Cancer: More Than Just My Zodiac Sign

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  Just 15 days after being informed I have an aggressive type of skin cancer; I lay on a table waiting for my surgeon to remove it. It is July 12th, just two days before my 65th birthday, and I am receiving a four-inch scar just above my belly button as an early present. While I have been assured that they caught it in an early stage, I can’t help thinking about my life and what may be left of it. While I have received plenty of offers from others to accompany me, I have decided to face today alone. If anything, it helps remind me of what small specks each of us are.

I have tried living my life as normal as possible since hearing my dermatologist say, “Jim, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but you have a very aggressive form of skin cancer, and we need to get you scheduled for surgery as soon as possible.”

The problem is, once you hear those words, normal is no longer possible until the day comes where you are officially declared cancer free. Wherever I go, whatever I do, no matter who I talk to, my cancer is on my mind. I sleep in spurts only to be awakened by dreams reminding me how my life has unfolded and how little of it I may have left.

There is no way I can be sick. In the past year, I have literally passed every medical test given people my age to determine their overall health. I passed all with flying colors. Even my chronically high cholesterol level dropped over 100 points and is now well in the healthy range. To prove it further, four days before my surgery, I rode the most grueling three hour and fifteen-minute ride I could create and when I finished, I was wishing I had more fluids and snacks because I was ready for more riding.

I try reassuring myself that at least I don’t have it in a major organ, only to remember our epidermis is the largest organ we have. I think of the other times I cheated death. Getting pulled out of a raging Stanislaus River by a kayaker just before a set of currents waited to tear me apart. The poor student with a gun in his back waist, mentally falling apart and saying he wanted to kill me all because I looked like his sexually abusing step-father. The bicycle crash in 2007 that left me alone in the middle of a road waiting for my final breath to come. Two years later when a driver pulling a fifth wheel struck my bike from behind and nearly driving over me. Maybe I still have a life or two left.

I’ll be wide awake while the doctor slices into me and goes about removing my cancer. She has numbed up the area with plenty of lidocaine before I climbed atop the surgical table. I feel nothing as she removes a plug of tissue consisting of two layers of skin and another two layers of fat, making sure to stop before she hits any muscle. This will shorten my recovery time allowing me to get back to full activity once the stitches are removed in two weeks.

With the help of an assistant, she begins by cutting out a circular area around the cancer which will be sent off to a lab. Once she finishes this part, she makes triangular cuts at the three and nine o’clock positions of the quarter to half-dollar size hole and removes more skin. I am then sutured internally with thread that will dissolve over time before being stitched up externally.

Her assistant methodically cleans the wound before bandaging it. When he finishes, a nurse comes over and helps me sit up, making sure I am okay and not lightheaded. While I sit there, she goes over a list of dos and don’ts to follow until I see my surgeon in two weeks.

I pride myself on being able to sleep through just about anything. My surgery was no exception. You would think I would be too keyed up, but as I lay on the table, I focused on my breathing. As I do, I systematically went about relaxing specific parts of my body and soon, I am twitching like I always do when I sleep. I awake the moment the assistant begins to clean up the wound.

On my way home, I stopped at my favorite Grocery Outlet in Camarillo and picked up a few things. The lidocaine has yet to wear off so I figured it was a good time to shop. Besides, I needed to just wander about a familiar place. Salmon, bananas, cashews, and a great find on my reduced calorie Swiss Miss k-cups was enough to make stopping worthwhile.

Once home, I notify family and friends things went well and then go back to attempting normal, only I feel anything but. It’s more like I am living out some sort of weird dream. I do not feel happy or sad. In fact, I do not feel much of anything. It’s too soon to know what to feel because I have yet to take the time to process the past few hours.

After checking some emails, I searched for the words Metastatic Melanoma; melanoma that can spread. I only do this because while checking in earlier, the nurse read from my chart and asked, “So you are here today for surgery on metastatic melanoma, right?

What a mistake. The first area the internet says that is common for this type of cancer to spread to is the brain. I say to myself, “Not even I would notice if it did that.”

Then it lists the other areas it can spread before I stop reading further and tell myself, “This cancer better be in an early stage.”

By early afternoon, the lidocaine has worn off and the incision feels like a bad sunburn which I find funny given this cancer is the end result of my overexposure to the sun’s rays. It’s not enough to want to take anything for it while hurting enough to make me glad I am not a stomach sleeper. The only thing that will keep me awake tonight are the endless thoughts madly bouncing about inside my head like atoms bouncing off one another.

When I returned to Ventura County earlier this year after being informed my marriage was over, I told myself I would take a year and examine my life before deciding what to do with my future. The price of housing here is such that I will never be able to afford to buy a home. Consequently, I have been following home sales in the northern part of the state and have found several that intrigue me. Should those plans change because of my cancer? Am I wise to remain put where I have well established relationships with a team of doctors, or should I just go for it and purchase a home up north now because there is no telling what tomorrow holds?

If there is anything good about a cancer diagnosis, it is that it wakes you up to the rest of your life. You may get off easy like I think I have, or you may end up in a fight for your life that tests you in ways unimaginable. In either case, it makes you think of your mortality because cancer makes you wait. You wait in doctor’s offices, for lab results, for clinical trials, and all too often, death. Strokes, heart attacks, car accidents, and gun violence all kill without warning. You have no time to ponder death or even say some final good-byes like cancer allows.

One mole. One stinking little mole and now suddenly, I am no longer the person I was. I have been on death’s doorstep before only to be turned away. I know what it is like to believe you are saying good-bye to a world that hasn’t a clue you are dying.  To say it is humbling is an understatement. While having a deep appreciation for surviving something so horrific as I did in 2007, it did nothing to prepare me to hear I have cancer. Believe me, dying alone in the middle of a road early on a Saturday morning is not nearly as scary as hearing you have cancer.

My mind did not shut off last night after my surgery. It’s still racing with random thoughts, I thinking of people I know who have had cancer, some still alive, others who have passed on. The randomness in when it struck and who it struck is beyond anything any algorithm can figure out. Children, mothers, friends, colleagues, rich, poor, the elderly, and now me. And just like people, no two cancers are the same so one person’s previous experience is not likely to be the same as any others.

Now I wait. To get my stitches removed and to hear the lab results of what was extracted. From there, it is either good news followed by the relief of knowing I just have to wait another three months for my first post cancer check-up, or it is worry from hearing they did not get it all and more surgery is required. Either way, I wait.

Maybe, if you are a low-key person, waiting is not so bad, although I doubt it when it comes to cancer. If you are like me and you get anxious over the fact tomorrow is laundry day, waiting for 60 months for the cancer free news will feel like an eternity.

Not to sound like a pessimist, but we will never cure cancer. Like COVID and other illnesses, cancer evolves and morphs into newer strains. Until we can get ahead of the many types of cancers, we will continue playing catch up. However, once we do catch up, then we can focus on staying ahead of cancer as it changes for its own survival.

I haven’t made any promises to any god that if he rids me of cancer, I will be a better person. If cancer wants my life, it will find a way to claim it, and if it is not up to the task, then my doctor has removed it. Like so many things in life, it is about timing followed by a series of chain reactions.

Thirty-six hours have passed since I laid down on that table to have my cancer removed. In that time, 7,500 people in our country have been informed they have cancer. There will not have been any race, religion, gender, or any other group of people you can name that will not have been hit by this disease.  They will all be united by the same fears, hopes, and questions. Some will be united during chemo treatments, radiation therapy, clinical trials, survivors’ groups, or grief counseling. They will cheer the victories of some and mourn the defeats of others. No matter what, they will be united, which, when you think about it, is pretty amazing when we live in such a divided era.

Perhaps we can all take a lesson from this hideous disease and realize we are all better off when we can collectively set aside the things that make us different to unite in support of one another and to cheer our successes while also supporting each other through our losses.

2 thoughts on “Cancer: More Than Just My Zodiac Sign

  • July 17, 2023 at 1:02 am

    Dang it jim! I was hoping you’d say something wise-assy that would take the reality of this out of the picture, like some April Fools joke. Im so sorry. Cancer seems to hit so many of us by about this age. (Me as well, but Im ok) My thoughts are with you and am sending a hug too! Keep us posted and thanks for sharing.

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