Vacation is over

Note: In my last blog post I promised to talk about things I’ve been doing during my June respite from medical appointments. I hope to get to that in my next post, but first I want to talk about some things that are on my mind as my one-year anniversary of diagnosis approaches.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned how I was about to go on a vacation for the month of June. The vacation I spoke of was not some glamorous adventure or trip to some far-flung destination. Rather, it was a vacation from medical appointments for the entire month of June. For the first time since my diagnosis of stage IV melanoma almost a year ago, I did not have a single medical appointment for an entire calendar month. I thought that was something to celebrate.

Also worth celebrating, I think, is my upcoming one-year anniversary of my stage IV diagnosis. There are many dates that I could mark as my anniversary. I could mark the date years ago when I first noticed a strange looking mole on my elbow and said to myself “I should probably get that looked at.” I could mark the date many years later when I finally did get it looked at (after it ulcerated) and the lab report came back as stage IIb. I could also mark the date when I noticed strange lumps near the original WLE incision and in my armpit, or the date when I went back to my original surgical oncologist and he did a needle biopsy in his office of the lump in my armpit and we all knew then that the black jelly-like substance he was drawing out was more melanoma.

No, the date I’m going to mark is the day Lynn and I got the phone call from the surgical oncologist giving us the radiologist’s report from my brain MRI and chest/abdomen/pelvis CT scan. It seemed like we waited by the phone all day and it was almost 7 o’clock on a Friday evening when we got the call. I can imagine that the doctor was dreading giving us the news as much as we were dreading getting it. As, I said we knew in the office that the melanoma had spread to the lymph nodes, so I was at least stage III. We were hoping against hope that that’s all it was, but we weren’t so lucky. The scans showed masses or lesions or whatever you want to call them in my lung, liver and in my brain. I felt like I got a giant kick in the gut. We thanked the doctor for working late and calling (it would have been hell to have to wait the whole weekend to get the results). We then waited for it all to sink in.

I won’t speak for Lynn, but I kind of shut down. I spent about three weeks in a zombie-like state, feeling like I was a dead man walking. We still had a lot of work to do, appointments to set up with various oncologists and cancer centers, and decisions to be made about where and what kind of treatment plan we were going to pursue, but outside of that, daily life became like living in a bad dream. I remember walking into Walmart and I saw the people there and I thought to myself, “these are the living, these people get to live and to do and to make plans for the future. I’m not a part of that world any more.” I was in a pretty dark place.

What they (the health care professionals we sought opinions from during this period) told us was that, once we decided on a treatment plan, and started on it, things would become more normal again, as we would begin to feel that we had more control over the situation. Frankly, I thought at the time, that they were full of shit, but it turns out they were mostly right. I did begin to feel like I had some control and the doctors we spoke with were encouraging, telling us that there multiple treatments we could try and that if one didn’t work, we could try others. And, gradually, things did go back to normal.

Normal. Normal is a double-edged sword. While on the one hand, I mentally joined the living again and was able to get back to my daily routine with work and life sandwiched in between scans and treatments and doctor visits; on the other hand, what’s normal about having cancer?

After I rejoined the living, I promised myself that this would be a wake-up call. That I wouldn’t continue to take life for granted, and especially, I wouldn’t take the people in my life for granted. I would be a better version of my old self. So what happened? At first I made some half-hearted attempts to improve. I reached out to family members and reconnected with my church. And I tried, in the words of Warren Zevon, to “enjoy every sandwich.”

But then, gravity, or whatever invisible force that pulls us back to our old ways and old habits set in. I slowly found myself becoming the same Walmart shopper I was before diagnosis. There’s no real excuse for it, I know better. I know now that there’s no kidding myself. Even if I’ve beaten this melanoma thing, every day is more precious than ever and to waste a single one is a crime against my own healing. Why should I get extra months or years if I’m just going to piss them away like I did almost all of the previous months and days?

And I don’t have an answer for that. I’m not special. I’m just lucky and I apologize to the Universe and to all the people in my life for not embracing the gift of life that I have been given. I will continue strive to improve, to be that better version of myself that I promised myself to be a year ago. I don’t want to go back to Zombie-land.

So, I guess my vacation was also a two-edged sword. While it was nice to not have doctors’ appointments and to pretend that I am basically a healthy person, maybe I needed the presence of hospitals, and doctors, and expensive machinery to remind myself that I am on a journey, a journey of healing and also a journey of growth and reconnection. There’s no vacation from that.

I have a couple of doctor’s appointments this month, one with my urologist, which I’ve had. The report on that front is that nothing in that department needs treatment urgently and I should only see him for annual checkups. The other appointment is a regular, quarterly visit with my endocrinologist to check on the state of my diabetes management and to check my thyroid levels. Nothing major there. Next month, I get scans again to see how my old friend melanoma is doing. It’s too early to get worried about that yet, but I’m sure that I’ll get scanxiety as the date gets closer.

In the meantime, I plan to enjoy every sandwich in whatever form those real and figurative sandwiches take.

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