Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ramblings from the Cancer Desk

By Karl Bremer

The words still stare back at me from the yellow legal pad on my desk: pancreatic cancer. I scrawled them out as I was talking to my personal physician about the results of a CT scan earlier that day, December 1. You kind of know something is up when you go from a stomach scan to an ultrasound to a CT scan within the course of three days. Still, nothing ever quite prepares you for the actual diagnosis of cancer.

This is the second visit this pox has made on our household. My wife, Chris, took the first call six years ago and beat it.  But there are no family memberships in this club, so despite the seemingly long and cruel odds of it striking twice, it’s my turn now.

There’s a creature in my body

There’s a creature in my blood

Don’t know how long he’s been there

Or why he’s after us.

--Alejandro Escovedo, “Golden Bear”

Once you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, it’s like looking at life through a new camera lens. Some things come sharply into focus that were barely visible before, while others just as quickly dissolve into a blur in the background.

What mattered yesterday may mean little today and even less tomorrow. The daily sunrise gains relevance in the grand scheme of things as opposed to the small-minded political candidates flaming out like so many pieces of space junk re-entering the atmosphere. You begin to have a personal relationship with Orion every time he appears overhead in the night sky. A brand new Terrapin Station crescent moon melts away any remaining doubts about whether this is all worth it.

To be sure, you’ll get countless pieces of advice—all of it well-intentioned—about how to beat this creature. When it comes right down to it, though, you have to pick your own weapons of mass destruction and hope for the best.  For my severe condition—Stage 4 pancreatic cancer—nothing short of heavy guns will do. That means three different chemo drugs pumped into me over a three-day period every other week, and a battery of pills in between to counter the cancer pain and side effects of the chemo poison.

To try to bring some equilibrium to this cyborg-like life of getting hammered by cancer from one side and enough chemo drugs and pharmaceuticals to choke a horse from the other, I’ve added weekly acupuncture to the mix. I’m a firm believer in it now for both pain relief and just evening the keel of a listing ship. I don’t have to understand how it works any more than I have to understand how this other Western medicine stuff works. It just does.

A variety of herbal medications are in the bullet box as well—Chaga mushroom tea from Siberia, Humboldt County’s finest, and ginger is my new best friend.

Music is a healing salve on many levels, like the touch of a dog or cat.

The greatest cure of all, however, comes from the family and friends who walk this sometimes dark journey with you. That healing power is at least equal to the healing powers of modern medicine. I can’t imagine walking it alone, as some must.

One of these days, I hope to be able to scrawl “in remission” on that yellow legal pad. Meanwhile, I don’t plan to disappear. There are boondoggle bridges to monkeywrench and fraudsters to lock up. In between the sunrise and Orion, don’t count me out yet.