|Dominic Chianese as Uncle Junior on The Sopranos|
|June Keith as Uncle Junior July, 2010|
I am a cancer survivor, and somehow I feel awkward saying it. Why, I can't say. It certainly ain't nothing to be proud of!!! (By the way, a cancer survivor is a survivor from the day they're diagnosed until the day they die.) In June, 2009, I was diagnosed with metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, which later proved to be localized in my throat. It had progressed to a lymph node, however, and thanks to the fact that I had health insurance (thank you, God) I was able to submit to a heavy course of treatment which included 37 hits of radiation and, at the same time, a course of six weekly hits of Erbitux, a chemo agent. Here are the questions people ask me about my cancer. 1) Did I smoke? Yes, I did, with great glee and enthusiasm from the time I was 15 off and on for 25 years. Two years off. Four on. Etc. That's called "25 pack years". 2) How did I know I had a problem? I didn't. In conversation I mentioned to a friend, who is a doctor, that I had a lump on my neck that felt hard and painless and that I was wondering if I should get it checked. The no pain thing is what made me feel that nothing was wrong. In fact, something was very wrong. I've come to understand since then that cancer doesn't make you feel bad or sick or weak or anything at all until the tumor gets in the way of bodily functions. Like, in my case, swallowing. Colon cancer, for example, might show itself with blood when you poop 'cause the cancer is big enough to get in the way. Lump in the breast you gotta find yourself. Lumps and bumps that are new and stable are something to look out for. 3) What is my prognosis? I wish I knew. Head and neck cancer is not well understood because it is not well studied. It is less common as other big cancers like breast or lung or prostate. Of all cancer deaths in any given year head and neck cancer deaths account for only 5% or less. So nobody is gonna invest much time or money into research on a cancer that attacks so few people. Lately there has been a cause and effect link discovered involving human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus. You get the same treatment, whether it's HPV or standard cancer—but for people with HPV I've read the outcome can be better. Since I figure I've probably got the HPV-related cancer (how could I not, considering my triumphant march through New York during the Sexual Revolution of the '60s) I figure I got a shot at living for a while.
Since achieving remission following my final chemo treatment in August, 2010 (yes, dear readers, it came back!! I had it twice in one year's time) I have been assigned to a number of tests designed to discover any stray cancer cells lurking in other parts of my body—cervix, colon, lungs, etc. The most frightening of these is the dreaded PET scan, which scans you from head to toe and shows "hot spots" where there is cancer activity. That's how they found my recurrent cancer in February, 2010. Which led to surgery in April and four rounds of chemo in May, June, July and August. Whew! They PET scan me every three months, and as the PET day gets closer I get crazier and more desperate to live.
Today I feel wonderful. I have daily aches and pains with which I sort of negotiate regularly. As in: first I'll make breakfast and take a shower and if I still hurt after that I'll pop a pain pill. Sleep is hugely challenging, 'cause I have a big imagination and the thought of a new cancer and death is always lurking at the edges of my consciousness. I've realized that cancer treatment can be every bit as dangerous as cancer itself. I think I came close to dying during a chemo treatment in May. After that, the oncologist turned the volume down 25%. I tolerated the next three treatments a whole lot better. I lost my hair. I lost 40 pounds. (Nothing compares to the agony of radiation burns. I'll take chemo over radiation any day.) Now that I'm back to life I want to do everything I love all day, every day. I love to write, to read, to cook, to putter in my tiny house, and to secondhand shop. I love to spend time with family and friends. These days, I run out of energy around 4 pm every day. Just in time for Judge Judy.
Yesterday my husband and I went to Publix for groceries. At the store I ran into friends who told me that Doug Childs, a guy diagnosed in October with the same cancer as mine, had died the night before. The news slammed me. It was like we were both on the same sinking ship only my life vest worked while his didn't. Why did Doug die and I survive? What do I do with this hard-won survivorhood? Is it a gift? Or a curse? Or a gift with strings attached? My husband Michael says: What do you think Doug would say?