Tick, tock, tick. | Pancreatic Cancer | Cancer

Tick, tock, tick.

From ‘My Father, Myself: A Memoir’ By Richard Humphries
I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing. – Agatha Christie

In a few weeks, it will have been twenty-four months since I was diagnosed with an inoperable case of stage-four pancreatic cancer. So, I’ve done the chemo and a clinical trial and radiation and infusions and ineffective surgery and more chemo and an extra invasive procedure or two and know the nausea and the dry heaves for hours and the soul-draining fatigue and the loneliness in the middle of crowds and the shits and the fear jumping out of nowhere and the night sweats and the real loneliness at three in the morning when you are alone and, what was the purpose of any of it and finally—thank God—the hope. Thank God for some hope.

And I count my blessings. I really do. I mean I really notice every little one, every blessed fucking one of them. But, this part right now, this is the part that I really hate, this part right now. And it comes along every sixty days, on the dot, but I manage to forget—or ignore, that it is coming, sometimes for days at a time. It was the every-sixty-days CT scan of my pancreas yesterday. I’m used to this stuff now. It isn’t until I feel the dye run through my system from the I.V. that I sigh for the only time. Something in the dye makes you suddenly and extremely warm. Your body heats up remarkably from deep within you, from deep inside your body. You become really warm, borderline hot. You are suddenly sweating when you were just so cold. It is an eerie feeling, as if you have no real understanding of your own body. Plus, you’re lying in that tube. It’s like a casket, I swear. The scan man is great, though, young and bright. One of those serious, on his way up guys who is going to be a professional at what he does. You can relax with him handling things. It makes a big difference, as if the whole process is just a normal thing people do every few weeks.

I see my oncologist tomorrow, first thing in the morning. I always take the first appointment available in the morning. Get the bad news right away, I figure. Otherwise, the goddamn suspense can kill you. Presumably, the scan was analyzed by one of their experts today. I have all faith in this medical team. They’ve saved me so many times from certain expiration. I’m listening to their every word. Don’t get me wrong. I know other avenues of hope. I pray to and believe in God through the religion I practice. I just also believe in thanking Him for the gift of wisdom and science he gave these doctors. They did a scan of the cancerous tumor on my pancreas to see if it is behaving, or growing. I pray it behaves, frankly. A growing tumor and, friend, you’re going to go through it all over again, as much as you can stand. You’d be surprised how much you can stand. This is a crazy-ass acting cancer, out of control, just killing people daily. And so many victims get such sardonic news of their predicament. “We know what it is and it is going to kill you rather soon.” It is extremely, extremely sudden.

One minute you’re planning a trip to Tahoe, a month or two later you’re dead. That fast. Pancreatic cancer is so symptom-less in its growth and stealthy in its quiet pandemonium and found so late that many of the stricken look pretty good right until the coroner’s van pulls up. It is almost always found far too late to save anyone. You simply don’t feel the symptoms until they are signs of your approaching death. ‘Short survival estimates’ they are called. Not good news. You’re sure you’re having bad stomach acid or gas or an ulcer and—surprise--next thing your doctor is giving you about sixty days left on the planet. Maybe. Ninety days? Um, maybe not. The victim’s sudden death leaves family and friends stunned for years. It is as if their beloved was murdered. Boom. Gone. Never to be seen again. Want to count your blessings? Go on-line and check the stats on this cancer. Hopeless. A hundred-to-one says you are going to be dead rather soon. Actually, real soon. The odds get worse as you struggle to stay alive.

“Well at least pancreatic cancer leaves you looking good right up to the end.” This wisecrack came from an actual physician-in-training when I first complained of the pain in my gut. We had agreed it just could not be cancer, probably a mere cyst. To this day, however, I am amazed at the variance in doctors. Inexperience nearly killed me. Let’s leave it at that. It was a whole different hospital ago. Cancer runs amok, tries to kill you every which way. Really works hard at killing you and if the crazed cells make inroads into your liver, well. . .then it really kills you. You feel yourself dying by the inch until your body gives up your ghost. Pain management is a huge amount of the treatment given for this shit at the later stage. That means you’re essentially sent home with a cookie jar of morphine tabs, enough to kill you. Certainly you have noticed how so many dying people have their family and friends conveniently gathered ‘round their bedside as they shuffle off this mortal coil? It is as if such gatherings are almost planned. Grandpa’s scheduled his Grand Finale this Saturday, after the Bowl Game. Be there or be . . . disinherited. And bring a covered dish.

About 39,000 people get pancreatic cancer every year in this country and about 38,000 die of pancreatic cancer every year in this country. It is a cancer with very ‘short survival estimates’ and a very short list of survivors. There simply aren’t a whole lot of ‘P.C.’ survivors available for fundraisers and rallies and marathons and speeches—or even taking a walk around the block under their own steam. Turning to the National Institute of Health for their advice, this is what the experts have to tell you: “The low objective response rate and lack of survival benefit with current chemotherapy indicates clinical trials as appropriate treatment of all newly diagnosed patients.” In other words, you are on your own. And you pretty much are. You had better hustle up a clinical trial, partner. And if you don’t know how to line one up, you better learn. Pronto. You don’t want that ‘lack of survival benefit’. ... One of the country’s highest regarded experts on the disease practices right here in San Francisco and I was talking with her recently. She pointed out that the research funding for ‘P.C.’ is less than one percent of the American Cancer Society’s annual budget allotment for all cancers. ‘P.C.’ is also the fourth leading cause of death. She suggested I write of that and the experience of having this disease.

How’s this? A tragedy in one paragraph: A woman died here a few weeks ago. Not an unusual situation. Happily married with three young daughters, little girls all under ten. Mom was 47. Had a house and loved her gardening. You know, just starting the best part of life. Diagnosed three goddamn months ago. Thought she had hurt her back, but it was her pancreas abandoning ship. Gone forever. This happens to almost 40,000 people and their families every year in this country. 40,000 times. I’ll pause while you kiss your partner. . . . We’ve all seen the celebrity deaths from this disease lately and how it eats people alive. C’mon. Under one percent is not a fair shake here, folks. So—uh--can’t we change this? I mean, is less than one percent really the best we can do? The way we throw money around in this country?

Oh, and the faster the funding the better if it’s all the same to you. I say that especially sincerely because I have the disease in question. A fellow can take it personally. And it feels like a time bomb, inside you. It’s scary. You’d really be surprised how it happens to just anyone. Shit, I still can’t believe it happened to me. Mornings can suck if you don’t have it together to face the facts and get the day underway. . . . I was feeling sorry for myself today. Speaking with a smart woman in her office. Maybe the prescriptions can make a guy weepy? Creeps me out every time when I feel my throat start getting tight. C’mon, pull it together, Man. Thank God I only get that way in front of women. And what’s with that? Momma? Jeez. Anyway, she was a sympathetic person. “I guess it’s just the never knowing.” I was feeling my feelings here, folks. “None of us do, Honey,” she said, slamming her desk drawer shut with a practiced knee shot. “None of us ever do.”

Clear skies and in the high fifties for tomorrow is the report. Light winds off the Pacific in the afternoon. Son Ryan is going with me to the doctor’s. At 21, he’s decided he’ll be in charge of moral support. I’m a lucky man. . . .

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