I’m no longer fighting cancer.
My best friend from Prague — at least the best friend who wasn’t also a rent boy — died suddenly last week from an inoperable tumor in his brain.
It’s shocked all of us who were close to him, all of the band of believers in boys and, in my case, beer.
A few days of extreme pain, another week of drugged-up existence and then he was gone, I’d spoken to him via Skype two weeks prior. He was as cranky as ever and full of stories, as usual. One of the great things about Chris was his ability to fill every second with tales so amazing that I wouldn’t have believed them if I hadn’t been part of them myself. And he was so good at re-telling the ones that didn’t include me, that for the first few minutes I could forget I’d heard it all before.
In our conversation last week, he remarked on how easy it was to maintain our rapport no matter how much time had passed since our last call. Chris hated email and I don’t like talking so we didn’t communicate as often as we would have liked. Still, I said in response: Friends forever, buddy! I’m glad I said it, but it hurts to remember that now.
I was hoping I could remember a story about him that was appropriate for this blog about cancer, but they’re all pretty dirty. Let’s just say he was an expert at getting random, butch straight boys to drop their pants for a smile, or a McDonald’s hamburger.
Without him, I would have gone hungrier when I was homeless, and certainly lived a lot lonelier life.
If I told you that I had seen my oncologists or had gotten blood work back after having seen my oncologists or that my oncologists were happy, so happy, at the results from my last surgery, then I lied.
I tried to go. I told myself, after failing to get up and go each morning, that I would go the next day or the next or the next. But I didn’t go. I couldn’t face it. I couldn’t face it alone, at any rate. Marie Curie is a depressing place and it intimidates me and waiting around there for hours is, for me, the absolute worst possible punishment.
I could’ve asked someone to accompany me but after having been told by my best friend that I was an ingrate, that nothing she had done for me seemed to be enough to satisfy me, that my sense of entitlement astonished her (entitled to what, I wonder?), and that she wasn’t doing me any more favors, whenever I thought of asking someone to go with me, I felt an overpowering and paralyzing guilt and shame. Maybe I was that guy. Maybe I don’t deserve the help I’ve been getting. What do I know? I’ve never known how I come across to people. Maybe I’m an ashole. A shitty writer. A terrible friend. If I have been ungrateful it might be because I have never been sure, through this whole ordeal, that the end result of saving my life was a valuable enough goal for what I had to endure.
Beyond the Spanish translation aid, one-third the reason I asked someone to go with me to the hospital was to ensure that I would go myself. I have very little loyalty to my own health (I would have died without Claire pushing me to call a doctor; when blood soaked the toilet paper 4 years ago, I ignored the symptom.) but the thought of a friend of mine getting up at the crack of dawn to meet me and my not showing up…well, I couldn’t let that happen. There’s no way I could fail to go in that case. But I can’t ask for more help from anyone now. It’s too embarrassing. No, it’s mortifying.
So, after two weeks of rolling over and going back to sleep, I finally gave up. Obviously, it was something I just couldn’t do. I decided to self-medicate with the last bottle of capecitabina I’d ended up with after the last round of chemo and then hope for the best. The best, in that case, was that I had the most side-effect-free chemo cycle I’ve experienced so far. No fatigue, only a little bit of diarrhea and a few itchy blisters on my feet. But, I felt great. It was completely unexpected and unlike all my other chemo cycles.
I still feel great. I walk every day. I sleep well. (Maybe it’s the acupuncture. Thanks, Vivi and Lauren!) I’ve made a few changes in my online life that’s caused me to write more. Despite the fact that no one responds, I think I’m writing some of my best film criticism ever. I still haven’t figured out how to make a living, though. I was able to pay rent last month by doing some WordPress consulting and giving a couple art walks. For the first time since Conyers Thompson kicked me out on the street, I earned all that rent money myself. That felt good.
But as I told myself last night: You’re not acting like someone who doesn’t really know his full health status and won’t be able to pay his rent on the 19th or who hasn’t eaten anything except rice the past few days. Why do I feel so good and relatively stress-free? I have no fucking idea! Maybe I’m delusional. Maybe the cancer has crossed the blood-brain barrier and has started suppressing whatever tiny reservoir of good sense I used to have.
Maybe it’s just because I’m alive and I really don’t want to die anymore.
On yet another warm autumn day in Buenos Aires, I went to Hospital Penna to get my stitches removed. Being a veteran at this stuff, I showed up 2 hours after the 8 AM callback, ’cause they never see me before 10. What can I say? I’m sick of waiting around.
That all went fine, although it’s a strange feeling, thread pulling through underneath my skin. It vibrates as it’s tugged through; it almost makes a sound. Then I asked about the biopsy on the piece of my colon they removed. This young doctor — cute, short, brown — had forgotten about it. Not that it’s important or anything. When he got back he just looked at it, half-smiled and nodded his head.
Well, WELL? I was thinking.
He said a paragraph or two in Spanish that I couldn’t understand other than to tell me that I needed to get a couple copies made and bring one back to him.
I did, just around the corner on the hospital’s campus, and on the way back thankfully ran into one of my main doctors, Cinthia. She told me, in Spanglish, to make sure that my oncologists at Marie Curie got a copy and to come back the following Friday to Penna, for what she didn’t say. I’m assuming it’s for a pre-surgery consult. Yes, I still have another surgery pending — to remove the colostomy.
I told her, wait, I don’t understand this piece of paper.
She looked at it, mumbled some stuff in Spanish and said, “No hay tumor.” I knew what that meant but just to make sure I understood that, she said, “Muy bueno. Excelente. MUY bueno.”
There was no cancer detected.
I’ll let my oncologists have the last word on this one, sometime next week if I can manage to get an appointment; but, for the moment at least, I appear to be cancer-free.
There were no mirrors in my private hospital room’s toilet so I hadn’t seen myself for almost a week. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s met me in person that I don’t pay that much attention to my face anyway. What’s there to see? Crooked glasses; an unwillingness to shave the salt ‘n’ pepper; a chin with a tendency to droop when I drink too much; wide, angry eyes.
When I have to look at my body, my torso — when changing my colostomy bag, for example — I tend to just look down. It’s somehow less disturbing that way to see the changes my body’s undergone after peritonitis, two emergency surgeries, a radiation cycle, and several cycles of chemotherapy: A buried navel once wrenched to the right but now nearly covered, a suspected incisional hernia which I’ve never had the patience or will to have diagnosed, undulating folds of bulging belly-flesh that make me wonder what’s under there, a chronic blister filled with black blood, a souvenir from Hospital Rivadavia.
Coming out of the hospital and crashing for a night with friends in Congresso, I looked in their mirror and saw a man who had made a spectacle of himself — spectacle of self-pity, mostly — in a way that most cancer patients do not. Or don’t have to. I’ve detailed the humiliating aspects of my colostomy bag, the frustrations of managing the public health care system in a foreign country, the anger of knowing that another human being wants to destroy me, the depression of poverty and isolation and living without the primary support of a partner, spouse or family, the bizarre conundrum of not really wanting to die anymore and yet not being able to see another way out, except for more pleading, more writing and more spectacle. Writing in this way means an additional level of embarrassment when going out, over and above the kind that’s there for every terminal patient still trying to have a social life — no one really knows what to say to you. Those with the weakest character usually end up saying nothing, or something stupid, which is kind of a relief, sometimes of the comic kind. (Some kind soul actually said to me, back when the watchwords were Stage IV and metastases, Get well soon!) But sometimes everybody ends up saying nothing, which is no comfort at all.
Now that I’ve finally made it past the surgery (after, what, 4 runs at it?) and having received the startling news that there is no visible cancer, I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing. I still have the colostomy, but in a little less than two months, if I make it (see: poverty), I’ll have another surgery to remove that, and then… what?
I’d like to start digging ditches, something physical, something far, far away from social media. You’d think because social media helped save me, that I’d be a booster. You’d be wrong. I’ll really become a misanthrope if I get another like on life-threatening or life-altering or life-changing bits of writing that I’ve wrenched out of myself like the catheter the nursed pulled out of me last week, taking two tries — it was a long fucking tube. I don’t want to be liked, in that way anyway, and I don’t think I’ve written in a way that makes that easy. Honest writing really isn’t all that likeable. Yet, they tell me, it goes viral.
But still, I would like to stop it, stop writing. About cancer, about anything. I want 5 years at least of cooking, eating, fucking (if I can figure out how to disrobe in front of another human being without the act itself being the point), working out, even, maybe. Anything to forget the body that I was, the mind that made it so.
I imagine myself standing alone, looking out into a dark so black and smelling an earth so rich as to make me forget the smell of my own drying blood, an iron odor that’s far too familiar. I want blurs of banal experience I would find tedious and pointless to construct paragraphs around and others would find tedious to read: Smoking silently on a new friend’s porch, drinking an unremarkable beer, conversation revolving around produce or how blue the sky, unpressured with confessions or admissions of mortality or weakness, with everyone around me forever clueless to my scars or scabs, or the memories of shivering violently, naked under a sheet, a fresh, foot-long Frankenstein-slice in my belly, on a gurney with no one who could speak with me within earshot, or even walking distance, eyes squinted, squeezing tears like a newborn’s.
I died once. It wasn’t a big deal at the time, at least for me.
I was out cold on an operating table during a surgery to remove the remaining cancerous tissue in my colon, and also to reverse my colostomy. But in a chain of events that the doctors later had trouble explaining to an Argentine friend, I went into septic shock and stopped breathing. My heart stopped. I was resuscitated and put into intensive care where I woke up 5 days later.
I wasn’t told about the dying part, and only in bits and pieces over time, until I was out of the hospital. My friends knew but kept it from me when I was in the hospital. They didn’t want to upset me. It’s a bit sad that they didn’t know me as well as I thought they did.
I died. I was revived. Nothing happened in between. That’s exactly what I’d expected. That was exactly my belief, and now my own experience had confirmed it. That’s a comforting thought, not a troubling one.
I didn’t see a light. I didn’t see my mom or dad. I didn’t even see Johnny Cash, although under the influence of painkillers I had vivid, psychedelic dreams about limbo and the afterlife where I met Hank Williams and Jean Genet on a bridge to nowhere. And there were trolls.
In fact, the thought of a eternity of afterlife, no matter where it’s spent, sounds pretty scary. Now I know, in an immediate way more important than simple faith or studied belief, that there will be an end to things, to everything, and it’s nothing and nothing to be afraid of.
Note: I’ve been assured that surgery will proceed, finally, this coming Monday.
I was turned away from the surgical hospital for the third time this past Sunday. Or maybe it was the 4th. I don’t know anymore.
I wasn’t the only one turned away but I was the only one with a friend there to chew out the young chubby doctor, who was trembling by the time Kate got through with him. I didn’t feel sorry for him. He’s a doctor; he needs to experience that and worse. I’ve seen him strolling around the campus of the hospital — a bit too flip and confident for my sense of propriety, considering where he is and the responsibilities he has. And he proved how flip he was by saying my being turned away was not his problem.
Kate took the news a lot worse than I did. i guess I’m used to it by now.
I now have to decide whether to pursue other treatment options or live out what life I have left as comfortably as I can. My friend Gabi has composed an e-mail to the head of surgery at Penna explaining my situation, and asking for his advice. It’s something he or someone on his staff should have had the sense or the balls to do a long time ago:
We’re sorry, Rick, but no surgeries are possible here for the foreseeable future and so considering how important it is for you to get that tumor cut out in a timely manner, we suggest you try another hospital. We can help you with that.
Instead, they’ve simply strung me along, following some sort of ridiculous bureaucratic protocol that ends up inflicting more suffering on an already suffering person. False hope, really, is the worst thing you can offer someone. And they’re doing this every Sunday to every group of people that shows up to be admitted and then turned away, not just to me. As a friend suggested, that in itself is a violation of the Hippocratic oath. And there’s just no justification for it.
But anyway, I give up on Penna. It’s not going to happen and I just have to face it. I also have to face the growing discomfort emanating from my abdomen, where the latest lesions have spread. Oral chemo is little help when it’s metastasized in the peritoneum and intravenous chemo, which I refuse to accept anymore anyway, helps only a little. There are experimental procedures that I’ve read about on the Internet but my oncologists haven’t mentioned them. They’re probably too expensive for a public hospital and aren’t standard in the States, either.
So that’s it. The only encouraging note is that somehow the cancer has not mutated and continues to respond — in the colon and liver — to oral chemo. My body seems to be holding on, although I get tired a lot easier than I used to. But still, I’ve already beat the odds, not unlike my mom did when her liver started to fail.
My birthday is next month. I’ll be 51. I was diagnosed with cancer in December 2010. Many of the people I used to see at Hospital Marie Curie Hospital have died. But I’m still here.
Essentially homeless and leaking money, but still here.
If you would like to donate — money that, at this point, will be used to live life better and die a comfortable death some unknown time in the future — you can PayPal me at mettray at g mail dot com.