Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rediscovering Cancer

It seems odd today, after 20 years of having no tumors that there was a night when I heard a doctor tell me I had to have my tonsils out, and then three hours later waking up to hear, "We had a complication, so it took a lot longer than we expected."  The complication turned out to be a tumor the size of my fist, and find out it was probably cancerous. That's hard to take at the age of 26, never mind that I was in the middle of graduate school, and my family lived 3000 miles away. I didn't want to deal with anything that involved hours of hospital time, or worse, death.

Chemotherapy was something I couldn't have imagined. In my head, it meant sitting under a microwave or an x-ray machine, and having some weird probe stuck in my head or something. I don't know what I expect to have happened. But what it was-  and still is-  having a seat in a comfy chair, surrounded by several other people doing the same. Some knitted. Some watched the television. We all had IV's, some inserted in catheters placed directly in their chests or upper arms. I had a "strong vein" because I was so new to it, so I had it in my wrist. Ugh. Not pretty. Painful? Yep. But the seven or eight of us in the big Chemo-suite, just did our own thing. We'd get an x-ray in the area affected, then before or after, under go the IV cocktail.

In my case, the liquid wasn't as thick. I was still 'getting tested' which apparently meant I was on a lower dose of the medications. By the fourth treatment, I could see the liquid went from a drop to a resounding plop into the tubing, as it was much thicker, and by then I did get a shunt in my chest. I've had this done twice in my life. The first time, the sight of warm blood trickling in beat of the heart was unnerving. The second time, years later, it was not easy to see, but feeling the warmth of the liquid was equally unnerving. The scar left isn't cool though. It looks more like a chicken pox mark.

When all of the tests finally were completed, back in the stone age of the 1980's/90's, it was a full 17 weeks of waiting for the results. That meant having the chemotherapy, regardless of the outcome. It meant, having a very toxic cocktail of medications put into my system, regardless of the actual results of cancer or benign. When they finally did arrive, I had completed three months, and was very much weakened by all of it. With the results in the cells inside the core of the tumor were shown to be cancerous, but the outer cells seemed to have been healthy cells that swallowed up the bad ones. If people have cancer, it generally works that the cancer cells start to take over cells and blood supplies, thereby killing the animal, in my case, human. But, again, in my case the good cells were slapping the bad cells around for some time, and thus ended my cancer scare. 

A few tests every few months, then years, showed that I wasn't getting anything else growing into my pharynx. It's now officially 20 years since the last treatment. I'm considered a "cancer survivor" even though I technically only had a small lump of evil. So why is this blog called REDISCOVERING cancer? Treatment for the disease has greatly improved thanks to the work of places such as the Dana Farber Institute in Boston. My aunt Jeannie had cancer of her lungs, and didn't discovery it until she was in stage 4, (major, malignancy), and somehow she kept her spirits up, and joyfully went bald from x-rays. Almost two years later, she finally succumbed to the illness, as the cells strangled her lungs to take her last breath. 

It was because of her illness that I worked with The Jimmy Fund, a charity of the Dana Farber Institute, that brings money into the organization for treatment, and studies to eradicate cancer. I ran a show called Comed-o-Therapy, featuring some of Boston's funniest people, that I was happy to emcee, inside the Comedy Connection at Fanueil Hall. . This year, I was asked to present a workshop of laughter through cancer, which I'm gladly doing.  

What I've rediscovered, through the loss of my aunt, and through my own experiences is that cancer can be controlled, and in some cases completely conquered. It is said that we're all genetically embedded with cells that don't do what they should. But when you're a patient, what cells do isn't what is important- it's what WE do when we are handling their eradication that makes the difference. Medically, people who laugh tend to be healthier than those who have little to no humor in their lives. I don't have the capacity, nor education to work on removing cancer from the planet, but what I do have is a sense of humor. As I write out lines that made me chuckle during my own trials, I hope that I can teach others how to survive their illness by rediscovering the silly within. Silliness is greatly overlooked, and should be part of our daily ritual, just as much as grooming, and tasks. I'm looking forward to making people laugh again, but more so, I'm looking forward to teaching a workshop that allows others to find the silly in the insanity that is cancer.