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S.R.O.

Monday at the Cancer Clinic—I’ve never experienced so much cancer on display, never witnessed so many visible signs of it.

It starts in the parking garage at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. I am in space D353, and the couple in D352 walk with me to the elevators. She is chemo-bald. Straight to the lab services waiting room we three go, I for my quarterly blood draw.

While waiting to be called, I notice another chemo-bald woman, and then another, and still another. Highly unusual. So I begin surveying the crowded waiting area — it’s standing room only (“I’ve never seen it this busy,” one regular declares) — and start counting the women without hair: five, six, seven, eight, nine…I’m distracted by four people sharing their stories of stem cell transplants…”he’s 59 days out and, see, his hair’s growing back”…10. Finally, number 11 takes her place in the queue for check-in.

Behind 11 is a young boy, probably about 10 years old, in a wheelchair. His father is reviewing the day’s schedule of appointments; it spills across two pages. The boy’s pre-pubescent alto voice, loud with excitement, abruptly calls hello! to the phlebotomists. They return the greeting; they’re all — and how many appointments does this take? — on a first-name basis. The obvious glee among them torques a round of laughter from the serious and silent rest of us.

My turn. My blood is drawn so quickly (or my mind is so elsewhere), it is over before I even sense the prick of the needle’s entry into the crook of my right arm. As I leave for the quarterly appointment with my oncologist, chemo-bald woman number — no, wait, I can’t count this person as woman #12: This person is so young, so hairless, I can, on passing, discern no identifiers of gender.

I’m in a snow globe of despair, but instead of flakes, it’s cancer swirling around me.

***

Upstairs, two weeks into the seventh year of my cancer journey, I report for my check-up; my PSA is once again undetectable. I remain no evidence of disease (NED). But my oncologist and I talk not about a cure but about how much longer I can go before my prostate cancer comes back. (I did, after all, have cancer in two lymph nodes at surgery.) He tosses out markers: another year, three years, five, and why each increment is better than the previous.

It was a hopeful discussion about an uncertain and unknowable future. Very much unlike my April 2012 check-up, which brought the despairing, hollowing out news of possible recurrence. With that came a sense of futility we cancerians know all too well: No matter what I do, I can’t get a break. It’s the point in your disease where you think you’ve hit bottom, and then someone shows you to a door leading down.

But today, my oncologist — who cautioned me a year ago not to read too much into those disappointing test results — actually sees me as NED since January of last year: Despite the scant and receding traces of PSA measured in April and July of 2012, I’m 15 months no evidence of disease.

From despair to hope — what a difference a year makes.

***

My visits to the cancer ward tend to be emotionally uneventful, but this time, I knew both despair and hope, raw and in full measure: despair that so many lives are marked by cancer; but hope that the wizardry of modern medicine can, if not save, at least meaningfully extend our lives. And that is why we were all there on the morning of Monday, April 8, 2013.

Each of us had an appointment with the doctors of hope, standing room only.

Hope

Saturday’s program in Washington included a documentary filming of a men’s prostate cancer retreat. In the center, in the blue sweater, is our host, Trip Casscells.

As a young reporter for The Washington Post, I had many memorable times in Washington, D.C., but this past weekend (Sep 7-8) was my most special time ever in the city. I was honored (and humbled) to participate in the Milken Institute’s “Celebration of Science” as a guest of Dan Zenka and the Prostate Cancer Foundation. Dan both works for the foundation and is a prostate cancer survivor himself. With him, about 10 of us who are also making the prostate cancer journey represented all PCa survivors to a community of researchers working for better treatments — and someday a cure — for prostate cancer.

I don’t ever want to say that I’m lucky to have prostate cancer, but it has exposed me to many wonderful people and life-shaping experiences; this past weekend brought both, and for that, I am lucky — and grateful.

I’d like to share with you this link to Dan Zenka’s post about the weekend from his blog, My New York Minute.

Boys of Summer

Reflections: Honoring Fred Hutchinson, Manager, Cincinnati Reds

It may be the sole summer of my youth that I recall with any real clarity: the summer of ’61, that listless season after high school graduation, when Al Mosher, Bill Salzer and I spent many humid nights at Crosley Field, watching the Cincinnati Reds, under manager Fred Hutchinson, win their way to a National League pennant and a shot at the Yankees in the World Series.

The Reds, alas, would lose the Series; Al, Bill and I would choose separate life paths but not stray apart. There would be Al’s wedding, and, later, a son. There’d be clueless weekend nights with Bill over Stroh’s beer at Shipley’s, where he’d lament statistics class, and I’d talk about my work at WKRC-TV.

And then it all fell apart.

On Dec. 15, 1967, 44 years ago today, Al stepped on a “friendly” land mine in Vietnam; his widow, Sharon, called me in New York with the news, and I went down to Washington for Al’s burial at Arlington. Bill, in the Army and stationed in Okinawa, escorted Al’s body home for the funeral. The three of us were together once more, together one final time.

I never saw Bill alive again. Two years later, a captain at Ft. Hayes, he was murdered by a soldier under his command.

Two young lives brought to an end in their mid-20s, and 40-, 50-plus years of life stolen from each, years they never had the opportunity to experience, to savor and to hold dear. I often tell myself that Bill and Al would love to be my age and have my Stage 4 prostate cancer — and that puts my cancer, and my life, in perspective; keeps my head screwed on straight; and reminds me of all the blessings of life, whatever the bumps.

Today, just to close this circle, my oncologist, besides treating me in the clinic, conducts prostate cancer research — at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center here in Seattle.

And, yes, it’s named for the manager of those Cincinnati Reds, that summer of ‘61.

What’s wrong with me(n)?

Until July 24

Since poking my head up into the cancer blogosphere, I’ve been looking about a bit, reading blog posts here, there and everywhere. It’s been a grim revelation to see and hear the emotional pain that can accompany cancer.

And, I’m sorry to report, how often men are the wellspring of much of that pain.

No, I’m not saying all men. There are uncountable numbers of men out there who are loving and supportive caregivers all. You can read that in the blogosphere, too: In toting up her cancer blessings, Nicole, larynx cancer, thanked from her heart, Don, my husband — industrial strength, flawless diamond support and escort service for all my treatment needs. My indefatigable rock, he always finds a way to time his jokes when I’m not trying to swallow.

But there is a Guy Thing out there, make no mistake, and I did not set out to find it. I was merely skimming posts, literally just looking out the window while on my cancer journey. And this is what I saw:

A woman with breast cancer, metastasis to her lungs: Don’t know how I’m going to find the strength to do everything I need to do to get rid of this cancer & still work full time which is what my husband seems to think I need to do 😦

A woman with ovarian cancer, in her 40s: Facing a second recurrence, and I am terrified right now. My mother died 18 months ago, after an 11-month bout with OC. Then my father passed away nine months ago of heart failure. So I already had grief and stress in my life, plus my main source of comfort and support is gone. My former husband was not the best of support, but our marriage ended five months before my mother died. So I am crushed at the daunting prospect of going through treatment again.

Another woman with breast cancer: I’m so depressed. I don’t know if it’s my cancer, my new fake breasts, my nasty husband or just life…. I hate my new nipple-less fake breasts, they don’t feel like a part of me and my marriage has fallen apart because my husband refuses to be a part of my cancer afterlife. He won’t touch me, he hates me and wants the old me back.

A woman with stage 4 kidney cancer: My relationship fell apart because of cancer. He couldn’t come to terms with it, and I got tired of the guilt of focussing on my self.

And then I recalled the lady on a Survivor Panel, June 26, 2010, “Moving Beyond Cancer to Wellness” at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center here in Seattle. She had been diagnosed with lymphoma, I believe, and the prognosis had not been good.

“My husband came to me one day and said, ‘I’ll take care of the kids, but I can’t handle your cancer.’” She then explained that there was no way she was going to put her husband, her children and herself through the stresses and pains of divorce only to…die. However justifiable a divorce might have been, she just wasn’t going to cause a family wreck and then leave the scene. (What a classy lady, I thought then, and I think so still.)

She finished her remarks about cancer’s impact on families and then came the Q and A. Someone in the audience finally asked about the elephant in the room: “What became of your marriage?”

“When I realized I was going to live,” she answered, “we separated.”

Eighth Day of the Week

Scan my bones, Jones! (Official T-shirt of the Prostate Cancer Foundation)

Today was Scanday, the day between Wednesday and Thursday, of two CT scans and one bone scan at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. The scans are in preparation for my almost-certain radiation treatment…depending still on a third medical opinion a week off. An uneventful, information-free Scanday.

Except for the young man, the very young man, sitting opposite me in the waiting room. In his 20s, there with his mom, drinking the same contrast solution I was, and wearing a patient i.d. wristlet like mine. One of the mind games I play in the waiting room of the cancer ward is to try to guess what kind of cancer someone has — an impossible game of no consequence whatsoever, but one that does put my senses on alert for clues and ambient conversations.

Across the aisle, May 5, 2008: Man #1: “Are you a bone-marrow transplant, too?”

Man #2, tapping his right abdomen: “Pancreatic.”

Fast forward to the young man today. I couldn’t glean enough to learn what his cancer is or what stage it’s in. I merely drank in his wristband, his mom, his presence in the cancer ward — and his raw youth: so much life ahead. Maybe. And I recalled what my dad would say when he’d hear of someone else’s straits:

“I got no problems today.”

Serendipity

Plan on being surprised.

On this cross-country trip, we’ve already been rewarded twice with the unexpected — stuff going on we had no idea of, until the very moment that we stumbled right into it. One of the joys of a spontaneous journey.

Remembering the Alamo -- 175 years on!

Take last Sunday. We had no idea of the import of March 6 in Texas history — until we took the bus to a tour of the Alamo. All these guys in period dress: What’s going on? The celebration of the 175th anniversary of the fall of the Alamo! And so we got to enjoy a re-enactment of the siege and the fall. In adversity at the Alamo, Texas found its inner strength and soon prevailed at the Battle of San Jacinto.

Then yesterday. We had arrived in Natchez with the hope of driving past, just seeing, some old antebellum mansions. But it turns out Saturday was the opening day of Pilgrimage, the five-week stretch when the finest preserved mansions of old Natchez — a center of extraordinary wealth in the days of King Cotton — are open for public tours. Again, Who knew? So we got to go inside and visit with folks who live in mansions we had only hoped to drive past. What can you say about a structure, its occupants and a locale where the same family has lived amid the same furniture in the same house since 1849? It’s not so much the land that time forgot as it is people who don’t want to forget.

So serendipity had struck again, and we consider ourselves blessed to have had these two small but enriching surprises.

Have you ever noticed that when good things happen in life, no one ever wonders, Why me?

Movin’ Right Along

U.S 93 Hoover Dam Bypass

The Hoover Dam Bypass opened in October 2010.

Despite cancer, our lives move on. We’re driving across America, including a test drive of the new Hoover Dam Bypass, which relocates U.S. 93 traffic 1,500 feet away from the old Rte. 93 atop the dam itself. The Bypass is a stunning, spanning arch of concrete 900 feet above the Colorado River. Hoover Dam, well worth a stop and a $30 tour, was built during the Great Depression, but it wasn’t a Democratic New Deal public works project — its origins were Republican, back in the days when Republicans believed in government investment in the future. Hoover Dam provided water and power to transform vast areas of the desert Southwest, a region now populated by folks who like to oppose government and government spending. Funny to hear Tea Partiers rally themselves against government and then go home to air-conditioning and running water, thanks be to Hoover Dam.