It is June 2nd, and I am standing in the middle of a dusty street in the one-horse town of Pecos, New Mexico. Across the road is the Pecos Trading Company, where hand-tooled leather saddles sit side by side with Stetson hats and old phonograph records, struggling to catch the tourist's eye. Wild flowers dot the verge, cattle wander in the distance, and the faraway mesas attest to ancient peoples and an ancient geology.
My wife Susan and I have gone away for a week, partly because we're due a vacation, partly to celebrate the passing of one full year in the saga of my lymphoma. Memorial Day 1992 was the key point in discovery; Memorial Day 1993 has come and (just) gone and I am still alive.
Now, however, in the middle of this quiet, venerable land, down the road from one of the oldest settlements in North America, where ancient native cultures clashed with the Spanish invaders, I am talking on the only pay phone in town -- long distance to the hospital in New York, trying to reach Dr. B. The reason is that I have awakened in the middle of the night to discover that one of my clavicle bones -- the right side, where all the radiation was concentrated -- is swollen and painful. My mind leaps: shall I tell Susan? Is it an aberration of the dust and heat of the Southwest, or is this a wild and damaged cell, screaming that it needs attention? Or is it something else -- something equally benign or equally malignant? Bone cancer, perhaps. The imagination of the fearful is unlimited.
I hang on the phone, trying to reach my doctors.
"Tender is better," Dr. B. tells me, when the operator finally understands the panic in my calls and connects me to him. "Lymphomas are generally not tender or sore." Fine, but what about bone cancer or radiation poisoning or....? The mind wanders on, plotting dangers and disasters. Susan and I are victims of fear, and we realize that I may be healthy for many years to come, but the pinpoint of cold terror will still rise up in us at a moment's notice, transforming us into cowering beasts or primitive humans. It is a contradiction of our humanity that we cannot -- at this point in time -- change and accept the possibility that nothing is wrong.
That it all turns out to be nothing more than a torn muscle from white water rafting the day before makes no difference in our psyches. With our brains, we know that I've been lucky, that I'm not seriously ill, that lymphoma is a treatable disease. Others know it with their hearts.
Their reactions are more realistic than mine. When they say, "You're okay, right?" they're reflecting not only their hope for me, but a balanced judgment on what it's like to be ill, and what it's like to be healthy. They see a treatable cancer in a healthy man, in a world of too many untreatable diseases. I still see the shadow of death.
We have simply not reached the point where the unexpected phone call or the sudden awakening in the night can be shaken off. The frissons of fear continue to reverberate. Though I am getting close to knowing in my innermost self that I am not going to die -- not just yet, and probably not of lymphoma, and I look forward to the time when I can say this was, rather than this is, I am not yet ready to be philosophical about my cancer. Maybe, soon.
While this experience was about lymphoma, I had a similar series of panics about the possible return of prostate cancer. And I suspect everyone who reads this blog will have some experience with those fears, too.
I tell myself not to push, not to expect too much, not to be too hard on myself. The same with you. It will be a task of more than a few months to get over your fears. But I am certain that fear and anxiety will not triumph.
Published On: December 27, 2006