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A Life Examined

I have cancer.
Odds are that I will soon die from it—real soon.

It was about two years ago that I developed a sore on the side of my tongue in a location where it was being persistently irritated by the rough edge on a tooth recently subjected to dental work. After a couple more dentist encounters, the irritating tooth surface was smoothed down and disappeared. Unfortunately, the sore did not. Yellow lights flashing in the distance.

OK, so I call the dentist’s office and they refer me to an ear, nose and throat specialist to get the problem more thoroughly assessed. The scheduler was adamant that it would be at least six weeks before I could see the doctor, despite my clearly articulated concerns that this sore might be cancer and in need of more immediate attention.

Feeling like I had come to a dead end with the dental-care system, I made an urgent clinic visit to my primary health-care provider. My doctor was not available on that day, but I was seen by one of her assistants who referred me to another ear, nose and throat specialist—one who could see me early the next week.

It turned out that this specialist would have a bout of the flu and postpone my visit. When I finally did get in to see him, he put me on antibiotics for a month. When they failed, surgery was scheduled to remove the irritated area. A biopsy was planned for the tissue removed. After the surgery, my tongue swelled up to the point where it filled my mouth, requiring that I go on a liquid diet.

Four or five days later I called in for the test results. A woman with a voice that sounded like that of the office secretary got back to me and read me results that indicated no cancer had been found. I quickly called my significant other, Mary Anne, to let her know. Just seconds following my call to Mary Anne, the phone rang again. It was the doctor’s office. They had misread the results in their previous call. The biopsy did indicate the presence of cancer. Red lights flashing.

I don’t know how long I was on the floor. I do remember opening my eyes and noting the seemingly magnified warped contours of the oak, confirming that this was not just a bad dream, and deciding to get up and do something—something! But what?

I dusted myself off and called Mary Anne back with the bad news. Over our anger and disbelief, we began mapping out an action plan. Research on options, second opinions, and navigating the health-care system were all new areas that we had to delve into. It was quickly revealed to me that cancer treatment is often a function that is as much art as science. This would ultimately lead to inquiries into a variety of alternative approaches, three encounters with surgery, six weeks of radiation with my head bolted to a table, and chemotherapy where toxins were infused into my system in hopes of killing any remaining cancer cells.

When the local surgeon who did the initial surgery refused to do follow-up work recommended by some of the second opinions, I had to go down to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and spend a few days there getting the recommended surgery done. Unfortunately, another biopsy found that the cancer had spread into areas of my neck. This then led to radiation treatments that were to destroy any microscopic remnants of the disease that might be lurking about. I completed this treatment early in 2004.

Realizing that this disease may be winning out against me, I set a few goals for the year. My son was graduating from college and my daughter had a wedding set for August. I wanted to make those. I also wanted to take a trip with Mary Anne to the Netherlands in the early fall. When we got back I wanted to see George W. voted out of office. I thought this was a modest list.

I made it to the graduation and the wedding. I almost didn’t make it back from Holland when I passed out in Amsterdam’s international airport and had to stay in a new cardiac unit, wired up for four days in order to remove my “unfit to fly” status and get home. I only missed on voting out George W.

Results from my latest biopsy weren’t available until I was in the Netherlands. It found that the cancer was still active. All the specialists tied into my case now came to the consensus that I had become a terminal case in need of chemotherapy for palliative purposes. So, heading for a year and a half since diagnosis, I was told that I probably have only a matter of months to live with no guarantees about the quality of that life.

Having one’s mortality suddenly flash in front of you like this raised a lot of immediate questions about the priorities I was pursuing. If you are abruptly told that your life will end in a matter of months, you examine the limited time you have as more precious. As word gets out among family and friends, you’re asked more about your health and become more concerned about how others will fare in your absence. During all this I’ve also realized that I have a lot of good friends around these parts, and the strength of the energy that flows from their concerns and hugs.

Writing this column for Metroland has provided some solace for me during these recent difficulties, and I appreciate having had the opportunity to share my thoughts with you over the years. Perhaps some things have gotten a little better as a result. I’d like to think so.

—Tom Nattell

"A Life Examined." [Ed note: Tom Nattell died peacefully in his home on January 31, 2005. Memorial gifts for the Nattell Peace Poetry Prize, which will be awarded annually to an Albany High School student for "a poem that fosters a sense of social responsibility," can be sent to The Community Foundation for the Capital Region, Six Tower Place, Albany NY 12203; checks should be made out to "Community Foundation," with "Tom Nattell Peace Poetry Prize" entered on the memo line.]"

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