatening and usually cause breathing distress and syncope. Sometimes the first symptom is the sufferer simply drops dead. Serious stuff. Mine apparently were caused by my inability to walk much anymore so clots formed in my legs. That’s all cleared up now, thanks to a daily regimen of an anticoagulant that has turned my blood into something more akin to a fine mist. At this point I begin to bleed simply by thinking about blowing my nose.

So, I visited my orthopedic surgeon last week to get the ball rolling again. He turned me into a pretzel to see where things hurt the most (answer: everywhere) and then brought out a model of the hip joint as well as the prosthetic ball and socket joint he’d be hammering into me. His nurse then came in and gave me a new date for surgery (December 21st) and told me about all the things I’d have to do before and after. Included is a month or two of intensive physical therapy with my new hip in place.

“You can do your physical therapy here,” she said. The IU Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine complex just off Sare Rd. on the south side has a big gym/PT center. The she added that if this particularly facility was too far away from my home I could do my PT elsewhere.

“Well,” I asked, “what are my alternatives.”

“You can go anywhere,” she said.

I resisted the urge to quip, “So, can I do it at the library?” I’d already struck out once with mild humor in a medical setting. Still, I pressed on.

“Where are other facilities?”

“They’re everywhere.”

“Okay, I live off SR 446. Which one would be closest to that?”

“Oh, they’re all around. Go wherever you want”

We were getting no place fast. “Fine, I’ll do it here,” I said, and she duly marked that down in her notes.

All the way home, I fixated on the exchange. Why wouldn’t she tell me where another gym/PT center was?

I chewed over this for a few days until it occurred to me that all these different IU Health facilities are run as discreet little revenue centers. Individual doctors, or groups of them, have ownership stakes in their facilities. In the interest of fairness and convenience for the patient, the nurse felt compelled to tell me I could get my physical therapy anywhere but she really, really, really wanted me to do it at her place because that’s where the insurance payments would be sent.

Okay, fair enough. But it wouldn’t have hurt for her to say, “Y’know, we like to keep everything in-house. It’s easier for insurance and for record-keeping.” She might even have admitted her facility had an interest in getting the insurance payments. I’m an adult; I know how business works, even if that business calls itself nonprofit.

Instead, I was left wondering why she couldn’t tell me where other gym/PT centers are. Like Larry David, I obsessed over that question for far too long. I told you he’s a dybbuk inside me.

✯ Farewell, Book Corner–For Now

I’m taking a leave of absence from the Book Corner because 1) the pain in my hip has become unbearable and 2) I don’t want to catch COVID and have to reschedule surgery again — or die.

Both The Loved One  and Patty, the manager, have told me time and again I’m deranged for going in to work three times a week with this hip. TLO has shared horror stories about people suffering from the coronavirus with me in an effort to scare me off going in. At last I’m listening to them.

You won’t see me at the store until February at the earliest. I’ll miss the hell out of the books and the people. I’ll also miss the rush and madness of Christmas there. A big family comes in every Christmas Eve. Each member, from grandma and grandpa to the littlest arrival, gets to pick out a number of books as their Christmas present for the year. It’s become a tradition. And grandma always brings in a huge stash of holiday sweets and treats that I do my best to take an unfair share of home with me. I’ll miss the hell out of them, too.

But, truth is, I won’t cry too many tears over it all because by the 24th, I’ll be sitting on a brand new hip and I won’t be a crippled old goat anymore.

Recovery: Slow Cooking

Lento, in Italian. Tarda, in Latin. Goddamn it let’s get going!, in Big Mike-ese throughout the month of March and into early April.


I’ve learned to value slow. As in recovery. As in improvement. As in healing.

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My return to normality, if such a state is even possible for me now, has come at a glacial pace. I had delusions that as soon as my chemoradiation treatments ended on March 21st, I’d immediately — or at least within a few days — return to bouncing all over town, eating pizza, yip-yipping over my beloved Cubs, and otherwise navigating through life as though no such thing as My Olive Pit™ had ever existed.

As noted here previously, the worst was yet to come. The next three weeks were indeed the most torturous I’d ever experienced in all my life, worse even than the night of October 14th, 2003.


Things are much better now, natch. Only the improvement has come incrementally — damnably so. In dribs and drabs. In fact, the betterness has arrived so subtly that from day to day, I hardly even realize it. The recognition comes to me in Oh-wow! moments, such as last week when, sitting at Lake Monroe with The Loved One enjoying a gorgeous sunset and the calm waters, it came to me that I was able to feel pleasure for the first time in months.

Taking a full inventory today, I now understand the truth is my state of being is 23 million times better than it was as recently as the second week of April. To wit:

  • I’m driving
  • I spend time at my old headquarters, Hopscotch coffee
  • I drop in at the Book Corner and even pretend to work a little on occasion
  • I drank my morning 14 ounces of water by mouth today
  • I eat both clear broth and pureed soups for lunch
  • I’m able to floss again
  • Taking a shower doesn’t whack me out for hours anymore
  • My mouth and throat are no longer chock full of horrifying substances
  • I visit Lake Monroe almost every dusk
  • I can speak again
  • I don’t have to spit or hork every few minutes anymore
  • My mouth is free of sores

I could go on and on but you get the point. Each of these little improvements came at its own sweet time. There was no dramatic moment, the kind you feel when after, say, battling the flu for a week you wake up one morning, take your shower, and realize, Hey, I’m better today. The flu’s all gone!

I still can’t eat pizza yet and that’s frustrating. But I’m not tortured by its absence as I was, oh, a month ago. That’s an improvement, too. A little one. Tiny. An increment. Something to value.

Recovery: Riding The ‘Roid Pony


So, today I begin to wean myself off the steroid dexamethasone (generic for Decadron). Babies, that dope gotta be sumpin’ else because Dr. Wu’s withdrawal plan will take me through May 23. That’s five weeks to jump off a horse.

This particular steroid is given as a matter of course to many chemotherapy patients, primarily for its role as a helper in making anti-emetic drugs work. Anti-emetics relieve nausea and vomiting, among the most dramatic and tortuous side effects of chemo.

(BTW: my particular chemotherapy drug, cisplatin, is a medium risk gonadotoxin, meaning it can adversely affect my production of wiggly, lively spermies. So, it’s likely I’ll never produce enough live ammunition from now on to become the father I’ve never wanted to be. Just thought I’d toss this in, as long as we were speaking of side effects.)

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Jumping out of the dexamethasone saddle suddenly can lead to a dizzying variety of maladies including low blood pressure, fever, muscle pain, joint pain, stuffy nose, runny nose, sneezing, post-nasal drip, pink eye, painful itchy skin nodules, weight loss, and even death. Yeesh! I mean, it’s one thing to have to lug around a box of Kleenex all the time; it’s entirely another to keel over dead.

The good thing about this all is that now Dr. Wu expects me to be safe from nausea and vomiting, which — thankfully — I have been for a couple of weeks now. It had got to the point wherein I was horking so regularly that it wasn’t even a big deal anymore, just another little thing I’d do several times in my normal day. Ick.

Even though I’ve been belly-aching a lot about the glacial pace of my recovery, the truth is a hell of a lot of ugly side effects have gone away since I finished both chemotherapy and radiation precisely four weeks ago today.

Eat, Skeleton

The most frustrating side effect of recent days has been my inability to eat food via my facehole since late February. I experienced a great breakthrough Saturday night when, after feeling rather green phlegm-free, I tried some broth. Lo and behold, the damned stuff tasted like good soup as opposed to the foulest poison ever to be introduced to my oral cavity. I downed a small bowl of the stuff and let the tears of joy drip down my face.

You had to figure I’d get giddy over this turn of events, so yesterday I took the remainder of the soup, a light beef pot roast variety, with plenty of broth remaining, warmed it up, and added some boiled ramen noodles.

The soup contained potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, peas, onion, and scads of other stuff. The broth still tasted delicious, but the solid ingredients continued to taste about as palatable as so many little chunks of Play-Doh. Not only that, they got stuck in my throat and so I had to rinse and gargle for about fifteen minutes after eating them. Not that it was a total loss — I was able to finish off all the delicious broth.

It’s impossible for me to convey how delightful it was to ingest any kind of food stuff and have it taste…, well, pleasant.



Pleasant. Pleasure. Enjoy. Feel good. Sigh of relief. These are words and actions that’d been notably missing in my life for a good couple of months. In fact, feeling lousy had become such a normal part of my every day that I hadn’t even realized the extent to which it had overtaken me.

I finally did realize this Friday. For the last week or so, I’ve been going to down to Monroe Lake and watching the water and the critters at the Paynetown State Recreation area marina parking lot. The sunsets there are magnificent at any time of year, especially in the spring when the observer is emerging from cancer treatment. All I want to do there is hear the sounds of birds, look at the fishes snap bugs off the surface of the water, and watch the golden sunlight move across the budding treeline across the way.

I was with The Loved One Friday night and after watching a couple of geese flap their way not three feet above the surface of the water, I said to her, “You know what? I’m finally able to feel pleasure again.”

Pleasure. Simple. What a fantastic medicine.

Recovery: Days Of Heaven

So, I’m changing my daily headline title now, considering my treatment — the three sessions of chemotherapy and the 33 of neck radiation — was finished four weeks ago. It’s Recovery from here on out, and, to tell the truth, this morning I felt as though I really am getting better.

Last night was a bummer, about as bad as Tuesday night was. The taste in my mouth was so evil it actually kept me awake. I padded around the house, did some crossword puzzles, played a few hands of solitaire, and even engaged the computer in a couple of chess matches (we split). Finally I was able to nod off.

I was confident, though, that I’d wake up this AM feeling well. That’s what happened Wednesday morning. IDK why but it seems the pattern is turning out to be super bad feelings in my throat at night are harbingers of better days ahead. Go figure. I’ll just take it.

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Sure enough, I woke up this morning with next to no green phlegm and as clear a throat as I’ve felt in weeks. Wahoo.

I even tried downing a few sips of water. It worked — I swallowed them, but they tasted terrible, as opposed to disgusting which is what everything has tasted like for weeks. Let’s say the taste of water et al have been like Donald Trump since late Feb. but today the H20 was a little more like Rand Paul. Bad but almost tolerable versus vomit-inducing.

Consequently, I woke The Loved One up and said, “Let’s go to the Farmers Market,” to which she replied with as much gusto as a pre-seven AM wakeup call on a Saturday merited, “Grmmppph.” Which I took for a yes.

A perfect Saturday morning. Brilliant sunshine, Crystal clear blue sky. Plenty of people out grazing for their week’s stash of herbs and sweet potatoes and cheese curds and even hog heads. The politicos were out: Geoff McKim, Holly Harvey, Bob Deppert, Scott Wells, Nelson Shaffer, Efrat Feferman, newly-hired Bloomington utilities boss Vic Kelson, and more. I spied law prof Dawn Johnsen waiting patiently in one line, sans hubby, the Mayor.

Outgoing Bloomington High School North librarian Kathy Loser and her husband, Duane Busick, along with a pal named Denise, hugged me tightly next to some cilantro planting pots.

Overall, I was walking on air, albeit with the aid of my trusty cane. Boy, it’s good to be alive. And to feel alive as well.

I spent a good six hours at the infusion center yesterday. Seems my blood pressure has dropped alarmingly, causing me to reel a bit every time I stand up. Doc Allerton took my sitting-then-standing BP and found my systolic pressure to have plummeted to about 90 in the time it took to hoist my huge carcass out of my chair. Ergo, he ordered me juiced up with a couple of bags of sodium chloride solution.

Allerton’s explanation is my bod is using all its internal fluids like mad trying to keep up with my healing processes. Whereas normal human beings (of which, I like to think, I am not even when I’m in A-one health) need at least two liters of water a day to get by, I need tons more. Okay, so I’ll push fluids even harder now.

Anyway, the nurses at the infusion center asked me to speak to a new patient — let’s call her Mandy — who has cancer of the tonsils, something I didn’t even know exists. She’s had surgery to remove half her tonsils. (Her insurance company wouldn’t pop for a complete job, saying the non-cancerous half didn’t need to go. Welcome to Wealthcare in America.) She’s just starting on weekly chemotherapy sessions (thank the tarot cards I didn’t have to go through that much torture) and will begin radiation next week. She was distraught as all hell. She’s got a feeding tube in her belly and, she said, it hurts. She’s scared. She’s worried about feeling claustrophobic in her radiation mask. And — most pressing right now — she is frighteningly constipated.

Mandy cried throughout our little chat. I leveled with her. “This isn’t going to be any party,” I said. “Keep on crying. Cry whenever you need to. You say you’re scared and you should be. Feel everything. Deny nothing. It’ll be unpleasant but you’ll get through it. You’re making this deal because you’re more frightened of dying than suffering through this treatment. Lay back, listen to your body, and tell the doctors and nurses everything about how you feel, both physically and psychologically. Don’t hold anything back.”

I wish I could say Mandy grinned and said, “Huzzah, what a speech! Bring that radiation on!” No, she continued to cry. As she should.

Hell, I still cry to this day when I think back to what I’ve endured.

I left Mandy with a piece of very practical advice: “Do everything you can to relieve your constipation. Use whatever laxatives and magic potions the docs & RNs suggest. The longer you wait, the more it’ll feel as though you’re passing a bent tree branch. Believe me, I know.” I did have offer her a silver lining: “The good thing is, when that miraculous passing finally does take place, you’re gonna feel as though you’ve died and gone to heaven.”

That’s what we brethren and sisteren in cancer talk about amongst ourselves.

Treatment: Patience

Yeah, it’s been a few days since I’ve reported. Reason? Nothing much to report.

Getting back to normal — or somewhere near that neighborhood — is turning out to be a long, slow process. Getting zapped in the neck for six weeks by X-rays emanating from a linear beam accelerator with a triple chaser of cisplatin injected directly into my sub-clavicular vein whipped the living hell out of my body to such an extent that its healing capabilities are being tested to the max even at this late date.

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My pharynx is still burnt and continues to slough off dermal and mucous layers. I still have a throatful of green phlegm and a mouthful of ropey saliva, neither of which allow me to swallow much, certainly not food and not even a cooling sip of water. I’m still so weak Terra the Cat could probably thrash the bejesus out of me. Not only that, my hearing has been negatively affected — I have a chronic case of tinnitus right now. I have no idea how long it’ll last. Ear-ringing is a normal side effect of my particular brand of chemotherapy. Oh, and my upper register hearing is messed up so it sounds like I’m listening to my headphones with the treble turned down to zero.

But that’s just the bad news. There’s good news, enough to outweigh the bad. I’m driving myself to appointments now. The brushes I had with dehydration are in the past since I began to push fluids like crazy into my stomach tube. My potassium and magnesium levels are sweet. It still feels as though I’ve been suffering a two-month-long flu — exhaustion, sore throat, weakness, overall malaise — although each of these little symptoms seems to be inexorably albeit glacially easing up. Happily, too, I don’t have the sense that my skin is crawling off my body at bedtime anymore which itself is a boon to praise the gods for.

I brought in a couple of boxes of chocolates to the infusion gang today, a selection of Godiva wrapped mini-bars and a 12-pack of Ferrero Rocher hazelnut creamy chocolates in wafer shells. I immediately became the odds-on favorite to win the presidential nominations of both parties, although I would have traded it all in to be able to keep the boxes and jam the contents therein into my facehole until empty — a process certain to last no more than 33 seconds.

My chocolate-benders — as well as my pizza-, burrito-, lasagna-, pad Thai-, Italian beef-, blueberry pie-, and sundry other -benders — await further healing on my part. I know they’re in my future. I just don’t know when.

On the whole, I’m coming along and I’m alive, which is pretty much all a cancer guy can ask for.

Treatment: What’s That Smell?

Considering the fact that I am not engaging in much if any social intercourse these days, I’ve decided not to use underarm deodorant for the time being. I figure I’d give the old pits a rest and let them breathe god’s air without the mediation of a bunch of perfumy chemicals. After all, who am I gonna offend? Steve the Dog? Sheesh, he should worry about his own reek.

The Loved One doesn’t seem too put off by this. Then again, maybe she’s just trying to be a nice guy about it all. We’ll see.

Anyway, every once in a while, I catch a whiff of me and it’s jarring. It’s not that I smell dirty or bad — just unadulterated human. Verging on primate.

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I remember going to the Great Ape House at Lincoln Park Zoo years ago. The whole place stank to high heaven of gorilla. In fact, they even had a sign posted explaining the air had been suffused with the natural underarm odor of the male beasts because, well, their pits were so filled with Hey-I’m-a-guy-and-I’m-here glands that the aroma could travel for kilometers.

Now I don’t expect my bouquet to waft for kilometers, but it sure has reached my delicate nostrils on occasion. There was a time when every male human smelled somewhat like I do now — allowing for the fact that in the old days guys didn’t scrub daily with Irish Spring with Aloe and so, without a doubt, emanated what we’d consider today a far more pungent kayo. Catching a hint of the u-arm essence is unpleasant now, natch, but was it considered desirable way back when? Was a fellow whose pits issued strong airs considered more sexy than his less powerful contemporaries?

Many of our modern day efforts to conceal our odors are based on trying to suppress the animal messages our bodies send to the opposite sex. In trying to control our bestial rampant sexuality, society has decided it’s best to shut off the body’s outreach functions. Concealing our skin and shutting down our odors necessarily stifles the message Hey, come fuck me.

It’s gotten to the point where now people are offended by the sight of skin (witness the folks who are so put off by public breastfeeding) or the hint of distinctive male or female fragrance. (Of course, there’s the overreaction to this suppression and that’s the fetishization of cleavage and jiggly fannies that drives much of our economy — but that’s a topic for another day.)

If I went into work sans deodorant now, at some point one of my co-workers would crinkle his or her nose and then immediately engage in a whispery conversation with another co-worker. One of my own co-workers at Whole Foods Market used to go u-arm au naturel. I tried my damnedest to converse with him from a distance, although that wasn’t always possible. In tight quarters, I made certain our interchanges were brief.

And he wasn’t un-hygenic. He was clean and well-kempt. Yet he smelled. Of human. Had he smelled of Irish Spring with Aloe, I might even have complimented him. As if he were to be lauded for sudsing himself up with the following:

  • Sodium tallowate
  • Sodium palmate
  • Sodium cocoate
  • Sodium palm kernelate
  • Petrolatum
  • Polyquarternium-6
  • Pentasodium pentetate
  • Pentaerythrityl tetra-di-T-butyl hydroxyhydrocinamate
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Chromium oxide greens


Usually I use Tom’s of Maine u-arm deodorant. Its ingredient list includes the following:

  • Propylene glycol
  • Water
  • Sodium stearate
  • Organic Aloe barbadensis leaf juice
  • Glycerol laurate
  • Natural fragrance
  • Humulus lupus (hops) extract
  • Organic Helianthus annuus (sunflower) seed oil
  • Ascorbic acid
  • Organic Cymbopogon flexuosus oil

Not things I’d like to sprinkle on my breakfast cereal but certainly not as alarming as Pentaerythrityl tetra-di-t-butyl hydroxyhydrocinamate, which turns out to be an antioxidant or stabilizer found in some 769 cosmetic products as reported by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Acc’d’g to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel in Washington DC, it “… is safe in the present practices of use and concentration in cosmetics.” OTOH, the CIR is funded by the cosmetic industry’s trade association, the Personal Care Products Council, so you can take its findings or leave them.

Tom’s of Maine’s website main page features a carousel of images of grinning mothers cuddling grinning babies, grinning pretty little girls hugging bunnies, and a tube of toothpaste set in a field of some kind of grass or another. None of these hint that Sodium stearate, acc’d’g to Wikipedia, “is found in many types of solid deodorants, rubbers, latex paints, and inks. It is also a component of some food additives and food flavorings.”

Keep in mind many ingredients in cosmetics and foods are used in a surprising variety of non-edible and even toxic products. This does not necessarily mean they’re poisons.

Anyway, see what’s going on here? Being under cancer house arrest has compelled me to think about a lot, a lot, a lot of things — way, way, way too much. Ergo, this pointless post.

Oh, wait, there is a point. I swear to you I’ll be wearing underarm deodorant just as soon as I free myself back into the wild.

Treatment: I’m Free! (-ish)

So, I took myself out for a ride this AM. Yep. Got in the hot rod and drove myself down to the square and visited Margaret and Patty at the Book Corner.

First time I’d driven in well more than a month. First time I’d been out on my own in the same span. I felt like a 16-year-old with a brand new drivers license. The only things I didn’t do were squeal my wheels and blare the radio.

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The visit was exhausting, even though I spent 95 percent of the time sitting. The old bookstore smell was a mighty perfume. Magazines have their own smell, too. The gals and I hugged each other constantly and swore our love for each other again and again.

Man, it was good to see them and actually be out in the world.

On the way home, I decided to drive through McDonald’s and order a #2 combo meal — two cheeseburgers, fries and a coke. Hell, let’s see what I can get down my gullet, I reasoned. I got home, threw the french fries in the micro for 20 secs. and proceeded to give things a try.

What I learned:

  1. Sweet things still taste like sewer water. I dumped the coke after trying two straw sips.
  2. The french fries (I ate two of them) weren’t horrific but the salt hurt my mouth.
  3. I didn’t even try the burgers.

You may wonder what possessed me to fetch McDonald’s but — honest to gosh — there was method behind the madness. I figured if the grub tasted okay that’d be cool and I’d be able to continue shoving provisions into my facehole until that glorious day in the (hopefully) near future when I can scarf down my homemade lasagna. And if, say, the #2 tasted wretched — so bad, in fact, that I’d never want to put said combo meal in my mouth again — so what? It’s McDonald’s, right? What would I be missing?

End result: I can swallow chewed food but it still tastes frighteningly bad.

All in all, a very positive experience. I got to see two people I love. I inhaled actual fresh air. BTW: it’s amazing how much food I could smell when I got out of the car. If you’re downtown every day, you start to ignore the ambient aromas. Coming back from exile, it was like walking into the biggest kitchen in the state. And speaking of food, I know I’ll be munching promiscuously again soon.

As The Loved One said when I gave her a full report via gmail IM, “Little steps.”

Treatment: I’m Sent To The Corner

So, I’d been bellyaching these last few days about the stultifying sameness that’s descended over my life. I called it a jail. I revealed how this whole cancer business not only has played havoc with my physical body but the contents of my coconut as well.

Give me some variety, I pleaded. Help me out of this depression.

Well, I got variety today, that’s for goddamned sure. A trip to the emergency room and a threat to have the police throw me in the meat wagon and cart me off to an insane asylum.

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A little background. Saturday I wrote up a thorough and detailed report on my recovery from chemoradiation, both aspects of which had ended two weeks ago today. The two weeks post treatment traditionally are the worst in terms of side effects, I’m told, and lo and behold, that’s precisely what I experienced. The pain and discomfort, the never-ending yucky symptoms sprouting out from head to toe, the inability to eat and to talk. I was becoming a wreck. It reached a head by Saturday.

I wrote up the report because I had my two-week post-treatment appointment with Dr. Wu this morning. I figured if I wasn’t able to talk much, a written report would do the trick. So I counted down everything — the agonies, the triumphs, even how often I was urinating and what color it was. Like I said, thorough.

In the interests of full disclosure, I recounted my episodes of discouragement and depression. Here’s one line:

I was warned that once chemoradiation therapy was complete, my condition would get worse before it got better and that’s 100 percent correct. My discomfort level deteriorated to the point that the Friday after my last therapy sessions, I was feeling bad enough to want to die.

And another, a couple of paragraphs later:

My psychological state deteriorated concurrently. I struggled to remain upbeat and argued with myself over the theoretical merits of suicide.

Did you catch that? “… [T]he theoretical merits of suicide.”

Note, I didn’t say I wanted to commit suicide nor did I confess to laying out any plans to do so. Like any sentient being in my situ., I mused to myself, Wouldn’t it be better if I just ended it all? This said, natch, in a more theatrical sense than as any real threat.

Only I’d committed that musing to paper (or, more accurately, my flash drive which I gave to Dr. Wu so he could read the report).

Well, read it he did and the result was he was fixin’ to break my head when he came into the examination room at the radiation center this AM.

It turns out the mere mention of the S-word compels medical professionals to order an immediate suicide evaluation for the mentioner. That would be me.

“This is a lot of trouble,” Dr. Wu said, after grilling me about my plans for self-disposal. “This is very serious.”

The poor guy was beside himself. He’s busy, of course, trying to save a life or two here and there among the dozens of people who stream into his radiation center every day. Now he’d have to notify the IU Health Bloomington Hospital emergency room that I’d be coming in to see the psychiatrist on call — stat. He’d have to follow through to make sure I didn’t shove my head in the oven and, for all I know, there’d be reams of paperwork for him to fill out. Oh, he was steamed.

“And if you don’t show up at the emergency room,” Wu added, “the police will come to your house and ask you questions and take you to the hospital for evaluation.”

Serious stuff indeed. When institutions — either for-profit or charitable — find themselves at risk of a liability lawsuit, they get serious. Should I have drunk a quart of Drano and the police later found out I’d breathed the word suicide, Wu and company would be hauled up in court and pilloried in the worst way possible.

Off I went to the emergency room. I walked up to the registration window and said, “I’m here for a suicide evaluation.” I glanced sideways to see if anyone in the waiting room had heard me confess to being the nut who was gonna blow his brains out.

I never got medical service so fast in my life. The registrar slapped the hospital ID wristband on me and bade me come in to the intake room.

A stroke of luck — it turned out the receiving nurse had spent years practicing in oncology before she switched over to emergency. I told her exactly what happened and why I wrote what I did. Then I said, “I want to make an official statement: I do not wish to commit suicide. I have not planned nor am I now planning to take my own life. I merely mentioned the word to illustrate how low my spirits had sunk. I wanted the doctor to know my psychological state.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” she said. “We can’t keep you here against your will so I’ll ask you, Do you want to be admitted to the hospital?”

“Hell no!”

“And you say you have no plans to hurt yourself or commit suicide?”

“None! For chrissakes, do you think I’d go through all this misery if I didn’t want to live anymore?”

“No,” she said. “What you’re feeling is perfectly normal.”

And with that, she pressed a computer key and deleted my admission report to the emergency room. “Good luck,” she said. “And know it’s going to get better from here on out.”

Well. That was one of the most satisfying encounters I’ve ever had with a medical professional. Only a little more drama awaited me. I had an appointment at the infusion center for blood labs, another bag of sodium chloride and maybe some added potassium and magnesium immediately after my Wu appointment. I walked into the infusion center late and was directed immediately to one of the private rooms with a bed, the first time I’d ever gotten that accommodation there. In the room were my medical oncologist, Dr. Allerton, and his nurse Mike. Allerton was holding a copy of my report in his hand.

I shook my head as I entered. “What a load of fucking bullshit,” I groused. The two of them heaved sighs of relief. Allerton peppered me with Q’s about my plans for the future, most specifically whether I saw a future for myself or not and, satisfied, launched into a scold.

“Here are the rules,” he said. “You don’t commit putting the word suicide to paper unless you want to start a whole lot of trouble.”

I stood on my head to convince him suicide wasn’t in my immediate plans and within moments the three of us were making suicide jokes. “I know who you are and how you act and talk,” he said. “I wouldn’t have reacted so strongly to this. But any other medical person would. Dr. Wu did what he had to do. I’m not saying you’re wrong for writing this. You wanted him to know how you felt. That’s good. Believe me, it’s how anyone would feel going through this.”

So, crisis averted. The dogs were called off. The all-points bulletin was rescinded. The nurses pumped me full of a 1000 mL bag of NaCl solution. My electrolyte levels are getting near normal, my kidney functions approaching swell.

The only thing wrong with me, apparently, is I’m a writer and writing can get a guy in deep trouble.

Treatment: The Mind Needs Healing Too

My Sentence

I haven’t left my home on my own since early March. I haven’t driven a car since then. I haven’t been able to take a walk around the neighborhood. I haven’t been able to clean house or even work in my garage office. I can’t concentrate on much and any physical exertion — up to and including taking a shower — results in me being whacked out and collapsed in the recliner for a good long stay.

I am, in essence, in jail.

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The greatest fear I’ve ever had in my life, even greater than that of death, has been jail.

As a punk kid, mixing it up with a bad character or two and getting myself into mostly harmless but occasionally serious trouble, I lived in fear I’d be nabbed doing something stupid and be slammed away for a few months or even years. The very idea petrified me. In fact, the one time I was nailed for a real crime and was compelled to partake of the hospitality of the Chicago Police Dept.’s accommodations, I was so mortified that I actually changed my whole life around. I ceased hanging out with the bad character or two as well as participating in any trouble, kid stuff or serious. Suffice it to say the realities of a cell toilet sans toilet seat and bologna sandwich meals did the trick.

The jail cell I occupy now is a tad more homey. It is, in fact, home. I’ve got my comfy pillow and my blankets, my slippers, my books, the dogs and cats, The Loved One, heat I can control, and windows I can throw open when it’s glorious out. It’s a hell of a gilded cage.

But it’s a cage nonetheless.

The whole confinement thing has depressed me no end. My world has shrunk to an area of about 1700 square feet. I can walk from the bedroom to the study in fewer than ten seconds — and that’s with me shuffling along on chemoradiation-weakened gams. I’m awfully tired of looking at the same tile pattern, the same pine floor grain, the same pictures on the walls with no variety ever entering into my days. I’d love to see a painting hanging on the wall of IU’s Art Museum, or the shelves of Penguin Classics at the Book Corner, or even a flat-screen TV picture of some stupid soccer game at, say, The Office Lounge on 3rd Street.

Give me anything other than what I have to look at 24 goddamned hours a day here at the Big Mike Correctional Center.

Fortunately, the skies have been brilliant blue and the sunshine radiant gold the last couple of days. I don’t know how I’d feel if these last few days were overcast. I don’t want to know.

Of course, the spectacular weather might even be adding to my misery. I’d love nothing more than to go outside and gambol in the sun. Steve the Dog and I haven’t gone down to Lake Monroe for one of our long walks in months. I haven’t been out in the backyard in just as long.

I see bikers furiously pedaling by on SR 446 outside my study window, preparing for the Little 500 in a couple of weeks. Joggers and walkers pass by too, some of them with their own hounds on leashes. I have the urge to throw the window open and shout to them, “Help me! Get me out of here!” but I don’t think they’d understand.

In any case, what comes as a surprise to me throughout this ordeal is the knowledge that my psyche as well as my bod need care and nurturing. I had no idea this cancer stuff could harm my mind and spirit so profoundly.

Flavor Mire

I crowed from the rooftop (well, on social media at least) yesterday about at last being able to get a half bowl of creamy butternut squash soup down my gullet. Now, this is a big deal for someone who hasn’t swallowed in better than a month. I’m told I could even have lost the ability to swallow and would have to learn, with the help — believe it or not — of the radiation center’s Swallow Team, how to do it all over again.

For a veteran trencherman such as I, learning how to gulp anything would seem to be something written large and deep in my genes, but apparently not.

In any case, the soup slid down as if it somehow knew it belonged in my belly. Home, as it were. The problem was, it was the most foul tasting stuff I can recall ever introducing into my facehole. The soup, per se, is fine, see. It’s one of the the aftereffects of chemotherapy that change a guy’s taste for a while after treatment. My taste is abominable at this point in time.

Sadly, I doubt if I’ll ever be able to eat that specific flavor of Pacific brand boxed soup again. The whole association thing, you know. A small sacrifice, I’d say, for the sake of experimenting to make sure I don’t forget how to swallow.

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