“What’s that black circle?” I asked the technician while looking at the ghostly images on the screen. The contrast between the ethereal wisps and the circle was striking. “I don’t know”, he said, but I did.
I had been having pains in my groin and had visited two or three doctors who poked, prodded and violated me to no avail. The fourth doctor said, “Have you ever had a sonogram?” That’s when he sent me to the technician.
About half an hour after I returned home from the test, my doctor called. “We found something in your left testicle and I’ve booked you in for surgery. I would like you to come to the hospital tomorrow for tests and the surgery will be the following day. Any questions?” What questions do you ask at a time like this? Will I die? How long do I have to live?
I said, “Will I still be able to make love?”
Will I still be able to have children?”
I didn’t believe him.
The next evening after all the tests, I was woken up around 10 p.m. and told that I had to go back downstairs for another X-ray. When asked why, someone said that they had found a mark on my lung and wanted another look. They took the X-ray and I asked for the results but all I got was, “The doctor will tell you tomorrow.”
It was now 11.30 at night and no doctor was around. I panicked and thought that the cancer had metastasized and I was going to die. I became maudlin. Thinking that I would never see my four-year old son grow up I started to cry. I got so low that I begged the nurse for a sleeping pill, which mercifully kicked in early.
The next morning, while being wheeled into surgery I asked my doctor about the X-ray. “It was nothing, just a mark on your lung.” I could have killed him but by then the anesthetic was taking effect. The operation was painless. Recovery was swift but then I had to visit the oncologist. He told me that the mass was malignant but encapsulated, (apparently this is good) and suggested a course of radiation lasting 3 weeks, 15 sessions in all.
The first session was memorable. While watching TV in the waiting room, I saw the lift-off and destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger. All seven crewmembers died. So in a state of shock, I entered the radiation department. All dignity disappears when you enter the medical system. I was laid down on a morgue-like slab and the radiologist, after choosing a section of my midriff, marked me up like a side of beef. I was then moved under this giant machine - it looked like an oversized Kitchenaid mixer without the accessories. The technician focused the machine on the outline of the magic marker and then, as a final indignity, shoved what I can only describe as a leaden cowbell over my lonely remaining testicle. “Don’t move,” he said and I heard a sharp buzzing. A few minutes later I was released and allowed to leave. The next morning I repeated this. Initially, oddly enough, the most bothersome part of this procedure was the magic marker. The outline was demeaning and upset me terribly. I complained and they offered me an alternative, tattoos at the corners of the polygon. I settled for that and I still have them today.
As the days passed I started to get nauseous; I also started to notice the other patients. I saw children with no hair, people so skeletal that I knew that they were not long for this world, and a mix of sullen and stoic people dealing with their illness. Although the staff was wonderful and compassionate, it was not a cheery place. My nausea was worsening because the radiation was destroying the intestinal barrier in my stomach lining and the pills to reduce symptoms didn’t work. Everything tasted bad; my stomach was constantly upset. I spent too much time in the toilet. I asked my oncologist about this and he said it was a side effect of the treatment and would soon pass. I didn’t believe him. He then filled out a 5-part prescription form, which he signed then had someone else countersign it.
“Take this down to the hospital pharmacy.” he said.
I did as I was told and when the pharmacist saw it, he too had someone countersign it. He went in the back and came out with a supersized pillbox and handed it to me. Bewildered by all this fuss, I opened the container and started to laugh. Inside were 20 perfectly rolled joints.
The pot did alleviate the nausea but it also made me even more depressed. What had started out as ennui, slowly developed into melancholia then depression. Nothing gave me joy. Each day was like the previous one, no hope, only despair. Intellectually I knew this was because of the radiation but as a person with a generally positive outlook, this feeling was alien to me. As I sunk deeper and deeper into despondency I had to muster what resources I had to not fall off the looming precipice. These symptoms occurred towards the end of my treatment and on the last day, when it was finally over, I felt flat. No happiness, no sadness, no relief, nothing.
I did learn something good from this experience. Up until then, I hadn’t taken depression seriously but having tasted it I now knew how real it could be.
About a week later, the symptoms of nausea and depression started to wane and I decided to re-enter the world of the living. I called up a friend and on a glorious, early spring day, we drove out to Reading Pennsylvania to visit a customer. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and I was alive.