Cancer, cancer, cancer.
I’ve had cancer on the mind, lately. A friend of mine was just diagnosed. Another friend, the consonant-empowered Jenn (with two “n”’s) has been musing about her own past with cancer on her blog. A woman in my church is blogging about a relative of hers who might have the disease. Last night I dreamed about the funeral my family held for my mother, who I lost to cancer about six years ago.
And I have had cancer.
Brandi and I decided, when we started “What the Faith”, to make the blog only semi-autobiographical, in that while we would occasionally blog about things that are happening to us, we would not, as a whole, make it just a blog that chronicled our lives. We wanted to write articles that spoke about our journey in broad strokes, so that anyone might relate to what we’re experiencing. We also wanted to tackle social issues on occasion, or just muse about faith like a couple of stoned teenagers. We intended for the personal stories to be an occasional occurrence. Also, and perhaps most importantly, we only wanted to include personal stories that had a faith twist – after all, it’s “What the Faith”, not “What the Fuck is Happening To The Mitchells This Week.”
That may be why I’ve never really “outed” myself as a cancer survivor before – at least, not here. But, now that I have cancer on my mind, it occurs to me that I have a faith-related cancer story, and maybe now is the time that God wants me to tell it. I think that God wants me to tell the “Popsicle story.”
L’histoire de Popsicle
In July of 2008, Brandi noticed a lump under my skin, just over my left collar bone at the base of my neck. It was (say it with me, now) hard and painless to the touch. I went to a doctor, got it biopsied, and in September of that year I was diagnosed with nodular sclerosis Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. I was twenty-nine years old. My reaction was fairly predictable. I remember at one point, Brandi (who, like me, was a skeptic at the time, and just as anti-Christian as I was) had to prevent her parents from giving me the “get your soul right with God” speech. I found out about that the day after she ran intervention.
My treatment was six months of chemotherapy with a cocktail called ABVD (adriamycin, bleomycin, vinblastine, and dacarbazine). It was administered intravenously, which was good (because I didn’t have to have a port installed) and bad (to this day, it’s impossible to find a good vein in my arm). I was given the dose every other Wednesday. The side effects were mild, compared to some chemotherapy treatments – for example, my hair only thinned, and I didn’t lose much weight – even though that would have been a plus in my book. However, as the treatment progressed, the side effects I did have lingered for longer and longer. The nausea had to be treated with better medication as time when on and my original meds did less to stop it. I would get hiccups the day after every infusion, for the entire day – treated with a mild muscle relaxer. Two days after an infusion, I’d spend most of the day asleep, knocked out by the anti-nausea pills. I couldn’t drink bottled water, because my sensitive taste buds couldn’t stand the tang of plastic. The smell of car exhausted made me retch. It wasn’t fun.
Things started coming to a head, emotionally and physically, as I came closer to the last session of my fifth month. By now I was used to the routine. I would go in, get an IV put into one of my depreciating number of usable veins, get pumped with pre-drugs like a steroid, and something to fight nausea, and a mild relaxant. Then I would get the chemo, and it would burn the veins of my arm as it went in. As the months were going on, I was becoming more and more aware of the fact that I was getting toxins deliberately pumped into me. I was getting really depressed about the whole thing, and on that one day (the final chemo of month five) I told Brandi that I wanted to call in sick. For chemo. The irony was golden. But seriously, I said that I didn’t want to go in for my infusion, that I just wanted one week off from the whole process. She hugged me, and I cried a little bit, and then we went in.
I spent that whole morning pumping myself up. “You can do it, you’ve been through worse,” I said to myself. I went through every single visualization exercise my neo-pagan youth had taught me – “Picture a field, and a tree, and an animal that approaches. This is your spirit animal. Take comfort from your spirit animal.” I tried counting things in my head, to force my focus away from what was happening to me. I used every single trick I could think of to try to make my body less revolted by the process. The only thing I didn’t try was praying – I figured that if God did exist (and I was far from sure about that) then this theoretical God would already know that I was miserable, and would help me whether I asked it to or not. So I resolved to deal with it on my own. This is very important to understand – I failed so completely it was sad. My heart was racing as the nurse put the IV in me, I got the shakes, I wanted to throw up when I felt the cold of the liquid hitting my veins. It was bad, and I was depressed at my complete inability to make myself okay with the infusion. I was powerless to “man up”, and as the infusion continued I just kept feeling worse.
Then the nurse got up, because the automatic drip portion of the infusion was starting and she didn’t need to hand-inject the liquids anymore. She asked if I wanted anything from the kitchen – water? Juice? A soda? Tea? Coffee? A Popsicle?
When she mentioned the Popsicle (the grossest, least-appealing frozen treat known to mankind, and the one “cold-dessert-on-a-stick” I have never wanted in my life, and had subsequently turned down for every single previous infusion at the Arizona Cancer Center), I felt this shiver go through me, and this weird warmth filled my chest. Suddenly, I had this incredibly rapid series of thoughts/feelings/images – kids laughing in the sun, running barefoot on the grass, eating Popsicles. It was the cheap kind that was two Popsicles stuck together, each one with its own stick. I thought of the syrup that sticks to the side (so gross) and the flavorless ice crystals that form on them (so gross) and it all seemed to me, for an instant, to be the perfect personification of carefree joy. It seemed to me that Popsicles represented unmitigated happiness. I was very surprised that I wanted one, and ravenously.
I told the nurse, “You know, I would love a Popsicle.” Brandi turned and raised an eyebrow, because she knows I hate them, and I had sounded so pleased at the thought. When the nurse brought it back, wrapped in the cheap paper wrapper that sticks to the frozen bar, I tour it open and put it in my mouth. The warmth in my chest just exploded – it was like a floodgate of endorphins was opened in my brain. These things that I had never liked, that represented things I had never done as a child (run barefoot in the grass? in the sun? I grew up hating the sun and the sharp St. Augustine grass we had in our yard) were making me happy in a way that I had no choice but to accept as coming from outside of myself. It literally felt as if this whole idea of what Popsicles represented, and how they could bring me tremendous happiness in a moment when I needed even a little happiness, was not something I was able to do myself. It was all very illogical, baseless from within the context of my life experience, and so saccharine and cliché that my internal cynicism should have strangled it dead. Instead, it made me tear up with happiness, and that was the easiest chemo infusion I ever had. I told Brandi about it, and all she had to say at that time, was, “That was God.”
This, from a skeptic, like me.
Now, the rules of good storytelling would insist that I tell you folks that I came to God that day, but I didn’t. I didn’t even consider going to a church until something like three years after that day, and I did it kicking and screaming. I spent those three years as a hard-line agnostic who felt he had more in common with atheists than with any kind of theist – but I held special loathing for Christians. Looking back from a theological perspective, it’s easy to suspect that the Holy Spirit touched me on the Day of the Popsicle, but that the works of the enemy took that recollection from my mind for three years. In fact, the reason I’m a Christian now is because one year ago, I told Brandi, “You know, sweetheart. . . I think I’m an atheist.”
“No you’re not. Don’t you remember the Popsicle?”
I had forgotten the Popsicle, but Brandi reminded me. That convinced me that I needed to start hanging out with theists. I needed to surround myself with people who would remind me that a weird, immaterial Something – a Something that existed outside of me – had once helped me do what I was completely unable to do on my own. When looking for a large group of theists, the most logical place to look in Duluth was a church (we have very few mosques in the Twin Ports). Of the churches in Duluth, the one that spoke the most to me (when I viewed its website) was HillsideChurch. Cut to me, sometimes-raising-my hand-in-worship, sometimes-getting-teary-eyed-during-message, and, most importantly, me-getting-dunked-in-a-kiddy-pool on stage, and the rest is unfolding history.
Cancer, cancer, cancer.
Some of you reading this have cancer. Some of you reading this have had cancer. And some of you reading this have experienced cancer through someone you loved – someone who might not be here anymore, like my mom. I want you all to know that I love you.
I love you, all.
My next post will be angrier, and snarkier, and it will have funny pictures in it. I’ll return you to your regularly-scheduled ranting.
May God give you Popsicles. . . even if you don’t ask.