March 2011


Cancer Free and For What It Is Wor

We were not the first person to get cancer, nor unfortunately will we be the last. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2010, 1,529,560 will have some incidence of cancer. So as to the question we might have posed (and never did) “Why me?” we immediately remembered and loved the Christopher Hitchens quote: “Why not me?”


Fortunately, our cancer (oral) was localized and caught at stage one, and removed through surgery without further need of radiation. So to the choir of cancer survivors to whom we might be preaching, please bear with us. And we are now honored to be one of you. And to those who are not interested or just don’t care…that is the first lesson we learned from the experience: that the world doesn’t stop spinning just because you have cancer. And that in part, is what this piece is about. To share our experience, which was not without its humorous and absurd moments.



It’s something until it’s nothing

  • This sounds as if it might have come from the mouth of Yogi Berra. But what we relearned, is that the medical profession is no different than any other. There are some excellent practitioners and there are nitwits. The only difference being of course, that er…their jobs are often about life and death?

    Too many poo-pooed what was forming in our mouth, as “nothing.” And we were especially told that it was unlikely to be cancer because of “a)” “b)” and “c).” Unfortunately, they had never come across “d).” But we knew it was something, and so do you. No one knows their bodies more than the owners themselves. If something doesn’t seem right, be persistent. And cut out the middle man, better known as the GP. Got a problem in your mouth? Go directly to the mouth guy. Something up your nose? Sniff around for a good nose guy. Something up your butt…never mind.


When it actually is about you

  • All of our lives, most of us, especially those with a religious bent, have heard: “It’s not about you.” Point being of course, that there is a bigger purpose to this whole ball of wax than you. But the day you hear you have cancer, is the day, that it is about you. Suddenly the world implodes right into the center of your gut. And then you cry. Really hard. Because you are scared in a way you haven’t been since you were four and got lost in that big department store.

    In an odd way, it should almost be like your birthday. You know, like when everyone is so focused on the magnificence of your very existence? You are the center of attention. You are the sun and the planets revolve around you. Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite close to what we experienced, but you get the idea.

    But as “it is about you,” we are going to switch here from the first person plural—which is a grammatical style we have preferred as sounding less egocentric and suggestive of a certain humility— to the First Person Singular! This for the first time in the six plus years we have been writing essays for these Muse-Letters.


New York Swagger

  • I love New York City with all its swagger. And as I will soon be living there again, I can’t wait to jaywalk with reckless abandon. I want swagger in me…I want swagger in my cabdriver. I do not want swagger in my doctor and his cracker jack team who crowd the room as if to view an exhibit or lab project. I am a human being… and by the way, is this guy here old enough to shave? And everyone is so cool because they have “the rep” as THE place to go; the esteemed cancer center with the hyphenated name.

    With each doctor I saw in the “Big Attitude,” my prognosis kept dropping. The “95%” rate for survival I had in LA when I left, immediately dropped to “80%.” And then “60-80% at the highly esteemed hyphenated place. “Can I negotiate for 85?” I asked, trying to out swagger the swaggering doc.

    I figured if I visited one more New York hospital, it would be time to start working on a eulogy. So I came back to LA. (Don’t ask why I left in the first place, unless you have a spare week on your hands). I was fortunate to be put in touch with Dr. Tom Sinha at USC. Here was a doctor with no swagger, but a calm demeanor that spoke to me: don’t worry you are in good hands, it seemed to say. And I was. The robotic surgery—a computer-assisted surgery which allows for more precision—went flawlessly, as guided by the skillful hands of Dr. Sinha. Yes, I did have to lose a small piece of the side of my tongue, but it hasn’t stopped me from talking nor has it affected my speech. I still have a New York accent.


A hospital is not a hotel

  • I had not spent any time in a hospital since birth. Of course I have visited them several times, but that is like saying that one who visits a prison knows what it’s like to be an inmate. I tended to think of it as a hotel of sorts. They bring you food, there’s a TV there, all kinds of people popping in to make your stay comfortable. They bring you a pillow.

    What I discovered having now spent five days there, is that each of those days is 72 hours long. Time almost stands still. I expected Rod Serling to emerge from behind the curtain at some point. And so I clung to my iPhone waiting for contact with the outside world. A ringtone…an email…a text message. Please don’t let the battery run out! Where’s my recharger? Oh, a nurse inserted it in me by mistake. (I was wondering what that wire was for.)

    I thought of that old commercial for AT&T that my former ad agency had made in the late 70’s with the slogan: “Reach Out and Touch Someone.” What with all these new forms of communication and technology, it is now so easy to follow that advice. Though apparently, not easy enough for some. And I will leave it there.

    I had all sorts of attachments to all sorts of things going “beep.” And I just loved when people would gather about a monitor with puzzled looks on their faces. “You’re not breathing through your nose.” Well if you would remove a few of these f------ tubes from my nose, especially the one I was forced to re-swallow until it had reached my stomach again—with the X-rays to prove it— (because at one point it had somehow fallen out), I might be able to squeeze some air into a nostril , and perhaps have at least a small impact on those dangerously low falling digits, of which no one was shy about mentioning. Oh, damn, here comes the super hero oxygen mask again. Closely followed by a vacuuming device shoved down my throat to catch the arrival, like clockwork, of the next wad of phlegm.

    And every day they came at the bewitching hour, to take blood. By the third night upon being awakened, I asked: “What are you doing with all this blood? I just gave you some last night. Is anyone looking at it? Evaluating it? What do they think? Or is it just being sent overseas to support our troops?” Not bad humor considering the gallons of “medication” that had been poured through some funnel connected to some place in me, that I never did discover the whole time I was there. “What’s your pain level Mr. Vazzano on a scale of one to ten?” “Eleven! “ Keep it comin’. “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius….A-q-u-a-r-i…."

    THE CATHETER. I awakened with one in. Then “they” decided to take it out. Then they decided to put it back in. Only this time I was conscious. And I could immediately intuit that this device clearly was not designed to go where they were trying to stuff it. And the level of pain confirmed that suspicion. “No!” You are not going to do this!” I screamed with all the New York swagger I could muster. A lethal injection is more humane. I got them to halt “the procedure,” but around this time I decided I had better re-learn to urinate. Real fast. And while thanking God… I did. And God forbid there should be a next time, I’m going to have a friend sneak a beaker of it into the room should this situation arise again: “See? I make pee pee."

    Oh no, that big mama nurse gonna’ sponge me down! Is there no end to the humiliation? Even my penis looked depressed to find itself in this predicament.

    And then finally the day arrived for my release. That is after they took one more tube of blood. “But sir I’m leaving later this morning.” “Sorry gotta take some blood.” “OK. Promise to FedEx it overnight to me? I’d like to keep it as some sort of memento of my stay.” No, a hospital is not a hotel.


• Playing the “Cancer Card”

  • I discovered that like the “Get Out of Jail Free” card, you can only play the cancer card once. As I was fortunate to leave the hospital cancer free and in no need of radiation, I became boring. I was “cured.” A little skinny perhaps (I lost close to twenty pounds before halting the slide) but basically assumed to be my old self. Even by my new self. Not so of course. And whatever was happening before this happened, was going to continue happening after this happened. Nothing in my world would change. And any new perceptions or insights would have to wait until a little later. At least until after I could get some solid food down again, clear my head of all medications, and literally and figuratively be on my way. And that would take a little over two weeks. Or until Super Bowl Sunday, when I would have my first of many post operative epiphanies, via one particular text message. No it was not from heaven.


No end

  • There is no end to this story. As every cancer survivor will tell you, you need to continue to get checkups (every two months the first year), change your diet and start eating the good stuff only. And most of all, learn to live stress free and keep a positive outlook at all times. But then again, shouldn’t everyone be doing that? And a few prayers don’t hurt either. I had a lot of people praying for me, which I realize is a rather quaint means of communication these days, but it worked. And if I have offended any atheists out there with this far out notion, I offer no apologies.







Tell me, Muse, the story of
that resourceful man

plays the first line from Odysseus’s journey.

Less resourceful— I’d rather plod along
in my riotous excess
that often ends up in ports of last call

or the odd carnival here and there.
You might have caught me one Fat Tuesday
ogling women baring their breasts for beads.

Yet I go jelly-legged whenever my muse appears;
a presence that never fails to enchant.
Move on young man, she will whisper in my ear

her warm breath tickling my fantasy
while guiding my hand across the right keys.
I, a voyeur, become one with the voyage

changing course in spite of the wind
that seeks to tussle my ebbing hair
which she pats down in place and smiles

                                                                    —Ron Vazzano








Quote-of-the-Month Club

It is hard to “live in the moment”
when the moment is so unlivable

                            —Francis Lawrence






Lucky Penny: A Non-Fiction Fable



He was invited down to the studio, to take his mind off the matter. The cast was to go through a first reading of David Storey’s The Changing Room. Behind them stood some unpainted flats, ready to begin their transformation into a rugby locker room set. The smell of that raw wood brought back other such times, when the world was young and he was doing Chekov, Steinbeck and O’Neil. And he smiled as the cast introduced themselves by their character names. And the set designer unveiled his model. And the costume designer spoke of “the look” she was looking for. He felt as if he had come home. Gone were all thoughts of what might lie ahead, and what possible aftermath he might have to face.

At the break he was introduced to a pretty actress, who possessed, what one might call a winning smile. They spoke of some past plays they had done, “back in the day” in this studio. The conversation lasted all of five minutes. If even that. “Hope to see you at the opening” she said as she turned and walked away. Then she stopped and bent down to pick something up, and he heard her say: “Heads down, pick it up and turn it around.” And again with that smile, and with her right arm fully extended, she walked back to hand him a “heads up” penny. Then walked away again without another word. The improbability of it all, struck him as an encounter of an angelic kind. He knew immediately that all would turn out well. And it did. Through surgery, he’s now cancer free. Without even the need for follow up radiation.








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