I’m back, but then so is commercial whaling.
Apologies for my absence from this blog. I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer in June, and went through an intensive regimen of radiation therapy through early December. November was particularly difficult: while I patronized the radiation oncology clinic at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance five-days-per-week for a second month straight, Book #1 was being released and Book #2 was going through revisions and contract negotiations. I learned that it can be hard to focus on books when a linear accelerator is focusing on you.
As if cancer isn’t enough of a mind-blowing experience, the particular sequence of my diagnosis made it seem unreal. On June 11th I received a letter from the university president containing the welcome news that I was being granted the emeritus status my department had recommended me for. On June 12th, my wife’s birthday, we received the diagnosis. Commencement was on the 15th, and we began to clear out our dormitory apartment on the 16th, a process that involved donating 27 cartons of books to the university library. It some point during it all, we had to move a 46’ sailboat 900 miles to the north.
Since our arrival in Seattle in July, I would prefer to describe the ordeal merely as “onerous.” But herein lies the problem: I haven’t yet landed on a metaphor that accurately captures my experience of cancer. “Ordeal,” employed above, seems a bit melodramatic. My lived experience doesn’t justify the use of the term. Other than for a few moments of sharp pain, I haven’t really been in agony. I haven’t felt tormented, and it hasn’t been torturous, largely because of the genuinely passionate care extended to me by clinicians. There’s been a lot of fatigue, but this has been dealt with via frequent naps. Does one usually take naps during an ordeal?
Pugilistic and militaristic metaphors, similarly, fail to capture my experience with cancer. Family members have encouraged me to “kick cancer’s ass,” and while I appreciate the sentiment, I’ve never really been much of an ass-kicker. I’ve cultivated pacifist leanings long enough to cringe at the thought of engaging in a crusade or a battle. Out of earshot, my wife tells family and friends that I’ve been a trooper, but this comes from a woman who employs terms of endearment that many of my associates would find questionable. Let’s leave it at that.
Some clinicians refer to the cancer experience as a journey, but I find this equally cringeworthy. I indeed sometimes visualize my life as a journey, but at best cancer is an interruption of that journey. My metaphorical journeys are about places I want to go and goals I want to accomplish, and cancer isn’t one of those places. My education has been a lifelong journey, and book authorship has been a notable destination; cancer is a freaking nuisance, albeit one that can kill you.
I’ve been subjected to a gamut of inadequate metaphors: marathon; roller-coaster; struggle; quest; character test; crusade; disability, job. Yes, it’s had its ups and downs, and it’s been intense, especially from an emotional standpoint. It’s also been a tedious, frustrating, rewarding, nauseating, stimulating, confusing, fulfilling, love-filled and yet hard-to-describe process. Got a metaphor for that? Throw in hot flashes and some diarrhea and you’re just about there.
Here’s the good news: my prognosis at this point is excellent. Having completed radiation therapy, I’ve got a greater-than-90% chance of surviving more than 15 years. That’s pretty much the best odds that I can be given for something that’s considered a life-long disease. I’ll continue with hormone therapy for at least another 18 months, but at this point that’s mostly about making sure the cancer never returns. I’m down for that, whatever the metaphor.
Like I said, I’m back.
Journal of Natural Hist. Ed.
Natural History Institute
Center for Humans & Nature