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.