Sunday, 22 November 2015

The upside of cancer

The cartoonist Ben Wicks and I worked together for several years on books about a bunch of strange topics: literacy, harassment in the workplace...and mutual funds. When putting together the harassment book, I asked Ben if there was any topic -- death, taxes, war -- that he couldn't take, turn on its ear, and make fun of.

He thought for a moment, and then he said, "Cancer, I don't think I could make fun of cancer."

A few minutes later, he handed me a bar napkin with a cartoon scribbled on it. It was a man on a bed looking up at the Grim Reaper. The caption read, "Can I get a second opinion?"

There is not funny about cancer, but then, everything is funny about cancer. We have to view cancer with a twinkle in our eye, and a spring in our step. Without humor, how would we ever get through cancer?

I've realized this over the last few months, as I've shepherded a dear friend through the over-bright hallways of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre, to meetings with doctors and all the vampires at various clinics who take things from you: your temperature, your blood and tissue. I've watched scopes going down, and viewed vivid photos of the inside of her nose and her mouth. These are things that cannot be unseen.

It's ugly business, and so it's important to take along the most inappropriate, naive, and irreverent side kick possible. That's me. The stand up comic at the back of the room, the person who must be relied upon to make a joke at the worst time.

My friend has serious, but treatable oral cancer which has to be about as ugly a cancer as a person can get. Her tumor is under her tongue, it's symmetrical and hard to get at especially as she has a tiny, tiny mouth, as her surgeon noted.

"What does that mean?" she asked me.

"Basically, you have a mouth like a pug," I explained.

The tumor is small and tenacious. It will require the breaking of her jaw, the removal of part of her jawbone as well as some teeth. The lymph nodes on her neck will have to go, too. But thanks to the team at the Ottawa Hospital, she will have reconstruction, which involves the taking of tissue from her forearm to rebuild a new bed for her tongue. Then she will have speech therapy.

That's a lot to take in for anybody but all my little friend wanted to know was whether she would get a television in her room. Oh yes, and she's worried about her dad who is at the Queensway Carleton Hospital on the other side of town at the end stage of his life.

I love so many things about this woman; she has endured so much in her life. She looked after her ailing -- I mean really ailing -- husband working two jobs, waiting on him, supporting his every need. When he died, it fell to her to look after her Dad who is 87 with his own tumor.

It's cancerama in her family. She just can't get a break.

Despite her own cancer diagnosis a few weeks ago, my friend has been dutifully driving across town every day to be by his side.

"What if he dies while I'm in the hospital?" she asked me.

"It's like being married and worrying about whether your husband is cheating," I said. "You'll drive yourself nuts worrying either way, and all that worry won't stop him from cheating."

Weird, I know. But I have very few connections to the subject of cancer. People in my family have died from it, but they did so at afar. I have no personal stories on the subject, no reference points to consider. I know about death alright, but I know nothing about sick, really.

I suppose I could have gotten involved with friends who had cancer but I didn't. I was too consumed with my own worries, and the people never seemed to be close enough. Even my mother died at a distance, years ago, while I went about my life in total denial.

Maybe it's age, maybe it's survivor guilt, but lately, I've been open to helping others, a little more. Watching my friend and her selflessness has given me the resolve to do better things with my life, be less myopic, less obtuse.

And so there I was roaming the hallways of the hospital, among the newly diagnosed, the survivors, the re-ups, and the ones who are checking out. Some have that deer in the headlights look about them, but they are soon taken under the compassionate wings of survivors who all have their own unique stories to tell, and advice to give to newbies.

It's an awesome dance, really.

This whole cancer journey has been an eye-opener for me. All I know about doctors is what I've seen on television. The doctors in real life are different, but the surgeons all really do look like they came off Grey's Anatomy! The oncologists seem to be human not the two-headed bastards I've heard about, the ones who do not care about their patients, have no empathy or sense of humor.

Maybe we just got lucky. Maybe the surgeons at other hospitals aren't as well coiffed or lighthearted. Maybe the medical schools are finally giving a course called "Doctor as a Human Being 101".

For what ever reason, we seemed to have hit the jackpot.

My friend's surgeon came in, wrapped his arms around her, and enquired, "how you doing, sunshine?"

The nurses, technicians, even the parking people, have been fantastic. They make everybody feel as good as they possibly can under the circumstances. They've even taken my friend's bad habits in stride, giving me a wink when she admitted she hadn't been able to stop smoking.

They've heard the song and dance before.

Thursdays at the Cancer Centre are smokers' days when people who have smoked for 40 years do the perp walk in various stages of disfigurement. I wish I could bring my kids who smoke into the waiting room just to give them a look at Christmas future. The weirdness is, a lot of people who have cancer keep smoking. They are definitely a tribe unto themselves.

I don't blame them, can't blame them. I have my own demons to explore. We're all human, victims of our own foibles, and vices whether it's drinking, drugs, sex, Jo Louis or bombs of Coca Cola.

It's what makes us interesting, colorful, tragic.

On Tuesday, my friend will take that short journey to the operating table and come out the other side as a new person, both physically and psychologically. She will take to wearing scarves, I imagine, learn to like Ensure for a bit, figure out how to use her new mouth and wait until she can get a bridge to replace those six teeth. She's a tough cookie, and she's my hero, and I'm not going to let her down.

It's the upside of cancer, I guess, knowing how much people love you and want you to survive.

There's also that positive word she heard during her pre-op, the word not everybody is lucky enough to hear: treatable.

And so we begin.

If you've read this far, then I've got you. Booga, booga!

Last joke I promise. Just a favor, if you please.

If you have a minute on Tuesday, November 24th, we'd appreciate it if you would take some time to send us a prayer, and a wing; get all the angels on our side, send in the reinforcements.

It's gonna get ugly, a red sky in the morning sort of deal.

But there are blues skies, rainbows and unicorns and Justin Trudeau on the other side.

I've told my friend that. We're going to kick cancer's ass, and hand it back.

We ain't no sissies.

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