Today is a day of days for me. A year ago, to this very day, a team of doctors, including one of the foremost neurosurgeons on this planet, took me into their operating room and fixed me.
Fixed might strike some as a strange choice of verb. Believe me when I say it is fitting. For those who don’t know the story, here’s the short version; a tumour had taken up residence in my spine. Over the course of it about sixteen months, it grew, very slowly, defying all medical diagnostics until I was unable to stand under my own power. I was barely able to feel the touch of anything against my lower half. My knees were bloodied and raw from crawling to the toilet rather than asking for help – at least until the kind doctors and nurses told me I had no choice but to ask for help.
There are few things I would wish on my worst enemies, but taking a deuce without a gravity assist is one of them.
One year ago tomorrow, I began the process of learning how to walk again, now with a spine full of titanium. It was a slow, difficult, and humiliating process. Even when the cancer diagnosis came in a couple weeks later, I still didn’t present as the “right” kind of sick to engage some people’s basic human kindness.
I kept laughing. I kept smiling. I couldn’t give my friends, loved ones, and the medical professionals who spent so much time taking care of me anything less than that. They deserved the best of me, even when I didn’t want to fight. Even when I wanted to curl up in a blanket and escape into Voltron, Marco Polo, Babylon 5, Honor Harrington, The Dread Empire’s Fall Trilogy, or anything else that would provide an escape. I pressed on. I endured.
I also got angry.
Someone who taught me a lot when I was an angry young man, someone who died from bladder and pancreatic cancer, once told me that anger isn’t good for anything. An angry person can’t see more than six inches in front of their nose, so they’ll always come up short against a person who is calm and rational. The problem is that fear destroys all things calm and rational. I couldn’t do what I needed to be done if I was afraid. So I asked the angry young man I used to know for help.
In him, I found the strength I needed to stare the cold indifference of the universe in the face and spit in its eyes. I found the capacity to meet people in radiation therapy – some of whom were waiting for death, some were children who deserved so much more than trying to play Pokemon Go with me while we waited to have X-rays or worse pumped into us – and not give into the utter sorrow of it all.
It seems counter-intuitive, but compassion and anger mix well together. Compassion cools anger from something that lives at a rolling boil, and will eventually cook itself off, and sets it to a perpetual simmer. In my memoir of this misadventure (still looking for an agent or publisher) I describe this transformation as becoming General Zod. I had to become a man of steel, because Adam Shaftoe was too weak and afraid to get through this on his own.
I would talk about survivability stats after being one year in remission, but there’s so little case history on my exact kind of cancer that I’ve become a significant part of the medical establishment’s body of literature on the subject. In other words, my odds have gone up considerably but not measurably.
According to some sources, sources my attending oncologist warned me not to Google, cancers born of bone sarcomas have a 55% long-term survival rate. In other words, I still have to beat a Vegas coin toss to see my 45th birthday. There’s not a single X-Com commander who would look at those odds and jump to risk one of their people.
Of course, the reason my oncologist wouldn’t want me putting much stock in these stats is because bone sarcomas are usually secondary tumours that form when a person has metastatic disease. I didn’t have that. Nor did I come upon cancer late in life or particularly early in life. Cancer said hello to me in my physical prime, a time most inconvenient but likewise a time where I was, and remain, physiologically best suited to beating it. In short, the odds are probably in my favour. Likewise, I get scanned, poked, prodded and anything else science can throw at me every month. If anything sinister is going on inside of me, science will find it and stomp it into submission well before it advances into anything that cripples me again.
So what’s the problem? Why at a point when I should be grateful and eager to take the bull by the horns am I doing…this? Well, I’m tired, and I’m scared. I don’t know how to concurrently be General Zod, a good cancer survivor, a good husband, a good community citizen, a good employee, a good friend, a good artist, and everything else I need to be since I’m not an outwardly sick person anymore. I seemingly can’t be angry while wearing the mask of a normal and productive member of society. I’m making mistakes because the facades are incompatible. And what really scares me is that if I take away the anger, if I make the effort to let all of that go, how much of the person I’ve become over the last year goes with it?
What am I now? Is whatever I am without the man of steel strong enough to keep doing all of this?