Such a nice-looking man. Might be in his late 40s. Soft brown pillows for eyes that all but weep compassion. He enters my white sterile space and holds onto my forearm with just the right amount of pressure to preserve the IV placements and still offer comfort.
He’s just returned from his office after having me tell him about my disease. I was there for a bizarre and dangerous high blood pressure reaction to the flu shot. Go figure. Like I don’t have enough to deal with. He was sure he misheard me each time I said, almost laughing, in response to his repeated question “Any other underlying issues we might need to know about or address while you’re here?”
“Well, I have Stage 4 cancer. It’s called a chromophobe and it’s somewhat related to a kidney issue I had a few years back.”
“Did you know,” he says, “that you have what we call an ‘orphan cancer’? No one is spending any time researching it and little is known about it because there’s no interest or money in any research. It’s that rare and all but abandoned.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m called a unicorn by my doctor and most of the UCLA staff I see. They heard of me somewhere in a book they read, but no one ever saw a patient like me. But don’t you cry, Doctor, stranger things have happened than outliving a creepy slow-moving unknown cancer.”
There are pancreatic cancer patients who now live for many years. My doctor has informed me that if I take this cocktail of pills, I will probably live what would have been my normal life span, whatever that is. It’s such an unknown and I don’t dwell on deadlines, anyway, pardon the pun.
My body has reacted so poorly to the usual dose of the cocktail that I spend about a quarter of the time off the meds to recover my stamina, the ability to digest anything, and even my cognitive awareness. When it becomes apparent that I just can’t tolerate the prescribed amount, the dose is reduced. I’m now on what my hematologist says might be the lowest dose she can give me and still have any hope of its controlling the growth of my many tumors. Funny thing is, I feel fine, all the time, except when I react to the cure. Something is wrong about this. It must be.
But I continue to go about my days as if nothing has radically changed. And then . . . a day like today happens.
I’m off to see my gynecologist. I’ve been his patient since he opened his office here in the South Bay of the Greater Los Angeles area and he’s about 20 years my junior. A kind, quiet man. I like him. I went in for my usual checkup and because we chat, as I’m sure he does to some extent with all his patients, he asks how I am. He notices the weight loss. He notices that my spirits are high, that I’m looking ahead, as always. I update him casually, almost in passing, telling him about my reaction to my meds while in the hospital two weeks ago. I mention that I might not be able to take this program of meds without dying from it. Not really dying because I’d be taken off them before too great damage could be done.
And then he asks about my activities, in general, my family, of course, and the upcoming holidays. And before you know it, he’s crying. Weeping. Wiping his eyes beneath his glasses. I told him to stop, that I’m going to be fine until I’m not and that that could take a few good years yet. I’m 74; I’ll take 80. I’ll take anything and everything and play mahjong or canasta or go for my morning walks, travel when the world reopens, make mega-dinners for the holidays for my family, perform my many volunteer activities for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and LOVE EVERY MINUTE OF IT!
Somehow, they tell me, there’s only enough oil (spirit) in me for one night of Hanukkah, metaphorically speaking. But I believe that, in my case, in my body and mind, there’s enough to last for eight nights, or until the cavalry comes to slay the Greeks. It’s the Maccabees (me) against the Seleucid Empire (the Greeks, led by Antiochus IV, a.k.a cancer). He says I’m so strong and resilient, that I’m one of the most warmhearted and inspirational people he knows. Then, he slouches out of the room saying he’ll see me next year.
Yes, he will! A miracle can happen here. I’m betting on it. Hanukkah is a time of reflection. Each night, while we revel in the possibility of miracles, luck, grace and will, the flame of the shamus, or, as my mother taught me, the mother candle, lights all the other candles. Her children. And she does it without losing a ray of her own flame. That, too, is a miracle.
Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, brings light from darkness, hope from despair. And here I am, going on and on . . .