Welcome to the beginning of "My Cancer Story." Continue reading and following the links if you wish. Enjoy.
It was a cold, dark December night when I hopped in my car alone for the first time. I filled my 12-disc CD changer my parents me bought for my birthday with all-time favorites. It was my sixteenth birthday and I just wanted to cruise.
I wound through the curvy streets listening to Dave Matthews Band’s "#41" and U2’s "With Or Without You." There’s something special about sixteen, which is weird since it’s just one year, or in this case, one day past fifteen. The freedom was a powerful thing. I no longer had to wait for my mom to drive me to Best Buy to buy that new CD. I no longer needed a ride to hang out with friends. I was no longer just a kid.
Usually I drove my friend Colossus to school. He made us late almost every day, but my homeroom teacher didn’t care. Once Colossus was nearly an hour late, so we skipped first period and ate breakfast at Burger King. Once I wanted to see if we could still make it on time, and passed a car on the double yellow. She flipped us off.
Since I turned sixteen before my friends, I became the permanent driver. They started inviting me to events with people I didn’t used to hang out with, including females. Back then I was too shy for my own good, scared of girls and large groups. The hottest girl in our grade, Orange, once called me “the man of few words.” So when I just cracked a joke here and there the girls probably thought I was Ben, the mysterious friend of Zeke and Big Easy who drove them everywhere and never said much. And I loved it.
Most of our fun involved teenage silliness: blasting ‘N Sync while driving 95 miles per hour with Zeke sticking his head out the window; trying to get into R-rated movies (and getting caught); forcing our religious friend, Crest, to listen to the Methods of Mayhem song "Proposition Fuck You"; and making bets. We once bet Crest five dollars that he wouldn’t drink the water from a flower vase off a McDonald’s table. We added chewed pieces of M&M’s and French fry. He won.
I bet Big Easy 30 dollars that he wouldn’t wear a colorful serape he purchased at an antique shop around school for a day. “I almost got beat up in the bathroom,” he said the day he wore it. Though, I heard from an inside source that he briefly took it off, thus breaking the rules for the bet.
When school ended and I passed through the lobby to get to tennis practice, everyone was there to see him cash in. “I don’t know Big Easy, I heard you took it off one time in the hallway.”
There was too much pressure. When Orange chimed in that he deserved his money, it was over. No way could I hold out on a request from Orange.
Tennis attracted the kids who weren’t athletic enough to play baseball or soccer. That attitude made practices informal and fun, though we played hard and we played to win. My doubles partner was Froddy, and we annihilated opponents even after I started experiencing pain in my left hip. On our last match together before the coach paired him with somebody else, I was totally and completely unable to run. Other players had jokingly been calling me a pussy, and now I started to wonder if I was a pussy. I also wondered if my tennis skills were diminishing, or if the new $80 racket I bought was worse than my old $20 one.
Later in the season my teammates stopped calling me a pussy because I was diagnosed with a heart murmur. Before my echocardiogram I thought it was a big deal and tried to garner sympathy, though the ultrasound showed it was as benign as heart murmurs get. It's funny that a massive and aggressive tumor made me a pussy, but an almost undetectable heart murmur made me a badass.
My pain was substantial and worsening, and I had a permanent bruise on my lower back, right on the pelvic bone. A couple teammates mentioned cancer, but we all laughed it off. Cancer was impossible at our age—something reserved for the “sick kids.” I was young, strong, healthy and active. There was no chance I was a “sick kid.”
Keep reading: The Golden Age (Part II of III)
Friday, July 27, 2007
Welcome to the beginning of "My Cancer Story." Continue reading and following the links if you wish. Enjoy.
Friday, July 20, 2007
On Valentine’s Day during my senior year of high school, I woke up with a peculiar rash on my chest. I went to the nurse’s office after Mr. Spunkmeyer’s homeroom class. “It looks like the shingles,” the nurse told me. “You need to see a doctor.”
My mom picked me up that afternoon during calculus and we drove to my clinic. I thought the rash was just some kind of allergic reaction, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. It was red, bumpy, itchy, and developed horizontally across my chest.
When we arrived, my nurse put me in an individual room just in case I was contagious. A doctor entered the room soon after, looked at my rash and immediately knew what it was. “You’ve got the shingles, pal.”
“What is shingles?”
“Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a viral infection caused by the same virus as chickenpox. You’ve had chickenpox, right?”
“I don’t know. Mom, have I?”
“Yeah, you had a small episode when you were younger," she said.
“Well, that’s it. Once somebody has chickenpox, the virus stays in the nerves and usually does no harm. In your case, it’s been re-activated.”
“Many old people get shingles, but also stress or a weakened immune system can re-activate the virus.”
“Well, I don’t get stressed out. But I thought my immune system was normal? It has been five months since I received any cancer treatment.”
“It takes about a year for the immune system to completely normalize, so you’re right in the range for re-activation. Do you have any pain or tingling at the site?”
“Some tingling, but no pain.”
“Over the next day or so you may begin to feel some pain.”
“I’m going to have the infectious disease people come in here and scrape a small amount of skin from the rash, just to make sure it is zoster. First, we have to figure out what to do with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ben, you have two options. We can send you home with oral medication. You’d need to come back here each day and have someone look at the rash and make sure it’s not getting much worse.”
“That’s fine, I have no problem coming back after school.”
“Here is the problem with sending you home – if the oral anti-viral drug Valtrex doesn’t hit the virus hard enough, then it can leave you with permanent nerve damage wherever the rash spreads. Years from now you may suddenly feel intense nerve pain or tingling. I’d like to keep you here and admit you to the hospital. We’ll give you Valtrex through an IV and make sure we hit this virus hard.”
“How do you know for sure it would leave me with nerve pain?”
“I don’t know. I just want to be safe.”
“How long will I be here?”
“Three or four days.”
“Days? Are you kidding me?”
“There is one more option; we can send you home with a PICC line and give you IV Valtrex that way.”
“Wait…what’s a PICC line?”
“We put an IV tube in your arm and thread it all the way to your chest. It’s very easy.”
“No, no, no, no, no. Hell no.”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds. Patients use these all the time, and it’s not very painful.”
“That’s okay, I want nothing to do with your PICC line. I guess I’ll stay here. Maybe I can even get my math done.”
“Good decision. Wait here and someone will be up shortly to get a skin sample.”
Once he left, I looked over at my mom. “I can’t believe this. I don’t have any pain, I think he’s full of crap.”
“I know you’re upset, but you don’t want nerve pain the rest of your life. It just wouldn’t be worth it. What a way to spend Valentine’s Day, huh?”
“I don’t care about this stupid holiday.”
I couldn’t believe that chickenpox’s first cousin was going to force me to spend three to four days in the hospital. I was already pretty pissed but I got even madder when I was told all the pediatric rooms were occupied. I normally didn’t like adult nurses; they were often meaner, less sociable, older, and rarely attractive.
Later that night I called Zeke from my hospital room. “Yo, I got that shangly shangly.”
“Say what?” he replied.
“I have the shingles. It’s like chickenpox. I have to stay here for three to four days.”
“You’re kidding. For the chickenpox?”
“That’s what I said! At least I have my book bag, so maybe I can get some math homework done. Tell me what I miss in calculus.”
I didn’t do one math problem the entire four days I was there. I just watched TV the whole time. If the Winter Olympics hadn’t been on I would’ve lost my damn mind.
After being released, I still wasn’t allowed back at school for three more days. Luckily, at home I was able to watch the Olympics all day with the help of MSNBC and CNBC. My fucking hospital still hadn’t gotten cable.
My rash had spread across my chest, stomach and back. It disappeared a few weeks later, and I was left with a circular scar on my back, which has since mostly gone away. I never had any pain or tingling afterward like Doc had mentioned. I still say he was full of shit.
Postscript: I nearly threw up searching for pictures of the shingles and PICC lines. Don't try it at home.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Over the years my house has collected some interesting items. Some have been thrown away while others have accumulated in cabinets and such…
Dozens of puke buckets are stacked under sinks everywhere in the house. My favorites are the pink ones. At one time those plastic containers were distributed in every room – just in case. I had a pretty sweet deal, where instead of rushing to the toilet to spew I just grabbed a bucket. Then, someone else cleaned it up because “I wasn’t feeling well,” or “It was too gross and may make me puke again.” Those suckers fell for it.
We used to have gallons of Biotene, the gentle germ-killing mouthwash. My hospital gave it out like candy. My nurse once said the hospital had stock in it, and I’m pretty sure she was joking.
A set of crutches are chilling in my closet. I bust them out on occasion to practice my tricks and crutch up the hill – they’re great for the triceps. In a different closet is my walker, which I still use to race tortoises. I smoke those critters every time.
Somewhere hidden is my sitz bath. Unless you have problems with your asshole (literally) you probably don’t know what a sitz bath is. It’s a bucket that fits over the toilet and is filled with warm water. A bag is hung from above and has a tube going into the bucket. When you sit down, a continuous flow of warm water bumps and grinds on your anus, soothing your fissures like you never knew was possible. And you think I’m joking.
Any time you have bowel problems, especially fissures, baby wipes are the way to go. Despite what people say, I assure you you’re never too old to use them. My house still collects them just for fun.
A shower chair lies dormant in the guest bathroom that nobody uses, along with the handheld showerhead connected by a long hose. This is by far the best way to take a shower. The only time you have to move is when you’re soothing your deep anal fissures. Most people consider these luxury items, but on the contrary I consider them necessities. I plan on appealing to my representative to get them subsidized for everyone. A shower chair and handheld showerhead are the ultimate in leisure products.
I retract my previous statement because I forgot what's next to the puke buckets – clear plastic urinals. Ladies, I have no idea how they work for you. If you’d like I can research and get back to you. But fellas, imagine waking up late at night having to piss. You know that if you walk all the way to the bathroom you won’t fall back asleep. So, grab a urinal and have at it. Over time your skills will improve to the point where you don’t even have to tilt your body for better positioning. I don’t want to brag, but years ago I was a professional. Not only did I not have to tilt, but I didn’t even need to look to make sure it wasn’t overflowing. Through a combination of factors, including the warmth of the bottle, the amount of piss and the dew point temperature of the air, I knew what I was doing.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Last month I borrowed the first season of Lost on DVD from my friend, HollaAtYoBoy. If you haven't seen it, this is possibly the greatest season of television ever (with the exception of every season of Seinfeld and the first two of 24). At 1:00 AM I decided that no matter how late it got, I was going to watch the final four episodes. It ended at 5:00 AM, at which point I went straight to bed. On my way upstairs I passed my dad, who was getting ready for work. He had a What the fuck is this? look on his face.
"Were you sleeping?" he asked.
"No, I was watching Lost. I'm going to sleep now. See you tomorrow...or later...or whatever."
I almost never stay up that late. However, my friend Hamburgers goes to sleep between 4-6 AM every day. Back in college he struggled to make his late afternoon classes. In the winter months he'll go days without seeing the sun. "Sometimes I wake-up not knowing if it's morning or night," he told me.
Lost and Found
Saturday, July 7, 2007
It was a brisk day in October during my senior year of high school, and my hip began to hurt. Pain wasn’t unusual – after all, it had only been nine months since my surgery. I was still getting two hours of physical therapy a week and needed to use a cane. But as the day went on, the pain increased substantially and spread from my hip to my knee. I had no idea what the problem was, but there was one thing that I prayed to God it wasn’t – the return of my cancer.
When school let out after calculus I saw my friend T2theZ in the lobby. “Hey, does my left knee look swollen to you?” I asked, as I lifted both my pant legs.
“Whoa dude,” T2theZ replied. “Why is your left leg so much skinnier than your right leg?”
“Hey moron, I didn’t walk on it for a few months. What about the knee?”
“Yeah, it does look a little swollen. What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know, maybe I sprained it.”
I had PT the next day and my physical therapist, Formula-6, analyzed my knee. He determined there was nothing wrong with it, and that I was experiencing referred pain from my hip. “Your brain is telling you that your knee hurts, but the source of pain is actually in your hip. Stay on crutches until you see your surgeon,” Formula-6 told me. I agreed, but hated the idea of going back on crutches since I had worked so fucking hard to get off of them.
My mom called my surgeon’s office and got me an appointment. When Dr. M&M walked into my room after looking at the new Xrays, I became very nervous. “Is it cancer?” I quietly asked, knowing the answer might rock my world.
“No, it’s not cancer. You have little calcifications growing where your pelvic bone used to be.”
“What are calcifications?”
“They’re small bone growths; it’s very common.”
“Whoo, that’s good news.”
“I’m going to put you on Celebrex twice a day. That should get rid of your pain.”
Celebrex is a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory pain reliever, or COX-2 inhibitor. Two days after I started taking it my hip and knee pain disappeared, so I ditched my crutches and went back to my cane.
This was my first of many cancer teases – an incident that makes me think I have cancer, even though it turns out not to be. As my cancers and cancer teases have accumulated, it now takes less and less of an incident to convince me. No matter how unlikely it is, and even though I know it’s extremely unlikely, The Fear takes over and doesn’t let go until I have indisputable proof otherwise.
No matter how awful The Fear is, there is a certain appreciation for life that occurs when the cancer tease is over. It is always brief – anywhere from several minutes to a few days – but the feeling is truly amazing. Times like that remind me what it’s like to be young, healthy and living. It feels like the world is mine for the taking. It feels like today, tomorrow, yesterday, any day is a great day to be alive.
Sunday, July 1, 2007
After my transplant I developed an intense aversion to germs. I held my breath anytime somebody around me coughed, sneezed, burped, grunted, spoke, or exhaled. When I couldn’t hold any longer I would bury my face in my shirt, take a deep breath, and hold it again. It became instinctive. In fact, I’ve noticed that I’ll hold my breath after I hear somebody cough on TV. When I realize I’m the only person in the room, I breathe, and then punch myself in the face for being a moron.
Last year for spring break I went to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with some friends. My final class before break was Spanish 202, which I regrettably attended. I should have been practicing my pickup lines, but that’s another story. I showed up right on time and sat next to my friend.
“I really don’t want to be here,” I said to him.
“Me neither, but if I miss any more classes I get docked points,” he replied.
I hadn’t missed a single class yet, and considered leaving. I’m already here – what’s the worst that could happen?
Another guy in our class, Dipshit, was sitting one row back when the teacher made him move next to me. She had a stupid rule that we had to fill all the seats in the front. Besides the fact that he was invading my space, I didn’t mind.
Then he coughed, so I held my breath. Dipshit coughed several more times before I even finished my first held breath. He didn’t even try to cover his mouth. If I wasn’t so damn lazy I would’ve moved to the other side of the room. But instead I spent the entire 75 minutes next to Dipshit on the verge of fainting because he WOULDN’T STOP COUGHING.
When class was over I bolted home, changed my clothes and showered with anti-Dipshit soap. My immune system is normal. I’m not worried.
On the day we left for Mexico I had a mildly sore throat, which turned into all-out sickness and lasted nearly a month. Dipshit gave me one of the worst colds I’ve ever had.
In Mexico I shared a room with three others and a bed with my friend PepperoniNip. I didn’t want to get them sick and did my best to contain my Dipshit germs. Unfortunately, PepperoniNip developed a steady cough during our trip. I felt bad for getting him sick, so I tried to conceal my breath holds, which was hard since we shared the same 4x6 foot space. He quickly realized what I was doing and understandably became angry.
“What the fuck are you doing? You’re the one who got me sick!”
“I know, I’m sorry man. But I can’t help it, I have to hold my breath.”
“What do you think, that I’m going to get you sick with your own germs?”
“It’s habit. I think I have OCD or something.”
“You know I hate you, right?”
One year later I was in my economics class minding my business, when Dipshit #2 sat next to me and started coughing. He had one of those deep, particle-releasing coughs that spray germs everywhere. In this case the classroom was full and I was stuck there. At first I did my usual cycle of holding my breath and breathing through my shirt. But Dipshit #2 WOULDN’T STOP COUGHING.
Over the next several minutes, anger crept into my brain until it was filled with the fury of a thousand Jews who were told “No latkes for a year.” I lost all body control and the anger took over.
I looked down at the mechanical pencil in my hand. The anger pushed my thumb down on the eraser three times, leaving a short piece of lead poking through the top. My bicep contracted until the pencil was near my head. My hand turned to the left until it was pointing at Dipshit #2. Then I saw the future and what was about to happen – my Bic mechanical pencil was about to stab Dipshit #2 in the fucking eyeball.
I immediately let go and the pencil fell to the ground. I put my hands in my pockets and left them there the rest of the class…
Except when I had to pull my shirt over my face because Dipshit #2 WOULDN’T STOP COUGHING.