Cancer, my way 

A reporter's most difficult story

Editor's note: This story originally ran in the May 20, 2000, edition of Creative Loafing.

Six months ago, I was told I'm dying. I was diagnosed with renal-cell carcinoma, an especially nasty disease even by cancer standards. We cancer patients are told any type of the disease can be cured. But those with kidney cancer that has metastasized face particularly daunting odds.

A year ago earlier, a tumor had been discovered lurking behind my right kidney. I'd been experiencing a little discomfort of the urinary variety. The tumor was the cause. So we had it taken out, along with the kidney itself.

Teensy traces of renal cells were found, and it was decided that, after a period of recuperation, I would undergo immunotherapy. By this method, the patient is injected with Interferon or Interluken 2 or, as in my case, both. The effect on the patient is basically like the flu from hell.

There were no injections on weekends. So by Sunday, I would start to feel half human again only to be felled anew. By Monday night, it was back to bed with aches, chills and nausea.

The method seems a little primitive. Doesn't it? Injecting poisons into people's bodies to cure a disease. I'm no doctor, but it all smacks a little of leeches and bleeding; I think one day it will be placed in the same category. Maybe my low opinion of the treatment is somewhat colored by what was to come.

I went back to my position as a news reporter at CBS Atlanta. I've worked there 11 years, and it felt weird: Monumental events had taken place in my life, and work was just the same.

But, like any other job, it's kind of like riding a bicycle. You don't forget how to do it. I was assigned to cover the story of Hosea Williams' kidney operation, which was the same as mine. I was feeling well enough and confident enough to point out in my piece that I had survived the same kind of procedure.

But a few weeks after my month of "treatment, I was CT scanned. Having survived surgery and radical therapy and feeling as well as I did, I was looking forward to a positive result. But I was sent for a second scan after the first revealed "something in the lungs. The technician confirmed (reluctantly, after my reporter-like grilling) that there was "something there but that I would have to find out what from my doctor.

This is one of many areas where the Byzantine structure of modern medicine could be a little more humane. The wait patients undergo between testing and being told what those tests reveal is excruciating and unnecessary. I drove to the doctor's office the next day with what I must be the anticipation of an Oscar nominee if the alternative to winning were dying.

As he came in, the doctor had on his best mortician's face. I heard him almost as if I was observing the scene in a film. I was, on one level, hearing his words, on another, desperately trying to find my happy place. My exterior remained -- of this I am proud -- calm, stoic even. Inside, a freight train was crashing through my neural canals.

The doctor spoke for some time. I heard him tell me that my cancer wasn't cured. It had metastasized into both my lungs where there were now "several tumors. There was also, he told me, "something in my liver that he "thought might be "something (and that turned out to be yet another renal cell tumor). As a kind of grizzly icing on the cake he informed me that, oh yes, there was still renal cell activity where I'd had my kidney out. He stopped talking.

"So I'm fucked? I asked. He nodded.

I find no fault with my doctor for his bluntness. I had, all along, insisted upon it. But that little nod hurled me from a cliff. The fall continues as I write you. The sheer enormity of what I had just been told still appears to me as a terrible abyss lined with sorrow and confusion and a lot more. It was a cancer for which "there is no known cure, he told me. Pressed to give me some estimate of the life expectancy of a person at my stage of metastasis, he told me, "four to 16 months. The abyss became harrowingly deeper.

Six months later, I would like to say to the doctor, in the words of my 8-year-old son, Ian: "nanee nanee, boo boo and hope I may repeat it 10 months from now. I think he'd like that, too.

There was some discussion of "experimental treatments. I would be "shopped around to see if I was a fit for one of those studies. We would keep in touch. I thanked him, still in the detached state that had characterized the whole visit.

Thanking him strikes me now as somewhat inappropriate, but my mother will be pleased to know that her indoctrination did not fail me even at this nadir. I left his office in a trance. I moved through a world in which I was in sharp focus and everything else appeared in fuzzy, slow motion.

I made it to my car -- I'm proud of that too -- before allowing my hysteria the expression it required. It was the mother of all crying jags and then, all of a sudden -- a minute later? an hour later? -- it was over. I began to drive home to Virginia-Highland but had to pull over for another sob.

"Pull yourself together, the good Leigh admonished. "Why bother? replied my lesser half.

I had managed a state of what felt like composure by the time I got home. Ian was still at school. Linda -- my amazing Linda -- was sitting on the back deck. She had wanted to come with me. I had said no. I braced myself, bravely walked up and ... threw myself upon her, sobbing. I have not the words to tell you more.

It has been five months since that awful day. A lot has happened.

Managing the unmanageable

Every time someone asks me how I'm doing, a voice inside my head shrieks, "I'm dying!"

I have had the repetitiously rotten experience of thoroughly bumming out everyone who is close to me. Next to Linda, the hardest to tell was my mother. No son should have to tell his 77-year-old mother that there's a very good chance she'll outlive him. No mother should have to hear it.

There was also to be enjoyed telling a young boy that his daddy is mighty sick. My first instinct was to say nothing to Ian. Why should he have to deal with this dread? Time enough for that ... after. But he knew something was up. He couldn't have failed to notice. Loved ones would greet me with unusually passionate and lugubrious embraces. There was a lot of crying going on. It is not, in any event, either Linda's or my inclination to tell Ian less than everything. So, a little while after I was diagnosed, and going light on the Angel of Death angle, we explained that Daddy had a very serious disease called cancer but that we were going to do everything we could to make it go away.

He listened solemnly. "Can cancer kill you?" he asked. We told him yes. He acknowledged, with a look I won't forget that he had registered the importance of this information. Within moments, he was a happy-go-lucky 8-year-old again.

Children have a gift for moving on. It's a gift I'm trying to stay in touch with. Ian continues to make occasional inquiries. Greeting me on a trip home from the M.D. Anderson cancer center in Houston, he asked, "Did they fix your cancer daddy?" Smiling the crooked smile of one losing a battle to control his tears, I replied, "No. But we're still working on it."

If you are by now thoroughly depressed, don't be. I am writing this to convey, with some surprise, what a positive stage this has been. I've been forced to confront my mortality, to take account, something we should all do anyway, but don't. And I have discovered that counting my blessings takes a little while.

There are cosmetic plusses. Having cancer means everyone tells you how swell you look. People say mostly nice things about you (indeed some launch into these kind of pre-eulogies), and it turns out I have a very high tolerance for that sort of behavior.

But, most delightfully, all this has brought me much closer to those I love. There's not much room for pettiness on a dying man's calendar (although from time to time I have managed to find some space on mine). There's a tendency to want to tell people all that you love about them and what it has meant to you to know them. I spend more time with the people I want to spend time with.

Today is a good example. I'm writing during a return flight from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. I commute there every two weeks to have an intravenous application of something called anti-VEG-F. It's supposed to cut off the blood supply to my tumors, and kill them or at least slow them down without killing me. At least, that's the theory for which I and some 60 others are playing lab mice.

Today, my friend Tim, a shooter-artiste for CNN, joined me. He was in D.C. on assignment and made time to pick me up at the airport and share the day. As a direct consequence of my condition, Tim and I have taken to having lunch together in Atlanta every Friday. Today was a Wednesday, but we've decided to count it as a Friday lunch. The lunches have been wonderful. We talk about everything. As I write this, the glow of our latest lunch is still upon me.

But it isn't an isolated glow. Acts of kindness have become plentiful. My brothers, who normally hold me in low esteem, have visited all the way from Canada. My neighbors have been wonderful. Friends take me fishing, to hockey games, to golf.

There is a plot afoot to make sure that what time I have left will be happy. Who am I to resist the conspirators?

Modest ambitions
One of the first things Linda and I decided to do was to cram as much of the travel we'd been planning into as short a time as possible. We have quite the itinerary: London, Paris, a rendezvous with friends in Jamaica, a rendezvous with friends in Venice Beach, in British Columbia, and finally -- in July -- with family in Maine. It seems wisest to partake of these travels sooner rather than later. Wouldn't you?

My employers have caused me to regret all the rotten things I've ever said or thought about them. I've missed a lot of work. I will miss a lot more. But my bosses and co-workers have only conveyed compassion. Being able to continue supporting my family has helped make the whole thing bearable. Many aren't so lucky.

I haven't joined a cancer support group. I know: People with cancer who join support groups tend to do better than those who don't. But forgive me. While fairly riveted by my own cancer, I am profoundly uninterested in that of others. This, of course, begs the question of why you should be interested in mine. I console myself with the hope that my insight makes my trial particularly interesting.

Everyone knows someone who has had cancer, or they've had it themselves. People's tendency upon hearing that I have cancer is to share their stories, often in excruciating detail. I recently was golfing at Candler Park, about to tee off on the second hole, when this guy came running up the first fairway, cart in tow, waving excitedly at me. They had told him in the clubhouse that I had cancer. Well, by golly, he'd had cancer too! His brother had died from cancer. And he charged up to me to tell me all about it -- which he did enthusiastically and with a fine eye for small detail for the next eight holes The course is only nine holes; otherwise, I fear, he would have continued.

He was quite undeterred by my first feeble efforts to change the subject. He even managed to continue after I rudely told him that I had no interest in anyone's cancer but my own and that it was, in fact, to escape thinking about even my own that I had come to play golf. I'm sure he meant well, but I came to dislike him anyway and my mood was not improved by the fact that he had a substantially better round than I did. It's hard to hit a golf ball while someone's telling you which parts of their bodies have been removed and more difficult still to putt. I have since overcome my initial dislike of this actually very nice man -- although not enough to golf again with him.

Cancer forces its victims to introspection. Spiritually, I find myself, at peace. I have never wondered, "Why me?" I know the answer. I smoked for nearly 30 years. Smoked and smoked and smoked like the fool I am. But I'm a pretty happy fool these days. I can't think of much that I didn't do that I wanted to do.

Mind you, my ambitions were modest. Basically to be free and to leave things a little better than I found them. OK. OK. So I also wanted to be prime minister of a small island nation, but two out of three ain't bad. I claim credit for leaving things better by virtue of fathering Ian. I claim credit for being free because I am.

If my time is up, I won't feel cheated. Though I don't plan to "go quietly into that good night," I'm not terrified at the coming of the dark. I have been blessed to have rediscovered -- or more accurately begun practicing again -- my faith. Luckily, that happened before I learned of my cancer, because I share my father's disdain for what he called "foxhole religion."

Now, when the enormity of all this gets a tad too enormous, it is a comfort beyond description to believe in a "controlling legal authority." My church, Druid Hills United Methodist, has been all a place of worship can be when one of its members suffers.

The only unmanageable fear is the picture of my son without his daddy, the mere thought of which causes tears to well up. I manage the unmanageable by pulling a Scarlet O'Hara -- only, I have no intention of thinking about it tomorrow either. Linda would, I think, be fine without me and arguably in some ways better off, although she is kind enough to insist that this is not so. One of my funnier friends has made discreet inquiries about how long a wait would be appropriate before he could hit on her.

I have leaned hard and she has been there. In some ways after all, this is harder on the living. She has kept her demons at bay, only allowing me a glimpse at them when they threaten to explode.

I don't mean to leave the impression that I am too enchanted with this whole thing. But it has been a more beautiful experience than I could reasonably have expected, more fulfilling than any other time of my life. I am more vibrant and alive because of the whiff of death.

If it sounds as if I'm having a little too much fun with all of this ... sue me. Having cancer means you can thumb your nose. I have pretty shamelessly exploited the consideration people have for the dying. Sue me.

It is my hope to do more writing for this publication in the future. If that doesn't work out let me take this opportunity to say to you this: It's a beautiful life ... don't waste a moment of it ... be here now ... and may your God hold you in the palm of his hand.


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