“Paul, the biopsy of the lymph node that was removed from your neck shows us that you have Hodgkin’s disease, and it’s malignant so we’ll have to perform some more tests on you.”
Bam! It was just that simple to him. My fingers were laced together and I was holding them in front of my nose while I listened to Dr. Kahn explain what we’d have to do next. I should correct that statement; I wasn’t listening to him, I was hearing him speak at this point. My parents were sitting on either side of me and I didn’t look over to see their reaction, but I noticed that Dad started writing stuff down in his notebook that he always kept with him. I was stunned. The term “malignant” stood out in my mind. I blinked a couple of times and refocused on Dr. Kahn.
“…have to see if the disease has spread, and we do this by performing a bone marrow aspiration.”
“When will he have that test, doctor,” my dad asked.
“We’ll have to do that here, and we can do it now.”
I was nineteen years old. Doesn’t malignant mean death? Usually? As I always do whenever I hear major news I showed absolutely no reaction. Poker would be something that I'd excell at with that kind of face.
“We’ll give you a shot of valium to calm your nerves before we begin the procedure. It’s not the most comfortable procedure but it’s pretty common.”
“What do you have to do?” I asked, finally getting my head into the conversation.
“We insert a needle into your hip bones, each side, and aspirate, or remove, some of the bone marrow to see if the disease has spread to your skeletal system.”
I just took a deep breath. Nineteen years old and I had cancer. Shit! Fuckin’ cancer!
“We’ve identified an abnormal growth in your abdomen that leads us to believe…” Who the fuck’s “us”? “that disease has spread into your torso, which is why we want to perform the aspiration. Once we determine how far the disease has spread we’ll know exactly how to fight it.”
“How do we fight it,” finally I spoke.
“Well, at stage one, which would have been your neck only, we would have treated you with radiation in order to combat the cancer cells. But the growth in your abdomen tells us that it’s spread and we can’t radiate your entire body, so we’ll have to treat it with chemotherapy.”
Great. So now my fuckin’ hair will fall out. I weighed about 125, wet, and was (well, I still am) five feet eleven inches tall. You do the math. I looked like a bean pole Hell, the only think I liked about myself, physically, was my hair. I’m gay so what do you expect. My dad’s mom and my mom’s dad both had very wavy and thick hair and I had inherited that gene. From somewhere in my d.n.a. structure I also had the metabolism of a diesel train. I ate a lot and constantly, yet still remained skinny.
“Okay,” I said.
“We’ll have to establish a sperm bank for you because there’s a possibility that the chemotherapy will make you sterile.”
“Damn,” I said. “That doesn’t really matter, doc, I ain’t gonna have any kids any way.”
“Well, you’re young, Paul, you never can tell these things now.”
“Yeah I can. I’m gay,” I laughed. Yes, I actually laughed a bit. I always have this absurd tendency towards inappropriate humor.
“Ah,” Dr. Kahn said with a single nod. “Well, unless you all have any questions, Paul we can go ahead and get this first test out of the way.”
My parents and I stood up. Dr. Kahn followed us out of his office as a nurse escorted me to a small procedure room.
One nurse was a youngish black woman, probably in her thirties, and the other one was a bit older, white, and in her forties.
“Here ya go, hon, put this gown on and remove your shorts and shirt,” the black nurse, Shirley, said to me.
I was still weirded out. Malignant. But I’m only nineteen!
I got changed and Shirley came back in to give me my shot of valium. I don’t remember it calming me down at all. Fuckin’ valium. How do people get hooked on that? I must have been too anxious from the idea of having cancer. Fuck! Why me? I didn’t really have any time to emote the whole situation. About fifteen minutes later Dr. Kahn came in followed by the older nurse.
“Paul, if you’ll just lay on your side.”
I lay over on my right side and pulled my knees into the fetal position, at their request.
“You’ll feel a prick as the zylocane goes into your hip.”
Great. Fuckin’ play by play, I thought.
“Is there any particular reason you don’t put me out completely?” I asked.
“It’s a very quick procedure and frankly, we just normally perform it while the patient’s awake. Here we go…”
Ever have a needle stuck into the skin at your hips, just below your back? Me neither. Not fun. I squeezed my eyes shut and counted in my head until the pain went away.
“Now another shot…”
I held my hand out and Shirley took it. Thank God for Shirley, I thought. I felt the doctor pressing around the skin on my hips.
“Can you feel that?”
“Just pressure,” I said.
“Okay, you’ll feel a bit of a pinprick. Once we get inside the bone cavity we have to turn the needle in order to aspirate the bone marrow.”
“Just do it,” I said curtly.
The next thing I knew I felt so much discomfort that I almost went through the wall! I felt him pushing the needle or whatever it was into my hip bones. Fuckin’ fuck! That hurt!
“Pinprick! Feels like a friggin’ spike!” I said.
“Just hang in there, Paul, I’ll be in and out before you know it.”
Oh, Christ on a bike, this hurt. I could feel every move he was making. No it wasn’t extremely painful but shit…I can’t explain it. It was the most uncomfortable feeling I’d ever experienced. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst friggin’ enemy.
Then he turned the needle. I squeezed Shirley’s hand really hard. Too hard. She howled out a little bit and I let up. “Sorry,” I said through clenched teeth.
“One down,” the doctor said.
“Damn, give me a minute doc.” I can’t believe I had to go through that twice! After a few minutes Dr. Kahn returned to torture me some more. He started working on the second hip and DAMN! The hand that wasn’t holding Shirley’s drove forward, punching the wall. Finally after what seemed an eternity Dr. Kahn finished the procedure. Slowly I sat up and put my shorts back on. We were to hear from the doctor in a few days with the lab results.
I think the valium finally started to work on me because I was feeling a little loopy and had a lump in my throat.
My God. Cancer.
The three of us got into the car and Dad drove us home. The whole way Mom was babbling about her nonsense, I’m sure trying to be strong for my sake. I just stared out the window as I teetered on the edge of the great chasm we know as sanity. Or depression. Fuck, I don’t know. I watched cars and buildings go by but I really didn’t pay any attention. I had always sympathized whenever I heard of people getting cancer. Now I was one of those people.
All the way home I stared out the car window and breathed shallowly. I tuned my parents out, almost completely.
When we got home my mom tried to explain what cancer was and how it was basically cells that multiply at a greater rate than homeostasis…whatever. I just nodded, my mind still not quite totally a part of the whole process.
“I need to call Glen,” I said simply. I think my parents were hurt that I wouldn’t talk to them but I needed to talk to Glen. I picked up the phone and dialed his number. Thankfully he was at home and answered.
“Hey man, it’s me.”
“Hey, what’s goin’ on?” he asked.
“Um. Can you come over here and get me? I can’t drive and uhh...I need to talk.” I needed to keep the conversation short because I could feel that twinge in your throat that says that you're about to lose it.
“I’m on my way.” He hung up. It was as simple as that. All I had to do was to call him and ask for him; I knew he’d be there for me. This was back in ’89 before the mass production of cell phones, so if he wasn’t at home or at work, I’d’a had no way of getting in touch with him. Thank God he was at home. I really needed to talk to him. It couldn't be anyone else.
Glen and I had become really close in the months between my break up with Alan and the trip up to the cabin. Don and I'd had our ups and downs, sure. Alan and I had our ins and outs (heh heh). But I think that my friendship with Glen was different because I'd never had a crush on him; we were just great friends. He'd turn to me when things were shitty with Theresa, which was often. Over time he'd even come to trust me more than anybody else that was in his life, including her; this he told me himself. I had no grand illusions, though, of having anything more than a friendship with him, and that helped to keep things uncomplicated.
Glen pulled up to my house in his Prelude. That damn car was seven years old but he loved it. I think there’s an unspoken rule that if you drive a Honda you must either drive it A: like a complete moron, or B: a speed demon. Glen drove like a speed demon.
I walked up to his car, opened the door and sat down. It always had a certain smell that I associate with Glen. Not bad, almost like a constant new car.
“Just drive,” I said.
“So what’s goin’ on,” he said.
“I have cancer and it’s malignant.” It was then that the floodgates opened. I don’t know if the valium had finally taken it’s toll on me after all that time. I put my face in my hands and just started crying. “Fuckin’ cancer. Christ almighty,” I moaned.
“Whoa,” he said somberly.
“My God, I can’t believe it. I’m nineteen fuckin’ years old and I have cancer.”
“What kind is it?” he asked. I could tell by his voice that he was stunned but trying to keep it together for me. That's the kind of friend he is. He can party with the best of them one minute and sober up if you need him the next.
“Hodgkin’s disease. It’s a cancer of the lymph system.”
“That’s what they found in you neck?”
“Yeah,” I said sniffing.
“But you know, I always wanted a new hairstyle.” At that I just burst out laughing. Sounds crazy I know, and I was feeling like a mental patient.
“What do you mean?”
“I have to have chemo, and my hair will more than likely fall out.”
Glen let out a kind of snort then said, “Holy shit.”
I started crying again. I had absolutely no control over my emotions and was a complete basket case.
“Oh my God,” I moaned. “You know just when I thought everything was going so well and right in my life, and now this! Fuck!” I laughed again. “Dude, I feel like such a basket case inside.”
“So what happened at the doctor’s office?” he asked.
“They had to take bone marrow out of my hips because they wanted to see if the disease had spread into my skeletal system, or whatever. It hurt like a mother fucker.”
We sat there not speaking for a while and he just drove. I don’t even know where we drove to. I’d been living there for much of my life, eight years, and Glen just drove and drove. I was actually lost. It must’ve been the emotions. I know we talked some more but it’s all a blur now. I alternated from laughing to crying. What a great friend he was. Is.
“So what’s the next step. What do they do now?”
“Well once we find out how far the cancer has spread we’ll be able to treat it more accurately. He said that I’ll have to start a sperm bank since more than likely the chemo will make me sterile.”
“Man!” he whispered.
“Yup,” I replied. “Of course we both know that doesn’t matter.” Glen knew I was gay and he laughed at that.
“I’m sorry, man, I don’t mean to laugh.”
I looked over at him for a second then I started laughing. Again. He laughed again. Then I burst out laughing as well. The situation was crazy and I think that we both needed some comic relief. He was laughing so hard that he had to pull over and stop the car so we wouldn’t wreck.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, through tears of laughter.
“Dude, I understand. It was kinda funny.”
“No. I’m sorry that this is happening to you. I really am.”
I looked ahead out the windshield. So much had happened to me; so many changes in only a few years that I wasn’t necessarily thrilled about. Maybe I could take this as a fresh start to life, a new beginning. Maybe this was one of those challenges that we face in life that’s supposed to be life changing. Then and there I decided that I’d tackle this situation head on. I couldn’t become a slave to raging sad emotions. No matter who was there for me for support, I had to be the one to personally deal with the tests, the results, the treatment…everything. I’d have to be strong. For myself. I resolved that this wasn’t going to kill me, physically or emotionally. How's the saying? That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
“Well are y’all gonna get a second opinion?” Glen asked.
I hadn’t even thought about that. “Huh. I guess so. I’m sure it was brought up this afternoon but I’ve been a bit out of it,” I smiled.
I let out a long sigh. “Well man, I guess I’m ready to go back home.”
“Okay,” he said, and we headed back towards my house, talking about everyday normal stuff. I was lucky to have him for a friend. We finally pulled up to my house and I started to get out of the car.
“Thanks again man,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”
“No problem,” he smiled back, “let me know if you need anything.”
“I will. See ya later.”
I headed into the house with a better attitude about the whole situation. Sure, I might lose my hair but it would grow back. I was young and knew I still had plenty of life left in me. I couldn’t let something like this get me down, and keep me down.