Sunday, September 23, 2012


Last week, I went to San Francisco General——my old cancer-stompin’ grounds——for a CT scan appointment. When I rolled up to the hospital from 22nd and Potrero, I stared with awe at the new hospital building under construction. It had only been three or four months since the last time I visited. In that short time, seven stories of steel beams had been erected by the historic brick buildings that my mom does not like to see because it brings back “malas memorias.” The exoskeleton of a bridge connecting the old hospital to what will be the new one was fused. As I approached with my bicycle by my side, a huge smile came over me. I snapped a picture to document this unfolding change.

When I walked up to the fence that gated off the construction site, I felt overcome with joy as I stared up at the building under development. Part of the new foundation is being built over the rotunda where I told my mom I had lymphoma over three years before. It was a strange sensation, as if part of my history was being literally paved over. But in the end, I smiled with wide eyes, amazed to behold all this change. To be alive for it.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Shit I'm Digging: Football!

A few days ago, I joked with my dearling, Mari, that I can feel whole again now that the football season is starting again. Of course, I was being exagerado, but it does round me out in some way. Football's a nice diversion from the overall dire state of our planet and I've always loved looking at football stats ever since I crushed hard on Nintendo's Tecmo Super Bowl when I was a kid, racking up ridiculous season numbers against the computer with the Randall Cunningham-led Philadelphia Eagles. I particularly love this time of the season when everyone is making silly and bold predictions for the season: who will win their respective divisions? Which rookies will have the biggest impact on their teams? Who will win the Super Bowl? I love it all!

So all that said, three teams stand out for me as having the most impressive victories for Week One: the Atlanta Falcons, the Niners, but most especially the Patriots. (I was tempted to include the Cowboys, but I still need to see a week or two out of Rob Ryan's unit to show if their defense is legit with two shutdown corners--or if the Giants simply laid a Super-Bowl-hangover-worthy performance on Week One at home.) Well damn, maybe all that preseason hype about Matt Ryan taking charge of a more high-octane offense is well-founded, huh? His stat line the first week: 23/31 for 299 yards and 3 TDs on the road against what is supposed to be an improved Kansas City defense. Their offense had 31 passes to 23 rush attempts (though K.C. seemed to be stacking the box cuz Turner had a 2.9 yards per attempt average). Julio Jones and Matty Ice seem to be locked on in a way they quite weren't last year, so the Birds can be a surprisingly dangerous team this year. We'll see. Their home opener against the Broncos should be more telling but this was an impressive start.

What can you say about the Niners, they went into Lambeau and imposed their will on the Packers much like the Giants and their vaunted pass rush did in last year's playoffs. Gore ran for over 100 yards and Alex Smith looked chillaxed in the pocket in a hostile road environment. Looks like the Packers are offensively still where they were last year despite the addition of Cedric Benson, which is bad news for them. And it looks the Niners are improved over last year's club. I am curious to see how Smith plays next week at home against the Lions. The biggest improvement over last year's club just might be the brainy Alex Smith having one more year with QB guru Jim Harbaugh and the same offensive system. Depending on how they do next week (I think they're a lock to win given Detroit's shoddy first week performance), that Niners-going-to-the-Super-Bowl hype could be, as Hammer once said, Too Legit to Quit, man.

But damn, the Patriots looked mighty, mighty impressive. Scary impressive: manhandling a playoff contender on the road on both sides of the ball. All-world speed demon Chris Johnson: 11 rushes for 4 fucking yards at home. The Tennessee Titans with their strong offensive line: 1 net yard rushing to 162 by the Patriots. (Grant it, last year's Titans run D was in the bottom third of the league.) With Brady back there, with a good run game, that's downright scary. What's even more frightening to the rest of the league is the Patriots defense allowing 284 total yards on the road to what should be a respectable team. Remember, the Pats D last year gave up the 6th highest amount of yards in NFL history. It's one week, but that unit looks like it might be vastly improved. If their run game is indeed strong and they have a top-15 defense, shit, I'm not sure if anyone can beat them this year.

It's gonna be another fun one!

Friday, August 31, 2012

2010: A Strange Odyssey

Here's another excerpt from my memoir...

It was dark outside my bedroom window when my alarm rang. The white figures on my VCR read 6:40. Hideously early for a night owl like me. It was Monday, January 4, 2010. First day of radiation treatment. My appointments for the rest of that week were at 7:30 am. It was the only time slot Pat and Maria—my Patient Advocate and Radiation Therapist—could squeeze me into. They had shown me their morning to afternoon schedule. It was all booked up. Henry Ford would have been proud at the amount of people they were bringing in and out to get zapped.

I sat up. Though I felt cold and tempted to lay longer in bed—that fuzzy-warm siren—I had to cycle three miles over to UCSF. While I stared at the time on the VCR, six fucking forty in the morning, a part of me felt incredulous that this was happening. Cancerlicious-déjà vu is what it was: like the morning of my first chemotherapy infusion. Me? Radiation treatment? Really?

But this time, I didn’t feel angry.

Fuck it, what can I do?

By then, I knew I had lymphoma for nine months. During that time, I carried that deathly presence everywhere I went. And so, a level of complete acceptance had long since settled. But just as importantly, I believed I had weathered the worst of this drawn-out struggle for my life. As far as my treatments, it was home-stretch time. And I had every intention of closing strong.

With my blue sweatpants, gray hoodie, and bicycle helmet on, I walked down the dark stairwell with my bicycle, Blue, held above my shoulder. I rolled down 22nd Street to hang a left on Valencia. The streets were empty other than a few joggers and people walking about. It was a smidge chilly. I considered turning back home for a thicker sweater but I had been everywhere with that hoodie, which my first serious girlfriend had given to me nine years before. I had traveled through Western Europe, South America, Cuba, the Yucatan Peninsula, Thailand and Cambodia with it. Together, we would endure radiation treatment, too. I pedaled on, figuring I would warm up during the twenty-minute ride to Mt. Zion.
Blue and I rode down 18th Street past Mission High (the school Maya Angelou and Carlos Santana attended), past the tennis courts at Dolores Park. The hipster-magnet-of-a-park was a desolate mound of gray that early in the morning. Then we pedaled up Sanchez to cross Market Street, which overlooked the city’s skyscrapers. Once I zigzagged through the Lower Haight, I cycled up one last hill that took me past verdant Alamo Square. At the top of the hill, I panted and flashed my I-made-it-I-made-it grin! before I zipped down to Mt. Zion.

When I took the elevator to the hospital basement, wiping sweat from my face, I felt proud of myself. My dad had offered to lend me his Toyota Rav so I could drive myself to the hospital throughout treatment. My sister Mariana and her husband had offered to take me to and from the hospital. I thanked them but declined their offers. In a suburban town like Fremont, my dad needed a car to get around. And I didn’t want to hassle Mariana that early in the morning. It was tempting to borrow my dad’s SUV, but I wanted to push myself. Man up. In my heart, I believed the rides to and from the hospital would nourish me. Strengthen my resolve. Build my resilience. After reading Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness the year before, I knew how vital the mind and one’s convictions were in the healing process. As long as the treatment did not fatigue me, I was determined to cycle to my appointments. The hard part would be waking up on time.

The moment I opened the door into the men’s locker room, I saw the adorable old man with bushy white eyebrows and Buddy Holly glasses I had seen the week before. He sat on the cupboard bench where the gowns were kept. He looked to be in his late sixties.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Good morning to you, too,” I said, opening a locker to put my backpack in.

“They’re going to have me on chemo for an entire week. Did you have chemo?”

“Yeah, I finished.”

“How much did they give you?”

“Six cycles,” I said, keeping our conversation to our Cancer World jargon.

“What kind of cancer do you have?”

“Hodgkin lymphoma.”

He didn’t nod or have a knowing look in his eyes.

“It’s a rare one. A blood cancer,” I said.

He asked if it was similar to leukemia. I told him I wasn’t sure. Then he stood and walked over to me.

“Well, take care of yourself,” he said, opening his arms.

“You too,” I said, hugging him back. My neck and upper back were damp with sweat, which is why I almost apologized to him when he put a hand on my neck. Once we let go, he opened the door to let himself out. We were smiling, grateful for this unanticipated early morning affection from a fellow cancer fighter.

“I’ll see you around,” he said, as if we were boarding an all-expenses-paid flight to Maui.

“Take care, man.”

In the dimly lit radiation room, I hopped up on the treatment table. Pat and Maria locked the mask to the table. It was clamped down over my face so that my eyelashes bent against the mask whenever I blinked. They confirmed that the X-marks on the part of the mask that covered my shoulders were aligned with the green lasers that shot from both sides of the room like laser pointers. After tying me down with my arms pinned to the sides, Maria gave me a horn to hold in my right hand. It was like a clown horn (nyuck nyuck!)

“Use it in case you need anything,” Maria said.

“Okay,” I murmured, barely able to open my mouth.

After they raised me toward the ceiling, beneath that curious looking part of the machine that hung over the treatment table, Pat and Maria turned to leave.

“We’ll be next door in case you need anything, okay,” Pat said. “You’re doing great.”

The lights went off. I heard the door shut.

Once the room became completely dark, I could see a soft white light emitting from the part of the machine that hung over me. It was about two feet away. The light came through a rectangular piece of glass with markings on it that looked like quadrants for measurement. It made me think of a periscope. Since the machine didn’t look like a pointy laser out of a sci-fi movie or a James Bond flick, it was difficult to imagine that contraption as the one that would zap my chest. But once I saw that light penetrating through that periscope-like opening, once I saw that square opening of light narrow then widen, it was clear that is where I would get a stream of subatomic particles shot at me.

The machine slowly rotated to my left. I was befuddled and mesmerized. It reminded me of the languid, poetic movements of the spaceships in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s probably why I began to hear Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” play in my head.

Once it rotated out of my peripheral vision, I heard the machine make a buzzing sound as though there was a loud hair clipper behind me. The buzzing lasted for about five seconds. Oh, I must have just been zapped!

Then I heard the humming sound of the machine as it gently rotated back in front of me. All the while, the lilting Strauss score in my head became louder while I observed this strange beauty. I was trying to distract myself from the weirdness of it all.

When the machine stopped, produced that buzzzzzzzzzzzzz sound again, I focused on the chest area by my tumor. I swore I could feel something—a sliver of heat—as though a magnified beam of sunlight had shot through the room to shine upon it. I am not sure if that sensation was simply in my head. But while I got zapped, I imagined a searing laser beam sawing through the cavernous tumor that Mr. Hodgkins and his minions made as their lair. I imagined boulders breaking off, crashing down as they scattered in disarray.

Weeks later, Maria would explain to me that the machine had zapped me with radioactive particles from the back and the front. If it were done twice from a single position, it would have done more damage to my internals.

The buzzing stopped. The door opened. The fluorescent lights flicked on as Pat and Maria walked over to my side. Maria began to unfasten the mask.

“Okay, you’re done,” she said. “Let me lower you down, though.”

“I’m done?”

“That’s it.”

Once I was lowered, I swung my legs over to hop down on the floor. Maria was putting my mask up on top of a steel-shelving unit against the side of the room. I had never really noticed it before. There were three levels of shelves about ten feet in length. The top shelf was crammed with masks—about ten to fifteen of them. They all had large X marks taped onto numerous spots: the neck. Chest. Lungs. Head. Like my mask, they each had a long piece of masking tape placed over the upper torso. It had their name and identifying medical record numbers written on them with a black marker. The middle shelf held other wire-mesh maskings. Those were shaped to cover other parts of the human body such as the lower back or the upper thighs.

All those names taking up those other schedule slots suddenly felt more real.

It was sobering to see all those masks.

* * * * * * *
After Pat walked me back to the dressing room area, I went to the bathroom to pee. When I stepped to the sink to wash my hands, I discovered a curious sight reflected back at me in the mirror. My face—forehead, nose, and cheeks—looked like they were covered in fish scales. The mask had made creases all over my face.

“Man,” I said, chortling to myself. I was perversely tickled that I had physical evidence of just how tight that mask was clamped down on me. I took out my cell and snapped a pic of my scaly-looking face.

The sky was a swirl of lavender when I began to cycle home. The sun was lifting above the skyscrapers in the distance. I smiled, marveling at this early morning beauteousness I rarely saw, this unexpected gift I had been graced with.

One down, nineteen to go! I thought when I rolled up to my home. Six miles down, 114 more to go.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Invierno, Peru - 2012

A volar,
a cruzar los mares
para aterrizar al pie del Misti,
la tierra de mis padres,
donde floreció la sangre
dentro mi cuerpo,
el unico que voy a tener.

Pero esta vez regreso
con mi amor, mi compañera,
lado a lado, nuestros corazones bajo el sol andino.

A veces todavia me sorprende
que estoy aquí, que
esto es mi vida.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Workin' at Nite

Lone elevator,
empty building,
marble-echo footsteps
to the streets, the
foggy streetlights,
sentinel buildings towering above;
most of downtown——except the homeless men
who curl in the bright underground
hallways——is asleep.

The bleach white light of the trains,
the roaring tunnel to emerge
in this broken city where I wander
the dark, barren streets with these
fingers grasping a butterfly knife instead of
a pen because it is far, far more practical.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Memoir Soundtrack - "Lost Cause"

There are so many musical references throughout my memoir. Plays off of song names for my chapter titles, scenes that center on a Metallica song. I even wrote a separate piece titled My Cancer Playlist in which I attempted to chronicle the emotional tides of my "cancer journey" (as people in the medical field like to refer to that time for their patients) through songs that hold significance for me. So naturally, I've thought about how neat it would be to have a soundtrack to accompany my memoir. Elton John's "I'm Still Standing" would have to be there; Radiohead's "Pyramid Song"; especially Beth Gibbon and Rustin Man's "Show."

Today at work I stumbled upon Beck's acoustic set of many of the songs from his heartbreak album, "Sea Changes." If I had a soundtrack memoir, Beck's "Lost Cause" would undoubtedly have to be there at the tail-end of Side B. Though it's been a while since I moved from all the heartache and breaks that make up a chunk of my memoir, this song still cuts deep sometimes. Still sneaks up on me. Still implodes.

I honestly don't know how Beck can perform this song with such honest emotion and not once tear up.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Growl

A few days before I began chemotherapy, I came home from a day at work and school. In my bedroom, alit in waning sunlight, I peeled off my office get-up. My roommates weren’t home. I loved having the flat to myself so I could blast a boogielicious tune or some rock ‘n’ roll that was born to be loud. Sometimes I would roar to the song, bang my head, even bust out some air guitar flails. I flipped through my spinning CD tower. Metallica’s ferocious cover of Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?” was what I felt pulsing in my veins. I needed some induced catharsis.

An unexpected thing happened while I stood there listening to the militaristic intro blare through the flat. Like a howling wolf, I craned my head back and roared in the hopes of letting out some of the frustration I had been feeling from Life With Lymphoma, especially after I had to subject myself to a second bone marrow biopsy a few days before. The joyous, playful roar that usually came out whenever I would shout with a rock song was more of an angry, guttural growl. It rattled from my chest, up my throat, filling the room. It felt like something with its own life. Something I couldn’t quite control. Once I finished roaring, I nervously tittered to myself.

And that’s when I got a sense that I was like a human walking volcano. Beneath my surface, beneath my stoic, I’m-being-strong veneer, the tension was building. Bubbling, rumbling, escalating. It was all those hospital visits. Medical examinations. Agonizing lines to wait in. All that time lost in those drab, life-sucking waiting rooms. All those medical terms and cancer jargon I had to become familiar with. All those big decisions to make: should I get a catheter port inserted into my arm for the duration of treatment? Should I have my sperm frozen? And all the e-mails I had to respond to from my family in Peru telling me that they were sorry—that I just had to put my faith in God, that this “nightmare” would soon pass. All the times I had to tell them it’s going to be okay.

As if I really knew.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

El Loco vs. Mr. Hodgkins

Here's an excerpt from my memoir:


MR. HODGKINS, dressed in his tuxedo, stands next to a balding, mustachioed man, MEAN GENE OKERLUND. They both face a large Panavision television camera. Donning a black suit, holding a microphone, Okerlund stares at the woman wearing a headset. She stands beside the cameraman. Okerlund nods when she points at him. She holds her fingers up in a silent countdown—three, two, one—before the red lamp on top of the camera turns on.

We are just minutes away from our career-ending match between “El Loco,” Juan Alvarado Valdivia, and the gentleman standing beside me, death himself, Mr. Hodgkins.

Okerlund takes a step back toward Mr. Hodgkins. He stretches his hand to Mr. Hodgkins as if he is going to put it on his back.

Mr. Hodgkins, I’ve got to ask you, just what exactly is it that you have against El Loco? You’ve come into his life and, without exaggeration, turned his world upside-down, casting a dark pall over it. Tell me, why him?

Mean Gene holds the microphone up to Mr. Hodgkins. Hodgkins stares back at the camera with an indifferent expression that Camus would have envied.

It’s like this, Okerlund. I have nothing personal against the man. We simply crossed paths—and it is my job to ensure that he suffer the consequences. It is nothing more than that. He’s the one who has taken it personally—the flawed, vengeful human that he is. I do not hold that against him. But nevertheless, my objective is to annihilate him. And I will.

Mr. Hodgkins stalks out of camera view. Okerlund watches him leave, then turns back to the camera after a long, dramatic pause.

And now let’s go to Sean Mooney who’s standing by with EL LOCO, Juan Alvarado Valdivia.


All right, thanks Gene. El Loco is in rare form tonight. He’s been pacing this room ever since I got here.

While Mooney stands in front of the camera, Juan—in El Loco gear—paces behind him in front of a black curtain. He pumps his arms and gives an occasional menacing snarl to the camera. Earthy brown and green-colored tassels are tied around his wrists and bronzed biceps. A mask bearing the same colors has been painted on his face. He is wearing a wig—an oversized afro. A sharpened pencil is tangled in it. His arms, chest, and modest paunch are varnished in body oil. They glare beneath the studio lights. Besides the tassels, the only thing he wears are tasseled brown boots and a green Speedo.

El Loco—I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this amped up before a fight! And you’re always roaring, running full speed into the ring and yanking on those ropes as though a lightning bolt were coursing through your veins.

El Loco grabs Mooney by the collar.

Well what can ya expect, Mooney. This is the fight of my life!

He shoves Mooney back, snarling at the camera.

Of course I’m pumped up! This is it—this is fucking it for me or that punk, Mr. Hodgkins. Well no one gets to take my life except me!

Juan’s mouth drops. His brows furrow. He looks away, ashamed to have stumbled upon this truth before a live television broadcast.

He turns back to the camera, shaking his head violently as if he were trying to wake from a daze. Mooney leans his head back frightfully. He holds the microphone out to El Loco as he points at the camera.

You fucked with the wrong man, Hodgkins. You fucked with the wrong man.

Juan turns his back to the camera. He cranes his head back and lifts his clenched fists up high. He roars, then punctuates it with a gorilla-like pounding of his chest.

Just take a look at my trunks. It says it all, right there, baby.

Juan cackles. He pumps his arms. The camera zooms down to the green tights covering his butt. Mr. Hodgkins’ head, with his signature derby hat atop, is stitched on it. Below it reads: Your Ass is Mine!

El Loco cranes his head back to roar before he dashes out of the room.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Farewell, Rocinante

On an overcast Monday morning, a drab gray blanket hanging over Lake Merritt, I walked out of my apartment with a bicycle fender in hand. My shoulder bag was packed for a workout, my helmet strapped to it, clutched against my hip. It was gym time. But when I turned the corner to the bike racks at the back of the apartment complex, I did not see my bicycle in the spot where I locked it. With my mouth agape, I stood and stared at that bike lock where my bicycle should have been. It was not locked to the other two racks. Confused, I wandered back to my apartment. I had that familiar fuck, my-bicycle-has-been-stolen feeling. Gee, I guess I’m not going to my gym today. Back in my apartment, I thought back to when I last rode my bicycle, which I called Rocinante. For an instant or two, I got bouncy and thought, you dumbass! You left him locked up in one of the lockers at the Lake Merritt station. But then I remembered that I had gotten Rocinante out of the locker and secured him in my apartment complex on Friday night.

And that was the last time I saw him.
He was gone.
What a way to start the week.

Rocinante was a blue Bianchi Osprey mountain bike. He was equipped with an odometer, kickstand, bottle holder, and big plastic horn shaped into the head of a blue cartoon hippo (everyone loved that horn, loved giving it a squeeze to hear its silly squeak). When he was stolen, Rocinante had practically brand new hybrid tires since both tires were stolen two months before within the same Oakland apartment complex where he was ultimately taken.

In the winter of 2009, I bought Rocinante to replace a black-gray mountain bike named Charlene (she was stolen at the corner of 26th and Mission in San Francisco’s Mission District; she had a formidable, seven-pound, Mr. T-like chain that I sometimes swung around my head before I locked her up). From the get-go, I was fond of him because he was salvaged from the city’s dump by a man who worked there and fixed them up as a hobby (and as a means of making some extra scratch to give to his grandkids, if I remember correctly). Rocinante was the only bicycle I bequeathed with a boy’s name. When I first bought him, I named him “Blue,” for obvious reasons. Since my testicles ride on the seat over all those miles——and since I’m hetero——I have always given my bicycles a woman’s name, or one that can be both genders. He was my loyal steed for about three years. My primary means of transportation. Together, we surpassed a few landmarks on my odometer: 6,000, 7,000, and 8,000 miles pedaled.

Together, we had many memorable rides: the five-mile ride from the Lafayette station through the beautiful Moraga hillside as I cycled to and from Saint Mary’s for my graduate degree. The morning rides from my home on Dolores Street to USF’s Lone Mountain campus during the summer of 2009 for a weeklong writing workshop when my chemotherapy infusions began. I remember cycling up one of the steep hills to that campus, listening to Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light” through my headphones. With the sunlight pouring down on me, Plant singing Light, light, light…in the light, I closed my eyes. My eyelids were warm blankets of orange. I imagined myself grasping that sunlight, imagined it to be like water seeping into my roots, to my very core. I imagined myself become one with the sun’s light (which we are a mere extension of)——its warmth, its energy, healing and nourishing me as I pedaled on. I rode Blue to and from San Francisco General for all those blood tests, examinations, and check-ups with my oncologist. During a rainy January, Blue and I scaled the sharp hill on Dolores Street and zipped down it on our three-mile long rides to my radiation treatments at USF. In March, we rode over to San Francisco General where my oncologist told me I was cancer-free. We were together through a critical time of life. I am certain that riding him helped to keep me alive.

After I graduated and segued into post-cancer life, I read Don Quixote and redubbed Blue with the name of Quixote’s loyal horse. It made perfect sense. A good friend of mine agreed. I have always been a bit of a Quixote in this insane world we have created.

Last June, Rocinante came with me as I moved back across the bay to Oakland’s Lake Merritt area. It was a time of rebirth. A spring during summertime as I continued on with my life away from the city where my body developed and rid itself of cancer. I fell in love with Oakland when Rocinante and I rode around Lake Merritt one sunny afternoon, the kind that was all too rare in San Francisco. It filled me with a sense of serenity that I needed.

Before long, I met and fell in love with my girlfriend, Maria. Together, we rode our bicycles around the Quarry Lakes in northern Fremont, which happens to be our hometown. It was a joyous, sunshiny ride. It had been years since I had a partner to cycle with, which made it extra-wonderful for me. I am so grateful that my one bicycle ride around those lakes——a ride I had wanted to do for years——was with Maria and Rocinante.

I had a number of rides I hoped to have with Rocinante. I wanted to return to the Lamorinda Trails to cycle through their nature trails that I have always missed. My homeboy, Scott expressed an interest in mountain biking through the lush wooded trails at Joaquin Miller Park in Oaktown. I looked forward to more bicycle rides with my favorite Maria in the whole wide world. And I never tired of riding Rocinante around Lake Merritt, whether if it was gray and drizzly, warm and bright, or alit at night with its necklace of lights that have shone since 1925.

Like any good bicycle, Rocinante was an extension of myself. Now that he’s been stolen, I don’t want to think of him being taken apart, piece by piece. Whoever has his frame, his handlebar, cannot imagine or understand what we went through together. All those hills we surpassed, all that sweat I expended, all those miles we traveled. They cannot imagine all the beauty we saw, felt, and created together——foot to pedal, hands to handlebar; my legs pumping, his chain turning to propel us forward. There was so much I wanted to see and feel with him. So much we had left (or so I would like to believe, but nothing in life is certain except for death and impermanence). I have had no choice but to move on without my dear companion but I will carry those memories we made together.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Shittiest Part of Being a Young Cancer Survivor

As far as I am concerned, the shittiest part of being a young lymphoma survivor is having to deal with the fear of getting cancer again. Or something nastier (like leukemia). Maybe I have become more of a worrywart than other survivors, but I have found that I am capable of freaking out whenever anything peculiar happens on my body. Unfortunately, I am adept at turning anything——a faint burning pain by my stomach (after a strenuous workout), or an unfamiliar rash growth——into the possible symptoms of some form of cancer. My recent vacation to visit my family in Arequipa is a prime example.

On the second or third full day I was in Peru, a few pimple-sized rashes began to sprout on my body: over my right clavicle, on my chest, and one by my right elbow (which I like to call “bebow”). As the days came and passed, more of these rashes surfaced. A few were the size of a fingertip. This had never ever happened before. They looked like pimples or hives you get from an allergy. Problem with that is that I have never been allergic to anything. And why did these rashes start up almost immediately after I set foot in Peru?

Once my mind began to produce cancer whispers (it could be skin cancer, it could be skin cancer), that fact was the strongest piece of evidence I had that the rashes were not symptomatic of, say, melanoma. If it was, why would my bodily vessel suddenly break out with them once I came to Peru? There had to be some cause to that rapid effect.

And that, in part, shows one way in which I have changed since I overcame cancer. I have had to become a lawyer of sorts, forced to periodically talk myself out of worrying about any strange thing that happens to my body. I have to consider any evidence, any symptoms, to reason myself out of believing that something bad——graveyard-bad——may be manifesting within my body. Nevertheless, about a week after I arrived to Arequipa, I lay in bed until about five in the morning, my nerve-wrecked mind racing at the possibility that I might have skin cancer. A few days before that sleepless night, I had gone online to attempt to figure out what those hive-like rashes were and what their cause could be. While I searched, typing in search terms such as “allergic reaction and high altitude” and “red bumps on skin,” I could not stop myself from looking up melanoma symptoms on Wikipedia. The article mentioned “basal cell carcinoma,” that it was the most common form of skin cancer. So I looked up images of it. (Bad idea.) Some of them looked like the rashes sprouting over the upper torso of my body. This made my stomach turn.

After that long night of little sleep, I decided to go to a pharmacy down the street from my uncle’s apartment. In Peru, there are pharmacies everywhere. In the past——since I always get a nasty stomach ailment when I’m in Peru——I have gone to a pharmacist instead of a doctor to get antibiotics. But walking down the street that night was an act I had to will myself into. I was scared. Afraid that the pharmacist might tell me, once she saw all the rashes on my arms, chest, and stomach, “Ooh, that looks bad. That might not be an allergic reaction. You should see a doctor.” But I went because I wanted some peace of mind. I needed it. I just wanted her to tell me that it looked like an allergic reaction, that it was not symptomatic of skin cancer.

Two weeks later, I visited a clinic once I was back in the good ole’ U S of A. And it turns out I somehow contracted an upper respiratory viral infection called pityriasis rosea (the medical community is unsure how the virus is contracted). The diagnosis made sense since I already knew it wasn’t contagious. The online images the nurse practitioner showed me looked exactly like the kind I had. And once I was on American soil, away from all that nasty vehicular exhaust in Arequipa, my rashes stopped spreading like I had hoped and hoped they would.

Cancer survivors——I would argue more than regular joes——have to strike a precarious balance between freaking-the-fuck-out and being carelessly lackadaisical when strange physical symptoms manifest from our bodies. We have to be vigilant over our bodies for the rest of our lives. On a prior occasion that we will never ever forget, our bodies viscerally and terrifyingly demonstrated to us that they are capable of going haywire for inexplicable reasons. Our bodies are capable of developing a mortal glitch. Finding the right balance has been hard for me since I am still somewhat new to this whole cancer-survivorship deal. And it can really fucking suck sometimes because anyone else who has never had cancer can’t really understand how understandably and rightly worried we can get about such matters.

From this pityriasis rosea episode, I have hopefully learned two things:

1) When you have a health worry, don’t ask a man for advice on what you should do. Most men will say, “Oh, it’s nothing!” then proceed to name off harmless possible explanations that you have already ruled out or make no sense (such as that the hive-like rashes are, in reality, mosquito bites).

2) Don’t cross a perilous bridge that you might not have to.

By this I mean that you shouldn’t assume the very worst from the onset. In retrospect, I should not have looked up all those skin cancer symptoms and pictures and descriptions when I had no idea what might have been the cause of my rashes. I knew this at the time but didn’t stop myself. Consequently, I ended up worrying more than I had to. Not to say that you shouldn’t worry about such matters. As cancer survivors, we kind of have to worry if we love being alive, if we want to honor the fact that we are still amongst the living (and like Private Joker said in Full Metal Jacket, “The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive.”) But I considered that skin cancer possibility more than I should have. And that was awfully stoopid of me.

But like any of the invisible baggage we all carry, dealing with the post-specter of cancer is tough at times. Like a lighthouse, like a beacon of safety (if I were, say, a ship out at sea), I look forward to a possible day, a little over three years from today, when I will be cancer-free for five years. Until then, I will assuredly have some other potential health freak-outs to navigate.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why (The Inevitable Why)?

Here's an excerpt from my memoir, a piece I read at last year's Litcrawl:




At age 30?

After I was diagnosed, these questions inevitably plagued my mind:


How could this happen?

Hodgkin lymphoma was first described in 1832. One-hundred and seventy-nine years later, the medical field still has little idea what causes this blood cancer. Though it was comforting to know what was wrong with me after all those “non-diagnostic” biopsies, it has always been unsettling in not knowing how it happened—what caused it, so that I know what I should change in my life. Like eat more organic food. Sleep better on a consistent basis. Stop drinking alcohol altogether. Or move out of an urban center.

Though the medical community doesn’t know what causes lymphoma, this didn’t deter me from spawning a slew of theories. Could my disease have originated from the cosmetic Teflon plate that was fused with my chest plate when I was fourteen? Could the electromagnetic radiation emitted from my cell phone somehow have reacted with it in order to create a toxic environment within my chest? Was it from the marijuana I smoked the past few years? From the cigarettes I puffed on occasion? Was my body simply too sensitive to such toxins? Or did my cells go haywire from the Nalgene plastic bottle I had for years, the one that had these strange white flecks floating in the water—the same bottle the company pulled off the shelves in 2008 because of fears that BPA—a chemical used to produce them—caused cancer and increased the risks of other serious health problems? Or was it from all the car exhaust I had inhaled while cycling in the city the prior five years? From sniffing all those dry-erase markers at the workplace—something I did to make my co-workers laugh? Or was it all those years of chewing my fingernails, even my toenails? Did someone put a curse on me!?

How did this happen?

Or was my mother right—that my disease was a “test from God,” an opportunity to look up to the sky and acknowledge that He exists? This is what she thought cancer must mean—that it was some sort of divine intervention and unspoken communication in the form of a killer disease to awaken a wayward being like me. As if God’s mighty hand, his all-powerful index finger extended through the clouds and pointed down at me. ZAP! You petty mortal! You who doubt my existence! You shall have lymphoma, a rare form of cancer! Could there actually be such a sick god—male, female, hermaphrodite, or whatever—that is so greedy, so in need of my miniscule attention and belief? Am I “wrong” in my atheistic belief, as my mother said. Part of the losing team? And if there is such an insecure, spiteful God, why would I possibly want to be any part of It?

Or might my disease be a masterful concoction of my own, born of my self-destructive spirit, the “suicide impulse”—as my girlfriend at the time had called it——that she recognized early in our relationship? During the time my cells must have first mutated into cancerous ones——months before the first swollen lymph node popped up—I was getting fucked-up, I-don’t-remember-how-I-got-home drunk once or twice a week. Sometimes thrice. The troubling part is that I often bicycled to the bars, which meant my rides back home were redacted with a thick fog of memory. These were bicycle rides from the outskirts of downtown, two miles and numerous intersections from my home in the Mission. One night I rode out from North Beach, beneath the towering buildings in the Financial District, down windy Market Street, taking Valencia Street through the Mission; it was a four-mile ride in which I didn’t remember one thing when I awoke in my bed the next morning, parched and befuddled.

Throughout my young adult life, there have been times—however fleetingly—when I haven’t cared about living (which, as writer Asha Bandele pointed out in The Prisoner’s Wife, is different from wanting to die). Moments when all the destruction and suffering I read about, see, and feel from this world is too much. Moments when I have seen little point in continuing to be a part of this evolution, which feels more like a mass extinction.

Could my disease have bloomed from that bleak abyss?

Was the rest of my body too weak to fend off this act?

* * * * * * *
I still remember a shower I took a few days after I was diagnosed. Pale morning sunlight streamed through the window while I stepped into the clawfoot tub. When the warm water hit my bare chest, I coiled in slight pain. There were three red scratches, about an inch and a half long, running down my chest. I furrowed my brows while I studied them. While the shower fogged up from the hot water, the pale sunlight felt suffused with eerieness.

For a matter of seconds, I seriously considered if some form of demon had visited me in my sleep to leave those claw marks. Maybe I had gotten cancer because someone had laid a curse on me? After I shifted my index, middle, and ring fingers into a rake to press onto the irritating claw marks, I told myself, no, I had evidently dreamt that my disease, which I had personified as Mr. Hodgkins (a well-dressed business-type in his mid fifties with a white button-down shirt, vest, pressed black suit and a derby hat; like a Blues Brother, but mean), was perched behind my chest plate. I could feel some tightness, some discomfort there, and I had simply tried to claw him out in my sleep. There are no such things as demons! And who would put a curse on me?

But when I stepped out of the shower to finish drying off, I felt a flash of panic when I looked over at the fogged-up mirror, my smudgy reflection, and thought it might reflect a dark figure walking toward me through the fog.