Lent has ended, but not for me.
I have cancer. At the start, we feared it was stage-four lung cancer, though I’m a non-smoker. This was because metastatic cancer was found on the left side of my neck and, simultaneously, a shadow was observed on my right lung. When cancer crosses the body’s midline, it’s bad news.
But the lung issue turned out to be non-cancerous. And of the “cutaneous and sub-cutaneous” cancer in my neck, several doctors said, “You can live a long time with that!” – the assumption being the metastases were either a treatable basal-cell or a squamous-cell carcinoma.
But after neck surgery in January, the cancer was also labeled “aggressive,” and this led to interviews with doctors at major New York cancer centers, the choice of one, and the start of therapies: chemo and radiation every Monday followed by radiation Tuesday through Friday – for six weeks (week three begins today).
I do get the weekends off.
The first two-hour double (or “loading”) dose of chemo was rough: like a really bad flu for a couple of days. The radiation sessions, which began the following week, are “bad” only in that my head, neck, and shoulders have to be snapped in tight beneath a mesh plastic mask, which for a claustrophobe like me is hard. The “arms” of the radiation apparatus move in circles (or half-circles) around the area, only occasionally pausing directly over my face. The sessions last just ten or fifteen minutes.
Chemo now takes just an hour, and there is no pain at all in that – other than the IV going in and coming out.
There are side effects. The skin on my face feels like parchment, and I have acne-like blisters on face and back and chest, worse than anything I suffered as a teenager, and the effect at my age is actually more aesthetically unpleasant: I look like an old drunk [see below]. A thrice-daily steroid cream and twice-daily antibiotics help moderately well.
But all of it, including the trips to and from treatment, has made me rather less energetic than usual.
My wife and I chose a cancer treatment clinic a short drive from our home – a new, state-of-the-art satellite of Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of America’s finest cancer hospitals. The treatment plan outlined by the doctors with whom we met (including a radiation oncologist and a medical oncologist, whom I’ve nicknamed Chemo Sabe) is designed to wreak the least-possible havoc on my body as it wreaks the most-possible damage to the cancer.
But make no mistake: to kill cancer, you have to poison it, and it is in you.
I made sure, as treatment was beginning, to go to Confession. My claustrophobia has usually been manageable, but – for those who have no phobias this may seem strange – I did once experience it (while having an MRI) as a full-blown panic attack: a sensation of cascading fear that ignites the fight-or-flight hormone (adrenaline), so that the more you panic . . . the more you panic.
And the point of the spiritual help of Confession is that, for me, the fear is always theological. Another word for where you’re trapped and can’t escape is hell. But I’m ready now.
As Hamlet tells Horatio:
. . .we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all. . .
This is not mere fatalism, rather Shakespeare at his most Catholic, evoking Matthew 10:28-29:
do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.
I am ready to die, although I will likely be cured – this time.
When I left Confession on the Saturday before the Monday of the first chemo-radiation daily double, I walked passed other penitents awaiting their turns and spontaneously said aloud: “I love Confession!” They all laughed – nervoulsy but happily.
During chemo, I read books (currently Father Schall’s The Universe We Think In) or listen to books (David McCullough narrating his The Wright Brothers), but when I’m snapped onto the table for radiation, I can only pray.
“That’s good,” the priest said in that recent Confession, “but don’t make it all about yourself.”
When you spend time in any cancer-treatment facility, you see a lot of people who, in one way or another, are much worse off than you are. The other day, in the beautiful reception area – full of natural light beaming in through tall windows – a frail woman sitting across from me was called to the lab by a technician. She had trouble standing, so my wife and I helped her to her feet. When she emerged from having blood drawn, she moved unsteadily towards the exit, so I asked if might help again.
“No, sir,” she said. “I’m all alone, so I’m used to moving slowly. I’ve nothing to hurry to. I’ll get there. But thank you, thank you.”
I am blessed that my wife is with me every step of the way, and I pray for her and for my sons. I pray for old friends, some of whom are also suffering (or have suffered) cancer and other ailments. I pray for the priests in my parish and for the readers, writers, and staff of this wonderful website. And, above all, I pray for those who suffer alone, for nobody needs our prayers more than they.
People say: “You’ll fight this, right?” I say, “No.”
If I had sorcerers instead of physicians, and if those wizards could conjure and embody cancer to stand before me, fists raised, then I’d fight – if that were the way to a cure. But I’m simply cooperating with the protocols. And may God’s will be done.
*Image: Jesus Heals the Leper, artist unknown, 12th or 13th century mosaic [Cathedral of the Assumption, Monreale, Sicily] The complete inscription (only partially visible here) reads: IESUS SANAVIT LEPROSUM DICENTEM DOMINE SI VIS POTES ME MUNDARE, i.e. “Jesus healed the leper who said ‘Lord, if you wish you can cleanse me.’”