When, last year, the shock of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer had subsided to a small degree, I set about deciding whether to write about it in these pages.
A whole bunch of thoughts filled my head: This is blog about ageing, not illness. This blog is not a personal diary, it is an exploration of growing old in general. Writing about my experience with cancer in real time is overly self-indulgent.
On the other hand, since I am unlikely to be able to concentrate on much else for awhile, I may as well let readers in on what's happening so they will understand if I post on a reduced schedule.
And Sunday's TGB music columnist Peter Tibbles, when I consulted him, said that “it's best to tell readers what's going on. They're a smart bunch.”
All this came flooding back when I read New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni's remarkable column yesterday. If I retained any doubts about my decision to be as open and honest as possible about the cancer, Bruni crushed them yesterday with his riveting account of life with a condition known as nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (N.A.I.O.N.).
It could, in time, leave him blind in both eyes. The manifestation for Bruni happened about four months ago in his right eye,
“...a thick, dappled fog across the right half of my field of vision, which was sometimes tilted and off-kilter. I felt drunk without being drunk, dizzy but not exactly dizzy.”
Bruni, who is 53, was told this usually occurs after age 50.
”It typically strikes during sleep, when blood pressure drops, and is sometimes associated with sleep apnea, diabetes, hypertension or the use of pills for erectile dysfunction — none of which applied to me. I was a mystery.”
The doctor said that in time the brain would adjust letting Bruni's left eye help give him useful vision. He might even get some clearer vision back in his right eye.
“But there was a much better possibility that I wouldn’t. There was nothing I could do — no diet, no exercise, zilch — to influence the outcome. Worse, the 'stroke' revealed anatomical vulnerabilities that meant that my left eye was potentially in jeopardy, too, and there was no proven script for protecting it.”
Bruni gives us a lot more detail about N.A.I.O.N. and his treatment but what grabbed me are his continuing thoughts and fears about the possibility of permanent blindness.
”What if I’d had another 'stroke'? It was the same every morning: a stab of suspense, then a gale-force sigh of relief. I could still see.
“And I can still see. The oddity of my situation — the emotional riddle — is the distance between the manageability of my current circumstances and what tomorrow could bring.”
”I’ve learned that the best response to weakness is strength: Prove to yourself what you can still accomplish. I had a column due three days after I woke up to my newly blurred vision. I wrote it on time — and kept to my usual pace from then on.”
Bruni met a 75-year-old judge, David Tatel, who has been blind since his late 30s:
”He adapted to his disability; his workplace adapted to him,” writes Bruni. “Various digital advances — in particular, text-to-speech technology — helped hugely. 'I’m really looking forward to self-driving cars,' [Tatel] laughed...”
Bruni also met Peter Wallsten, 45, the senior politics editor at the Washington Post who lost his vision in his thirties:
”He works on an enormous screen that shows letters in a gigantic font,” explains Bruni, “and he listens to writers’ stories and does some of his editing by dictation.
“'This is the important thing to remember: It’s not your brain that’s affected,' he told me. 'It’s your eyesight. He added, 'There are things much harder than this.'”
No kidding. There are things much harder than a pancreatic cancer diagnosis too. Bruni also quotes Joe Lovett, 72, a filmmaker who documented his slowly developing glaucoma in the film, Going Blind. Lovett counseled,
“'...you cannot spend your life preparing for future losses.' It disrespects the blessings of the here and now. Besides, everyone lives in a state of uncertainty.”
I recognized some of Bruni's and the other people's thoughts and conclusions; I had arrived at similar ideas for myself over the months since last June.
But what I most appreciated were the feelings he describes that I hadn't been able to find words for yet. And I get now why my personal celebration a couple of weeks ago at being told I am cancer-free has been more subdued that I would have expected.
Now too, I understand why so many of you, dear readers, have responded so positively to my chronicle of cancer treatment.
Frank Bruni's full essay is a stunningly good and important read that you will find here at The Times. If you do not have access, let me know (use the “Contact” link at the top of this page) and we'll work something out.