Our Cancer Scare

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 5.30.26 PMA couple of years ago, my wife, a wonderful woman to whom I have had the good fortune to have been married for twenty years, hung up the telephone, walked slowly into the room where I was drawing, and in a halting, emotionally-charged voice I did not even recognize at first, announced to me that she “had stage three colon cancer and it had already spread to her lymph nodes”. She would have to have surgery immediately and undergo a debilitating six-month round of chemotherapy. They did not know if it had progressed beyond her lymph nodes.

We had just settled into our new home from another state and it was a shock which neither one of us expected and one for which we were quite unprepared. She had the operation, the chemotherapy, the CT-scans every six months, and the scary consultations with her oncologist to look at the scans and discuss the medical findings. The last time she had a CT-scan she passed out from an allergic reaction to the dye, but they told her things looked good, they didn’t see anything “abnormal” and to come back again in six months and be re-tested. This was a tremendous relief not just to her, but to me, as well, as the idea of my life without her in it seemed incomprehensible.

A few months ago, we lost a friend of many years to Kidney Cancer. He went to the doctor complaining of a pain in his back and a few months later the “mountain of a man” was gone. Before he knew it, it had spread to his bones and to his lungs and we all watched helplessly as he wasted away before our very eyes and then one day a wife had no husband and three young adults lost their father.

Recently, a friend of mine, a well-known New York artist in his early 40’s, was released from the hospital to return home to his wife and young son after nearly nine months of treatment for a very aggressive form of Acute Leukemia. The Medical Establishment had done all they could for him. He had received many rounds of chemotherapy and eventually been cleared for a bone marrow transplant only to have the cancer return with a vengeance after they had found a donor match. More chemotherapy and more waiting and testing. Not long ago, his doctors regretted to inform him that, at most, he had only a few weeks to live, maybe only a few days. My friend, a very talented and accomplished photographer, but not really a cartoonist– or comic book artist– used his time in the hospital to do a series of drawings of superhero characters for his young son. Using what little strength he had left, he managed to draw everyone from Daredevil to Batman to Chewbacca the Wookie. It would have been his gift to his son. Pictures on pieces of paper, all signed “Love, Daddy”. A poor substitute for a father’s love, but something that his son would treasure always, and would no doubt, show to his own children when he grew up and told them about their grandfather who they never knew.

The whole thing with my wife and my friends got me to thinking about my own life, my own mortality and my own relationship with my family, my friends, myself and my art. I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to pursue my artistic muse for the better part of what for many is more than one lifetime. I have been lucky enough to have fallen in love with and married the person of my choice and to have lived life with her now for nearly a quarter of a century. I have had the pleasure of being an eye witness as our two children reached each milestone along the road of their young lives and have watched with pride and great joy as they grew up into fine young men and went away to college. I have had much success in work and great happiness in life. And I am very grateful for that.

But there was a time not too many years ago when following my annual check-up, and a routine laboratory examination of my blood, I was told by my doctor that my PSA levels were “elevated”. He referred me to a urologist who would perform a biopsy on my prostate.

For the initial consultation, I entered the urologist’s waiting room to discover a roomful of men approximately my age and most of whom sported grey goatees and wore glasses like mine. It was uncanny. It was as if someone was playing some kind of sick joke on me. One or two of them looked up at me when I came in. I started looking around for Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone. My fourteen twins all sat there nervously waiting to be called in for a consultation. Eventually my turn came, I met with the urologist who told me if I did indeed have cancer it was probably treatable, and suggested I schedule a biopsy, which I did.  He reassured me, though, that it was “early-stage” cancer and that it was treatable and in all probability they had caught it in time. This was reassuring, to say the east, because I had a young wife and two young children and still had not even written and drawn my own graphic novel. Life is unfair, but is it really THAT unfair? Apparently the answer is yes. Getting a biopsy on my prostate gland, an organ about the size of an orange which sits way up in your abdomen where the sun don’t shine and is not exactly easy to get to, didn’t sound like much fun, but I supposed it was better than a slow and painful death from cancer. As I left his office, most of my look-alikes were still sitting there waiting to be called. Perhaps a few more who reminded me of myself had come in and sat down and began reading magazines they were not the least bit interested in. As I closed the door behind me to leave I hoped that they would all get the same “good news” that I had.

So on the appointed day, I presented my prostate for examination by the doctor and his female assistant.

I didn’t mind too much the doctor being there, I understood he was just doing his job, but it was embarrassing having to take my clothes off in front of a woman.

The doctor explained that they would be taking a series of twenty-eight tiny snippets from all around my prostate gland and I would hear a clicking sound each time he took a sample. He went on to reassure me that it wouldn’t hurt because there were no pain receptors “in there”.

FINALLY some good news.

I lay there on my stomach and wondered what the Hell they could be doing back there that was taking so long. I thought perhaps they were taking selfies with my butt. I tried to think of something else other that that clicking sound every ten seconds or so. I tried to imagine I was on the deck of a four-masted schooner rounding Cape Horn and the icy salt spray was hitting me in the face…..that was sort of nice. “KLIK!!” I was rocketed back to reality…..seconds ticked away and I imagined myself standing on the wings of a bi-plane piloted by Hulk artist, Herb Trimpe as he buzzed over my old boss, Danny Crespi’s house in Armonk, New York. Herb flew low over the house and I could see Danny standing in the back yard waving his arms and looking a bit like Martin Balsam, when “KLIK” number 14 spoiled the illusion.

“How many is that….?”, the urologist wanted to know. “I don’t know”, I said. “What–?, he demanded. “You haven’t been counting–? We’ll have to start all OVER again!!”

A week passed. The urologist called me. I think I was drawing a picture of The Crypt Keeper at the time my wife brought me the phone. I put down my pencil and said, “Hello….?”

I was actually shocked when I received the diagnosis of prostrate cancer. It was a surprise to me because my body has always been my friend, it had served me well, and if, I now had cancer as the doctor was telling me over the phone, I certainly wasn’t feeling any ill-effects from it. I was sure there must have been some mistake, a clerical error perhaps, he must have me confused with someone else–perhaps one of my twins in his waiting room.

But I could tell by the no-nonsense tone of his voice that it was, as the commercials on TV say about the Shingles virus, the cancer was “already inside me….”

We arranged a consultation at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York with Dr. David Semadi, a native of Iran and one of the leading surgeons in the field. He had done hundreds of these operations, and, in fact, had been a pioneer in robotic laporoscopic surgery. He sat at a control panel and looked at a computer screen as tiny little pincers went in like little metal lobsters and snipped away at my 40% cancerous prostate gland and pulled it out in little pieces through some holes that he had punched in my abdomen. It was sort of like being a drone pilot or playing a video game and I was a ticking time bomb that he was defusing.

This story has a happy ending.

My friend with the leukemia went home cancer-free to his family last week. His recovery was a miracle in every sense of the word. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

My wife is fine and cancer-free.

Me…? I’m fine. It’s like it never happened. I don’t even remember it, it seems so long ago. And I was so afraid I might die, I did finish drawing that graphic novel in 2008.

So take good care of yourself. Go to the doctor regularly, get checked out. Early detection saves lives. Pet the dog, kiss your wife and kids, be nice to everyone you meet, laugh and love and help others–believe in yourself–think positive–work hard to make your dreams come true. Medical Science can do wonders. Live each day like it’s your last. Even if it isn’t.

But nobody lives forever. And forever is too long, anyway. One lifetime should be enough for anyone. And everyone deserves to live one lifetime.

Let’s all make ours count.

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