The Cancer Diaries, Part 27

I didn’t really expect the hormones to be so disruptive of my daily activities, but there are times when the “hot flashes” interrupt everything. They tire me out, sometimes making even simple tasks a chore, making my breathing more difficult. And, of course, they wake me at random times during the night, during which I throw off the bedcovers as I toss and turn until I cool down again. And along with the covers any cat or dog who was sleeping against me. Then I flap about to pull them back up when the heat has passed and I cool down.

Uninterrupted sleep is a fondly remembered dream of the past. And I still have the rest of the year on Lupron.

I can only hope it proves to be less disruptive in the warm weather when there isn’t such a jarring difference between the room temperature and mine. We turn the thermostat down at night to 16C or 61F; I’m pretty sure that my hot flashes are in the same temperature range as a blast furnace. I am becoming a believer in spontaneous human combustion.

Sometimes I know they’re coming, these surges of heat and sweat. They well up at a modest pace; a creeping ivy of warmth that climbs my trunk to my limbs and unfurls itself in a swelter. Other times they arrive unannounced, rising abruptly from some mysterious magma within, a lightning strike to make me immediately uncomfortable. I become feverish, my clothes clinging damp and uncomfortable. More sultry than torrid.

There seems no rhyme nor reason to guide me as to why or when either happens. Sometimes they’re just annoyances, other times they’re weakening, making it difficult to breathe and walk.

Cancer has longevity outside its immediate presence within you. Once you are diagnosed with it, you become acutely aware of it outside your own person. In the media, in movies, in conversations. It is like a child’s invisible playmate; always with you, even though others nearby cannot see it. You make associations between everyday things and events and your cancer.

In his essay, On Friendship, Cicero wrote, “What can be more delightful than to have someone to whom you can say everything with the same absolute confidence as to yourself?… a true friend is one who is, as it were, a second self.” I had a close friend named Bill Knapp for many years. And he wasn’t just my friend: he was Susan’s too. Bill was one of those rare people who was a friend to both of us. His death from cancer in late 2019, although expected, was a deep blow for both of us. And ever since then, when I think of Bill — which is often — I think about cancer. His cancer (esophageal) and mine.

I think about playing music together with him, playing chess, playing go, of sitting in the kitchen, the three of us talking, laughing, drinking wine while listening to oldies and all of us singing out loud to the songs of our youth. But I also think about his last days and his cancer. Then I think of my own. That’s what cancer does: it interjects itself into everything.

At my age, the death of my peers isn’t uncommon or even unexpected. That doesn’t make it any less painful. I seldom read the local paper, but when I do, it’s most often to look at the obituaries. And then to see which of those people I knew, and who died of cancer.

I was reading Cicero’s essay the other night, trying as I often do to understand how the classical authors felt about friendship and death, to find in them something to help me make sense of things. I’ve found many words of wisdom in their works in the past. But they too struggled to make sense of the world and what sometimes seems its cruel indifference.

We think we differ from other animals because we can envision our deaths, when we know no more than they do about what death brings. Everything tells us that it means extinction, but we cannot begin to imagine what that means. The truth is, we do not fear the passing of time because we know death. We fear death because we resist passing time. If other animals do not fear death as we do, it is not because we know something they do not. It is because they are not burdened by time.
John Gray, in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, P. 130 (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2002)

For more posts about my experiences with cancer, click here.

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