Facing February: Or Reacting to Randomness


This February marks two critical milestones in my life.  You see it was about a year ago this month that I visited a surgeon to see if the benign tumor in my chest could be removed.  As many of you know, in  the fall of 2013 I was told I had cancer and then that  the tumor was not cancer at all, and so in February 2014 I met with a surgeon to see what it would take to remove this bizarre growth inside of me.  Devastatingly, and much  to my surprise, he assured me that, numerous doctors’ opinions notwithstanding, I had cancer—maybe lymphoma, maybe lung cancer, but surely cancer.  We scheduled a procedure that would definitively prove the surgeon’s point, and, as many of you know as well, the surgeon was proven utterly wrong, though he has never fully conceded that point…after all, he’s a surgeon, he needs to be right.  The second milestone I am fast approaching is my first colonoscopy (50 and all… lucky, lucky me). 

As I try to navigate through this month, coping with the slight trauma of my medical anniversary and the somewhat woozy unease of anticipating my impending procedure, I have found myself trying to make sense of and meaning from what are, undoubtedly, random occurrences. After all, the human mind, functioning as it does, often tries to make connections where none exist.  An anniversary of a cancer scare here, a routine exploratory procedure to seek out and protect against another cancer there…It must mean something, right?  Probably not, actually.  They are random events.  Random events that relate to the almost cruel, and surely unfair, randomness that is the human body and the nature of life itself.

Some of you may have read the recent spate of articles and NPR stories reporting on some recent research on cancer, research that makes clear the utter randomness of most forms of the disease. A study out of Johns Hopkins suggests that nearly two-thirds of all cancers come from random mutations of genes, plain ol’ bad luck as one report on the study put it.  To be sure, healthier lifestyles can tilt the odds a little bit, and possibly help you rebound from the brutal treatments required to treat most cancers, but luck is luck, randomness is randomness, and the less we die from infections, heart disease, and being eaten by sabre tooth tigers, the more humans live long enough for our cells to randomly mutate into cancer.  Yay?

Just my luck that I am not great at adapting to randomness and the unknown.  Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you I am a planner.  I like to know where I’m going and what I’m doing.  I don’t go for joyrides.  I hate sitting poolside for hours just waiting to see what will happen next.  I even like to plan my weekends well in advance.  What is more, it takes very little to trigger my anxiety; if, for example, my daughter or wife misses a call or two, or is more than a few minutes late, I am often thrown into a panic, sure that they are in some terrible trouble.  As my mother recently observed, we both share a common trait. We are not great warriors but instead great worriers (the clever wordsmithing courtesy of my mother….a very funny lady).  Faced with these quirks, or flaws, in my personality, learning of the utter randomness of most cancers was fascinating but frightful news.  Such information defies planning and logic, and leaves us with nothing but the human ability to forget or compartmentalize as our sole defense against maddening uncertainty that is human biology.

Truth is, I’m not all that bad, and I am getting better at this stuff.  At least I think that’s the case.  I mean, I know that I am not continually obsessed with tragedy and death, though they certainly surface in my conscience from time to time.  I don’t spend my days expecting the next earthquake, or the end of days.  And as I write this blog, I am not too troubled by the knowledge that my genes are constantly changing, mutating in ways that, according to the latest science, may lead to some terrible cancer.  I can cope.  I can keep that stuff down…I think. 

The real problem is, that while I am trying to keep uncertainty at bay and avoid contemplating the many ways in which the human body can betray you, medical science is simultaneously interested in testing me—poking, prodding, and scoping me in an effort to either prove a negative (no cancer cells here….yet!) or find some disease they can attack.  I am certainly appreciative of the medical profession’s efforts, but how the hell am I supposed to NOT think about cancer, when every six months I am subjected to a PET scan and my doctor’s fiftieth birthday present to me is a referral for a procedure so invasive and personal that the very mention of it can induce cringing, and sympathetic, knowing sighs from my family and friends? No fun.

As with so many of my posts about the human condition, I find myself wishing that I had something wiser and revelatory to share, but I don’t.  As I’ve said on these virtual pages, before, if I had some answers, something definitive to say, I would have called this blog something other than Limbo.  All I really have are questions and emotions—those, and the sense that sharing my questions and emotions in a public forum provides two beneficial outcomes.  By sharing my concerns in this very public way, I often feel a sense of release.  Rather than bottling up my emotions (which I’ve never been good at in the first place), I release them into the World Wide Web, and somehow I feel a little less burdened. The second outcome is connected to the first.  By releasing my emotions and questions to the world, I have found great comfort through the kind words and consolation of friends and even some strangers.  So I apologize for yet another navel gazing post about the limits of mortality and my inner monologue of fear and uncertainty.  You have to admit such posts are rarer these days, right?  I promise to post on something different, just as soon as I can get through February…and maybe some of March…then there’s the July PET scan…then…well, you get the picture.

As Always, Stay Tuned.


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