Following a diagnostic procedure the day before, on 1 June 2017, a surgeon stood in my hospital room and told me I had pancreatic cancer.
Oof. I wouldn't wish that moment on anyone.
I had no illusions about the disease. My father had died of it and I knew that although few people get it (compared to breast or lung or prostate cancer), most of them die within a year or so.
A week later in a meeting with that surgeon and an oncologist, I was told that I was a good candidate for surgery because the lesion was located at one end of my pancreas and I was in excellent physical shape despite my 76 years.
They didn't pull any punches about what that surgery – called the Whipple Procedure – involves. In addition to removing a whole lot of one's innards (half the pancreas, the entire duodenum and gall bladder, a portion of the stomach and some other, smaller bits and pieces), all the connectors among organs would be rearranged and after more than 12 hours in surgery, it would be up to six months before I was completely recovered.
However, it would give me more months of life than I would have without the surgery.
A funny thing happens when you hear something like that: I found out how much more deeply I care about being alive than I'd ever thought about before.
As I've mentioned here, I made the choice right away to follow instructions of my surgeon and other physicians as closely as possible and let them run the show because they had so much more experience at this than I did or do.
That strategy has worked well for me. In June it will be three years since the surgery and although I've now also been diagnosed with COPD, pulmonary rehab gave me good tools to use to live as well as possible with that.
Here's why I'm doing this recap today: I've felt good or good enough for so long that I would like to experience – make that RE-experience - normal life, life before cancer. Because for the most part that's how I feel.
Yes, my energy is way below what it was pre-cancer and by mid-afternoon, I'm done for anything much more taxing then a book or movie. Residual pain, mostly minor, and some other physical artifacts get in the way sometimes but they are not debilitating.
Pills, inhalers and diet requirements need daily attention. And when I forget my new circumstance and walk at my previous speed, COPD forcefully reminds me that is no longer possible, as I heave to catch my breath.
Then there are the medical appointments. In person check-ups and check-ins, blood draws, port flushes, scans and more. I know all the doctors, RNs, technicians, schedulers and medical assistants quite well now. I think of them as friends but I wouldn't mind less time dealing with cancer and COPD.
If you've been hanging around here since this journey began, you know how I railed against becoming a “professional patient,” but that's what I've been now for a long time and it's not going to change.
I'm not complaining about the facts of all this which, under the circumstances, keep me rolling along quite well. And with a little practice, as new needs came about, I've folded them into daily routine not too much different from brushing my teeth.
But it's been long time and I'm tired now of accommodating cancer and COPD. I'm tired of so much of what I do every day being related to two deadly diseases. I'm tired of wondering if every twitch is a sign that the end is nigh.
Please don't think that I am wishing to die – far from it. Nor am I slipping into fantasy.
What I want is to figure out a way of being, of carving out a space to live in that doesn't always include disease at the edge – and forefront, too - of my consciousness.
Sometimes the wish comes to me as empty space and time, when cancer and COPD take a nap for awhile and leave me as I was before all this happened. A mini-vacation. Maybe even a whole day of it now and then.
Don't get me wrong. I am acutely aware of how lucky I am. Most people with my cancer are dead long before now. But I wish I could figure out how to make a respite for myself, some time to pretend – nay, forget - for a little while that this didn't happen to me.
Am I asking too much? I think I can't be alone in wanting this and that I can continue to be the realist that I am while taking a little vacation. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet.