Cancer Free and For What It Is Worth...
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
- 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
• When it actually is
- 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
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
- 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
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
- 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
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.
It is hard to “live in the moment”
when the moment is so unlivable.
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.