“Cancer feels like the flu.”
“What did you say back?” I asked my husband, the person who actually has cancer.
Doug has Stage IV throat cancer the kind of cancer men get from oral sex. Ok, well, not always from oral sex. It’s an environmental cancer, you can also get it from smoking or having too many slumber parties in a coal mine.
Remember STD 101? There’s a link between HPV and cervical cancer in women. Well STD 102 just came out, and there’s a link between HPV and throat cancer in men. This is becoming a man-demic.
I knew from reading that the cure rate for HPV positive men with throat cancer was actually pretty good. So I had my fingers crossed. For HPV. In Doug not me.
The oncologist read the results and said, “You’re HPV negative.”
I uncrossed my fingers and whined. ”Awh man.”
The oncologist ignored my whine and factually stated, “Treatment is the same regardless. Seven weeks of radiation with a few chemo treatments interspersed.” And that’s we did.
That was SIX months ago. On this particular day we were just integrating back into real life doing a few things that were part of our routine before Doug got sick, like meeting up with our running club on Saturday mornings. That was the day, the day we got this new health revelation that cancer feels like the flu.
You know how clubs are. Clubs are awkward until you find ‘your people’. And once you find ‘your people’ you become a club within a club. Doug had good people. His people had been with us day by day via text and a private Facebook group while he was sick. Today was a big step. Doug was going to ‘run’ (albeit not far) and his people met him with high fives.
They took off in a little pack of half a dozen or so, but they also had one extra. A conversation jumper. You know that person who wants to be part of a group so bad, they follow you like a puppy dog, and then at odd moments interject sentences that make you wonder if there is an underlying issue that hasn’t been diagnosed? That was Saliva John.
We know a lot of Johns. And in married talk I find it a lot easier to designate adjectives for people avoiding the needless dialogue of, “Which John? John Smith? John Jones?”
Saliva John’s orthodontist forgot to pull some teeth and his lips are stretched so tight they can’t close so frothy spittle gathers in the corners of his mouth. Thus the identifier.
For the first thirty minutes Doug and his people were clustered together; heads were bobbing back and forth with conversation, animated arms flying, and an occasional ass slap. After thirty minutes Doug turns around and waves goodbye to his crew.
I could see all this up ahead. I saw the wave good bye and noticed he had a fellow cancer survivor turn around with him. They pair up and begin to trot. I assume they are discussing cancer stuff. But, wait, what happens? Saliva John decides he too wants to turn around, and he increases his pace to catch up to the cancer survivors and attaches himself to them like velcro.
I could see they were talking and figured that since Saliva John wasn’t a cancer survivor, they were probably exchanging boring pleasantries about golf or library books. Except well, the conversation didn’t seem to last too long – Doug pulled away and began to walk.
Maybe it was too soon to run post treatments and he needed a break. Eventually I caught up to him, ”You ok?”
“So were you enjoying your run with Saliva John?”
He leans in real close, “Shhh. I don’t want him to hear….” and then he tried to whisper, which men can’t do. He sounded like a 1 900 CLL – 4SEX operator crossed with a boy going through puberty. “Mary and I were talking about the side effects from treatment. And Saliva John says, ‘I know exactly what you mean, I had the flu and couldn’t hear out of my ear’.”
It’s amazing some people make it to adulthood. “What part of him not hearing in his ear related to cancer?”
“Did you tell him you lost hearing from chemo?”
I was now stumped. “I don’t get it.”
Once Doug lost hearing from a chemo treatment the oncologist reassessed the situation and decided no more chemo, “….let’s stay on course with radiation…..”
Radiation treatment was creepy cool. It was every morning at 8:30. The radiation ladies would usher him into a cold metal chamber where he would take off his shirt, fold it real neat like a clothing store display and they would say, ”Oh I bet your wife appreciates you.” And I do. I let him continue to do the laundry.
After he was bare nippled he would lay down on this tube table where the ladies buckled him into a custom made Freddy Kruger mask which was molded so tight an eyelid can’t move. For real. That tight. There were a couple other straps to tie him down. And once he was locked in the radiation ladies sealed the door to the chamber and went into their console room and spoke into a mic, ”You ready?”
This was a silly question. Because if your eyelids can’t move, neither can the lips. But all the radiation ladies were looking for was a positive sound and not a scream.
Once they got that positive affirmation, they’d lean into the mic, “Ok, just relax. We are going to begin.” And that meant no moving. No sneezing. No farting. Nothing. Every radiation beam was programmed down to the millimeter. You move something healthy gets zapped, like an ear, an eye, or a penis.
We continued to run side by side at a nice leisurely post-cancer treatment pace. “Does he really truly believe that?”
“Yes. He really believes it.”
Trying to give Saliva John some leniency I thought back to my circular head classes in college. ”If someone perceives something as true. It’s their reality…” However, that doesn’t mean it should be shared. I believe if your REAL reality is slightly off the edge of normal, that too should stay in your head which is exactly why I never shared about the day my brother stuck a marble up his butt.
This happened when I was eight years old. My mom and I were working on one of my cooking badges for Girl Scouts. We were in the kitchen stirring up something when my sister screams from upstairs, “MOM! PAOLO STUCK A MARBLE UP HIS BUTT!”
Where most moms would panic and run for the pliers, my mom goes into psych-mode. She was certain my three year old brother was looking for attention since she was devoting her time to my cooking lesson.
“You tell your brother he can figure out what to do. I’m not going to give into something like that for attention.” And she went right back to my Girl Scout cooking lesson.
Tina yelled down the stairs again, “MOMMMMM! HE REALLY DID! HE STUCK A MARBLE UP HIS BUTT!”
My mom still un-phased decides she will yell to my brother instead. “PAOLO I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING! YOU WANT ATTENTION! AND YOU’RE NOT GOING TO GET IT RIGHT NOW.”
She looked back down at my Girl Scout book, and then thought of one more thing to yell. “GO SIT ON THE TOILET! AND DON’T GET UP UNTIL THAT MARBLE COMES OUT!”
After a while, not like a half day, but after we got to a point where my mom could leave me to work on my own, she made her way upstairs to the bathroom. I hear a lot of ruckus and arguing from upstairs. I couldn’t make out all the words, until she finally had it, and I then I understood her plain as day all the way in the kitchen, “I’M NOT GOING ANYWHERE UNTIL YOU GET THAT MARBLE OUT!”
My mom went and got a book and sat down next to the toilet. Every time Paolo said something. She said nothing. Tic tic tic. Kid on the toilet. Mom reading her book. Tic tic tic.
After being ignored long enough Paolo figured he was going to spend the night on the toilet unless he got busy delivering a marble. And eventually I heard the sound of glass hitting porcelain. Kerplunk!
As much as the marble up the butt story was funny, I didn’t share it at my next Girl Scout troop meeting nor did I ever share it ANYWHERE. Except in my diary. Was it a real experience? Yeah. But these are the kind of things you keep in your head. Real or perceived. Keep ‘em inside your head.
I looked up and noticed that Saliva John was now running by himself and I kinda felt sorry for him. You know, alone. No one running with him. And during that millisecond I was feeling sorry for him a thought flashed, “WHAT IF HE IS RIGHT!?” What if cancer really does feel like the flu?
When you get that first phone call and hear, “You have cancer,” your mind turns into a food processor. You begin to research all things cancer like you had a master’s thesis due, and at the end you want someone to review your thesis. So you schedule an appointment with your health provider to go over last minute things. We had a one on one appointment with the chemotherapy nurse a week before treatment began. And maybe that’s where I missed it.
I made a list of questions several days before. And as I read something of interest while preparing my questions, I’d share it with Doug such as, “Did you know you are toxic after chemo, and we can’t have sex for 72 hours?”
“We can ask the chemo nurse when we meet with her.”
“It’s not a question. It’s a fact. You’re toxic after chemo.“
And I took out our sex calendar grabbed a red marker placed a big red circle around the days which fell 72 hours after a chemo treatment.
I thought the subject was dead, buried, and gone. But Doug unearthed it on chemo briefing day after the nurse had mentioned “adult relations.”
“I know you mentioned ‘intercourse’…and we can’t have intercourse after chemo…” (Cringe) ”…..but what about <<insert the most medical term for oral sex right here>>?”
My face turned red. I was pretty sure I peed myself. The lights started to dim and I prayed for the second coming of Jesus to happen right then and there. I don’t remember too much after that. Maybe she said we were giving chemo too much nasty credit and, “Don’t worry even if you lose your hearing, it’s ok. It’s just like having the flu”. I mean mmmmmaybe that happened.
But. Nah. Probably not. And that little fleeting second where I doubted myself and felt sorry for Saliva John, that feeling went away.
I began to pick up my pace and let Doug know, “Well I’m gonna say something to him.”
“He got fired from his job this week.”
I slow back down. “And he just announces this too?”
“So how did this fit into the conversation?”
“Are you surprised?”’
“No, not really.”
“What was he expecting as a reaction?”
“I don’t know.”
“How many jobs have we known him to have?”
“I don’t know. A lot.”
I just couldn’t resist, “Was his boss a cancer survivor too?”
“I don’t know.”
In Doug-Lisa married language, if Lisa continues to peck away with questions and Doug’s answers have been short sentences that don’t invoke replies this means, “It’s ok to let this subject go.” And I did. Sorta. At least for that day.
We’re six months out from Doug’s final radiation treatment and every day he is stronger. I say my prayers of thanks that we are in a good place right now. But sometimes prayers like these which start out as being thankful, take a little turn. I get distracted. My mind wanders. And I begin to think of all the things I’m not thankful for, like the people who said such stupid things that made me more angry than comforted. And yes, this probably negates the whole intent of a thankful prayer when I really should be asking God to forgive me for judging well intended people that don’t think before they speak. And then I revert to being thankful. Because I am. I’m very very thankful. We are currently in a good place. So thank you God. Amen.
But still, just to let you know cancer does NOT feel like the flu.