Chicken Macabre: Or, my Deliverance from Terror & Despair

A tale of hospitalization, confinement, and two fearsome demons.

I had borne with decreasing humor the thousand and one gaffes of the hospital’s kitchen staff.

Lest you, reader, surmise that I had somehow raised their ire, know that the first such buffoonery was on the first night of a six-week confinement at B______ Hospital. It was then that I was provided with three drinking straws, but no drink. On the second night, I was granted a knife and spoon; this for meatloaf. On the third night, I was bestowed no dining implements whatsoever.

Each breakfast, lunch, and dinner presented the kitchen staff with a new “incompetunity,” if you will. Two pats of butter accompanied a dinner roll that had, by some sleight of hand, vanished. The chicken salad sandwich that I requested transmogrified, in transport, into egg salad. Tomato soup had miraculously transubstantiated into potato bisque—accompanied by a fork with which to eat it.

Had the meals appetized, I would perhaps have borne these ineptitudes with grace. Surely, even a hospital cook has some pride of workmanship? Not so. The “pizza” was a sodden affair of French bread used to sponge up catsup and a cheese-like substance. The “meatballs” atop my spaghetti were each a spitball of breadcrumbs and bouillon, without the suspicion of ground beef.

The broccoli side dish was a particularly sad little offering, which called to mind a baby bird I had witnessed to be pushed from its nest on scorching hot day. This broccoli stalk, lacking a floret, was as naked, limp, and hopeless as that fledgling. I felt as spurned as the bird was by its mother. But alas, no giant presented himself to clap a hand over his eyes, grit his teeth, and end my wretchedness under the heel of a boot. (I was, after all, confined to an institution dedicated to the preservation of life.)

A sympathetic sister of the hospital advised me that frozen dinners were available—not from the menu, but upon request. O! Do not curl your lip at Salisbury steak in a celluloid tray, before you know the sting of desperation. I ordered that meal, and its blandness was exquisite. Heated as the meal was in a rotating and radioactive oven, the brownie was reduced to a tiny brick, which had shrunk from the sides of its compartment. But a mélange of the mashed potatoes and corn niblets, with three pats of butter, was at least inoffensive.

And so I surrendered any true enjoyment of breakfast, lunch and dinner. These I traded for the comfort of a full stomach and counted myself fortunate, as others with my affliction must surrender entirely to nausea, and nourish themselves via an infusion of sugar water in their veins. My appetite was always mightier than my slim stature, and was mightier than leukemia itself. Besides which, I simply could not lay down my head without having eaten something. How much appeasement to the invading force of blood cancer could I bear?

Thus, I surrendered to a repetitive menu, knowing that I would have flavor again, some weeks ahead. Meanwhile, I must beg for eating implements, butter, and drinks from the good sisters. And the dinners’ frozen state introduced a wholly new incompetunity, to whit:

Inmate: (Realizes the dinner tray is frozen.) I beg your pardon—this isn’t cooked.

Kitchen Staff: (Minces and curtsies, speaks with an indeterminate accent.) I thowwy! (Turns to leave.)

Inmate: Where are you going? How can I eat this?

Kitchen Staff: (Smiles broadly, curtsies again.) I thowwy! (Opens door to leave.)

Inmate: You “thowwy”? That’s not good enough! Please…

(Exit Kitchen Staff, smiling and mincing.)

I had not been served by this creature before, but she had left me furious. The usually-young people who brought me my trays were ordinarily a civil and respectful lot. They entered quietly, lay down their conveyances, and exited before I had a chance to discover the day’s missing items or unwelcome substitutions. They knew not what they did. But she of the curtsy, who smiled more broadly and lisped more childishly as my upset grew—her kind gave Our Lord vinegar when he thirsted for water.

Those were ten days of cyclical blandness, alternating between the Salisbury steak and the boneless fried chicken, broken here and there by an uninspired but inoffensive hamburger. The young men and women in their black-and-blue uniforms conveyed them to me with murmured politeness. They were too numerous, their visits too brief, to know them by name or even mark their faces. All but for one.

She of the curtsies and broad grin arrived and set before me my tray. Had I imagined a guileful flash in her eyes? She backed out of the room rather than simply exiting, telling me “Good evening, Thir! Here you are, Thir! Will there be anything elth, Thir? Enjoy!”, thus leaving me alone with the tray.

I lifted the green dome that covered the dish to find bone-in fried chicken, rather than boneless; a breast, accompanied by mashed potato and corn niblets and a brownie brick. But this was not the moist, steaming breast of a plump and pampered chicken.

Imagine, if you will, a chicken that had been tossed off some chuck wagon as being too scrawny to justify its feed. Imagine this abandonment had happened in the Nevada desert. The hapless fowl might peck for a day, two at the most, finding nothing in the dust for succor. In time, finding neither water nor worm, the poor beast would fall forth upon its scrawny breast, and there pant away its life. Somehow, a Mr. Swanson happened along with his wagon, and rather than waste the corpse, saved it for his processing plant, and that chicken found its way to my Boston bedside.

The aforementioned boneless fried chicken was manufactured into an oblong ingot, tapered slightly at an end. The meat was fairly tender, the breading soft and golden, owed largely to food coloring, I am certain. It resembled a live bird in no way, and the idea that it had once lived was a comfortable, distant abstraction.

But this breast had the form of chicken indeed; one that had lived a hard life, and died a miserable, solitary death.

Appalled, my appetite destroyed, I did not bother even with the mashed potatoes and niblets. I pushed away the tray table, and rolled over to sleep.

Now, it is not my custom to doze after dinner. But when one is bedridden, one learns like a dog to sleep at all hours of the day, for lack of other amusement. Yet, sleep eluded me.

I rolled onto a side, facing a wall, attempting to clear my mind of—?

Despair. And terror. I would never leave this room; of that I was suddenly certain.

I prayed—called upon God the Healer and Jesus, the Divine Physician. I had borne my illness remarkably, so my healers told me. I had simply refused to entertain death and refused to go in so bland and commonplace a way as to succumb to a blood disorder.

Chicken Macabre 1And, of a sudden, Satan’s twin imps of Despair and Terror had found their way.

I called for a nurse, who, seeing my state, brought me a sublingual tranquilizer, one which should calm me in seconds. She seemed truly distressed; what had gripped the stalwart fellow in Cell 7B? “Lorazepam never fails,” she soothed before leaving. But alas, the ministrations of man were no match for the worst of Satan’s brat children.

I at last threw off the bed covers and sat up, determined to grab hold of and strangle the beasts, each in a hand. How? How after so many weeks had they found their way!

My eye fell upon the dinner cart, and the answer was clear. They had crawled under a pale-green dome and onto a pale-green plate, and been delivered to me by a grinning grotesque who, if I accused her of such calumny, would undoubtedly curtsy and declare “I thowwy!”

I pushed the rolling dinner cart to the furthest corner of my cell, but eight feet away, and lay down again, my face turned from it. The chicken couldn’t get me from there. But a freed imp is like a bat in your parlor. It finds the far corners and terrifies you from there, and eludes you upon your every approach.

I pushed the dinner cart out of the room entirely—a superfluous gesture, for the imps had escaped their green dome. And, switching cells would do no good, for while Terror had distracted me, Despair and flown into an ear and lodged itself in my psyche. While I batted that side of my head, Terror had stuffed itself into the opposite ear.

The twins danced merrily, unreachably, in my skull. They thundered about like brats in an attic who had pulled up the ladder behind them. But rather than empty the trunks of Granddad’s Army helmet and medals and mockingly parading about in them; rather than don Grandma’s wedding dress and destroy it by trailing it through inches of dust; the imps found trunks of horrific visions, and screaming with delight, tossed them out one by one like so many doilies and handkerchiefs.

A vision of my corpse, bald and bloated by 50 lbs, in a double-wide casket.

A vision of my parents standing graveside, my father wearing the 80-year-old face that I was destined to have, but never reached. Whatever grief I had caused them in a youth, this was the ultimate grief.

A vision of my darling Sadie Mae, alone and in widow’s weeds, in a silent parlor where for countless evenings I had stroked her feet in my lap while music or some entertainment played.

“Not that one!” I cried. But that only encouraged the imps, and I was treated to a vision of Sadie Mae walking our greyhound, ‘Teo, in the mornings (customarily my duty), with his eloquent brown eyes belying his simple thoughts, to whit: “Little One, where did the Big One go? What will I do without him? He was a soft touch when I wanted a biscuit! Please tell me he’s coming back.”

“They will run out of steam in good time,” I reasoned, and simply lay still, determined to wait them out. But no, Terror and Despair are supernatural beings that gain strength from their own mischief.

“I must sleep eventually, through sheer exhaustion,” I thought. But imagine a maelstrom at sea, in which your bunk sways and pitches wildly, and you are uncertain but that the ship will founder. A maelstrom betwixt the ears is just so, overcoming all weariness.

“Logic!” I cried. Terror and Despair are ground easily under the iron wheels of cool, immovable logic! True so far as it goes; but if we were to trust if/then statements, and statistics regarding my diagnosis, well, logic had it that I should have perished already. Terror and Despair tittered gleefully at my failure.

What remedy was left me?

Like many a soldier, through time, I attempted to pray, to whit:

“Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil; what’s the rest of it? The Lord Is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

Decades of indifference and spiritual neglect worked against me. I imagined Jehovah being startled out of his heavenly rest at 4 o’clock to say “Look who comes knocking! Gabriel, arise! This will amuse you!”

Such was the scolding, loveless Jehovah I imagined.

But perhaps he was the Jehovah of the parables, who welcomed the prodigal son with a fatted calf. Who wept and embraced and kissed the top of a head and said “Stop telling me your sins, I care not. I have awaited you so long. Come, everyone! Look who is here!”

A pastor had stopped by my cell some days before, and left with me a cheaply-bound New Testament, with miniscule type and Jesus’ words in a barely readable pink. In its last pages I found the Concordance, and in the Concordance, “Fear.” I had heard a good many of the scriptures. Psalm 23 (on which I had called imperfectly) bid:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Ps. 23:4)

The Apostle Paul had written in Romans:

If God be for us, who can be against us? (Rom. 8:31)

Alas, as unpracticed as I was in faith, these old bullets flamed and misfired. I searched for newer ammunition, something I had never heard, which had not become an old chestnut. And there it was:

For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Tim. 1:7)

This bullet, fired into the air, caught the twin imps’ attention. Rather than shriek and laugh in my skull, they snarled, for I was being a spoilsport.

Imps could wear out a man’s faith as surely as they wore out his body. But the Father of Imps himself had been conquered, had he not? Had not Christ himself showed us how, when Satan so mercilessly tempted him in the desert? “You are starving, turn stone to bread!” “All will believe you at last—just toss yourself from the temple roof and angels will catch you!” “I will give you dominion of the world, to shape as the paradise you wish—if you will but worship me.”

And so I called aloud, in my cell: “Get thee behind me, Satan, thou art an offense to me! For it is written that God did not give us a spirit of fear; He gave us a spirit of power, and of love, and of peace of mind.”

Silence. The imps had been slapped like fresh brats, and were startled.

A second time, a third time, a dozen times, I repeated my prayer. I shot holes in the visions with it, fired it relentlessly, which drowned out the imps. My ammunition was limitless, and I kept firing. A good sister entered to check my fluid drips from the bag atop the Cancer Christmas Tree, and I held out a palm for silence; I must not relent. Her duty done quickly, she exited in silence.

Perhaps it was forty-five minutes, or an hour, when at last I stopped to listen.

No shrieking. No snarling. Nay; the imps had gone.

I lay my head tentatively upon my pillow. For safety, I pulled a watch cap, a gift of Sadie Mae, over my bald head to cover my ears, lest another imp find ingress there. But instead, I passed the night in dreamless silence.

***

Perhaps I had invited Satan’s imps; goaded them; for I had already welcomed the imp of hubris.

“How can you bear the isolation?” friend J______ had inquired, some days before.

Proudly I declared, “I’m a writer, and a reader. I pity the mountaineer confined like this; but I can have pen and ink, and books, wherever I go.”

True, as far as it goes. But where a vivid imagination is a writer’s strength, it is the cancer-afflicted’s weakness. And so, I now answer that question, “I bore up tolerably well, with one terrifying exception. But I armed myself against it,” and wave The Word like a six gun.

When chemo’s not enough, we must discipline ourselves to live.

Who’s your hero, from history, sports, entertainment? You need that kind of dedication.

“Better to be a warrior in a garden, than a gardener in a war,” goes a credo by which martial artists live.

We with The Big C are like gardeners thrown into war. Our challenge is like no other we have faced, as professionals, as parents even as athletes and soldiers. We need new skills, new tools, and a willingness to adapt, and we need them now.

Shin Terayama
Conventional medicine gave up on Shin Terayama, so he tossed his old life for that of a survivor-in-training. So far (33 years), so good.

The incredible Shin Terayama showed an absolute willingness to adapt. A Japanese physicist who had worked impossible hours for two decades (usually 18 hour days), in 1984 he found himself out of work and doomed by metastatic kidney cancer. But he lives to this day.

Shin shucked off his old life for a drastically new one. He was no longer a physicist, but a survivor in training. He developed a spiritual and dietary regimen that included (among other elements) a whole-food diet; chakra work; breathing exercises; and playing the cello he had long neglected for work. He arose at 4:30 every morning to begin his regimen, and within four years (he had been given three months, at best), he was cured.

Shin dedicated his life to his healing, which we must be prepared to do.

A champion’s discipline

Something all champions have in common, be that champion a recording artist, NFL player, New York Symphony cellist, prima ballerina, or survivor like Shin Terayama, is discipline. Enormous discipline.

The subject of discipline practically mandates inspirations from the military or professional sports. But those dedicated people are disciplined warriors, already.

A “gardener” who described her discipline eloquently is Associate US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who at age seven was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. (She’s now 63.) She describes diabetes as a central part of her life that taught her discipline and moderation. “I’ve trained myself to be super-vigilant because I feel better when I am in control,” she said, referring to all walks of life—including studying law at Yale.

Another example, one I witnessed personally, is that of Mick Jagger.

In late summer of 2005, I worked next door to a ballet studio in Boston’s South End. One afternoon, a limo pulled up to the studio. A lanky older guy got out, carrying a boombox stereo. The driver said something like, “I’ll be here when you’re ready, Mr. Jagger.”

For three tireless hours, Jagger strutted from one corner of the studio to the other, singing aloud to “Start Me Up” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.” He was 62 at the time. But The Stones were playing Fenway Park the next night, and he was going to give his fans the full Mick. That’s discipline.

Why do we need discipline? Isn’t treatment enough?

Some of us Big C folk need not change a thing, other than to let our healers work their wizardry. But alas, some cancers carry a grimmer prognosis. Leukemia carries a far lesser chance of survival than prostate cancer, and acute myeloid leukemia (AML—my brand), carries even less.

Still, I see it as the difference between trying out for the high school basketball team, or aiming for the NCAA. There are few contenders for the high school team, tens of thousands for a college slot. So, I’d better train hard.

Survival is a form of training. When even the most brilliant treatment offers little hope, we need well-crafted survival regimens, and the discipline to stick with them.

Calendar CaptureMy own daily regimen is pictured at right. I don’t complain about it, or cheat on it; I trust in it. Note that I include three broad categories, being 1) Spiritual, 2) Diet, and 3) Exercise. I talk about the need for all three in There’s no one cancer cure. There are dozens. But choose wisely. To recap, these integrated therapies augment traditional cancer treatment with those other, powerful elements.

Please do not screech at me about exercise. Of course, brutal chemo/radiation courses may preclude physical activity. But we must defy the muscle atrophy and learned helplessness of long bedrest, as best as we are able. I went through weeks when exercise was impossible; but when it became possible, I was on a mini stairstepper (small enough for my hospital room) for five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes as I could manage, and working my muscles with resistance bands.

Apostle Paul
St. Paul lived like a leukemic, under a ceaseless threat of death (e.g., as a prisoner of the flaky Emperor Nero). So, he worked harder, and wrote faster.

And please do not scold “You judgmental jackass, I’d dearly love to dedicate my life to being a survivor, but I’m a teacher/parent/business owner, first.” You must be a survivor, first. I’m a freelance journalist who works as many hours as I can get. But, work can wait five minutes while I quaff a life-giving, gruesome-tasting beet/carrot/ginger/garlic smoothie, or for 10 minutes while I pray.

Discipline means consistency

Something NFL coach Vince Lombardi said is that “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

Football practice is consistent and grueling, spent hammering away at your weaknesses. So is any worthwhile practice. At some point, cellist Yo Yo Ma quit replaying “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and attacked the infinitely more difficult Chopin Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65.

My pal Bill is a Master 5 Middle/Heavyweight Pan-American Champion in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He achieved that in between fatherhood, caring for elderly parents, and a career as a pharmaceutical CEO—each by itself an excuse to avoid practice. But he doesn’t.

chemo legs-mercury
Bloated by 50 lbs of fluid with a poison-sumac-like rash, the last thing I felt like doing was work off the weight on a stairstepper. But as my pal Bill, a Jiu-Jitsu-champ says, “You feel ill? You train.”

He says of consistency in his training, “If you had a bad day, you train. Feel tired? You train. Illness, or a heavy work schedule? You have the mindset that you have a schedule, and you make the time.” Not even global travel for work interrupted his training. He would travel to Tokyo and hold meetings in the morning, then spend nights training at a dojo. (Similarly, Jagger finds a gym in every city that The Stones tour.)

St.  Paul likened achieving eternal life—the ultimate survival—to athletic discipline:

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. (1 Cor. 24-27, NLT.)

Don’t surrender stuff; offer it up, gladly, in exchange for life

Recall that Sonia Sotomayor was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age seven, so undoubtedly remembers what birthday cake tastes like. She might really enjoy a corner piece with all the frosting on her 64th birthday, instead of a bran muffin with a candle in it. (I’m guessing.)

Discipline is focusing with vigor upon what you stand to gain, not mourning what you give up.

But discipline is focusing with vigor upon what you stand to gain, not mourning what you give up. Singer/actress Julie Andrews said, “Some people regard discipline as a chore. For me, it is a kind of order that sets me free to fly.” She achieved what she has through thousands of hours of practice, which she in no way resents.

An MIT admissions officer I once interviewed said of the students, “There’s something different about these kids. They know from childhood they want to come here and nothing stops them, not even poverty.” And nothing gets in the way of their study. I lived near MIT, and on any Friday night, Saturday night or Halloween, its libraries were full and the labs lit up. No physicist ever won the Nobel Prize by thinking, “But it’s Cinco de Mayo! I wanna get hammerhead drunk and screw like a mink!”

After my diagnosis, survival became my MIT admission. I shucked off any threat to it, and took up any dietary/spiritual/physical practice I thought offered hope.

If I put all that into mournful “But I want it!” or “But I don’t wanna!” statements, it might read:

  • “But I liked smoking hand-rolled cigarettes with rough Russian tobacco!”
  • “But I miss Grey Goose martinis with onion!”
  • “But I love eating steak tips and ‘taters in pubs, and washing it down with two pints of Stella Artois!”
  • “But I don’t wanna wait for movies to come to Netflix, I wanna see James Bond flicks on the big screen in a germy theatre!”
  • “But I don’t wanna get up at 5 AM and pray or write in my journal or meditate, I wanna sleep till 7.”
  • “But I hate beets, I don’t care about their cytotoxic and anti-inflammatory properties, they taste poopy!”

I could boo-hoo like this all day. But I don’t. Most of those things are just indulgences (which may have contributed to my AML). If the price of another decade with Sadie Mae is trading beef tips for beet juice, so be it. (Although, I do eat beef tips and fisherman’s platters, washed down with beer. Perhaps once every four months.)

“This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before.” (Phil. 3:13, KJV.

Of course, we Big C folk surrender far more than indulgences. We may leave behind the ability to work full time; financial comfort, for years to come; our hair, our energy, our body parts; any certainty of a future. We are robbed of simple joys of family life. Sara and I won’t enjoy a 10th anniversary getaway in October, because even luxury hotel rooms are all skeevy and forensic, as ABC, NBC and CBS remind us yearly in tedious exposés.

So, thanks to AML, much is behind me. Some things I offered up, but I was robbed of others.

In either case, a scripture that I love, also from St. Paul, reads:

“This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before.” (Phil. 3:13, KJV.)

So, the health habits of a ‘40s tough-guy actor are behind me, and survival is before—if I reach forth unto it. Even then, there’s little chance I’ll make the team. But that chance is infinitely greater if I train hard.

Godspeed.

When to say, “I do need support, but not yours.”

Forgive awkwardness, but shun toxicity.

When townfolk visit us at The Big C Ranch (my name for Brigham and Women’s Hospital), a little clumsiness is forgivable. We were flummoxed when we were diagnosed; so are they, and they try to comfort us in the best ways they know how.

Scheffer, Ary, 1795-1858; The Temptation of Christ
Jesus didn’t always “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Sometimes he commanded, “Get thee behind me.”

Our grandmas, bless’em, arrive with brimming pots still warm from their stoves. They don’t want to hear from smarty-pants doctor talk like “immunocompromised” and “outside contaminants.” Grandma keeps a clean kitchen, she knows what her ragazzino/bubeleh/niñito needs, and it’s her meatballs and gravy/matzo soup/chiles en nogada. She’s trying to save your life—nothing less.

Your humor’s a bit thin, but the “laughter is the best medicine” sort believes he’s helping when he jokes, “When your body hair grows back, you can brag about getting your pubes all over again! Aw c’mon! That was a good one!”

The scoffers mistake it for comfort when they belittle our modesty and senses of loss. They snort, wave a dismissive hand and say “It’s just hair! It’ll grow back!” Well, scoffer, if it’s “No big deal!” and I should “Just let them do it,” then let a nurse swab your damned rectum for C-Diff bacteria.

The malignant.

Nosferatu Bedside
“Don’t you worry,” soothe The Gatekeeper and the Chemo-Sabe. They will never leave your bedside.

A clumsy person may be forgiven; a malignant one must be shunned. We’re stocked up on malignancy, and I’ve observed six “supporters” who will drain the life from you, heedless of how short that life may be. (I wasn’t tasked by these pestilent six, but agonized while friends suffered them.)

The Ghoul thrills to the details of your suffering. How bad is the surgical scar? Does the chemo make you vomit? What’s the most embarrassing part of it all? “I only ask because I care,” but how long do you have to live? Would dearly like to see the blood clot the size of a baby’s finger that you sneezed up this morning.

The Smartest Guy in the Room undermines your confidence in your healers. He has their number. Lapses into stony silence whenever one of “them” (e.g., a nurse checking your vitals) enters your room. Sneers at Western Medicine and Big Pharma (crooked and in cahoots), but believes in cannabis and any cure that originated centuries ago, in India or eastward.

Forgive the clumsy, but shun the malignant. You’re stocked up on malignancy.

The Prodigal Father never paid child support, and missed your wedding. Learned about your cancer through the one cousin who still talks to him. But “I’m here now. And no one—especially That Mother of Yours—can say Joey Buttaroma doesn’t love his little girl.”

The Chemo-Sabe clings to you like Tonto to The Lone Ranger. Demands to know who visits you most often, and visits one time more. A gossip who won’t leave until you’re angry with someone else. Declares himself/herself shocked that Paul/Nancy/Carla/Phil hasn’t come to see you! But where Paul and Nancy have failed you, the Chemo-Sabe never will.

The Gatekeeper is often the sibling or cousin with whom you got along least. But she’s here now, to protect you from everyone else (“She needs her rest, so no one gets to her unless it’s through me. That goes for even you, Ma.”). Insists “You and meWe’re gonna beat this thing, together.”

The Serpent offers to sneak in wine, a Subway foot-long BLT, marijuana in brownies, because “You’ve been through Hell, you deserve it!” Never mind the life-threatening risks of salmonella or drug interactions—“Doctors have to tell you that stuff.” Will take you straight to a bar to “cut loose” once you’re released. Like The Gatekeeper, tries to get between you and others (viz., “Don’t tell that judgmental brother of yours, he doesn’t know how to live”).

You’re in need, but they are needier.

“It’s not your blood they drain; it’s your emotional energy,” wrote Dr. Albert J. Bernstein, who reckoned demons like these in his 2001/2012 book Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry.

What do they need from you?

  • The Ghoul seeks the kind of thrills that can only be got from human suffering. May not be a sociopath, but has all the sensitivity of one. Will lose interest in you when you are cured.
  • The Smartest Guy in the Room needs you to acknowledge his superiority, even in a hospital like Brigham and Women’s surrounded by healers who never got an A-.
  • The Prodigal Father needs your validation that he hasn’t failed as a parent, which only you can grant. He’ll then wave that knowledge under the nose of That Mother of Yours.
  • The Chemo-Sabe is likely awkward, friendless, and you are a zoo animal that she can visit at will.
  • The Gatekeeper’s devotion to you proves his/her value to those who (often rightly) question it.
  • The Serpent is usually a sociopath, bent on punishing you for the sin of courage, or for pulling attention.

They likely mistake their ill intent for good, as the emotional vampire is usually an horrendously poor self-observer.

Strategies to protect yourself.

Ask yourself simply, whose visits do you anticipate, and whose do you dread? Make a two-column list, and be merciless. Only you will read it.

Whose visits do you anticipate? And whose do you dread?

Having discerned between the two, there are several actions you can take:

  • Surrender your need to please. Easier to say than to do. But The Ghoul, The Prodigal Father and The Serpent have no feelings to hurt.
  • Tell them, “Please don’t come, I need to rest.” This is no lie. You do need rest, and visits from The Ghoul and Chemo-Sabe aren’t restful.
  • If you are unassertive, enlist someone who is. Perhaps in your emotionally wrung-out state, you can’t bring yourself to confront The Gatekeeper by saying “You’re not in charge of who sees me, I am.” Then ask your warhead of a sister/brother/best friend/mom/spouse to say it for you. They’d be delighted.
  • Enlist your nurses as bouncers. They are charged with your wellbeing—physical and emotional. Tell them, simply, “I’m expecting my parents today; please don’t admit anyone else.”

Jeez, isn’t that really judgmental?

No. It is discernment. Surrounding yourself with healing energy, and protecting yourself when you must.

As a kid, did a friend give you your first cigarette? Sneak a Budweiser out of your dad’s six-pack? Maybe get you to shoplift? Your parents likely demanded you drop that friend. They didn’t wast time “hating the sin, but loving the sinner.” Their child was imperiled, and they acted. They let God sort out the sinner.

That is discernment, and both the Old Testament and New teach us to protect ourselves from the ill-meant:

  • “And whosoever will not receive you, when ye go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet for a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:5.) Jesus taught, if you are not heard—and these six are deaf to what you truly need—then disengage.
  • “I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with dissemblers.” (Psalm 26:4.) Dissemblers are liars, and “dis-assemblers” who come between you and others.
  • “He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips.” (Proverbs 20:19.) A gossip, like the Chemo-Sabe, is a talebearer.
  • “Avoid profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of [knowledge] falsely so called.” (1 Timothy 6:20.) This applies to The Smartest Guy in the Room, especially, who wants to shake your faith in your treatment.
  • “But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.” (2 Timothy 2:16.) Simply put, shut down a liar, dissembler or gossip immediately; your further corruption is their joy.

You have the permission of Christ, King David, King Solomon and the Apostle Paul to protect yourself.

With the chaff sorted out, we are left with the wheat; those whose visits leave us feeling energized, optimistic, healed. On my list “Lifts My Spirits” were my parents, my Sadie Mae, her magnificent brothers and their wives, alongside my old pals Bill, Erik and Frank.

There were but two names on my list “Leaves Me Drained,” each with the same flaw—a mean temper. After her latest tantrum, over grammar (she teaches writing at a university), I definitively told one, “Do not visit, do not phone, and I’ll update you if I survive.” I repent of my sarcasm. But I’d been trapped alive in the Big C bunkhouse for a seven-week round of chemo, with almost four weeks to go, and no guarantee of survival.

Those are the stakes, no less. We need our depleted energy for survival. I wouldn’t risk a minute of life with Sadie Mae, arguing with someone else if “thusly” is a word.

You have the permission of Christ, King David, King Solomon and the Apostle Paul to protect yourself from emotional vampires. Please, do. Trust in God; He’ll sort’em out.

Godspeed.

“Whither thou goest, Baby.” Keeping our vows during crisis.

Love goes both ways. What do we owe our partners?

At times, we look to our mates and think “Go. Save yourself. I can give you nothing, anymore.”

Whatever we promised in our first days, or on the marriage altar—all the vigor and health and humor and selflessness we once offered—is lost. Not that we surrendered it, apathetically. We were robbed of it. What we offer now is, perhaps, a slim chance of a future, and a ceaseless threat.

That is how I think on my worst days. They come like speedbumps on a dark road; without warning, a sudden slam, a jarring of the bones and certainty of damage. Yet after a few tentative yards at a slower speed, I find all is well.

On my best days—nine out of ten of them—I promise Sadie Mae, with absolute certainty, “Don’t you worry; I’ll be here for our 10th wedding anniversary (this October), and Christmas, and both our 60th birthdays.”

1stThanksgivingCropped
Our first Thanksgiving, post engagement. Taken in Maine, and at a distance, by my mom.

Sadie Mae was no speedbump; more like turning the corner on a dull road to find a gorgeous vista ahead and saying “I never knew this was here!” She lived nowhere near the city where I was, cared nothing for “meat-and-greets” that young Bostonians attended (yes, I meant “meat,” not “meet”), appreciated antiques, taught school, and volunteered at a halfway house for refugees of Somalia, Iraq, and places like them. At 110 pounds, she had gladiator-sized self-possession. As my father said of her, after I brought her to my parents’ house for the first time, “Some people you meet, but you don’t really care if you see them again. Others you meet, and hope they come back.” Such is Sadie Mae, and in just under two years, we wed.

“You forget that I love you.”

My first Christmas gift to her as my wife was a large, framed etching of the painting “Ruth and Naomi,” from the Old Testament story (Ruth 1). We found it in an antique store, while on a lazy Sunday drive in late November, and she had admired it for several minutes. Finally, she talked me out of buying it for her, but I returned alone the next day to do just that.

Ruth Clings to Naomi, by Philip H Calderon
Philip H. Calderon’s “Ruth and Naomi.” That guy on the left is Naomi. Calderon painted her kind of butch.

The story of Ruth would become profound to us. Ruth was Naomi’s daughter-in-law, but her husband (Naomi’s son) had perished. Naomi determined to live out her years in the city of her girlhood, and told Ruth, in essence, “Go, to the house of your mother. I offer you nothing—no more sons, no wealth, no comfort.”

Ruth replied (again, in essence), “You forget that I love you.” Subsequently, “Whither thou goest, I will go…Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.”

A selfishness, not of our choosing.

What in Hell kind of rat bastard husband spends every dollar his wife earns on himself, and controls how she spends her time?

I do.

Sadie Mae makes a big, triumphant real estate commission check; we spend it on my co-pays.

Her every Wednesday is committed to a heart-in-the-throat appointment at Dana Farber, hoping my blood blasts (the cancer cells—once as high as 75%) are in the low teens.

We don’t go out to dinner or movies (both cost and germ considerations). I’ve never flown her anywhere on a vacation.

The January 2015 blizzard turned our enclosed patio into a Box o’Snow that walled in our slider; she shoveled out a path for our greyhound, ‘Teo. (I was no help, as I was “incarcerated” at Brigham and Women’s hospital.) She scrambled to find care for ‘Teo, then drove our aging Pontiac over unsafe roads (against my insistence) to be with me for Saturday “date night,” when we ate hospital pizza and watched the hilarious “American Hustle.”

“’Whither thou goest, Baby,’” she told me that night, and often. In essence, “You forget that I love you.”

“But I would never bring you here,” I told her that night, and often. Never of my own choosing.

What we surrender, vs. what we still control.

We are committed to keep our vows of endless joy and contentment, in whichever ways we can.

We come to our mates with full heads of hair, two breasts remarkable for their perfection, two testicles with no remarkable nodules, a prostate too young to worry about, two able legs, and the promise of summers and flights with bathing suits in our luggage and decades of intimacy, marked by wedding anniversaries. We also promise endless joy and contentment, then, are forced to break our word.

At the same time—we are pledged to keep our word, in whichever ways we can. To recognize that much is still within our control (some of which I touched upon in earlier entries):

  • Commit to the discipline of survival. Like a young violinist auditioning for the Juilliard school, or a high-school athlete aiming for a college scholarship—we can greatly increase our chances of survival. We can make the dietary changes outlined in Anticancer: A New Way of Life. We can commit to the life changes outlined in Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds, in which changes in body, mind and spiritual factors save those “sent home to die.” If we must be the one with the cancer, let our partners rest in the assurance that we do everything possible to stay. Not just survive, but stay in the relationship, as we promised to do.
  • We can demonstrate, “You matter.” At one time, our relationships were balanced; it is easy to allow an imbalance wherein we, with our health needs and day-to-day condition, dominate. How much did you used to talk about your mate’s work? Or interests? Do you still ask, or does every conversation begin with you and your condition? Likely your mate has indulged your every taste to comfort you. But no, I don’t expect Sadie Mae to sit through westerns that bore her.
  • We can thank them, for every kindness. Every single vitamin smoothie they make for us, every time they walk the dog because we’re fatigued. Whatever my failings, I thank Sadie Mae every Wednesday, when we return from Dana Farber, for getting me there and back safely; also for insisting upon being at those appointments, lest the news be bad. That’s something a wife might experience once in her marriage. Sadie Mae has done so dozens of times.
  • Cheer up. It is easy to allow our homes to become The House of Usher as in the Poe tale, with the sun blocked out. We can become the wraith that shambles about the house, terrifying all who live there. Or, we can groom ourselves, change out of that bathrobe we wear all day like a death shroud, then present ourselves at breakfast, at dinner. We can pick the movie, commiserate over groceries and pizza orders, cook dinner, and walk the dog—whatever our stamina allows. We can live, to the limits of our strength; and in doing so, build more strength. Radical Remission describes a state of joy that miracle survivors demonstrate. However dire their prognoses, they work to release negative and pent-up emotions, and find positive ones.
Usher Illo Small
From “Fall of the House of Usher.” What’s not to love about that?
  • We can make our mates our raisons d’etre, our very reason for being. No—this is not another brick in their yokes (You’re responsible now for my very survival!”). It is a brick in ours—our responsibility. I will not leave Sadie Mae behind; we haven’t had a 10th anniversary yet. And I want to clear up the financial burden that my “sniffles” have yoked her with, as well as me. And, I promised her joy. I want, above all, to deliver her the joy of my survival; a day in which an oncologist tells us, “Your prognosis is that of anyone else. Go. I’ll see you in six months.” I want to see the look on her face. Then I want to fly her to Ireland and find her great-grandmother’s house in Galway.

Every day I succeed in one or two of these things and fail at the rest. But I pray daily, something like “Lord God, you have the power to cure this like whisking a fly off your sleeve. That is all it would take to give Sadie Mae peace. Please, make it your will.”

If your mate is like mine, your suffering has been eased, enormously. We must ask ourselves, daily; what can we do to relieve theirs? (And no, we are not powerless to do so.)

Godspeed.

There’s no one cancer cure. There are dozens. But choose wisely.

Think “integrative therapies” that start with chemo.

If medical science hasn’t found the cure for cancer, neither can we.

And yet, we try. There must be something out there, something miraculous, proven, perhaps ancient and overlooked.

Alternative cures run from the essential to the dubious to the absurd. C’mon—coffee enemas? If squirting cold espresso up my bodunkus four times a day is the cure, then I surrender.

When I was diagnosed with AML leukemia, my beloved Sadie Mae was naturally desperate to find a definitive cure for me—a nonconventional one, to supplement chemotherapy. She researched ceaselessly, and found several. I considered them all, seriously, and two (which I’ll describe below) have saved me.

Among those I rejected was a $4,500 “Rife Machine” that uses harmonic vibration to kill cancer cells. It works—in a Petri dish (remember those from high school biology lab?)—but has never worked, credibly, in a person.

We tried cannabis oil, because “Cannabis Kills Cancer!”, its proponents enthuse. We abandoned it after a few months with no change in my blood counts, but a plummet in my energy and motivation and a perpetual, fuzzy-edged “stoner bliss.” The final straw was the morning I spent laughing at the whimsical shape of dog biscuits, while I missed a work deadline.

First thing’s first: Conventional medicine. It’s proven.

I will take the proven cure with a 10% chance over a dubious one claiming 100%.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—the one very treatable form of it—Apple’s Steve Jobs famously delayed medical intervention for nine months in favor of alternative treatments. Only when he continued to deteriorate did he seek medical intervention. “Jobs’s faith in alternative medicine likely cost him his life…He essentially committed suicide,” said the chief of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s integrative medicine department.

An aggressive cancer is like HIV: you have no time to futz around with the unproven.

Jobs appeared to distrust the bugbear “Western Medicine,” supposedly pirated by its evil twin Big Pharma, who don’t want you to know about the healing power of cannabis, coffee enemas, Rife machines, ad nauseum. Why not? Because Big Pharma can’t patent or profit from those. Besides, Western Medicine doesn’t want to cure you; it wants a lifelong dependent with health insurance.

Nonsense. Western Medicine saved my mother, my mother-in-law, Lance Armstrong, Melissa Etheridge, Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America,” and millions more. It has cured hepatitis C—that was decades in coming, but Western Medicine persisted. It enables HIV patients to live normally, versus the practically 100% fatality of the 1980s.

An aggressive cancer is like HIV: you have no time to futz around with the unproven.

Yeah, but you’re not cured!

Not yet.

Still, my healers at Dana Farber Cancer Institute succeed wonderfully.

Never once have they discussed with Sadie Mae and me “running out of options” or “turning our attention now to the quality of your (brief) life.” Instead, they finesse my treatment like chess masters, to stabilize and sustain me, while they diligently search for a promising trial. True, four such trials have come to naught; but people strike gold on their sixth, seventh, eighth trials. With their intervention, I live with acute leukemia as if it were the far-more-survivable chronic form.

Plus, my healers succeed with others, and I meet those survivors every week, while awaiting blood draws or infusions. My favorite was the Italian grandmother, cured for months, who on Christmas Eve Day was in for a routine blood check. She demanded “How long dis gonna take? I gotta get de Hell oudda heah.” It wouldn’t be a Buon Natale for her giant family without her frutti di mare feast.

My turn will come.

Think integrative, not alternative treatments.

Living within an hour’s drive of Dana Farber, I’d be a fool to smirk at it.

Still, as an aphorism goes, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.” Trust in medicine; but don’t expect it to succeed on its own.

“Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.”

The practice of integrative medicine combines conventional treatment with diet, exercise, herbal treatments, meditation, what have you. It ain’t quackery: The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine is a collaboration between Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (partnered with Dana Farber). It’s worth noting that Steve Jobs lived for eight years, post-diagnosis, with integrative treatments; but it appears he lost too much ground in those early months.

Two integrated therapies sustain me.

First is an anticancer diet. In her search for my salvation, Sadie Mae bought the book Anticancer: A New Way of Life (see sidebar of “Essential Knowledge”). It detailed how cancer spreads (metastasis); how it thrives; and how specific foods combat those mechanisms.

For example, garlic, green tea and turmeric are clinically, credibly proven to cause apoptosis, a sort-of suicide by cancer cells. Carrots inhibit cancer cell growth, as do beets. (Gross. Beets smell like freshly-turned grave dirt.)

The results? An anticancer, largely organic diet took 30 dumpy pounds off me and gave me energy when I should be losing it, and raised my neutrophils—healthy white blood cells—from being dangerously low (putting me at risk from death by a head cold) to near normal levels, in perhaps three weeks.

If diet proved the second most-powerful alternative treatment for me, faith is the first.

Serenity is, perhaps, the most powerful alternative treatment.

I count every day that I spend above ground as a miracle; and post-diagnosis, I’ve had 1,007 such miracles, as of this morning. My vigor is a miracle—with my red blood count, I should be riding a Hoveround with an oxygen tank in the basket.

God did all of that, and can cure me of AML as well.

(Here too, Sadie Mae guided me. For years, she told me of God’s promises, and one day I listened.)

Serenity is, perhaps, the most powerful alternative treatment.

Radical Remission Book
I cannot sing the praises of this book enough. It documents cases in which alternative treatments amplified medical intervention; or when medicine failed, while alternative therapies succeeded. Please, visit the Radical Remission Project; there you’ll find hope.

The book Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds (linked in the Essential Knowledge sidebar) tells wonderful stories of people who were “sent home to die,” but survived.

One commonality is serenity—however you achieve it.

Shin Terayama, a Japanese physicist, was sent home in 1984 to die from inoperable, metastasized kidney cancer. His doctors halted treatment. Shin accepted death, but after decades of a panicked, fearful work life, he wished to achieve serenity in his final weeks. He watched the sunrise atop his apartment building every morning. He meditated through breathing exercises and aligning his chakras (a Hindu and Buddhist practice). He took up again the cello that he loved in his youth, and switched to a macrobiotic diet. He refused to hate his cancer; rather, he loved it like a child he had created.

To both his astonishment and that of his healers, he lived, and lives today. Shin didn’t battle cancer. He swam it like a river, neither resisting nor panicking.

Shin inspired me to look into chakra work, much of which is clearing “blockages,” letting go of miseries, injuries, pride. But the Christian faith with which I was familiar had similar answers.

I had much of which to let go. Between ADHD (clinically diagnosed) and chronic, lifelong depression, I hadn’t enjoyed a peaceful day since the crib. No self-help book or antidepressant cracked my code; but Christ did, guiding me to peaceful ways to think, to act, to be. If I am to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:36-40), anger and wrath are impossible. Knowing that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7), I came to believe that fear is faith in Satan, not in God. And, fear can be chased off with Jesus’ words, “Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” Fear—even of cancer—is simply against my faith.

Imagine what such serenity can do, integrated with chemotherapy? Or, to prevent cancer in the first place?

Remember David’s sling.

Sling-Small
A shepherd’s sling, like David used to slay Goliath. With God’s blessing, it was enough. Plenty.

I pray to God, “Anoint my healers and their medicines as you anointed David and blessed his shepherd’s sling.” Clearly, he does.

And, He created the foods He knew would sustain the very creatures of his design—foods like legumes, garlic, papaya, and beets, all with anticancer properties. Pringles and cream soda (once my favorite snack) are Man’s doing, and did me no good.

So, chemo means survival. For some, it is all we need. But can we take that chance? I am certain that integrating chemo with diet and faith allow me to thrive. An even deeper faith, plus a new clinical trial, will cure me.

Godspeed. 9.