Sunday, March 17, 2019

400. Cancer, and How I Healed Myself


My latest:

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him For more about this and my other books, go here.  

Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books.  Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC."  For the whole review, click on US Review.

             Cancer, and How I Healed Myself

         Cancer: a word that terrifies.  A scourge, a killer.  When the figures are in, in the U.S. alone some 609,640 mortalities are expected in 2018.  Scary. #Cancer

         For me, it all started with my annual physical back in January 1994.  When my doctor reviewed the results, she reported:  “You’re a bit anemic.  If you were a menstruating woman, I wouldn’t be concerned.  But for a man, it’s suspicious.  I’ll refer you to a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy.”

         I didn’t know what a colonoscopy was, and I couldn’t even pronounce “gastroenterology,” but it seemed that I was bleeding internally.  Having no symptoms, I doubted if anything was amiss.

         Time passed; no one contacted me about a colonoscopy, but my bowels were acting up.  On March 19 I wrote my doctor to report these symptoms, and from then on things moved fast.  I soon saw Dr. Malinovsky, a genial older man who gave me instructions for the colonoscopy.  Primarily, I had to fast, drink some foul-tasting liquid called MoviPrep to clear out my bowels, and then, the following morning, show up at my medical center at Third Avenue and 96th Street at an ungodly hour. 

         So on April 5, 1994, with my partner Bob in tow to see me home, I showed up, undressed from the waist down, lay flat on my belly on an examination table, got sedated, and let the good doctor rape me gently with a finger-thick, lithe black snake of a tube that he poked into my rectum.  On a table next to me, right at eye level, was a screen that showed what was happening in color.  It beat any TV that I had ever seen, flashing red, orange, red, as white dots of popcorn flitted across. 

         “The colon wall,” said the doctor.  “Now we’ll make this turn.”

         His assistant plied my belly; cramps.  I hardly noticed, riveted by the screen’s polychrome display: green splotches, egg yolk, orange peels, then ever receding grottoes, tunnels, and reefs where light had never been.  “Another turn,” said the doctor.  More massaging, cramps.  On the screen, crypts of cantaloupe, brown lichens, candied yam. 

         “There,” said the doctor quietly, “is what we’re looking for.”

         Nested in a niche, blobs of an aborted mushroom, a wrinkled, hunched pink worm.

         “Biopsy,” says the doctor.  On the screen, tweezers appeared, tweaked it.  A red kiss, then another.  “A polyp or a cancer,” said the doctor.  “Probably a cancer.”

         Under sedation, I took this gently, philosophically, almost as if he were speaking of someone else.  I felt distantly vulnerable, important. 

         One last look at the screen: sleeping, coiled pink muscle of eel.  My enemy, my threat.  Almost an embryo, mine, weirdly beautiful.

         Cancer: the threat of it began to hit home.  My mother had warned me long ago that there was cancer in the family on her side, including several deaths.  Cancer: the dread of the word.  Not some infection from outside, but my own body in rebellion, its cells in disorder, engendering a small lethal worm of a tumor that could kill me.  But while Bob worried, I stayed calm.

         Surgery was ordered, as soon as possible. Then, good reference librarian that he was, Bob at his library read up on colon cancer.  Another baffling word came up: metastasis, meaning the spread of cancer from its original site.  Survival rate of 
surgery before metastasis: 90 percent.  After metastasis:10.  

         I saw the surgeon, a man with a friendly, reassuring smile.  “A common surgery; I do two or three a week.  We’ve got lots more colon than we need; you can spare some, not to worry.  Unless, of course, the lymph nodes are involved.”  He scheduled it for May 3.

         Lymph nodes: what the hell were they?  From a college biology class I remembered something about a lymph system and its nodes, but not much.  And unlike Bob, I preferred to know no more.  But I learned plenty when the results of the biopsy came through: yes, malignancy, requiring immediate action; the date of the surgery was advanced to April 19.  Also, there was a lovely photograph in color showing me the bulbous, pink tumor nesting in my gut.  (No photo here of tumors in the gut.   Don't want to cause revulsion in my viewers.)

         Surgery would remove the tumor, but unless I did something, the cancer would return.  I consulted my friend Patrick, who advised me on vitamin supplements.  Then I consulted a holistic MD, who took one look at the photograph and said emphatically, “Get that thing out of you as soon as you can!”  He approved Patrick's suggestions and recommended two more: Quercetin and Coenzyme Q10, neither of which I had ever heard of.  These antioxidants would be my follow-up program after surgery.

          At noon on April 19 I checked into Beth Israel Hospital at First Avenue and 16th Street on the Lower East Side.  Soon I was in my room, donning a hospital monkey gown and awaiting the residents, the nurses, the anesthesiologist, and whomever else might have reason to see me.  My room was quiet, but when my roommate moved out, the hospital asked me to take another room nearby, so they could put two female patients in the room together.  Foolishly, I agreed, and found myself stuck with a roommate who day and night played his radio or TV loud, and resisted any reasonable plea to turn it down.  He was constantly on the phone, ordering his teenage son out of bed and off to school in the morning, or ordering a meal from a deli, or talking to his sister.  Doctors were in and out of his half of the room constantly, and I gathered that he had experienced

·      diabetes that had cost him an amputated foot
·      a recent heart attack
·      a mild stroke
·      other ailments

          In spite of which, he was ordering food from a deli!  A longtime resident, he knew the hospital staff, and the ways of coping with life in a hospital.  It was a relief when, early the next morning, they wheeled me off on a stretcher to the operating room.

         In the room adjoining the room of the actual operation, I chatted amiably with one of the staff, a motherly black woman of about forty who told me she was trying to stop smoking; I encouraged her and wished her well.  Then, nothing; the anesthesia had done its job.

         I woke up in recovery and was soon wheeled back to my room.  Still groggy from anesthesia, I was hooked up to an intravenous unit that was feeding me, and had a long scar and a string of stitches across my puffed-up abdomen.  When Bob finally saw me, he found me gaunt and weak, but plucky and resilient.  He had had a nightmare of trying to get through to me by phone, being switched to recovery and back to the information desk, then to intensive care and back again to info, with the suggestion that he try again later.  But once he saw me in my room, he could tell that the hospital staff were professional and efficient.  He brought a small plant with yellow blossoms to grace my bedside table.

         The next several days were memorable.  For early word of the surgery results, my surgeon had suggested that I query the hospital residents on their daily morning round, since one or more of them might have witnessed the surgery.  Sure enough, one had: a burly, deep-voiced man in his late 30s.  “A tumor as big as a golf ball.  Probably in there a good ten years.  But the liver looked fine.”  Not altogether reassuring, but later I would learn that his comment on the liver was encouraging, since that was where colon cancer usually spread next.  But all depended on forthcoming results of further tests.  I would be there several days, at the mercy of my roommate's radio.  But when I heard him snoring at night, I could ask a nurse to turn his radio off and enjoy a half night of sound sleep. 

         Hospital mores are unique unto themselves.  The key question asked of me by doctors and nurses alike was, “Have you passed gas?”  When I could finally, with a triumphant smile, say yes, a dozen people cheered.  But I couldn’t urinate.  Finally the sweetest little Asian nurse inserted a catheter into my penis, briefly causing me such discomfort that the mere thought of it makes me shudder to this day.  Finally, the golden fluid flowed.

         Visiting me, the hospital staff announced themselves by the way they entered.  On their daily morning calls the residents, a burly one and a thin one in the lead, had a bustle that was unmistakable; I recognized it before they were in the room.  Hearing them, I tensed, for I knew they would poke about my wound, causing pain; in anticipation, I learned to inhale and hold my breath until they had finished.  Once they showed up with two young women, presumably medical students also.  But when the women were out of earshot, the burly resident said to the thin one. “I just don’t know about them, I don’t think they’re for real.  When I saw my first operation, I knew at once that this was what I wanted to do: to cut.  How about you?  Were you watching it all up close?”  “No,” said the thin one, “I was always on the edge of the group, half asleep.”  The burly one did indeed strike me as a surgeon in the making: bold, blunt, forthright; I hoped he could be deft with his instruments as well.

         Everyone who came into that room wanted to jab something into me – a thermometer, a needle, whatever – or take something out.  There were only two exceptions: the nutritionist, with suggestions for easing back into a normal diet, and a social worker arranging for aftercare at home.  Both were young women, both were gentle.

          When Bob saw me again, he brought the blankets and ear plugs I had requested.  I had been shivering under thin sheets in a cool room, hence the blankets, and the ear plugs were my pitiful defense against my neighbor’s radio and mouthings.  Except for Bob, I wanted no phone calls or visitors for the next day or two, so I could get on with my healing.  The catheter had been removed, and next went the intravenous feeding; I could now enjoy the marvels of hospital food.  Soon I was walking up and down the corridors, eager to get home.

         On April 27 I was home and back into my normal diet, roughage and all.  “My patients can eat anything they want!” my surgeon had exclaimed, scornful of the dietician’s caution.  Result: cramps.  So I heeded her advice, eating mushy foods at first, and adding more substantial foods one at a time.  No more cramps; soon I was back to my normal diet.

         A visiting nurse came daily to change the dressing on my wound.  Each time it was a different nurse, but they all knew what to do.  The spots on the bandages grew steadily smaller, as the wound slowly closed.  One of the nurses told me something that has stayed with me to this day: even after a surgery wound has closed, the body continues healing within, though the patient is completely unaware of it.  I found this wonderfully reassuring.

         The wound closed; the surgeon’s job was done.  In a last session he explained my situation.  Of 25 lymph nodes removed with the tumor and examined, one had cancer.  Metastasis; they had operated just in time.  Cancer, he said, is like a fire in a house.  At first it is small, confined to one room; if, outside the room, you put your hand to the wall, you would feel no heat.  Then the fire spreads throughout the room; if you put your hand to the wall, you would for sure feel heat.  This is where I was.  Then the fire burns through the wall and spreads to the whole house: metastasis: only 10 percent survive.

         So what should I do?  Chemotherapy was recommended.  The surgeon  himself was neutral; some of his patients did chemo, some did not.  He suggested that I talk to the oncologist and hear what he had to say, then decide.  So I did.

File:Patient receives chemotherapy.jpg

         The oncologist was a friendly little mustached man; far from threatening, he looked like your favorite uncle.  In a soft voice he explained that, in my case, the chances of recurrence were 40 percent; chemo could reduce it to 20.  I would come once a week for several weeks and let them drip chemicals into my veins.  I said I would ponder the matter and let him  know.

File:Chemotherapy bottles NCI.jpg
This ... ?

File:Fruits and vegetables.jpg
... or this?

         Ponder I did not, for I had already made up my mind.  I was doing volunteer work for the Whole Foods Project, a small nonprofit advocating a nutritional approach to AIDS and cancer, and could take cooking lessons there and absorb a different, unorthodox approach to healing.  Would I rather lie passively and let them drip alien substances into me, or take an active role in my healing, learning to cook and eat vegan?  Chemo, like radiation, was the best that mainstream medicine could offer, but it involved unpleasant side effects, some of them horrendous, and would treat the symptom only, not the cause of the cancer.  For me, an easy choice: I went vegan.  When the oncologist phoned, I told him I would not do chemo.

         So I took cooking classes and learned to eat vegan: lots of fruits and veggies, lots of beans and whole grains, less salt, no sugar, no meat or dairy.  I discovered the wonders of barley pilaf, apple and sweet potato roast, sea vegetables, leeks, and millet and tempeh loaf -- all delicious.  It was easy, it was fun.  Then suddenly, one day, there were severe cramps in my abdomen.  Lying down didn’t help, nor did standing up and pacing in the apartment.  I was desperate; it was hell.  I phoned the surgeon, left a message.  Then, just as suddenly, the cramps stopped, stopped cold.  When my surgeon phoned and learned this, he was relieved.  His conclusion: my body was still adjusting to the surgery; no cause for alarm. 

         There would be cramps again, twice; both times they stopped as suddenly as they began.  After that, no more cramps.  I went out birdwatching again, and in June I marched with the Whole Foods Project in the annual Gay Pride Parade.  In the following years periodic colonoscopies revealed either nothing or a small polyp easily removed.  I had healed.

File:Gay Pride Parade New York City 2011 (5877221745).jpg
No, I'm not in this one.  But you get the idea.
Diana Beato

         My cancer story has a happy ending; many do not.  Lacking professional credentials, and knowing how people cling to their habits, I was not one to preach alternative procedures to others.  But on two occasions I did, for they involved close friends whose fate greatly concerned me.  Both listened, neither was persuaded.  They lived orthodox, and orthodox they died.  It hurt.

         I still have the report of my final diagnosis, and the color photographs of the tumor that tried to kill me.  The tumor: weirdly beautiful, I thought at the time.  Today, obscene.

Coming soon:  ???

©   2019   Clifford Browder

Sunday, March 10, 2019

399. The Magic of Trash: Finders Keepers, Ptolemy, and Voodoo


My latest:

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg

A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him For more about this and my other books, go here.  

Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books.  Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC."  For the whole review, click on US Review.

                   The Magic of Trash:
    Finders Keepers, Ptolemy, and Voodoo

         The streets and sidewalks of New York have tales to tell. One never knows what one may find there.  I don’t mean the big stuff like discarded furniture, but little stuff dropped by accident or thrown away as trash.  The Metropolitan section of the Times of February 24 of this year has an Album page with photos and  text by Sara Barrett.  Under the caption “Lost and Found” she lists lost items she has found on the pavements of the city, with photos that she began taking of them, framed as the items were by crosswalk stripes, cracked asphalt, and black dots of sidewalk gum.  The photos show a key, gloves, a small bag spilling out yellow sticks of French fries, a little toy truck, and one or two items that I can’t make out.  Each dropped item has a story, though one will never know it.   

         To round out her piece, Barrett adds an anecdote told her by a friend. One Thanksgiving the friend saw a man carrying out of Whole Foods a large tray with what looked like a family dinner: turkey, stuffing, cranberry dressing, mashed potatoes, cornbread, pie, the works.  Alas, he stumbled and it all went on the ground.  Food everywhere – what a photo it would have made!

         I too have my stories about dropped or lost items on pavement.  I’ll start with one that grieves me to this day.  I had done a freelance editing job for Johnson Reprint, an affiliate of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.  By way of extra thanks, the in-house editor wrapped up for me a replica of Ptolemy’s map of the world, a 2nd century BCE map based on the geographer Claudius Ptolemy's Geography (circa 150 BCE).  Used for centuries thereafter, the map was featured in the text I had edited, which was to appear in a limited edition, a costly collector's item accompanied by the replica.  I was thrilled to have the replica and planned to mount it on the wall of my apartment.  As I walked through midtown to the subway, I stopped to rearrange the several items I was burdened with, and in so doing left the Ptolemy map behind.  Only when I got home did I discover its loss, too late to retrieve it: gone!  Whoever found it found a rare item, and must have wondered how and why it had been left on a midtown street.  I hope they found a good use for it.

File:Ptolemy World Map.jpg
Ptolemy's map of the world, as reproduced in a European monastery in 1467.  Accurate for Europe and North Africa, 
hazy for the Far East.

         In that case I was the loser, but I have often been the finder.  In or next to an overflowing trash can on West 4thStreet in the Village I once found a law student’s class notes, now discarded perhaps in celebration of getting his degree and moving on.  The notes meant nothing to me, but they were bound in binders that I could indeed use, so I tossed the notes and trotted off with the binders.

         A few years ago, on the day following the annual Gay Pride Parade in June, I found a discarded little rainbow flag attached to a splintered stick.  I grabbed it, repaired the splintered stick with tape, and display the flag annually every June.

File:Rainbow - DC Gay Pride Parade 2012 (7171189629).jpg
Tim Evanson

         Once a lost item delivered itself to me.  One windy afternoon I saw a large black umbrella come flying through the air.  It drifted up, then down, and finally bounced and skittered along over the pavement.  I quickly grabbed it, and discovered it was missing its U-shaped handle, but was otherwise intact and usable.  I waited for a few minutes, expecting to see its owner, holding the handle, come dashing after it, but no one appeared.  Finders keepers.  So I took my trouvaille home, and it served me well for years.

         For decades I have been the guy who finds pens, especially push-point pens.  I have found them on sidewalks in the city, in parks, along highways, and even on wilderness trails.  Half of them worked, half didn’t.  Thanks to those that did, I’ve rarely needed to buy new pens.

         Another item I keep an eye out for on the streets is feathers; I need them for my hats, especially my Aussie outback hats, of which only one now survives.   When new, these hats have a smart look with one brim pinned back to the crown; adding a feather gives them a nice jaunty touch.  Back in my hiking days I found bright yellow flicker feathers, probably the result of a hawk’s kill.  But those days and hikes are over, so I have to settle for pigeon feathers, which are only dull gray or a mix of white and gray.  How I yearn for color!

File:Feather on Grass.jpg
A pigeon's feather.  Not much color here.
Prosthetic Head

File:Yellow feather.jpg
Flicker feathers.  See why I prefer them to pigeon feathers?

         Another find: a panel of blonde wood, about 9 by 16 inches, that was leaning against a trash can on Seventh Avenue.  On an impulse I picked it up, admired its finish, and discovered why it had been discarded: a thin crack.  But the crack blended in nicely with the grain and was hardly noticeable, so I took it.  Today it sits in my downtown-facing bedroom window, with a Christmas cactus on it, though I hope to move the cactus elsewhere, so I can admire the panel itself.  I love woody things.

         The oddest find I ever had was not on the street but inside.  Going up the monumental stairs inside the front entrance of the public library building at Fifth Avenue and 42ndStreet, I found there on the steps what looked like a pair of men’s briefs.  Dumbfounded, I paused and looked again.  Yes, men’s briefs.  Why and how they got there, I will never know.  I went on up the stairs, wondering, and wonder to this day.

         If I included parks and gardens, I could add two items that litter such spaces throughout the country: orange peels and used condoms.  Such deposits cause foreign visitors to assume that Americans make lots of love and eat an inordinate amount of oranges.  But to these two items I would add a third: plastic spoons.  

File:Orange peels-02.jpg
Everywhere.  As for the other, you know what they look like.

And whenever, in the past, I hiked a trail that for a little while went alongside a highway, as I once did in Pelham Bay Park, the ground along that highway was littered with items thrown from cars: plastic cups and spoons, cigarette butts, empty matchbooks, crumpled tissues, newspapers and magazines, broken combs – whatever.  Motorists blithely toss things out the window and think they’ve disposed of them, which for themselves they have; but their trash hasn’t disappeared, it’s there for someone else to pick up – or not pick up.  Let’s face it, Americans are pigs.  We think a yard or garden is an ashtray, and a park a trash dump.  And we could do so much better.

File:"Viewing" Site for Visitors at Portland Airport - And the View They Leave behind Them 05-1973 (4272364454).jpg
Portland Airport
U.S. National Archives

File:Missione del Guaricano-discarica di Duquesa.jpg
It's bad in the U.S., but it could be worse.
This is in the Dominican Republic.

         And that’s not all.  Hiking on a trail on Staten Island, just past Moses’ Folly – the looming, unfinished overpasses of a Robert Moses throughway that Staten Islanders succeeded in stopping – I used to go down a steep descent to a streambed, and then up again to another stretch of canceled highway.  At the bottom, near the stream, loomed four or five strange shapes combining rusty metal, glass, and verdant overgrowth: abandoned automobiles that people had dumped there and left, and which nature had slowly covered with growth.  Well hidden, these relics at least were not eyesores; in fact, they had a certain weird beauty, a touch of surrealism.

File:1942 Chevrolet Army Truck (15381347214).jpg
GPS 56

         Getting back to the city’s streets and sidewalks, I will note that some items are strictly seasonal.  In winter, gloves., usually just one.  In spring, the shed white petals of the Callery pear tree (Pyrus calleryana), an import from China now planted as a shade tree.  The second most common shade tree in the city, every April it explodes into masses of white blossoms.  Everyone sees the blossoms, but apart from a few botanists, I’m the only one who knows the name of the tree, a source of great petty delight to me every spring.  But it’s best not to sniff the blossoms, since they smell of rotting fish and semen.   Whew!  And who or what is “Callery”?  No idea.

File:Callery pear pyrus calleryana tree blossoms.jpg
Lovely to look at; don't sniff.

         In summer, tiny wildflowers poke up through cracks in the sidewalks.  Not lost or dropped items, to be sure, but since I’m the only one to notice them and even seek them out, I include them anyway, so I can enjoy another great petty delight.  

         Similarly, in the fall the bright golden yellow of seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervorens) pokes out on the sides of numerous Hudson River piers, whose renovated parklike surfaces rest upon the rotten wood of the original piers. Cracks and crevices in those old piers hold the tiny pockets of soil that nourish the plants.  Looking down from the railing lining the edge of the piers, I rarely fail to see the goldenrod’s clublike spikes of flowers and thick, fleshy green leaves – the last goldenrod of the season to bloom.

File:Solidago sempervirens L. (ASTERACEAE), Flor de Cubres.jpg

                  Every autumn, along the streets of the West Village, one sees the fan-shaped, bifurcated leaves of the gingko tree (Gingko biloba) turn yellow and fall to the ground.

File:Ginkgo biloba 010.JPG
Being unique in shape, the leaves are easy to recognize.
H. Zell
Another import from China and the only surviving species of its family (it dates back some 270 million years), it does well in urban environments and is planted widely as a shade tree.  In the fall it litters the ground with its nutlike seeds, but few passersby even notice, unless they squash one on the pavement.  

File:Ginkgo biloba seeds-002.jpg
Gingko fruit.  But to get at the seeds is work; 
you have to crack the nut open.

But in Pelham Bay Park I have seen older Chinese women plucking the fruit up from the grass.  Why?  Because the seeds are used in traditional Chinese cooking, and in Chinese medicine as well – a medicinal use that Wikipedia insists is not justified by controlled studies.  Also, extracts from the leaves are sold as dietary supplements beneficial for cognitive function, but here too Wikipedia finds no supporting scientific evidence.  Wikipedia, it should be noted, is notoriously hostile to alternative medicine, and should not be taken as the final word in such matters.  The controversial nutritionist Gary Null endorses such uses of gingko, and rails against the prejudices of Wikipedia.  Personally, if I were afflicted with memory loss and lack of attention, I’d give gingko a try, preferably under the guidance of an experienced professional.  The seeds have also been used as aphrodisiacs, but then, what hasn’t? (Examples: chili peppers, avocado, bananas, chocolate, honey, watermelon, olive oil, figs, artichoke, cherries, pumpkin seeds, carrots, and oh yes, that much vaunted myth of my teen years, Spanish fly.)

         The weirdest of my finds occurred years ago in Van Cortlandt Park, when in an open area I came upon a burnt site sprinkled with chicken feathers.  A burnt site by itself is not unusual, for families often picnic in the parks.  But why the feathers?  Then it hit me: voodoo.  I know little about voodoo, but it is practiced here among the Haitians.  Farfetched, you say?  So I thought, at first, but upon reflection I was sure. There was something about that site that suggested it, something weird.  Voodoo ceremonies often involve fire and the sacrifice of animals -- in this case, chickens.  So back then voodoo was being practiced in Van Cortlandt Park, and may still be practiced there today.

.File:Voodoo Experience 2009 (31 of 37).jpg
Voodoo celebration in New Orleans, 2009.  
But nothing like this, surely, in Van Cortlandt Park.
Joe Van

Coming soon:  ???

©  2019  Clifford Browder