We Have it Good

Christopher Lukas Health Guide
  • This essay is not about prostate cancer.

    It’s about my music teacher.

    I started taking piano lessons at the age of 62. Realizing that retirement would be coming down the line in a number of years, I didn’t want to be caught empty-handed; I wanted something to do with my “final years.”

    Of course, it was stupid, on the face of it: I was far from the end of my active life. Since then, besides continuing to write and to make documentary films, I have gone on with the piano lessons and also taken up acting. I’ll be in some plays in NYC this winter and spring. Maybe even some films.

    But I’m getting off course.
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    What I wanted to write about was this teacher. He’s now in his early 50’s, but by the time he got to me, ten years ago, he had already had twelve operations for Crohn’s Disease – a particularly painful inflammation of the intestines. The usual treatment: take out sections of the bowel, and sew the person back up. Cure? None.

    When the inflammation and/or bleeding occurs, my teacher takes Cipro or steroids, both of which diminish his ability to fight off future infections of other types. It’s a chronic disease; more than unpleasant to live with. No wonder my teacher has occasionally wished not to wake up in the morning.

    In the ten years I’ve been working with this man, he has seen his medical insurance costs go up and up. Blue Shield now has him on a 10,000 dollar deductible, and he then pays 50% of the remaining costs for a year. So, in a typical year, with doctors and hospital visits, he can expect to pay at least 20 thousand dollars. You can imagine that his income from music lessons for grammar- and high-school students (and the occasional “grown-up”) does not cover that.

    He lives alone in a small apartment. When inflammation and infection start, it can cause intense pain, vomiting, weakness. He has sometimes had trouble getting to his physician or the hospital.
    With all of this, what is his attitude? How does he face life?

    He plays jazz and pop music, as well as classical. And I think it’s the music that keeps him happy; maybe even the music that keeps him alive.

    He has seldom canceled a lesson. He drives 40 minutes to get to my house; he arrives with a smile, though his face is often puffed up from steroids. He jokes his way through our lessons, gently correcting me when I making mistakes. We talk politics and lifestyles. He must occasionally compare my life to his, but he doesn’t ever mention it, or complain. He sympathized with me when I got prostate cancer, and worries about my periodic check-ups for the dormant lymphoma.

    This morning, I mentioned a touch of arthritis in my hands. This was something new (I’m 72), and I was afraid it might hurt my playing. My teacher said, “Gee, I hope I don’t get that…that would be terrible. Not being able to play.” Then, he laughed, and said: “Of course, I’ll have to live long enough to get arthritis.”

    We went on with Mozart.

    I don’t want to dismiss the anxiety of those of us who have serious prostate cancer. But for those of us with a little degree of discomfort from our bladder or prostate even from radiation or surgery, but who will die with cancer and not from it – we might take some lessons from knowing about how a man with a very serious illness faces life.

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Published On: December 20, 2006