“Every day we look each other over. Everyone has cancer, and every day the radiation makes us sicker. I think of the waiting room as a betting parlor where we wonder, What are your odds? Since most of us are out-patients, we have to get dressed to travel to the hospital. Radiation is enervating; few of us give a damn what we look like we look like hell.”
–Learning to Live Again, My Triumph over Cancer by Joel Solkoff
Today I am recovering from the flu and my memories; plus, there is the promise of the future
I do not understand why I can write when I feel dreadful. I do not understand. So much has happened since 1976 when I was treated with radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s disease. Long ago and far away is the excerpt above about the radiation treatment room at George Washington University Hospital. Yet the memory of fatigue—astonishing fatigue—returns with a sudden burst of memory perhaps most comparable to a long forgotten odor that suddenly reappears. The reminiscence takes me back to a time I still think of as hell despite the logic and gratitude that I am alive today because of my experiences in that hell.
Today, I am recovering from the flu. The influenza symptoms began on Monday. Now, it is Sunday night. I know I am getting better. I know that in a week’s time the symptoms and the memories the symptoms invoked will vanish. As one friend said, “You know you have a delicate immune system.” I know. However, my delicate immune system is not as delicate as it used to be. It has been five years at least since I had the flu or even a bad cold. Before that, I had the flu on an annual basis—with flu shots presumably protecting me. Always, influenza brought with it recollections of radiation waiting rooms. Today’s remembrance of “malaise”—a fancy oncological term for being severely bummed out—is mild compared to my reaction to the panic the flu brought in the past.
Now, I understand the process. The weakness. The inability to get things done. Plus, the understanding that in x-days I would regain my strength, regain the drive, ambition, the joie de vivre that has made it possible for survive two separate rounds of radiation treatment and to survive cancer three times.
A man with a plan—Panama
Wikipedia defines palindrome as “[A] word, phrase, number, or other sequence of characters which reads the same backward or forward. Allowances may be made for adjustments to capital letters, punctuation, and word dividers. Famous examples include ‘A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!’….” To make the obvious explicit: “A man a p” reads Panama backward. Given my nature (my nature being subject for a different time [or even this one]), over the years, I have developed a variety of logical [and perhaps not so logical] plans for dealing with the complexities of my health problems over the decades. Readers of this site are familiar with the evolving nature of my plans. My current Plan will be revealed in due course. What each of the plans has in common is an effort to get beyond my current problem and establish myself as someone who is reliable and capable of contributing to society. To use Rabbi Hillel’s formula, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? [If I am not for others, what good am I? If not now, when?”]
Contrast between formulating a plan and self-delusion
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, whose work has received considerable negative criticism, formulated an excellent yardstick for dealing with the news one has cancer, is likely to die, or is facing a life-changing event.
[Editorial note: I wrote this last week hoping to complete in round-about typical fashion a complete plan superseding previous posted plans plus photographs. Reality is my recovery from the flu is taking longer than expected. Now, having hidden myself in my back room against the headboard of my bed, I am emerging. I just slipped my October rent check under the landlord’s door. Tomorrow I grovel to the appointment’s secretary of Dr. Sepana Minali, my ever-patient internist, whose appointments I have been canceling because I have been too weak and too accustomed to turning night into day and vice versa [one of several reforms—keeping a regular schedule being a requirement to my clear goal of becoming dependable at 67 [68 on October 12th]. Two weeks ago I delivered a well-received seminar on how use of style manuals can help graduate students at the Department of Architectural Engineering increase the speed of completion of doctoral dissertations. On October 30th, I am scheduled to deliver a seminar on Zotero, a software program that automates the citation process for academic papers. Meanwhile, my Cousin Rona, who knows ADA requirements in her sleep has sent me suggestions on measurements for bathroom sinks to make a house wheel chair accessible. Completing the long-delayed academic paper on renovating existing housing to make it wheel chair accessible is high on my priority list. High.
[Editorial note continued. Until the flu and associated medical problems I was making considerable progress on a report on Internal Revenue Service policy as it relates to tax credits for low-income housing that prohibits residents in elderly and disabled housing from earning enough money to fix their teeth. This report has the promise of earning enough that I will be able to stop appealing the friends for contributions. There is, for example, a trip to New York City, now scheduled for November, that would inert a spinal stimulator which would dramatically reduce the spinal pain caused by radiation treatment for cancer which while saving my life also resulted in my being a paraplegic and causing degeneration of my spine. The strange reality is that at 68, I may very well have a lifespan of an additional 30 years. Living 30 years longer seems a strange reality. There is indeed, as one Netflix movie reminded me, a spark of life within me. With regular physical therapy and movement, sound sleeping habits, and assorted reforms might very well make me productive—furthering my grandiose goal to plan communities where the elderly and disabled are productive. The last two weeks have been demoralizing, too weak to leave my bed, canceling doctors’ appointments, and sadly resulting in my missing the performance of Havdalah on Yom Kipper, an honor Rabbi David Ostrich conferred on me.
[Editorial note continue again. Hence to convince others that I can transform myself into productivity and self-reliance is something I must demonstrate to my own satisfaction as well as future employers. My lifelong tendency to procrastinate when I am feeling well enough to goof off coupled with an inclination to become distracted and not focus on the work at hand…]
[Editorial note with optimism. Each of my daughters was born in the same hospital in which I was treated with radiation treatment which saved my life. When Joanna was born, Joanna’s mother and I took a detour before taking our new baby home from the hospital. We went to the basement of the hospital, to the radiation treatment waiting room (described above). Going from patient to patient, I showed off my new baby to the cancer patients awaiting treatment. Holding my infant daughter in my hands, I explained to each patient I was explained that I was able to father Joanna AFTER radiation, the emotion-filled show and tell ended when I handed Joanna to Trudy the oncology nurse who operated the linear accelerator that saved my life. Last month Joanna, now married to Jade Phillips (who asked me for my daughter’s hand in marriage three years ago, told me she is pregnant. In April, I will be a grandfather. A grandfather.
[More optimism. In August, my younger daughter Amelia will be marrying Javier Blanco in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at a ceremony performed by my friend Adam Phillips, who helped me greatly when I was treated for my second cancer. As with Joanna, I will be scooting Amelia down the aisle to give her away. I am hopeful that I will be using an Amigo Mobility travel scooter to take her to her wedding vows to Javier who is a sergeant in the Spanish army. The couple is planning to have children. Read Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease by Charlotte Jacobs. Jacobs’ engaging book reveals that I was able to live past 30 years of age, father two children, and anticipate the arrival of my first grandchild as a consequence of Henry Kaplan meeting a nuclear physicist at a cocktail party.
–Joel Solkoff, Cancer survivor, Zeda in waiting.