Where do you start to write about finding out you have cancer? What is there to say that hasn’t been said or written a thousand times before? How does one react to this kind of news? How does one respond to the concern and sympathy without sounding glib, trite, somber, or pathetic? These are just a few of the questions I am asking myself this morning, now less than two weeks from having the surgery.
I’ve always been one those, “Aw, shucks…thanks, but it’s no big deal!” kind of guy. Throughout my life, when receiving a compliment, I’ve tended to be a bit dubious of the messenger’s intentions. Paranoid may be more accurate. Worried that person was just putting me on. Over the years as I got older I have managed to overcome most of this worry and just accept compliments, or, in the case now, accept the concern.
Over the course of a few days, how many people ask you, “Hey, how’s it going?” Since I tend to be relatively gregarious to co-workers, ie, make eye contact, smile, nod, or ask, “How ya’ doing to most everyone”, I also receive much of that in return. The ones who never say, “Hello” back or acknowledge my greeting reap what they sow from me. I now ignore them instead of wondering why they never respond. I have enough problems than to worry about socially inept ingrates.
“Hey, good. How you doin’?” in a mock Tony Soprano sort of way is my usual response to someone asking me the question, “How are you?” The environment in which I work (a large retail store) brings with it much face to face contact with co-workers and customers. It is unavoidable. This work space is also very sociable in that we all take lunches and breaks in a small area, it’s difficult to go unnoticed. Despite my early childhood shyness, I seem to have morphed into a friendly, very approachable, likeable person in public arenas. I do make eye contact. I do smile at people if not offer some sort of greeting. I have become so opposite of what I was as a child it’s a bit scary. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not obnoxiously outgoing by any means, but usually very quiet, laid back, friendly and…approachable.
With this being known, a lot of folks know my name at work, not just because we wear name tags. They just know who I am: the tall, older, balding, friendly,white guy in the photo department who knows a lot about cameras and such. I must tell you that a enjoy this mundane, if not perceived notoriety. The many casual relationships I have cultivated over the last three years mean a lot to me, especially when the going gets rough…like now.
Getting back to that mutual hallway greeting, “Hey, how are you today?”. Saying “Great”, or on particularly trying days saying, “Eh, not bad” just doesn’t seem right at this point. So, what do I say now? What is my proper response? Should I say, “Eh, trying to figure out how to deal with the recent knowledge that I have cancer. And even though my prognosis is far better than many other co-workers here who have cancer and other issues much worse than I, I’m not doing too well. I have good days and bad days. Positive days and negative days. I’m in constant pain now for seven months, but that may be to my sick gall bladder that is going to be removed during the surgery along with a third of my colon, and not the cancer. Oh, I also have an occasional bout with angina, probably due to stress. There, I’ve said it. There is always that enigma rearing it’s ugly head at the most inopportune times like last night after a full day of burning pain in my abdomen, I had to pop a nitro tablet for the first time in my life due to the angina pain. You know, other than that…I guess I’m good! Thanks for asking. And you?” Somehow, this doesn’t seem practical.
Having a dry wit and using it to deal with stress, pain, and ugly health issues seems to be my milieu, my ballywick, my way of dealing with things like this. Have I cried about it? Just once, kind of. It was a half-assed choked up half-cry when I talked to Loretta on the phone right after receiving the results from the biopsy. I managed to suppress any dripping tears as I was at work and not in a private area. Most of my emotions since hearing the news have gone to anger. Believe me, I’d rather have a good ball than be pissed off! Yes, I ain’t too happy about it at all. Mostly, I’m pissed at myself for being in this situation and putting Loretta and my family through it AGAIN. Perhaps there was nothing I could have done different to avoid all of this, I realize that. I remember asking my cardiologist after my bi-pass surgery almost 15 years ago, “Hey, doc. When did these blockages in my arteries start growing?” “At the latest, when you were about 17 most likely. Possibly as early as the day you were born”. “OK, so if I had been eating bean sprouts and tofu all my life, exercising without fail, and never smelling a cigarette…would that have made a difference?” “Probably not. You are a classic case of genetic predisposition considering your father’s health and your grandfather’s early death from a heart attack. It’s probably 80% hereditary”. Well, alright then. I’ve been exonerated from blame! I’m laughing out loud at myself as I write this. And you know, a good laugh is almost as satisfying as a good cry.
I now respond to my co-workers who ask, “How’s it going?”, with this, “OK…surgery is August 26th”. It’s funny, the responses are varied to that answer. For some, their mouths drop open and they ask for details, legitimate concern. For others, “Hey, good luck!” is what I get back. And from some, all I get is a blank stare, a spin of their heels, and a walk away without saying anything back. I think I just blew those people’s minds and they simply don’t know how to respond. Picture them holding one of those Wiley Coyote signs that reads, “Shit! I didn’t expect him to say that. Let me outta here!” Poof! Gone in a cloud of dust. I don’t blame them. I feel fortunate I can still use them for humor in this blog.
In a nutshell, I must deal with this cancer thing in the most pragmatic of ways, the way I have been dealing with it. I’ve tried to keep all my closest friend (yes, that’s singular) and relatives apprised of what’s going on as soon as possible (at their request). I’ve tried to maintain a positive attitude, soldier through the bouts of pain and avoid the abyss. The abyss where I see myself staring back wondering how to get out. I refuse to go there. (I stole this metaphor from the movie Wall Street, thanks Oliver Stone).
I appreciate and savor each and every well wish from each and every person who has and will express concern. None of it goes unheard or unappreciated. My wife, Loretta, my children, my siblings, my mother, and my best friend are all inexhaustible sources of inspiration and strength for me. I can’t imagine having to go through this without them. Saying “Thanks” isn’t enough, but it is all I have for now.
I hope this helps those who are wondering better understand where my head is right now. My true feelings can tend to be a bit shrouded at times, masked. I think I’m just plain scared shitless to see what is under this mask if I can ever really get the damn thing off!