My daughter said I look like a cyborg.

A many-pronged thingy fits into my back, dead center, keeping my mind clear and my bod foggy. An IV feed perces my left hand, flowing in electrolytes and mysterious clear liquids. My torso is adored with about eight sticky, soft-plastic circles armed with metal nipples, and numerous thin colored cords wrap themselves around the body. A clear tube protrudes from my sanctum sanctorum, loops itself around my legs and wanders over to a plastic bag that seems to be filling nicely with a beautifully colored chardonnay, or, if I swill cranberry juice, zinfandel.

"Taking a walk," which all patients are encouraged to accomplish after surgery by shuttling around the ward several times, is an operation for Cylons like me. The chardonnay and various bits of equipment must be unclipped from the $26,000 bed and re-hung somewhere on the wheelies. Somehow I must be hauled upright, have shoes jessed on, and then off we go the great adventure: arround and around the ward, all eight beds of it.

I’m a star patient–yes, someone on the nursing team actually used that term. I write two blog entries, engage everyone on staff in conversation, entertain visitors, and, most miraculous of all, produce a little product indicative of the bowel’s resumption of function.

The epidural in my back anaesthetises everything in the torso that is lower than it. Never before have I awakened from surgery feeling this good, this competent, this positive. What I don’t comprehend, of course, is how I would feel on the regular post-op goof–narcotics, lots of them.

On the third day, the Eppy is removed. I’m a little apprehensive, since it hurt so much going in (apparently unusual), but removal doesn’t hurt at all.But suddenly, I’m not half the patient I used to be. I can’t sit up without help; can’t cough or blow my nose. The prospect of sneezing is terrifying. Getting out of bed has become an ordeal. Food repels me. My sweat stinks. The blood pressure rises to heights never before seen on my screen. I can’t bend forward, lie on my side, or walk without hanging onto my increasingly protuberant belly for dear life, lest it fall off. The entire abdominal cavity, front and back, has become a theater of pain, racing impetuously up and down the scale from 2 to 8.

The mountain of belly rising before me as I lie in the bed reminds me we are only flesh and blood. How can a body cope with all that we inflict on it?

Oh, yes, I whimper. Once you’ve been a Cylon, it’s hard to go back.

The Knife

Naturally, far from everything was finished as planned before surgery morning dawned. I had contemplated going over useful information with my daughter, such as where my will is kept, or how to ward off various slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which might reasonably be expected to fling themselves our way in the near future. In the interests of not freaking her out any more than she already appeared to be, however, I kept my mouth shut, gave her a hundred-dollar bill in walking-around money, and threw some books and night things into a bag.

I drove. She didn’t even ask. Probably too tired—seven a.m. is too early for her. As soon as we arrived, hospital staff shooed her away, with just a moment to hug me. “Take care of my life, now,” I said, handing her the keys and the aforementioned bag of stuff, thinking that this was her first taste of what it will be like when I do die, and suddenly she’ll this have stuff and activity to manage. “Stop worrying,” I said. “Remember what my mother said about me? ‘Born nine days late and never caught up’? Well, there’s this rule at the heavenly gates: if you didn’t finish your homework, you can’t come in. Just think of all the homework I have to catch up on!” I got a weak smile, and she was gone.

Then the real work began. Clothes off and into a plastic bag, along with the reading material the hospital instructions had suggested I bring, heaven knows why. On with the ugly cotton gown. So far,so familiar. A nurse handed me pills for pain—that was different, but I guess she’d seen an epidural put in before. Because that, indeed, proved a little bit of hell. But before that, something new: thigh-high stockings, so tight you squiggled your mouth around behind one ear in your concentration to get the danged things on (No, they are not designed for the plump patient).

Supposedly, this epidural was going to make a large positive difference in post-operative pain control and let me get away with less narcotic substances cluttering the system, but there is a price to be paid in the negative difference in pre-operative pain. I sat with my naked back toward the Ghostmaker doc, my head and shoulders hung down to afford him a better spine curvature to find his way, a nurse standing in front of me to prevent me from bolting or perhaps falling off the gurney with pain. And oh my heavenly silver socklets, was there ever pain! I cried like a little kid—couldn’t help it.

And then it was over and the Ghostmaker or somebody suggested I “lie yourself down”–I kid you not: apparent medical or nursing degrees do not a grammarian make. I corrected the speaker twice, because a grammar nazi with that much goof in her can’t help herself, but I was gentle about it—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And that, as I lay spread out like the proverbial patient etherised upon a table, was all I knew until I opened an eye to see my daughter looking for a spot to put some flowers.

The Last Supper

My daughter is distraught at the thought of her mother being cut into—or perhaps it’s simply fear of losing the one rock in her life. She insists on cooking dinner for me. Tomorrow, no food is allowed, and at four p.m. the purgation starts. That means tonight is my last bit of gustatory fun—for a bit, in my mind; possibly forever, in her mind.

She’s terrified I won’t get through the surgery, although that part is not nearly so scary for me. I’ve had surgeries before. Admittedly, this is my biggest: a hemicolectomy, an appendectomy, and a hernia fix. Then there’s the added fun of an epidural. But no, what bothers me most is the prospect of the doctors’ finding a gut full of cancer—that’ll put a monkey wrench into my works, all right.

I’m still getting used to the feel of the word “cancer” in my mouth. I’m not ready to have that word there permanently. It would mean vast changes in diet, a curtailed life, and a short horizon of time. So perhaps this is indeed my last supper free in a possibly cancer-free life.

I remember my three-year-old serving her parents tea in bed, her face screwed up tight with concentration as she balanced a huge tray down the hall. I prepare myself for anything.

Prawns in garlic and ginger, fresh greens, mashed potatoes with the skins, and a nice white wine. A little dark chocolate., all served with filial love. Who could ask for more?

Tomorrow morning’s the last time for pure, smooth, French-pressed coffee. No food, all day.

If you must get cancer, make it colon cancer. Coffee, chocolate, wine—they all supply butyrates and will join those from all that miso and yogurt you’ve been swilling. Run, glucuronidase, run!

Food served with love is the best medicine.

Breakfast of Champions

I out-pilled my mother.

About two years ago, when my nonagenarian mother was in a health crisis so severe doctors and family all thought she would die within hours, I got the bright idea of running her meds through a conflict-checker online.

For a lawyer, that verges on smart thinking. Lawyers check for conflicts in the office all the time, usually by thinking about the past or by having a secretary check ratty files and time cards, or maybe, if the law office has been dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, a computerised client list. Applying that template to a medical scenario? Hey, pure genius!

Stodgy thinking or pure genius, it worked. One of my mother’s prescriptions was fighting with three or four others, driving her nuts and causing enormous pain. As soon as the conflicting meds were withdrawn, bingo! the same old feisty, sharp-tongued champion of the sharp-elbows competition roared back into play, handicap of IQ 165.

Did I say four or five prescription meds? Those were just the main actors. She had bit players, too–about fifteen prescriptions all told, eating away the family estate to the tune of several thousands annually, benefitting my mother in their convincing array with an assurance of the best medical care.

"This will never happen to me," I would mutter sotto voce. But, of course, you never know what will happen to you once you have fallen into the Old Sod category. I think of the day that looms in my future, when I will not be able to walk out the door and into the woods with a beloved dog, and hope I end before that day.

Mum knew I didn’t fully approve of that cabinet full of prescriptions, especially as they were tricked out with "OTCs"–over-the-counter helpers, mostly to do with the business of excretion or the difficulties thereof. Last week, therefore, she viewed my pill collection on her counter with astonished dismay. Was her daughter so terribly ill as to qualify for sixteen prescriptions? One more than herself?

"They must be carefully taken," I warned her. "Breakfast takes forever nowadays." She blanched, and I almost relented. ”Watch," I advised, taking up the aerobic oxygen and letting twenty drops fall into a glass, followed by the passion-flower stuff (which smells just like oregon grape, by the way). "I drink this stuff against infection, with a glass of water. Then I wait."

We waited. "Now the modified pectin, to make the surgeon’s work easier." Another glass of water with those. "We wait again."

"These are not from the doctor," she pounced.

"Nope," I admitted readily. "They are for the doctor. They’ll make the surgery go better." She might have left then, but the next set of pills consisted of three yellow monsters. "Chelation," I said. "Where’s the yogurt? Don’t you have any yogurt that isn’t made of starch?"

She didn’t. I thought of the fridge in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which holds the same mush in variously labeled cans, but used her yogurt anyway to drop the vitamin-and-mineral stash into the system along with at least some good bugs. "In colon cancer there’s apparently too much glucuronidase," I explained. "So I eat plenty of fermented foods to put butyrates into the system. Butyrates happen when foods ferment. As in yogurt. Miso. That kind of thing."

As each type of preparation was used, I replaced it into my black bag. Twelve little bottles still squatted on the counter, threatening to encroach on her medical space. "What about those?"

"We wait half an hour," I informed her. "Don’t want to overwhelm the system."

Thirty minutes later, she ventured back into her kitchen, wanting to hear about my miracle drugs. "I need a chair," she said.

I hauled one in from the dining room.

"With arms," she reminded me.

I hauled in a better chair.

"Show me," she demanded. Hawthorn, for the heart Magnesium and calcium. Cocky Ten, more correctly called CoQ10.. Most important, because everyone is deficient in this one in these sunless days, Vitamin D. Astaxanthin, the super free-radical scavenger.Cayenne to thin the blood–this is the last day before surgery I can have this baby. A vision supplement, for aging eyes. Colloidal silver…. I downed the goodies with a swallow of the world’s best coffee, pure black, french-pressed, and a bit of very dark chocolate. Next: free-range eggs with fruit salsa and perhaps some creme fraiche on naan bread.

"When are you going to get some real medicine?" she burst out. "And shouldn’t you stop drinking coffee and eating chocolate?"

"Mom," I said, handing her a tissue for the fourth time that day, "if you ever get cancer, get colon cancer. No symptoms, and on top of that, coffee, chocolate, and wine all contain butyrates–just what the doctor ordered!"

"You have more pills than I have," she said wonderingly. "How do you know they will save you?"

"I don’t. But I do know they make me feel stronger, and that’s what’s needed now."

"When do you get some real medicine?"

"Hopefully, never," I said. "We don’t need to think about that question now, Mum. The important thing is to get through the surgery as strong as possible."

Tears threatened. She was thinking about the prospect of losing her last child–me–for no reason her formidable intellect could ascertain. "You eat so healthy…and so little. Look at us–we eat normal." She waved a hand at the twin buckets of medications for her and for my step-dad. "A few real medicines, and we are in the nineties."

I didn’t have the heart to point out that her generation had grown up before pollution put a stranglehold on Earth. No medicine yet invented will likely stem the tsunami of illness that may well overcome us older humans. Remembering how, as a child, I was detailed to the task of poisoning the "weeds"–the dandelions, thistles, and indigenous plants–and the "bugs" in our vegetable garden with a wand of DDT or a spray gun of the latest murderous chemical, I judge it a miracle to be alive at all today.

Mum’s fridge is a desert. I can’t bring myself to eat a single item in it. Everything is chock full of stiffeners or softeners, sugar in all its disguises, screwed-up oils, artificial this and that. No fresh greens or fruit–not a leaf or segment. For protein, a pan of what passes for gravy, with several bits of boneless chicken drowned in it. The wonder of it all is that this horrible diet seems to be survivable for Mum and Dad as it certainly would not be for me–two days of it and I’m so sick, I need a week to recover..

I take Mum in my arms. "Don’t worry," I say, stoking the sparse hair that once was so fiercely abundant. "I’m fine. I’m strong. The docs know what they’re doing. Everything’s going to be fine."

And if not, I think, you’ll be the last one to know.

The Ghostmaker

The booking clerk at the OR called: the anaesthetist wanted to meet with me.

It dawned on me then that this promises to be a serious surgery. I’ve never met with an anaesthetist before. Most of us can hardly spell the word, although, by my age, most humans have had occasion to fall under his spell.

Dr. M has no office–just a well-organised desk in a corner of the surgery area.There’s a binder on the desk which turns out to be totally focused on the body I walk around in. He lets me read it. This is good, since I own the body which is the subject of the book and I also believe in patient autonomy. These reports belong to me, whether I paid for them personally or not.

This discussion is about what is going to happen to the body on Monday, and about how to keep the pain under control afterwards. It turns out our understandings about the colon re-section differ quite a bit. I think Dr. P is going to chop out just a few inches, but Dr. M expects a foot or more will have to go. The nice thing about being in a small town which has a biggish hospital is that doctors can actually get hold on one another quickly. So off toddles Dr. M, to talk with Dr. P. While he’s gone, I peruse the binder…and discover the answer to a long-held question.

Fifteen years ago, when I was suffering the indignities and agonies of full-fledged FMS while simultaneously being the butt of approximately 40 lawsuits, I was sent for several IMEs. An Independent Medical Examination is a procedure that supposedly gives the court an independent professional insight into the litigant’s medical condition, to help the court (i.e., judge) decide what factors caused it. But IMEs are often boilerplate, biased garbage. Every lawyer knows that there’s a stable of plaintiffs’ doctors, and a stable of defense doctors, and seldom the twain do meet.

I was sent to the defense doctors, of course, the guys whose job it is to opine that one’s symptoms are all in one’s head. My examiner was doubtless chosen for his cleverness; the defense needed someone who could trap me, the lawyer who just had to be faking her symptoms, into betraying her expertise with the situation. So, as he was feeling me up, which is, after all, his duty, he said provocative things, as if talking to himself, hoping for a reaction. The comment I remember most clearly was his observation that he found hepatomegaly.

That word means the liver is enlarged. A cross-examining lawyer would seize on that word as implying the patient is an alcoholic or some other kind of addict. Hepatomegaly was an invitation to spar with the good doctor. I might argue with him and thereby give him material for the defense theory that I was a malingerer and also, perhaps, release a few facts about me. At the least, if I reacted, it demonstrated my "unhealthy" interest in studying my own case.

I said nothing. No reply. But I worried. As the treatment plant of the human body, livers are tremendously important, and we each have only one. Was mine really in trouble? I’ve worried about the poor thing since 1995.

The binder reported the results of the x-rays and scans I’ve had lately. Not a damned thing wrong with any organ besides the colon. The liver was stated to be normal.

That doctor lied to me. He lied, for the sake of a lousy lawsuit. For an insurance company that paid his bill. Remember this if you ever are forced to submit to an IME. The examining doctor is not your friend. Keep your mouth shut.

Law tries. It tries to be good; tries to help people. Yet it simply cannot understand that the profit motive poisons its systems.

My current doctors have no axe to grind. They are totally on my team–what a relief! Dr. M returned and cheerfully described the choices in pain control. We chatted about ancient history–his childhood and mine–when each of us underwent a tonsillectomy while we were put out like lights by a sweet-smelling snootful of ether. (The stuff is still used, apparently, where more sophisticated substances are not available.) Nowadays, there’s a choice between patient-operated narcotic administration and an epidaural administration of anaesthetic, with maybe a little painkiller to boot.

Here’s the scary bit: the epidaural is a lot like a spinal tap. I think the docs even refer to the procedure as such. As a law student, I had to do research on an almighty thick case where a patient who underwent a spinal tap became a permanent paraplegic. I learned a lot of medicine from that case, but I also learned I never wanted a spinal tap, or a lawsuit.

The time has come to add the spinal tap to the lawsuits that have bludgeoned me. Times have changed: instruments and remedies have improved. Narcotics, on the other hand, are as nasty as ever–if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be dropped on a sidewalk like a sack of concrete, try pulling a morphine feed out of your arm sometime. Aughh!

I think I’m going to opt for the epidaural. But it’s frightening.

I think of all the moments in my body’s life when what I understand to be me was not in that body. Never mind the tonsillectomy–what about the times I’ve fainted or been knocked out, and the half-dozen surgeries? Where was "I" in those moments?

Either I did not exist, or "I" was a ghost. That’s what this man does for a living–turn people into ghosts, and then back into people.

Everything will be fine, and the surgery will give up answers otherwise unobtainable. But for several hours on Monday, I will be a ghost. This time, I plan to ask my spirit to pay attention to its whereabouts. Just for once, I’d like to know what the hell is going on.

Star Power

Cancer brings gifts. Opportunities. Stardom, even.

I’ve been seriously ill before–almost died several times–and nobody much cared except one doctor and a couple of woo-woo practitioners. Even my husband didn’t bother to come to the hospital until Day 5. At the time, such cool dismissal of life-obstructing symptoms seemed the result of my own inadequacies, my unimportance–perhaps my gender. I must be a bad or unpleasant person–a lesser person–I couldn’t help thinking. The diagnosis of a permanent, long-term illness turned people off. Like many chronically ill persons, I felt abandoned, left to take my stroll through the valley of the shadow alone.

I’d been diagnosed with FMS, you see. Fibromyalgia, a name that means just "pain in the tissues", nothing more. The loser’s disorder–not even a real disease in the eyes of much of the allopathic medical world.

FMSsies, as I came to call us patients, are anything but sexy. We’re just a pain in the unmentionables.The trouble with fibromyalgia, I used to quip from the prison of pain that a bouquet of the sixty-some symptoms had tied me down in, is that the damned thing refuses to kill you. Today, an obit reporting a person died of FMS would still be greeted with guffaws and bad jokes about how the patient had finally hit on a symptom to believe in.

Lady C is different. If FMS is a trollop and a welfare bum, Lady C has the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. She’s a diva with a touch of the aristocrat. Cancer has allure on the research stage and in the fund-raising theater, in ways that dowdy FMS can never emulate. Where cancer’s initial symptoms are invisible, the shock of the diagnosis in the face of the patient’s apparent health adds an air of mystery to the malady. Our curiosity puts on the jacket of empathy or coat of sympathy and snap! just like that, we’re walking in the patient’s shoes, onstage in the star’s most important scene as the tale unfolds.

When, on the other hand, was the last time you or I empathised with a chronic-illness patient? They are so boring! Altijd ziek maar nooit dood. That’s what the Dutch say about those people who never go anywhere with their interminable disease but just sit there and wallow in the same old symptoms: "Always sick but never dead." Oh, please. Get on with your story. The nicer among us bite our tongues.

Cancer entertains us. The specter of death promises a denouement to the story. Watching cancer patients deteriorate is akin to signing up for an interactive vampire tale. Come on–admit it! Terminal illness is a page-turner; chronic illness is a snore. Writers, don’t assign your protagonist a chronic illness–it’s not sexy. Schadenfreude, however, is alive and well in everybody.

The mere mention of the Big C seems to shave twenty pounds off my ample form. The most common response to my news of cancer has been, I was thinking you’ve lost weight. This is usually followed by a remark on the fullness of my hair, as if it has been doing a heroic job of staying on my head since the words of my diagnosis were spoken. The truth? I’ve lost ten pounds by dint of incredible effort, and my hair is the same thick, wild, disorganised comet-tail it has been for six decades. Yet the power of the C word is so great that it puts me instantly onstage: people’s faces look just like a front-row audience from downstage center, expectant, focused, ready for the quip or the monologue sure to fall from my lips.

The show must go on, you learn from theater. Disappointing your public is the worst of sins. Go ahead: don the costume of the comedian; get out the half-wasted tubes of stage make-up. All that jazz helps keep you standing. Performing. Working your life, whatever’s left of it.

There’s star power in cancer, all right. Why? Because none of us believes there’s a cure? Oh my God–it’s CANCER…! Start carving the headstone. What kind of music would you prefer at your funeral, by the way?

Lady C flicks the decimal point in one’s social-capital account to the right one or two places, and she has the power to mobilise the energy of the community to help the star patient stand up and perform to curtain call. But she brings more valuable and personal gifts, too, a gift waiting for you in the mirrored dressing room, where you sit amidst sweat-stained costumes and weary fellow members of your troupe, pushing aside congratulatory bouquets. You watch your pallid face emerge as you scrape off the makeup. With every wad of cotton you use up, you edge a little closer to the mirror, a little closer to contemplating death, the hour that haunted face of yours will no longer be able to cast an image into the glass at all, makeup art or no.

Vancouver actress Babz Chula, who left the mirror with Lady C at age 64 last month, treasured death’s enhancement of her life. "That’s a blessing and a gift, to be able to value your life because you thought about death. In contemplating death, my life has such great value. It’s what you get from living with cancer, and that’s rich stuff."

Cancer hangs a star on your dressing-room door. However the last act plays out, you are the star of your show. No, no, they can’t take that away from you. Carry on. You have the gift.

Rocky Road

"I’m not the cancer type."

I believed that sentence with all my heart, the heart being the organ that is supposed to end my existence–many, many, many years from now, of course. I must have said that sentence a hundred times, whenever the Big C came up in conversation. I don’t need to let the medical establishment squash my tits. I can handle these little moles that look as if they’re planning on becoming bumpy or ornery with some goop made of yucca plants. I’m healthy…essentially.

Not cancer. I’m not supposed to have cancer. Cancer is for people who…suppress their feelings…bottle things up…are afraid to grab life by the throat..smoke like chimneys…lie like wieners in the sun…live near polluted waterways…eat crappy food—

Oh, stop with the blame-the-patient stuff!!

Every disease goes through this phase until some Dr. Brightlight discovers what the necessary factor for the disease really is–I’m surely a bit more sophisticated than that!

No sooner is an illness identified as distinct from illnesses we know, than society constructs stories to explain its existence. People contracted pellagra because they were black and poor. It was no wonder that aesthetes became tubercular. Of course gays get AIDS–what would you expect? As for fibromyalgia, small wonder this synonym for malingering manifests mostly in the weaker sex. But for clearly contagious diseases that swiftly cut wide swaths through society, diseases invariably develop the first chapters of their story by blaiming the victims.

Had I fallen for this blame game when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia? No way! When world-fibromyalgia expert Dr. Wolfe said to me, "Some people are depressed because they have fibromyalgia, and some people have fibromyalgia because they are depressed," I was so mad that I did a research project with over a hundred other FMSsies, learned science and statistics through the back door, wrote up papers and abstracts, had my research postered at international medical conferences. made a film, wrote a thesis, tried every remedy, and eventually came up with a theory of fibro’s causation and a practice for its management. By refusing to believe in the blame game, I turned myself into the world’s healthiest-looking FMSsy.

Lo and behold: now some real scientissts have begun to research the postulates of my theory–not bevcause of me or the theory, but because the illness is moving past the first chapters of its story, the chapters where beliefs get in the way of real and useful knowledge.

Why should cancer be any different? I thought. (Other than the risk, seeing that, if I’m wrong cancer will kill me.)

Seventeen minutes after arriving home from the internist’s office, I plunged into research on the computer. Like anyone, I wanted to know why. Why do I have cancer, since I’m not ‘the cancer type’?

Fact: there’s cancer in this body. Belief: I’m not the type. Facts: I live well. Cancer’s not rampant in my family. I am not that fat. I walk the dog. I don’t drink or eat bad stuff. Hardly any risk factors, right? Fact/Belief. Fact…belief….. Fact…rock-solid belief.

The lab must have made a mistake. Couldn’t I take the test again? I’d foolishly asked the GP. Not with twenty times too much blood in your sample, she’d said.

Then I toyed with the idea that the lab might have lost a decimal point somewhere, but even merely twice as much blood would have won me a colonoscopy prize. There was no way I could square my belief in myself as a non-cancerous type with what was undeniably happening.

I might as well examine facts, applying each one like sandpaper to my rock-solid belief..

What about family history? My mother’s family all live to be ancient curmudgeons–no worries there. But I resemble my father’s family much more strongly, and there is a saying, "Look at your mother; look at your father. Whom do you resemble? There is your fate."

One of my paternal uncles had died of cancer, I remembered. But he had smoked like a chimney all his life; so llung cancer could hardly have come as a surprise, surely?.When I’d met him while visiting the Netherlands more than forty years ago, his skin was the same gray as his suit, and I thought even then he wasn’t ong for this world.

The eldest brother, a florid, hail-fellow-well-met type who looked just like my father, died of the drink–presumably liver disease–in his seventies. My father died of smoking, too, at 67, an age that seeems frighteningly close now–his heart ended him in one thunderous attack. Yet the three borthers’ sister, who neither smoked nor drank, kept on choogling through age ninety.

I asked my mother about my paternal grandfather. I knew he had died at only 42, before my father was even born. I remember how frightened my father was of turning 42 himself, although he was not a superstitious man.. Had my Opa died in a car accident? One of those early cars with the "suicide doors"? Or was that my cousin? "Oh," my mother said, "He had stomach cancer."

So much for "no family history" of cancer. Those facts sandpapered the shine off my belief: the family I resemble has manifested cancer since at least 1917.

A book popped up in front of my face, from one of those outdoor bins where bookstores display books they are tired of seeing on their shelves. One dollar for Life Bridge, published in 1988, now a long time ago, medically speaking. There’s a whole page on colon cancer and a lot of information on cancer generally, From that book and the stuff online, I gradually came to understand that, inter alia, cancer and heart problems are not necessarily two separate things.

Another piece of sandpaper worn out. My belief in who I am is shrinking.

Advice from cancer survivors and cancer observers began filling the mailbox along with condolences, both of which seemed premature. Every other person seemed to have cancer, have survived it, or know someone with it. When a survivor called to invite me to tea, where she transferred her accrued wisdom about cancer to me, I felt my big fat useless belief crumble. She was a power sander to the thing. I should have worn a face mask, to avoid choking on the aerosol of my own willful blindness. When she finished with me, you could see right through that rock-solid belief, which had shrunk to a pebble, like an Apache tear. You can see through Apache tears, sort of, but you can’t be sure of what you’re seeing on the other side, and you’re not sure what use it will be, either.

Back home, I had a frank session with my mirror.

Fact: I haven’t been able to lose weight for at least two years, which is how long the surgeon thinks the cancer has been growing.

Fact: I look terribly tired, with haws like an overworked St. Bernard, in spite of having trained the body to get seven hours’ sleep daily.

Fact: there has been some funny business going on for months, maybe years, right at the spot where the cancer is–ranging from feeling a need to stretch that bit of that anatomy to, well, pain. Sensations I’ve ascribed to innocuous causes, like sitting for long periods.

Fact: yes, I’ve managed to kill the bits of skin that looked as if they wanted to flower into cancers, but I’ve ignored the possibility that they were already cancers when I zapped them–what does that do to my belief?

Fact: this month marks twenty years of unavoidable high stress for the organism I am. Stress is the one co-factor in colon cancer that is huge in my life. For twenty years, the annual stress score has been at least 600 points (where300 is the high-stress mark).

Fact: my generation, the Boomers, participated fully in the poisoning of the world. As a kid, I handled DDT and spread poison on our vegetable garden. Everybody I knew smoked in those days. I worked in a plastics factory for a while. Only weirdoes and sissies wore face masks around chemicals. Our teachers predicted science would give us all a life of leisure in which we’d never have to work, cook, or clean up again.Seriously, is it any wonder we’re falling ill after swallowing that guff? How can we not be the cancer type?

Fish come out of the water often raddled with cancers. If even our dogs get cancer in their short life span, how can we bigger, longer-lived mammals escape it?

Oh yeah, I forgot. Our belief that we are (a) not animals or (b) not like other animals or (c) smarter than other animals protects us from appreciating the effects of our toxic activities on our own bodies.

What do doctors think? I wondered. Do they still believ in a "cancer type"?

I posed the question obliquely to the surgeon. "I guess everyone’s the cancer type nowadays," I suggested.

He just smiled.

I tossed the Apache tear of my belief into the gravel bed in front of his office.

You know the saying, "If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill him." Doesn’t that mean, get rid of your beliefs? Belief seems to support certainty, customs and culture, I know, but in reality, belief just gets in the way of truth. Set yourself free: move those rock-solid beliefs aside to see the real landscape of your life.

It’s frightening. Every time I toss out a belief, my toes curl around the lip of the abyss. I teeter; forget to breathe. Recognising one’s mortality, witout hope or fear, is not for sissies.

Oddly, after such catharses, peace and comfort wrap around me, a little like the feeling after an NDE (near-death experience). What a gorgeous world! How sweet it is just to breathe!

True, because I am of this world, I will die to it one day. But not today.

Without beliefs, I have today. This day is all mine.

A Switchback in Time

In preparation for entering a PhD program, I wrote a little essay, "A Bend in Time", describing the experience of turning the corner in life. One corner. The corner. The curve where you switch your focus from the life you have lived, i.e., your youth and upbringing, to the life left to live.

The switch felt good at the time. I regarded it as a benchmark of maturity. The future stretched before me, another five decades of smooth, competent driving in the direction of eternity. No more stupid marriages or detours around destiny. I looked forward to a half century of untrammeled creativity. Productivity. The further accrual of wisdom. Fun. I would flower in my sixties as I never quite had as a sometime flower child in The Sixties.

Death, of course, would graciously arrive only after I grew tired of writing books and poems. There would be no period of incompetence, physical or mental, because my heart would take me out one starry night, suddenly, and preferably with the good manners not to wake me up.

From the pinnacle of one’s existence, it’s easy to imagine the mirage of the good life stretching out far ahead in time, leaving wide, comfortable margins on either side of one’s path. Sunny weather…as long as my poor heart stays together…keep writing all the time, the time….

The only way a colonoscopy fitted into that picture was to extract from it a relatively harmless diagnosis, at worst a medical slap on the wrist: At worst, "Hey, Dummy. Better lighten up on your favorite beverage and burger and up the exercise level. We found a cute little polyp or two in there."

This wrist-slapping was to occur in due course, when my GP could next see me.

Imagine my surprise when, as I sat on the edge of some functional piece of hospital furniture, trying to remember how to get dressed, the internist, Dr. H, came right up to this groggy doggy and said he wanted to see me pronto if not sooner in his office.

A bright guy, he must have figured that I must have figured out from his first words that, of the forty possible causes of twenty times the permissible blood in one’s stool, I must have nailed Cause #40. I’d been informed that results would not be forthcoming for weeks, but he told me immediately that there was a plyp or polyps, right at the start of my friendly and useful little colon, near the ileocecal valve, and that he hadn’t been able to snip off all the polyp without risking —

"Perforating the colon," I finished. Pretty good fro a groggy doggy. He nodded; then left. Busy man.

Two realisations emerged from the wavering mirage of my future. One: this saga wasn’t over. And wouldn’t be, for months. Two: I could now legitimately add the letters CP to the alphabet soup behind my name, for Cancer Patient.

I’ve heard these moments described as the sensation of blood freezing in the veins, or cold water dumped over one’s head. Me, I heard a screeching noise as the mirage of my future disappeared and the image of the infamous switchback on the road to Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park zapped out of my memory box and planted itself firmly into next week. Brakes! BRAKES!!

I was about to become a cartoon character, legs windmilling in air after leaving the precipice, held up only by the willing suspension of disbelief.This can’t be happening to me.

Oh, yes, it can.

I learned the finer points of driving from a Brit who liked to race. Hence, I know about braking before the curve so that you can accelerate through the curve–because there’s better control on acceleration than on deceleration. If you guess wrong, you end up oversteering like crazy all the way through the corner. Rather like being a patient, as I’d learned the last time I was really, really sick. The truism is, that the compliant, confident patient invariably does much better. Slow down before the surgery and prepare your mind, or you’ll wind up micromanaging your post-op condition to the point where nobody wants to spend any time with you, including yourself.

As hostel parent in the Park years ago, I ran the triple switchback to Takakkaw Falls many times, always in my Feeble Ford, an Econoline van that probably inspired the song by Humphrey and the Dumptrucks that goes, "That old truck’s got a lot of heart; remember that grease is cheaper than parts." Going down the switchback wasn’t too bad, except on the occasions I was rushing to reach a fresh source of water for the radiator, as the porcupines had once again lunched on the rubber hoses in the engine. Going up the switchback demanded consummate skill, however. The engine needed to take a run at the steep slope at almost maximum speed–but not enough speed to lose it on the corners. Tricky.

At Takakkaw, you could always err on the side of caution, knowing you could take another run at the switchback. The first part was relatively easy; the second and third sections had to be done in one go. If some fool tourist from the city came down as you were trying to come up, you’d have to back all the way down, which was no fun, but could be done.

Cancer might not offer a second run at its twists and turns.

A couple of days later, I was in the internist’s office. The original appointment for a couple of weeks after the colonscopy had been shortened up to just a few days. The hospital seemed to be in an all-fired hurry to get me on the road to wherever. For the first time, I felt frightened.

THe internist referred me to a surgeon. Now I had to believe this was really happening. The prospect of sugery rose up before my eyes as real as the mud and stones of the Takakkaw switchback–but only its first section. I know I can drive that section all right. This body has had a few surgeries. Beyond that, however, there’s fog, like the low morning clouds in the mountains that could fool a driver into thinking there was just one section to the switchback.

The docs can’t say what lies in the fog until after the surgery. Staging, this process of gaining knowledge is called. We know the polyp is stage three but we don’t know the cancer stage yet.

I’m driving into fog. That is true of each of us every day, of course, but this fog is thick and personal. There are no magic windshield wipers to disperse it. There is almost nothing I can do to negotiate this switchback besides trust. Stay cool. Stay positive. Keep my hands on the wheel and a foot poised over the brakes for that moment the next switchback looms into sight.

Through the Colon with Gun and Camera–and Bag Balm

When I was a kid, my parents subscrived to catalogs from Dover Books, many of whose items were out of print, out of copyright, or too quirky for the big publishing houses to care about. One of the quirkiest books to end up in our living room was George Chappell’s 1930 classic,Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, "a profanely comic and bodily disrespectful tour through the helpless interior of an anonymous citizen," says a wikipedic reviewer. (Wish we still had it–it’s worth fifty bucks US now!)

I wasn’t too squeamish to dip into the book, but I think the "naughty bits" stopped my reading. Chappell never intended this book for kids, I’m sure. Ever since, however, from time to time I’ve imagined what it must be lilke to be one of the invisble creatures who live in us and on us. What strange planets we must seem! Here, for example, are the results of learning that our eyelashes support whole communities of critters (some of whom apparently like the taste of mascara–not my critters, though). This poem is in generation of thistles, my poems just published by Motley Crew House (shameless plug):

Eyelash City

On our honeymoon–remember?
you told me tiny cities
crowd the shores of all our eyes,
that even with a mirror
and various diopters
my vision is too large
to see what it all depends on

I’ll take on lovers’ fitful faith
the dynasties so sprawled along
the cliffs along my lids,
the joyriders screaming
whenever I blink
mini-prophets predicting
the Knuckle of Reckoning

In aqua dream I almost hear
the rich exclaiming on the view
of blue blue Iris Lake
whenever I the Goddess am awake;
in the darkness hear them wonder,
where did all that splendor go?

These days I try for no tears
nowadays I try to hurt no one:
on anniversaries I remember
that their largest heroes
are doubtless the fine print
of my unpolished breath

just a drop of my short-sighted sorrow
salts another global legend

The book would have taken me on a top-down trip through the entire gastric system. As Wikipedia describes it, "Presented as the first-person scientific account of an unnamed explorer and his three companions, Through the Alimentary Canal is a continuously hilarious, linguistically inventive parody of two genres: the safari memoir and the layperson’s medical compendium. After circumnavigating the exterior of their victim (not omitting the naughty bits), the explorers, without any technological fuss, simply slip through the "Oral Cavern" and before you can say "down the gullet" are riding their portable boat toward their ultimate destination of "Colon-sur-mer," through a surreal jungle environment populated by various tribes such as the savage Haemoglobins, and rich with such wildlife as heeby-geebies and gastroids. The visitors fish for phagocytes, carve their initials on the spine, and are entertained in the Peritoneum by the Great Omentum, a local rajah. Along the way, Chappell satirizes academia, Prohibition, religion, national pride, and our quirky mortal machinery."

Chappell died the year I was born. How astonished he would be to know that doctors nowadays do go on safari through the digestive system with "gun and camera"–a video camera equipped with fibroptics and a snipper, as I understand it–except they start from the bottom of the system–literally–rather than the top.

Speaking of bottoms, I came through the colonscopy with one valuable piece of advice for readers facing the same: get bag balm!

What, you may ask, is bag balm? It’s amber goop that comes in a pretty, square green tin, available at feed stores and intended for sore, cracked nipples of nursing sheep and other mammals. Wherever skin has been pushed beyond reasonable limits, there’s a job for bag balm.

The colonoscopy was easy–I was given some goof which left me vaguely conscious of prattling away at the medics to take a look at my beautiful tattoo while they were in its neighborhood and oh, by the way, please buy my books so I can drop the first word in my title, Starving Writer.

Yes, the colonoscopy was easier to endure than to spell. Apparently it was nice and clean all the way. It was the process of cleaning it out, a.k.a. the Purgation, that was hellacious. The feeling reminded me of that immortal chorus from the U of A’;s med show, decades ago when my sis was in medicine:

always itch and sometimes burn;
give you that look of concern;
you are focused on your stern
when you have…a hemorrhoi-oi-oid!"

Given a choice between hemorrhoids and purgation, any experienced patient will prefer the former! All our orifices are made of skin, after all, a material of limited endurance. If there’s a colonoscopy in your future, throw an full tin of bag balm into your hospital safari kit.

See? Easy!

The Real Poop

I was napping on my cushion after a mildly strenous morning chasing the raccoon away from the compost and then hanging out with the guys who have a smoke and a coffee outside the convenience store across the street. I’d even directed traffic for awhile before coming home for breakfast.

Pack Leader was already hard at work at the computer when I heard the postie open the gate and clump up the steps, swearing lightly at the climb.

I knew the feeling. At my age, I have to pause to gather my skirts before tackling that steep flight. The stairs are only about two wolf-dogs high, but my ticker doesn’t like it anymore.

The postie shoved one envelope through the slot and thumped off. I raised my head, briefly considering joining her on a social stroll around the neighborhood, but decided I was too lazy. I could hear Pack Leader’s heart beating calmly, which meant she’d keep on working for a while on that book that makes her snort, and she wouldn’t like to be interrupted during her earning hours. In the interests of a sooner shopping trip for dog treats, i went back to napping.

A dream came, a re-cap of Pack Leader’s strange behavior a couple of weeks earlier. It started out realiticl enough. I could tell it was time for her to take a dump, but this time she took two small bottles and some paper into the water fountain room with her. Curious, I followed, stopping a paw’s width short of the heated tile (which I hate but Pack Leader loves). Of all things, she had spread paper across the bowl of the water fountain! Weirder yet, she proceeded to remove her magnificent dump, carefully, on that paper onto the warm floor.

"It’ll cook there," I informed her. "Don’t think your vet will like that."

She ignored me in favor of playing with a little stick, using it to transfer a little of her offering into one of the small bottles. What the…? Was she trying out some new method for humans to mark their territories?

"Are you sure you’re okay? Want some help?"

She threw me a baleful look. "I’d like to see you park your butt up there and perform this little balancing act, Mr. Smart-ass Wolf! Hey…" she picked up the second bottle. "Come in here! WE know we don’t have cancer–might as well have some fun with this."

"No way!" I backed up and headed for the back door, feeling inspired to perform some acts on my own. "Any time you need a lesson in how to poop in the woods, just tag along."

She opened the back door for me. Ye dogs and little kitties! She did tag along, all the way up our back forty into our mini-forest. I picked a beautiful big fern and backed up to it for a satisfying session, with perfect results.

"Holy shit!" said Pack Leader, or similar words. "You can’t even see it! Nice job, Wolfydog."

"Always pick a flat spot," I advised, "or it can roll down the hill on you. What a waste of effort!"

She honored my offering by using the second bottle. Then she washed her paws and found me a cookie.

All that dreaming made me feel like taking a walk. My head jerked up as Pack Leader went to the door, but I didn’t hear the leash clink. She only picked up the mail. "Uh oh," she said, and tore open the envelope.

She expelled one of her super sighs, and sagged back onto her chair. "One of us, my friend, is in trouble. Shall we go see the vet or the doc?"

She reached for her bag that holds the bits of paper and plastic used for trading for better things, like turkey necks and milkbones, and dug around until her fingers found one of the little flat, round, shiny things humans feed machines on the street with. A coin.

The coin winked in the air as Pack Leader flipped it and caught it, slapping it onto her wrist as if whacking a mosquito. "Heads or tails?"

"Under the circumstances, you take tails," I said.

"It’s heads," she informed me. "What’s the vet’s number?"

It didn’t happen exactly that way. When I saw Major looking at me as if I’d obviously lost my mind, however, I was tempted. Would the lab be able to tell the real poop from the K9, I wondered? It would be fun to find out. I was 100% sure I was not the cancer type, anyway, and if the lab couldn’t distinguish wolfdog from human, I’d have the potential for a story.

Yeah, writers are terrible people.

In reality, the results of the test didn’t make it through the mail slot before I saw the GP again. She thought I’d already received them and, approximately 1.5 minutes before taking my blood pressure, let slip that the results were positive. Twenty times the permissible amounts of blood in the stool. I was flabbergasted, a state of mind which apparently translates into a BP of 170/90. I would have to book myself a colonoscopy.

Aw, come on! I’m not the cancer type! My heart is going to take me out–many years from now. Can’t we re-do the test?

No, and I’d better get my butt into the hospital soon for that colonscopy.

I pushed my work aside and began research. Whew! There are about forty possible causes for blood in the stool. One of the lesser causes was sure to be mine.

At the colonscopy, I asked whether the lab could tell whether poop donors were K9 or human. Apparently, yes. In the past, perhaps not, but nowadays, there’s no substitute for the real poop.