I never got around to making a New Year's resolution this year; I got cancer instead.
Well, "got" is probably not the correct medical term; "was diagnosed with" would be more accurate.
It seems like everybody's jumping on the cancer bandwagon these days. Since Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow announced the return of their respective cancers, television, newspaper and magazine writers all over the country have been describing their own battles with the disease. I guess now it's my turn.
I had been thinking about it for a couple of months but kept putting off writing about it. Perhaps it was my own form of denial. If you read it in the newspaper it must be true, right?
I had been bleeding internally on and off for the last four years. Even though I'd been scoped, poked and prodded all over the place, doctors on two coasts could never pinpoint the cause.
I even swallowed a camera the size of a multivitamin a couple of times in a procedure called a "capsule endoscopy."
The first time the camera got stuck at a bend in my colon.
The second time, the doctor said, "OK, now we know where the capsule is going to get stuck, so we're going to have you swallow the capsule, then we're going to knock you out. When the capsule gets stuck in the bend, we're going to stick a scope down your throat and knock it loose. Any questions?"
Fortunately, these cameras are disposable.
Finally, two years ago, the Japanese invented a procedure called a "double-balloon endoscopy," which is as bad as it sounds. This test is currently only available at one hospital in Seattle.
I had the test and came to find out I've had a gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST for short) growing on my small intestine for the last four years or so, and it prospered so much it established a colony on my liver.
From what the doctors tell me, GIST tumors are pretty rare - only about 5,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. I guess if I had to get cancer I should be excited that it's a rare one, not something boring like lung or colon or breast cancer. Everybody gets those.
The doctors cut the grapefruit-sized tumor on my intestine out three days after finding it. I was in the hospital for eight days, which was definitely as bad as it sounds.
"Is it too early to talk about survival rates?" I asked my surgeon when he gave me the diagnosis. (Note to self: Work on your euphemisms for "How much time do I have left?") He replied, "Yes," and four months later, we still haven't discussed them.
The tumor in my liver is still there, although it's shrinking quickly, thanks to a daily chemotherapy pill I'm taking called Gleevec.
I won't tell you how expensive this drug is, but let's just say I dropped a full bottle one morning and about $3,250 worth of pills rolled under my refrigerator. I can't imagine what it would be like if I was one of the millions of Am-ericans without health insurance.
The side effects have been pretty negligible - just a little queasiness a cou-ple hours after I pop the pill after eating breakfast.
Through trial and error I discovered that eating doughnuts alleviates this feeling, and my doctor said to go with whatever works. Unfortunately, I'm now hooked on prescription doughnuts.
THE MENTAL PAIN
Like most things in life the hard part isn't the physical pain but the mental.
I've always been overly sensitive to the missed opportunities of my life. Now they sting even more. Whether you're in a hospital bed or your own, it's a long, lonely night when the If-Onlys rap at your window and the What-Ifs tug at your blanket.
And I don't know what makes it more difficult to get out of bed some mornings: knowing you have cancer or knowing you're going to spend a good portion of your day on the phone with your insurance company.
Sometimes I even forget.
One night I was flipping around the TV channels and heard a man talking about the cancer in his liver. I switched to the next channel and suddenly remembered I have cancer in my liver, too. I flipped back.
This man was in the end stages of liver cancer and was on a long list, waiting for a transplant, so he was going to fly to China and pay $100,000 for one.
The Communist Chinese government has created a very profitable market selling body parts to Americans willing to fly to China and receive them.
The problem is the possibility that these body parts are coming from executed criminals who aren't told their organs will be harvested after they're killed.
And they're possibly political prisoners, too, whose sole crime could be speaking out against the Chinese government.
Similar questions have been asked about the human beings on display at the Bodies: The Exhibit show running downtown the last couple of months.
I immediately judged the man on TV and told myself I would never do anything like that. I would rather die than buy a potentially murdered political prisoner's liver from the Chinese.
But this man was much farther down the cancer road than I am. And he had a wife and two very young children.
I'm not married, and I don't have children. But if I did, could I look them in the eye and choose death? Ethics are easy when somebody else is making the choice.
MORE TO THINK ABOUT
My surgeon told me something else when he told me my tumor was malignant. He said this cancer was nothing like my father's.
My father was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999. During the surgery to remove the tumors and most of his colon the doctors found it had spread to his liver, too. Dad fought hard but died in 2003.
He rarely spoke about his disease. But one thing I do remember him saying was that the worst part about the whole ordeal was receiving chemo. He would have to sit in a chair for an hour while an IV bag drained into his arm.
And the very worst part? The days the other chairs in the room were full of young women in their 20s and 30s with IVs draining into their arms. Dad couldn't stomach that.
RESOLVING TO LIVE
Am I just paranoid, or does it seem like these days everybody's out to get me?
The terrorists want to kill me because I love freedom.
The planet wants to kill me because I'm leaving my carbon footprints all over the place.
Now my own body wants to kill me.
Like I said, it makes it tough to get out of bed some mornings. But I do get out of bed.
I've recovered from the surgery, my prognosis is good and I feel fine.
My family and friends have been very supportive. My mother and sister flew 3,000 miles to help me home from the hospital, and my mother stayed for two weeks. It's funny how people you've known since the day you were born can still surprise you.
I still take an inordinate number of pills every day but go about the usual business of life. Work, washing dishes, paying bills, reading, watching baseball, eating sandwiches.
Maybe I did end up making that New Year's resolution after all: the most unconscious yet the most primal resolution we make every morning when we open our eyes - to live.
Matthew Wilemski lives in Fremont.