Copyright © 1998, Ralph Warrington
Michael had his own problems. For one, he was a lymphoma survivor, a young husband and father of two
children. That morning he sat in his small office cubicle quietly worrying about the cancer support consortium proposal he had just placed on the company president's desk. It had taken months to gain support from various managers and vice presidents, and writing a proposal to the president in a format acceptable to each senior manager had proved a monumental task. Many people in the company now knew of Michael's history with cancer, but documenting it in writing to the chief executive officer was another matter entirely. After all, it was an insurance company. Perhaps his friends and family had been right--this could prove to be a huge mistake--one that could destroy his job security and ruin his family financially.
But Michael believed in the concept of a support consortium; it was a chance to do something important. His mental wrestling was approaching the level of torture when he heard a tentative tapping on the side of his cubicle. Turning and looking from his chair, Michael saw a sandy-haired man standing before him: a man with a sunken, grief-stricken face and smudged circles under eyes dimmed from the grief they carried.
"Are you Mike?" Dick asked.
Michael nodded, unsure of what was happening. In a company rocked by "downsizing" in a competitive market anything was possible at any time.
But Dick responded to the nod by saying, "Tim sent me."
Instantly Michael understood; Tim's wife had worked with Michael at another company years ago when he was diagnosed. This man must have cancer. Michael suggested they go someplace quiet and have a cup of coffee.
As Dick spoke about Nancy, hesitantly at first, and then in detail, tears welled up in his eyes; he was somewhat ashamed of baring his soul to a stranger, and not only his soul, but Nancy?s. As Michael listened, the circumstances dawning on him, he became uneasy. Dick was not a cancer patient, but the wife of a newly diagnosed cancer patient. Michael could not help here--didn't know how to help here; he could listen, could understand somewhat, but nothing more. As Dick poured out his story, releasing the details, he became more passionate, the story more raw in its intensity.
Michael and Dick grew oblivious of the hustling office around them; the sweeping view of Sarasota Bay, and the clock on the wall ceased to exist. Each man was now in another place. But when Dick had almost finished, when he said, "So we don't think we're going to accept any treatments. . . " Michael reacted from his gut. He didn't think. He just yelled, "Whoa! Wait a minute there. I understand what you're saying about your family members that died after treatment, but you need to know what happened to me..."
Startled, Dick looked up at Michael. Through the blur he saw tears in Michael?s eyes. And then Michael shared his story. He had felt pain in his back while sitting on the couch at home. His pain worsened until, one night, he couldn?t move, couldn't get up. His vertebrae had exploded. He went through the usual round of diagnostic tests and the lymphoma came to light. Then came the usual choice: take chemotherapy or die, or take chemotherapy and perhaps die anyway. He hated being sick, hated the thought of days in the hospital vomiting, endless vomiting wracking his body with dry heaves. He thought of the ocean.
Michael loved the water, loved to fish and dive in the clear Gulf off Florida?s southwest coast, and it was a love he shared with his family. He looked at his young family, stiffened his aching back, took stock, talked with his oncologist and made the only clear choice he could: chemotherapy to the max, the strongest dosage he could take that would not kill him. A dose that would take him to the edge of annihilation and, with luck, let him come back for more.
On a Thursday, Michael and his wife, with their fingers locked together, had entered his oncologist?s office for some last minute instructions. Treatment was to begin on that day. But instead of going into the treatment room that first day, his oncologist asked if he would mind waiting over the weekend and start treatment on Monday. He explained that he had had been doing research, talking with other oncologists. Recent studies had indicated a new therapy for lymphoma, still chemo, but a new twist on an old mixture that had yielded surprising results: instead of a chemotherapy 'recipe" that used many different powerful drugs; he wanted to explore using a simpler mix, but with high doses. He wanted to research it more closely over the weekend. Would Michael wait?
Michael felt first relief and then anger churning in him; He didn?t have to do it today. But he had prepared himself, steeled his mind to take the worst, and now he was being asked to put everything on hold, spend another weekend waiting and worrying. Was this part of the torture? He felt his wife?s fingers clench in his. "OK", he said. Let?s wait. Over the weekend, Michael's oncologist called his colleagues and other experts on both coasts. Michael's treatment plan was changed.
On Monday he was admitted and the treatment began. His oncologist set up the protocol for the new therapy, and Michael watched the fluid snake down the IV to his arm. He asked the nurse if that was it, the chemo. She fiddled with the knurled wheel on his IV tube and smiled at him. No, she said, that?s Zofran, a medication to help you handle the chemo. It buffers the symptoms, helps with nausea, makes you feel better. You?re getting it first. Now, here comes the chemo.
Michael gritted his teeth, trying to prepare for the unknown, the unknowable: everything he had been told about chemotherapy playing through his mind like a bad movie. But none of it came to pass. The reality of his treatment never came close to the horrors of his fears. He felt discomfort, being in hospital wasn't fun, and it was hard on his family--but his therapy had worked. Three days after the first cycle of chemotherapy, the intense pain coming from the tumor-crushed vertebrae had disappeared. On the first follow-up exam Michael's grinning oncologist informed him that the treatments were already working.
Michael told Dick about the first day he went fishing by himself after his treatment. He headed his boat out through the jetties, pointing it straight out at the heart of the Gulf, feeling the wind on his scalp where the chemo had left him bald, and shouting with sheer joy each time the boat pounded over a wave.