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

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