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Cancer, my way

A reporter's most difficult story

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Editor's note: This story originally ran in the May 20, 2000, edition of Creative Loafing.

Six months ago, I was told I'm dying. I was diagnosed with renal-cell carcinoma, an especially nasty disease even by cancer standards. We cancer patients are told any type of the disease can be cured. But those with kidney cancer that has metastasized face particularly daunting odds.

A year ago earlier, a tumor had been discovered lurking behind my right kidney. I'd been experiencing a little discomfort of the urinary variety. The tumor was the cause. So we had it taken out, along with the kidney itself.

Teensy traces of renal cells were found, and it was decided that, after a period of recuperation, I would undergo immunotherapy. By this method, the patient is injected with Interferon or Interluken 2 or, as in my case, both. The effect on the patient is basically like the flu from hell.

There were no injections on weekends. So by Sunday, I would start to feel half human again only to be felled anew. By Monday night, it was back to bed with aches, chills and nausea.

The method seems a little primitive. Doesn't it? Injecting poisons into people's bodies to cure a disease. I'm no doctor, but it all smacks a little of leeches and bleeding; I think one day it will be placed in the same category. Maybe my low opinion of the treatment is somewhat colored by what was to come.

I went back to my position as a news reporter at CBS Atlanta. I've worked there 11 years, and it felt weird: Monumental events had taken place in my life, and work was just the same.

But, like any other job, it's kind of like riding a bicycle. You don't forget how to do it. I was assigned to cover the story of Hosea Williams' kidney operation, which was the same as mine. I was feeling well enough and confident enough to point out in my piece that I had survived the same kind of procedure.

But a few weeks after my month of "treatment, I was CT scanned. Having survived surgery and radical therapy and feeling as well as I did, I was looking forward to a positive result. But I was sent for a second scan after the first revealed "something in the lungs. The technician confirmed (reluctantly, after my reporter-like grilling) that there was "something there but that I would have to find out what from my doctor.

This is one of many areas where the Byzantine structure of modern medicine could be a little more humane. The wait patients undergo between testing and being told what those tests reveal is excruciating and unnecessary. I drove to the doctor's office the next day with what I must be the anticipation of an Oscar nominee if the alternative to winning were dying.

As he came in, the doctor had on his best mortician's face. I heard him almost as if I was observing the scene in a film. I was, on one level, hearing his words, on another, desperately trying to find my happy place. My exterior remained -- of this I am proud -- calm, stoic even. Inside, a freight train was crashing through my neural canals.

The doctor spoke for some time. I heard him tell me that my cancer wasn't cured. It had metastasized into both my lungs where there were now "several tumors. There was also, he told me, "something in my liver that he "thought might be "something (and that turned out to be yet another renal cell tumor). As a kind of grizzly icing on the cake he informed me that, oh yes, there was still renal cell activity where I'd had my kidney out. He stopped talking.

"So I'm fucked? I asked. He nodded.

I find no fault with my doctor for his bluntness. I had, all along, insisted upon it. But that little nod hurled me from a cliff. The fall continues as I write you. The sheer enormity of what I had just been told still appears to me as a terrible abyss lined with sorrow and confusion and a lot more. It was a cancer for which "there is no known cure, he told me. Pressed to give me some estimate of the life expectancy of a person at my stage of metastasis, he told me, "four to 16 months. The abyss became harrowingly deeper.

Six months later, I would like to say to the doctor, in the words of my 8-year-old son, Ian: "nanee nanee, boo boo and hope I may repeat it 10 months from now. I think he'd like that, too.

There was some discussion of "experimental treatments. I would be "shopped around to see if I was a fit for one of those studies. We would keep in touch. I thanked him, still in the detached state that had characterized the whole visit.

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