Thursday, July 29, 2010

Two Years!!

I didn't think I would live to see this day, but I'm happy to have been wrong.

July 28th was the second anniversary of my diagnosis...and the prognosis that I could have only six months to a year to live. In the following days, my doctors and nurses were quick to point out that I was younger and healthier than most lung cancer patients. Surely this was an advantage over the cold reality of statistical survival rates.

Now, nobody will predict how long I'm going to live. Oh, the disease continues to do its thing and that cold reality always looms overhead; but what can often be an aggressive cancer is going a bit slower with me. Personally, I think it's because I'm just too damn stubborn to die...I've a lot genetic fortitude in that department! To give credit, some of the chemo medicines seem to have worked at preventing the cancer from spreading. Stability has been my story for long months at a time, and most of 2009.

As I pass this milestone, my story is back to stability. The latest round of scans show no significant changes since March, when I started a new chemo drug. We'll continue it another two months before doing the next set of scans. It's like a free pass to just ignore my cancer for awhile...the future is still unwritten.

Meanwhile, the past year has been a year of seconds. So many things in that first year I could have been doing for the last time; I got to experience them for another time (or even more times). Each one is a blessing of survival:

Brendan's birthday party.
Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Meeting my gorgeous niece.
Walking on the beach.
Fireworks on the 4th of July.

And a few things I got to cross off my bucket list:

Seeing the Barenaked Ladies play live from the second row...that was just a few nights ago!! Some things you don't know are on your bucket list until they happen.

Experiencing a minor earthquake.

Traveling to Florida and seeing the launch of Atlantis. That was very cool but Disney World was a bit of a let down.

Skydiving!! I did this when I was 20 years old...but I still have to include it.

Climbing the ninety-one steps of Kukulkan “El Castillo” at to do that one twice in my life.

Seeing the satisfying ends of the TV series "Battlestar Galactica" and "Lost." Any fans of BSG may realize why I such an emotional resonance to that storyline. Now I'm nervous to get hooked on a new series...though "Fast Forward" looks promising if it doesn't get canceled. Ironically, FF also features a character with me the question of, would I want to get a glimpse of my own future six months from now? Oooo, I dunno about that.

It's still difficult to live more than a few months into the future. Vacation plans are always ridden with anxiety, and we always buy travel insurance. But it doesn't stop us from making them; after all, I have the time for right now...and I can't imagine anything better than that.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Quitting to Win

That's the name of a new blog by Jen, my cousin-in-law, once-removed (daughter of a cousin of Kirsteen's).  She's quit smoking and is going public with it.  Kudos to her I say, and a brave way to plunge into the commitment.  Along with that, I think she's an incredible writer, creating a visceral mood that I go for myself...only she does it better.  So check it out and put the pressure on her.

Reading her blog has made me think a lot.  About smoking and smokers.  About cancer.  Life...all that.  I need to talk about it.  Not so much as a response to Jen—because I can't say my thoughts will be all that encouraging—but as a reflection of my past choices versus cruel random chance.

I quit smoking when I was 25—having had my first puff at 13 though not getting serious for a few years.  Call it a ten-year pack-a-day habit.  My first attempt to quit lasted more than three months.  Oh, I was cruising!  But my friends smoked...and we all drank.  One unremembered night I said 'screw it' and bummed a smoke from a friend.  So much for that.  The second attempt lasted less than a month while my friends put up with my pilfered cravings for weeks before I succumbed to the dishonor of a personal purchase.  Before my third attempt I had switched to a ridiculously light brand, though it's really the hand-mouth habits I needed to overcome. (I would chew pens and pencils for years to I've got TMD issues...sigh.)  I was sick and didn't feel like smoking for a few days, so I took advantage of the opportunity.  Cold turkey.  Sheer willpower.  Not one puff since.  That was August 27, 1989.

The bottom line in my choice is that I was fat and I smoked—a double whammy—and of the two, it was easier to quit smoking than to lose weight. (Indeed, I got fatter over the years.)  I quit smoking for my own health, even though I can't say that health and fitness have ever been a priority in my life.  There's a little reward to quitting, several weeks later, when you notice your increased stamina.  Gotta go up two flights of stairs?  No problem now!  I think it's one of the best choices anyone can make (even better to never start).  It's an expensive and disgusting habit that has no upside beyond the camaraderie among other smokers afforded by segregation to outdoor islands of second-hand tolerance.

On July 28, 2008, I was told I have lung cancer: adenocarcinoma non-small cell lung cancer; one of four prevalent flavors and the most common among nonsmokers.  It's not caused by asbestos or mercury or any other substance we've figured out...genetic translocation (a random mutation) is one theory.

So I can't blame myself for getting lung cancer.  That's a fear of many smokers, not only that they contract lung cancer, but that's it's something they could have avoided...the guilt and stigma of having made the choice to kill oneself.  It's often the next question asked when my condition comes up, "Did you smoke?"  Well, yeah…but.  It still makes me feel guilty for having cancer.

A lot of smokers never get lung cancer; a lot more than most people would guess.  The bastards.  Old people who smoke, especially, are really starting to piss me off. How dare they live long lives while I'm sentenced to the disease they should have!  But that's not how I really feel and it's not how cancer works.  It's exceedingly random.  Most often, it doesn't care if you're an ab-crunching vegan or a buns-of-beer couch potato.  Sure, there are risk factors...inhaling mercury vapors is a seriously bad thing.

I'm sure there are many undiscovered causes and risk factors for cancer; manmade and natural and including the influence of lifestyle choices.  Could my cancer still have been caused by my own behavior?  Sure.  Could it have been caused by some toxin being dumped into our environment?  I suppose, but I'm not keen on angrily seeking retribution against a phantom menace supported only by anecdotes and conspiracy theories.  It's just as likely to be my own genes turning against me.

It is what it is.  It's cancer.  It's insidious.  It sucks.

On smokers: I don't have an issue with people who smoke.  It's a legal activity (sort of) and a personal choice.  Everyone knows the risks these days.  It’s your body and your life to burn as quickly or slowly as you choose.  Smoking’s not the only way to go—many people make choices that increase their risk of death, including over-eating and adventurous outdoor activities.  This one though, you're giving yourself a good, oh, I dunno, one-in-four or five odds of dying from lung cancer.  Roll the bones, if you're hot you're hot.  What are the odds you'll die in traffic tomorrow?  Unlike alcohol, tobacco tends to kill only the user—a libertine outcome to be sure.

I sometimes find myself in the position of defending smokers.  As a health issue, I think second-hand smoke has been overblown.  If you live, work, or otherwise engage with smokers for long hours every day, you're certainly getting a worrisome dose.  Beyond that, getting a whiff of tobacco as you pass an outdoor smoker does not warrant melodramatic coughs or chest spasms...certainly not any more than eau de frat-boy doused with Axe cologne.  I support smoking bans in publicly-owned buildings, but not private establishments.  People, including owners of private businesses, should have choices.  Most restaurants in Tucson had gone non-smoking before the ban.  There was no need for it here.

There's another paradigm of smokers that I don't buy into...that they cost us more in healthcare.  Au contraire, the evidence I've read online (picked randomly to match my viewpoint, of course) indicates that smokers cost less than other people.  The reason?  They tend to die younger.  They tend toward unhealthy lifestyles and rarely go to the doctor.  They tend to drink more than other people.  Their tendancy to survive a major illness or trauma is less than healthy people.  News flash: if you die from your first heart attack, ya ain't gonna be a burden on the healthcare system.  The corollary is that the more you use healthcare, the more you survive illness and disease precisely because you are vigorous and strong, the more you use the latest in preventative medicine and diagnostics technology—the longer you continue to live—that's when you rack up the costs on healthcare.  United is into me for several hundred thousand already (at their cost).

So, really, we should thank smokers.  And how about these ironic initiatives that tie tobacco taxes to children’s healthcare?  They can’t quit now!  It’s for the kids!!!

Us fat people are more complicated.  I've been fat all my adult life...over 300 pounds at my greatest.  Boy, that was a wakeup call.  Despite that, my doctors never declared me to be unhealthy.  My weekend-warrior lifestyle was enough activity to keep me relatively fit under all the extra baggage, though I was certainly warned of the inherent dangers as I grew older and my blood pressure was ticking up.  Some modest effort and changes in eating habits brought me down a stone or two, while Lipitor kicked ass on my cholesterol levels.

These days I hover around 250 pounds, after regaining half of the 70 pounds I lost during my initial months of chemotherapy.  My doctors don't want me to lose (nor gain) weight now.  My fat reserves, along with my relative youth and underlying health, as it were, are all vital elements to my survival with cancer.

Could it be that past bad choices in behavior are now resulting in a benefit?  Does it even matter what choices I made?  Given the randomness of my own cancer, I don’t regret having smoked.  I don't regret quitting either.  I'm glad I did.  I'm also glad that I ate too many delicious cheeseburgers and pizzas that should have been donated to anorexic celebrities.  Sometimes, I just want to tell people to do whatever they feel like doing.  Seize the day for tomorrow we may die!

But seriously, Jen. You stink when you smoke. Don't look back.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Great Aunt Felice

I can't take my thoughts off my Aunt Felice, who is in the hospital and not doing well.  She has been so good to us, especially since Brendan was born.  She worked all through Kirsteen's pregnancy to make the cross-stitch blanket pictured at right.  I wish I had been able to know her and my Uncle Howard better (and my cousins) when I was younger.  Time slips away all too fast.  Alas, our next visit to Illinois is likely to be a melancholy one.

My second thoughts are for my godson Drew, to whom I pass on a belated Happy 21st Birthday and 4th of July! (Let's see if you're reading my blog.)  As far as I'm concerned, the fireworks are still for you.  You're the first person I watched grow up in this world and it has been a special journey the whole way. I'd be more worried about you for this particular celebration, except for knowing that anything my parents should have been worried about I did before I was 21. Have fun with life, just be wise.

Onto my own updates:

Yay, no more antibiotics!!  After three different regimens, I can't imagine there are any bacteria left in my body that are immune to modern medicine.  The particular beastie giving me fevers was identified in the last of the plural fluid drawn out before the doc removed my catheter; a staph infection that likely got in through the incision.  No fevers in two weeks so things look really good.  Now it's just chemo symptoms, which I can deal with if it's working.  I just had scans to follow up on that front...results in a few days.  Otherwise, I'm in my happy place.  It's not a certain one, but the cruise control is engaged.

Swimming is a good place to be in the desert heat; we managed a few hours at a birthday party the weekend before last.  On the 4th, temperatures went down to (only) 99 degrees so we went out for a round of mini-golf.  Daddy ended up sitting out a third of the course on a shady bench but Brendan had a blast!! (And has done it again since.)  We finished off the day watching fireworks from a parking garage in downtown Tucson.  By the end of it, Brendan had declared that day to be one his best ever!

Bowling has also turned out to be a good family activity this summer...especially with a set of kids-bowl-free coupons.  I can't run but I can still throw a ball pretty hard.  We often bring along a playmate of Brendan's to double the fun.  And, oh, I can go in the hot tub again.  Blessed be the holy waters!  Yeah, we really do use it in the summertime.  Given my erratic sleeping patterns, sunrise is a cool and common time for that pleasure.

Finally we have Lego!  The project of the week has been the newly released Shuttle Adventure.  A guilty pleasure of fatherhood is an indulgence in the plastic creations.  Brendan was not so happy when I declared this purchase to be mine, though we struck a deal that I wouldn't glue anything together until he'd got to thoroughly smash the original build.  With that endeavor complete, a second more-permanent build has begun...though I foresee issues with the external tank, which Brendan has found to be an excellent hiding place for upwards of two dozen Lego people!

Up next...the end of The Stanton Line?  Oh no!!