Time marches on. Well, the concept of time, that is. When I was in a high school science class a bunch of us complained about how slow time passed; when I was in school we lived—lived!—for mid-June, for that meant summer vacation. The spring was dragging. And I recall Mr. Palmer saying, “Wait until you all graduate. Time will start to fly.”
He was right. Time gets faster and faster—something we can all attest to. There are those times, however, where time stands still or slows down. People have described auto accidents where everything unfolded in slow motion, or a period of extreme duress where an hour felt like days, or waiting for the bloody tea water to boil, or the official complaint of the Monday morning workplace: weekends are too short.
Since I first learned on July 19 that I had cancer, time has seemed disjointed. This is why I keep a short journal with me so I can recall what happened on what date. Time is both in hyper drive and in slow motion—sometimes the two co-exist. It’s hard to explain. Especially because it’s also a period where I have to be more disciplined about time: keep appointments, notice and report changes in the new normal, stop waiting for the kettle to boil.
Any medical condition, if it is serious enough, is always accompanied by tests of one kind or another. Yesterday I had yet one more: A PET/CT scan. A PET/CT is a scan that essentially merges two independent ways of imaging the body. A radioisotope and dye contrast, which is injected intravenously, measures metabolic activity, and the CT scan images the body. Both are combined and hundreds of cross section x-rays are created that may or may not include “hot spots” that indicate increased metabolic activity (i.e., cancer, fractures, and other abnormal states) in the body.
Predictably the breast tumor showed up as a hot spot. There was some suspicion about the lymph nodes in the right axilla, but that had been ruled out with a sentinel lymph node FNA and ultrasound. There was a suspicious node in the lung which turned out to be a pneumonia scar. There were suspicious nodes noted in the mediastinum. And then there was confirmed activity noted elsewhere in my body: the lumbar spine. Confirmed. And I saw it: the gray spots in the L4 vertebra and below L1 in the sacrum.
With the read of a sophisticated x-ray I had gone from Stage II cancer to Stage IV. The bullet had hit the bone. Indeed. But we needed to go forward. What did all of this mean?
Well, for one, we were officially married, my surgeon and me. Regardless of whether or not this cancer was eradicated, we were going to see one another for every six months indefinitely. It meant that there would always be a risk of recurrence, particularly in the left breast, but also systemically. It was early still and the vertebra was not in danger of collapsing. Despite the gruesome sound of Stage IV cancer, I still had >80% chance of managing it for 10, 20, even 30 years. But you can’t “cure” Stage IV cancer. The fucktard cells have broken loose and can successfully hide and then appear at any time, in any place.
Fuck me, man.
He placed a box of tissues before me. I told him I wasn’t going to cry: as hard as it was, I was going to face this head on. This was time for understanding, I would cry later. He remarked that I was a very stoic and strong person—and I told him why. We had a good conversation of treatment options, risks, and the road ahead. He was sincerely sorry that he had to give me this news, and he offered his shoulder and availability anytime I thought that I might need it. We shook hands after our conversation and I left the office.
I walked the slowest I’ve ever walked in the city. It was an effort to put one foot in front of the other. I stared into space. I crossed against lights and formulaically flipped the bird to honking taxis as I walked like a sleeping turtle across the street.
Surreal was the new real.
When I arrived home I ran into the University Chaplain. Our paths cross frequently as she lives one floor above me. As the elevator doors closed she asked me how I was, and I broke down into a sobbing mess. “I have just been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.” The tight hug and the shoulder were sorely needed then. I was terrified. Mortally wounded.
Cancer. A blow.
Chemotherapy. A double blow.
Discovering that cancer is now in my spine? Priceless.
And for everything else there’s life as I used to know it.