Friday, October 11, 2013

Graduation Day: Dying From Cancer To Clean Scans In One Easy Step

I had my checkup at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center recently.  In the days leading up to the appointment, I was, as always, irrationally paranoid about every bump and bruise and utterly convinced that I had only days left to live.  "What the hell is that??" I'd say in the shower, only to find that the offending lump was in fact some completely normal anatomical part that was supposed to be where it was and had been for the prior 28 years of my life.  One day I found something really large that turned out to be my bicep.  Is it supposed to feel like that??  Jesus.

I'm pretty convinced that I also manufactured a crisis by feeling up the nodes in my thigh so much that I bruised the area around my junk, causing me to worry about the "strange sensation" so much that I began to formulate my last goodbyes and figure out who I should give my surplus of Magic cards to (they aren't even legal to play anymore, but what did you expect from a young adult cancer survivor -- a current deck of Magic cards?  What, am I made of money?).  At the appointment, the PA noticed similar bruising in the nodes between my armpit and chest, which had previously been described to me as "bumpy."  It was at this point I wondered if I could actually give myself cancer from checking so hard for signs of cancer.  Or at the very least, a severe case of internal bleeding.  Then I thought of the scenes from every medical drama in history where the doctor comes out and says very sadly, "I'm sorry, we can't stop the bleeding."  And I think to myself, Wait, what?  Don't you have like science and bags of other people's blood and stuff like that?  I mean, wrap it in a t-shirt for God's sake.  And I think of how much I would really disapprove of being the subject of one of those scenes because I pressed too hard while checking my nodes.

"I've taken out half of your bones and hung them on this pole here, and from these scans it looks like all of your blood has come with it.  I've done everything I can."

I did my X-Ray, blood work, and obligatory waiting room meditation before they called me back and stripped me down.  I met a new PA student who checked me over and wanted to talk about what I was doing in life, and all the bizarrely existential things people say to one another with eerie lightness during an initial meeting, and all I could think about was how bumpy my nodes were.  I stumbled through the conversation until the regular PA came in, who I'm very comfortable with and who has made this whole close to death thing a little less crappy.  As it turns out, all my worrying was for nothing (isn't it always?  Worrying is, by its very nature, useless).  The X-Ray was clear, which meant my core was not filled with death, and the blood work confirmed that, yes, my blood was mostly made of blood, and not terrifying cancer Legos waiting to combine into a macabre pirate ship and sail right into my brain (though the castle Legos were my favorite [and I always made my mother buy them for Christmas and then put them together for me.  It was obvious at an early age that I wasn't going to be an engineer.).].

I also have one of those Immunotherapy Krakens in my blood, so I guess I shouldn't be too worried about it.

We talked for a while, because, even though we meet routinely at an appointed time to make certain I'm not actively dying, I like to think that she and I are friends.  Then, suddenly, she informed me that I had graduated to six months.  I was surprised, because I didn't think I'd be at six months for several years.  "Nope," she said.  "One year after diagnosis you go to four, and two years after you graduate to six."  I went into this appointment convinced that I'd have to replay the scenario after my diagnosis where I went around telling everyone I was going to die, and that I loved them.  And I came out of it not only with a clean bill of health, but with the added bonus of being considered healthy enough to last an extra two months on my own at a time.

As a young adult cancer survivor, I will never stop worrying about dying before I've lived long enough to leave my mark, to positively affect the world, and do whatever other things my mother would no doubt disapprove of.  Every time I make the trip to the doctor, all of the emotions surrounding my initial diagnosis come flooding back.  But in a strange, dissociated kind of way because the memories have faded, and all I really feel now is that I'm submerged underwater in a claustrophobic sea of negativity.  The sensation causes me to find things that aren't there, and to worry myself into a bad place.  I blame this partially on the come down from surviving cancer, the getting back to "normal."  I have a wealth of experience with life and death and priorities and trivialities, intense emotions spawning from serious existential crisis, and the lessons that facing a terminal illness can teach you.  But all of this fades when the tests start to come back clean, and distance begins to seep in between you and what almost prematurely ended you.  In the future, I'd like to be more conscious of the divide, and learn how to better reconcile the urgency I used to feel with the humdrum of daily life.  It's a lofty goal, though I'm sure it's possible.  I'm not the only cancer survivor, stumbling through life trying to make sense of it all.  I'm sure I'll get there.  After all, I have at least six months to do it.

Photo credits: Top -- A doctor looks at an x-ray, by Ron Mahon

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Cancer Research Institute 60th Annual Awards Gala

This past Monday, September 30th, I attended the Cancer Research Institute's 60th Annual Awards Gala.  The organization was nice enough to invite me and my girlfriend as guests at the event, where the leading researchers in the field of immunotherapy were assembled to discuss and receive due honors for their work.  Nightline anchor and ABC News correspondent Bill Weir emceed the event, and award recipients included Dr. Bahija Jallal, executive vice president of AstraZeneca, Dr. Jill O’Donnell, CEO of the Cancer Research Institute, and Sean Parker of Napster fame.  I myself was showcased at one point as a survivor, along with a few others, like Emily Whitehead, Mary Elizabeth Williams, and Sharon Belvin.

Look at that handsome fellow up on the screen.
The event was held at Cipriani 42nd Street, a massive architecturally stimulating venue.  Formerly the Bowery Savings Bank, the impressive space lies just across the street from the Grand Hyatt hotel and Grand Central Station, and down the block from both the Chrysler and Lincoln buildings.  A huge stone archway greets visitors, ushering them into a large dining hall surrounded by modified Corinthian columns that terminates in a second archway housing an enormous rear window silhouetted by velvet curtains.  Remnants of the Bowery savings Bank remain, with the dining room separated from the foyer by a framework of teller windows, and the entrance lined with deposit counters complete with pens on chains (that this writer found unpleasantly lacking in ink during an exchange of contact information).

I felt a little like I was in the Colosseum, waiting for a lion to pop up out of the floor and try to eat me during dinner.
Dinner was served in three courses, the first being a scallop salad (that I wished I could take home and love forever, and doubly enjoyed because my girlfriend doesn't like scallops), followed by filet minion or sea bass, and a rich chocolatey masterpiece that gave me four types of diabetes (how many are there?).  Though I'm trying hard to keep my vegetarian ways, I even had a bite of the filet.  Don't tell anyone, or I'll lose my street cred.  My table was filled with fellow melanoma survivors, and we had much to discuss about the role of immunotherapy in our lives.

The musical guest, folk-rock duo Johnnyswim, came out with an appropriate mix of melodic tunes that relaxed and uplifted the crowd at the same time.  Once described as “21st century troubadours,” the duo serenaded a captive audience through the entrĂ©e course with a short set.  Though the acoustics at Cipriani were not optimized for the band, and at several points our table discussed the possibility that the venue chose to forego a sound check, the band spoke well enough with their sound to make up for the lack of clarity.  I didn't hear a word either of them said between songs, but from the heavily reverbed noises they made that might have been words, it seemed like they were very much in tune with the event and happy for the opportunity to play the gala.  Co-founder Amanda Sudano had a more personal reason to be there, as she happens to be the daughter of the late Donna Summer, who succumbed to lung cancer in 2012.

The event was a huge success, in my opinion, for many reasons, namely, 1), it encouraged ongoing research into the most promising field in oncology today: 2), it brought together the leading minds in the field for debate and discussion into the latest findings: 3), it brought together those of us who've directly benefited from immunotherapy, and provided an environment in which we felt comfortable talking to other survivors and researchers alike: and 4), because I personally haven't been to many events like it, and it was a fantastic introduction into a larger part of the cancer community.

I tried to make a deposit during the event, though all I had on me was an acute case of alcohol poisoning from the open bar.
CRI's 60th Annual Awards Gala represents the future of oncology.  The most promising treatments are now coming from the field, and the organization continues to be at the forefront of a bright and hopeful future.  We're getting real results due to the efforts of CRI and its donors and sponsored researchers.  There are so many good things to say about the event, that it's hard to find anything negative.  The strangest feeling for me occurred when I realized that I was in an environment where it was okay to be my complete self.  Usually I'm holding back the survivor aspect of my character when in public, because, as a general rule, terminal illness makes people uncomfortable.  I was allowed to let go at the gala, and enjoy myself in a way that I haven't in a long while, around people who genuinely understood and were trying to help, because everyone in attendance was all in this crazy world together, all working toward a common goal, whether as a survivor, researcher, donor, or in another supporting role.  It enveloped me in a sense of community, and I very much hope to continue my involvement with the Cancer Research Institute's efforts in the future.  If you'd like to donate to their efforts, please consider doing so here: Ways to give to CRI.