Living with Cancer
Friday, 10 May 2019
Let me tell you about my friend, Saul Friedman. Born in 1929, he was a life-long political journalist, reporting for some of the major news outlets in the U.S. - the Houston Chronicle, Knight-Ridder, Newsday and more.
In 1968, he shared a Pulitzer Prize for team coverage of the 1967 Detroit riot, for the Detroit Free Press.
I was privileged and proud when, in November 2009, Saul chose to relocate his bi-weekly Reflections column from Newsday to Time Goes By and added a second weekly column just for us TGB older folks, Gray Matters.
His final column, titled “Gray Matters: Small Miracles”, was published on 18 December 2010, chronicling his years living with cancer.
Saul died of a type of stomach cancer on 24 December 2010. I think you might like that last column – this link will take you to it.
Here we are now these almost 10 years later and it is I who lives with cancer. As Saul well knew, even when chemo or other therapies are going well and even when you feel fine between treatment sessions, the word, the idea, the reality of cancer is always hanging around making a low buzz at the edges of one's consciousness.
Since early January, I have been taking bi-weekly chemo treatments that last all of one day at the chemo clinic and continue with a personal body pump strapped to me for two more days.
So far, these have been remarkably successful, having reduced the size of some of the cancer nodules and maintained that through all the treatments so far. They also make me extra tired so that I nap a lot for a few days, kill my appetite so I lose weight that I can't afford to do and give me a few other, minor side effects that fade within a few days.
The result is that I have about 10 days between the bi-weekly chemo treatments that are almost normal. And don't think I don't appreciate it.
When I met with my oncologist a couple of weeks ago, he suggested that I might want a bit of a rest from the chemo and that I could skip one treatment giving me four weeks between treatments instead of only two.
At first, I rejected the suggestion out of hand. The chemo has been working so well, I thought, why take a chance of disrupting its efficacy. But then, as chemo brain was lifting and other side effects from last week's infusion were fading, I kept thinking about what a nice, little, two-week respite it would be.
And so I have until the end of this month to be chemo-free for which I am grateful.
It is already a good-sized miracle that I am still here. About 90 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die with a year.
When I recently realized that it has been almost two years since my diagnosis, I went back to re-read some of Saul's columns about life, death and cancer.
Here is a snippet from one titled, “Reflections: My Companion, Cancer” about how hardly any progress had been made toward curing cancer:
”The moon landing, accomplished in eight years, the Manhattan Project, successful in less than ten years, the eradication of malaria in the U.S., cures for tuberculosis and polio, were American accomplishments in the 20th century. I see no such effort focused on the most vicious killer, cancer.
“You might say I have a vested interest in this. That would be wrong. Unless someone comes up with a magic bullet tomorrow, I will have to live with my constant companion and take my chemo and hope. But too many people, and some of whom you know, are suffering and dying around us.
“I remember what it was like before and after Salk. I’d like my kids to experience that feeling, when the fear of a disease is lifted.”
And this from Saul's final column linked above is less about reporting and more about – well, small miracles. (The “both” he refers to in the first sentence is the brilliant author, political journalist and literary critic, Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011 of esophageal cancer.)
”Both of us owe our cancers and/or the cures not to divine intervention, but to the miracles of illness and health. They are life affirming.
“Life, illness, happiness, good fortune and bad, even good and bad presidents (I have covered) are all part of what the 11th Century Persian poet Omar Khayyam had in mind when he wrote, 'Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.' And,
”That inverted bowl they call the sky,
Where under crawling, cooped we live and die.
Lift not your hands to it for help,
For it impotently moves as you or I.”
If, as I sometimes wonder, I am making some small difference for others as I ruminate on and write about my cancer journey, Saul even had something to say to me about that - from the same column:
”The point of all this, in a season made for reflection, is to tell the story of how it feels to become and stay old for one very lucky older American, for most of us, despite and because of illness, embrace life more fully than ever.”