Sunday, April 24, 2011

Waiting For That Other Shoe...

When I was told I had cancer life froze in that moment. My face set in a polite smile and my eyes focused on the neatly knotted, blue, bow tie with tiny, red polka dots worn by the bright young Doctor as he spoke the words in measured tone.

"I'm not sure what they told you after the surgery, [to remove a tumor, plasmacytoma, from my chest], but you do have cancer."

The doctor and nurses who sat with me that morning, seemed impressed at my unshaken composure.  Then again, they had witnessed this act before.

Hearing the news was a body blow, like receiving a concussion without losing consciousness. I knew what the words meant: "multiple myeloma; blood cancer; extending survival rates; pray for remission; there is no cure".

Riding through a high tech car wash recently, reminded me of that day.  A violent storm driving water, chemicals, huge brushes and jet engine like fans, beating hell on the car's exterior as I floated through in the dry, quiet solitude within. 

The incremental progression of MM is unsatisfying. Is that the word? We know that MM progresses inevitably to death, but with unpredictable pacing. Unpredictable sounds strange I'm sure to the uninitiated but it feels right to me. The old stats had the average survival rate at five years. Actually, that may have been the median rate rather than the mean, but either way, new protocols and combination drug therapies have moved the numbers up the curve.

I use the word unsatisfying because the disease bursts like a surprise tornado into furious activity, requiring massive retaliation by the oncology team, and then goes quiet.  In my case, a plasmacytoma (tumor) was removed from my chest in January of 2003, followed by six weeks of radiation in April. Five months later I was well enough that I rode my new Lemond Road bike in the 192 mile Pan Mass Challenge.

 I have ridden four or five times since, in between ambushes by the MM cells that hide like bandits in tiny ravines, and dead end canyons throughout my bone marrow.

The late Reverend Peter Gomes said,"Faith is the conviction that hope works."I have faith that if I and 'my' oncology team could get one-on-one with this beast, we would win. Instead we go from skirmish to skirmish, fighting against a guerrilla force that chooses the time, place and virulence that satisfies its design.

 So I vent.  Yet, on each monthly clinic visit, or when visiting sites like "MM for Dummies," I see and read of others dealing with serious ramifications of a more violent class of MM. In particular, the growing number of young people fighting this cancer, once nearly exclusively a disease of the elderly.

I'm thankful that I am relatively active at 62 and grateful for the dynamic brilliance of the Dana Farber Oncology folks who have succeeded time and again in driving my disease into dormancy.  My admiration and respect for fellow travelers, especially the young, like Paula the knitter and Phil the kicker, who live with much more courage than should be required at their ages, knows no bounds.

Again, I apologize for venting when I have much to be grateful for. Still, I can't help but pray for that other shoe to drop so I can take this fight to the final decision, one way or another.