It was two o'clock in the afternoon when the telephone rang. It was my doctor.
"Rocky, this is Dr. Psyenzsky. We got the results back on your biopsy and . . . it was positive. I'm sorry. You've got a low-grade lymphoma. I didn't want to tell you like this, over the phone, but I felt you should know as soon as possible . . ."
My mind went blank as the blood rushed from my head. I sat down, a concession to my weakening knees. The doctor droned on. He was saying something about a future appointment, a test of some kind, but the numbness that had enveloped my senses left me a step behind.
"Yes, I'll . . . I'll see you day after tomorrow. Thank you," I muttered.
In a daze, I returned the telephone receiver to its cradle.
How long I sat staring at the floor, I don't know. I tried to think. Slowly, clumsily, my mind struggled to grasp the words. "Low-grade lymphoma." I knew it meant cancer. I had been under observation for four months and had heard this word lymphoma many times. Lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system. Cancer, lymphoma. I tried to equate the two. Somehow I couldn't. I couldn't have cancer. A low-grade lymphoma perhaps, but not cancer. I was 30 years old and felt great.
It was Oct. 26, 1983. I looked out of my window over the streets of Kansas City. I lived in a downtown high-rise, and from where I sat, I could see a swarm of humanity scurrying below.
"Look at them," I thought. "Is that all they have to think about, the sale at Macy's? I have cancer."
"NO!" I screamed, breaking the silence. And in my mind I finished the thought, "It's a low-grade lymphoma. No big deal, okay?" I breathed deeply. I had made a pact with myself.
I stood up, perhaps to test my legs, maybe to signal that the meeting was adjourned. Shaking my head, I walked to the couch and sat down again. I remembered when it had started, back in May. It had been a beautiful spring morning, sunshine flooding my apartment with the promise of a magical day. I was preparing to play tennis. In the bathroom, I finished brushing my teeth, then reached for a can of deodorant. I raised my right arm, and then I saw it: a lump the size of a large almond.
My eyes narrowed. Why hadn't I seen that before? I poked and prodded. It was soft, almost rubbery. There was no pain. Shrugging, I made a mental note to keep an eye on it. I'd see a doctor if it didn't go away. Six weeks later, the lump was the size of a walnut. I knew I should have it checked, but I hadn't seen a physician in years. Flipping through the yellow pages, my chief concern was finding a doctor nearby -- any doctor, so long as it was convenient.
The doctor was an older gentleman with a friendly face. He had seen a lot over the years, I could tell. When he saw and felt the lump under my arm, that face changed. I noticed it. It was a lapse in the professional veneer, a tiny window through which I glimpsed the truth. For the first time, I was afraid.
I was told I had a general lymphadenopathy, a swelling of lymph nodes throughout the body. His trained fingers had found many others besides the one I had shown him.
"It could be anything," he said, "from a simple reaction caused by an infection, to a lymphoma. That's a form of cancer."
As he arranged for further tests, I turned the word over in my mind. Lymphoma. I wasn't sure I'd ever heard it before, but I was sure about the look on my doctor's face. The walk home was the longest of my life.
Soon I was being examined by another doctor at a local hospital. There was no real sense of urgency. He took blood and called me in a week. He took more blood. Two months passed. The fear that had gripped me in June had long since vanished. I felt terrific. It couldn't be anything important. Nevertheless, when the doctor said he wanted to perform a biopsy, I felt uneasy. It sounded serious.
The operation was quick and easy, done with a local anesthetic. When it proved to be negative, I breathed a sigh of relief. Despite my confidence, I'd been thinking about cancer a little too much.
Two more months passed. Eight weeks in which to watch and worry. The original lump was nearly the size of a chicken egg, and others had appeared and grown with astonishing speed. They were visible under both arms, on my neck, and in my groin. It was October and, once again, I was afraid. I knew it was cancer. The second biopsy confirmed that. It was a much bigger operation, done with a general anesthetic, and I was unconscious for five hours. They had taken two nodes this time. The results were conclusive.
In some ways that phone call informing me of the situation was just a formality.
The next several days found me living in a twilight zone somewhere between fantasy and reality. My three dearest friends, the only people outside of the medical center aware of my illness, were determined that I should learn everything about it, and that I should have the best health care available anywhere. They spent hours in the medical library, digging out every study, every article relevant to my condition. I read it all, but my reluctance to accept the seriousness of my disease made comprehension impossible.
The literature was specific, detailing my situation precisely, but somehow the words did not seem to apply to me. Nodular mixed lymphoma was described as incurable. This clashed dramatically with my image of "low grade," which I was determined to believe meant "not serious." I didn't want to read any more. I didn't want to know. My inclination was to curl up into a ball. If I refused to face the enemy or acknowledge its presence, it wasn't really there.
This process of denial served me well for nearly three weeks, softening the blow of reality, but one day, alone in my room, it occurred to me: "I have cancer." Cancer. I had it. It was within me, oblivious to my special individuality. Cancer, the indiscriminate killer, had chosen me at random.
For the first time, I looked my enemy in the eye.
It was on this day that I began my fight toward recovery. Acknowledging the terrible power of my foe gave me the impetus to mount a counterattack. With new enthusiasm, I read again the published reports on lymphoma. I took note of the specialists in the field and consulted them one after another. I had my case reviewed by a panel of experts, including pathologists and oncologists experienced in the diagnosis and treatment of my disease. And I began to look within myself.
In an effort to reverse the momentum of my cancer, while I continued to seek the best in medical aid, I began a program of mental exercises designed to activate my immune system. This entailed "visualizing" my enemy and, with graphic clarity, imagining its destruction. I sought the services of a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist. If, as I had read, cancer could be caused by stress, anxiety or repressed aggression, I wanted to root that out.
Although I had mixed feelings about someone invading the privacy of my mind, I hoped the psychiatrist would uncover some deep dark resentment harbored over the years in my subconscious, a resentment strong enough to have triggered the overthrow of my body's defense system. I needed a reason for my illness and a focus for my response.
That first session lasted three hours. Each week I returned for another round of hypnotherapy. My determination to beat the cancer was stronger than ever.
We never discovered a cause for my disease, but seeing the therapist on a regular basis served to relieve the anxiety of my situation, and it was at this point that I began to tell my other friends and my family of my condition. Having faced the truth myself made the task less difficult. Indeed, in each case, the emotional burden was on the recipient of the news.
Meanwhile, my quest for the best in medical care came to its zenith when I received a phone call from Dr. Robert Young of the National Cancer Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health. I had been referred to the institute by a specialist in Columbia, Mo. When Dr. Young suggested I fly to Bethesda for an interview, I agreed.
It was Dec. 7, 1983, when I made my initial visit to NCI. After a blood test and a review of my medical history, I was accepted into Protocol MB-110, a program of chemotherapy and radiation designed to treat and to study patients like me. For the next six weeks I endured a schedule of tests and examinations of every kind. Chemotherapy was to begin Jan. 24, 1984.
The night preceding my first treatment was spent at one of the nicer hotels in Washington. I had flown into town with my girlfriend that afternoon, and we decided to spoil ourselves. Having heard the ugly stories about chemotherapy, I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to enjoy myself again.
We ate dinner and walked around the city, my thoughts continually on the ordeal ahead. My moods that evening swung from near manic excitement to depression. I was about to enter a long dark tunnel, one that would have to be traversed alone despite all the love and support of my friends and family.
At 2:30 the following afternoon, I sat down in the chair provided for chemotherapy patients. The nurse inserted the i.v. into my left arm. I looked at my girlfriend.
"At this moment," I said, "the cancer has gone as far as it will go. From here on in, I'm getting well."
A year and more has passed since that first treatment, and I have experienced many changes and learned many things. Of course I lost my hair, but much to my surprise, I wasn't bothered in the least. Vanity pales in the face of genuine matters of concern.
Also, I moved to Washington. Flying in and out each week from Kansas City proved to be too great a strain. I learned who my friends are, who cares and who doesn't, by the way they treated me or by the efforts they made to keep in touch. And I learned that cancer has a stigma attached to it even to this day.
It's an old story. People learn you have a disease and suddenly drop out of sight. No one shakes your hand. Avoidance or patronization becomes the rule. Loved ones speak optimistically of your recovery and wait for your death. It's worse for some than others, and I experienced relatively little of this type of behavior. Nevertheless, to some degree, it's encountered by all in my condition.
Nasty as these aspects are, however, they cannot be compared to the horrors of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy causes nausea -- long bouts of it -- nights and days of fatigue, loss of appetite and vomiting. It causes sores in the mouth, nosebleeds and other discomforts too numerous or complex to mention. Anticipatory nausea, when a patient throws up at any reminder of treatment, is a problem, and worse yet is each week's mental dilemma: a tug of war in which one side says, "Get your treatment. Beat the cancer," and the other side replies, "No, you'll only get sick."
I'm now in my 12th cycle of this routine, my 13th month. The cancer within me has been drastically reduced, but as yet I have no guarantee of a complete remission. I have, however, complete faith in my doctor, Jim Salwitz, and in the National Cancer Institute and its incomparable staff of research scientists. I have faith in my nurses, but most of all, I have faith in myself and in my ability to survive.
One day I will be well. I know that, not because a cure has been discovered -- one hasn't -- but because I took it upon myself to fight back: to involve myself, to learn and to mount a counterattack. I took responsibility for my illness and for my recovery.
I will be well because one day, alone in my room, I looked my enemy in the eye.