”...progressive disease,” says the CT scan report, “with new and enlarging multiple metastatic lung nodules and new peritoneal nodules.”
It was Monday morning this week when I heard that statement paraphrased in a meeting with my oncology physician, my nurse and a social worker at the Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU), following up on a CT scan from the previous Friday.
Although I was hoping to be wrong, it's not like I wasn't expecting this outcome. Ten days or so earlier, I had seen the chart of a blood test for “tumor markers”. It looks like this:
I don't know what is being measured and we don't need to know. What matters is that the high number on the far left was reported just before my Whipple surgery for pancreatic cancer in June 2017. The next one – at zero – was following the surgery and you can see what has transpired since then, triggering the conclusive CT scan at the end of last week.
The only treatment is chemotherapy which, they tell me, cannot kill the cancer but can slow the growth enough that I might have six or eight months of healthy living before symptoms begin.
The awful irony is that right now I feel terrific, in as excellent health as I was before I was diagnosed with cancer in mid-2017. Even so, the first decision I made about the rest of my life is to stop my daily workout routine. Immediately.
Because I know that regular and fairly heavy exercise goes a long way toward staying healthy in old age, I've been doing that (with the exception of the months of recovery after the surgery) five mornings out of seven for six or seven years - and I despised every moment of it. Now there is no reason and I am relieved.
Another upside is that I don't have to worry about dementia anymore. No more of those little online tests about what are normal memory problems and what are not. Whew. I'm glad to be done with that too.
I'm sure that in the coming days and weeks I'll find some other things I can happily leave behind.
So what should I do with the time left to me? Yeah, yeah, I know – everyone is dying every day but believe me, I now know that it is quite a different thing from that abstract platitude to a closely defined period of time.
I never had a plan for my life. Beyond being a professional ballet dancer for which I turned out to be physically unsuited, I didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I followed my nose as things came into view and had a wonderful career in media production – radio, television, internet - for nearly 50 years.
Only recently did I discover a quotation from entertainer Elton John that well describes how I have lived: “If you let things happen, that is a magical life.”
And so it has been. I've mostly “let things happen” and have rarely been disappointed.
So no bucket list for me – in fact, I actively dislike the entire idea. I already have plenty of memories to recall and anyway, I really like this life I have now.
A young person would certainly find it boring. Each morning, I commute from the bedroom to my computer. As we all can do now, I follow the news and its commentary and other kinds of writing, too, from wonderful writers all over the world online.
There are friends to have lunch and spend time with. Lots of good books to read along with many good movies and TV shows if I want. Not to mention, my current affairs discussion group which has become more important to me than I would have guessed when it began two years ago.
My main daily occupation is this blog and its subject – what it is like to grow old. I've been doing this for about 15 years and still am not tired of it. It feels a lot like the years I was employed – going to work every day doing something that I enjoy.
Five days into my new circumstance now, I have decided to keep doing these things as if I had all the time in the world. That may change in the weeks and months to come and if so, I'll figure out then what is next.
For now, from time to time I will write here about this final journey hoping that what could be taken as overly self-indulgent might, for some readers, be of possible value as another person's way of approaching the end of life.
Another quotation that has helped drive my life is from the British writer, E.M. Forster. I discovered it when I was in my twenties realizing then that it describes perfectly how my mind worked and still works:
”How do I know what I think until I see what I say.”
For me, it takes writing it down (on paper or, these days, on a screen) to know with any clarity what I think and believe. So writing for you is also for me and will help me work out this frightening last mile or two.
I have sometimes said to myself and to others, how hard could dying be? Everyone who has ever lived has done it – even the really dumb ones. But of course, it's not anywhere near that simple, is it?
For the near future, nothing will change here at Time Goes By except that I will more frequently write about heading into the great unknown. If you want to join me, I will be so happy to have you here.