[Yes, I know it’s a week late, but I got home last Sunday night after an 8 hour drive and a whirlwind weekend, and then I didn’t have a computer, and then wing night, and then I set up the computer, and then happy hour night, and then Friday. So I write this now].
The weekend started off well. I was heading back to Ann Arbor with a couple friends and a single dog. The plan was to hang back in DC until Emily was done teaching her 5 year olds things, which would have led to a 4pm departure time. Not ideal, but whatever. We were going to that damn game. The first night game in Michigan Football history. Whatever it took to get there, we were going.
And damn near everybody we knew was doing the same thing. Literally hundreds of thousands of people from all across the country and world were converging on Ann Arbor for a three-hour football game. “This must be what a pilgrimage to Mecca is like,” a friend dryly noted. The statement was in jest, of course. But it wouldn’t be hard to find similarities.
Lucky for us, Fairfax County Schools were “rained out” on Friday. So we got out a little earlier…and immediately hit horrible traffic and weather. So I was just a little irritated when I finally go the call.
A little back story – back in May, when I was in for my 6 month checkup, Dr. Ambinder noticed my white blood cell counts were a little low. This isn’t terribly uncommon for lymphoma patients, especially those who receive high-dose Rituxan. But it’s not fun, and if the WBC counts drop below a certain level, problems can pop up.
So Dr. Ambinder ordered a blood test form and told me to get my blood tested in a month or so and fax him the results. Of course, I didn’t. My thinking was this: I’m lazy. But on top of that, if I got sick, then that was evidence that my WBC counts were low. As long as I was fine, my blood was probably fine. Or something like that. I tried to get my blood drawn once at GW hospital, but they would only do it for their patients. So…B- for effort.
Fast forward to late August. My stomach had been bothering me for a couple months. As a recovering cancer patient, things are jacked up. Chemo tears you up pretty good, and it can take a year or so before you are fully recovered. Plus, I’m currently smack-dab in the middle of my own danger zone, so every sneeze gives me the creeps. Because of this, I fight a daily battle between ignoring any transient ache or pain and getting overly concerned about anything that lingers.
The stomach deal was the third item in a string of irritating, lingering, odd issues. Last winter, I’d experience minor discomfort in my left temple. It led to a CT scan, which showed that everything was fine. And it went away for good after my horrific brush with intrathecal chemotherapy. Or maybe I vomited out whatever the problem was. Either way, it stopped.
A few weeks later, my upper left axilla (underarm/chest area) started bothering me. This was particularly troubling, since this was ground zero for the first big incident. I let that go for a couple weeks and then had Don, Dr. Ambinder’s PA, check it out. The nodes were fine; a few weeks later, a CT Scan confirmed this, and I let it go. The pain went away shortly thereafter.
And then the stomach deal started. It wasn’t a huge deal – basically some very mild discomfort, almost like a pit in my stomach, that came and went and never really seemed to do anything serious. So I forcibly ignored it for a while, saw a primary care doc when it persisted (I figured I should get one of those in DC; of course, he went to Michigan). Primary care doc recommended giving the people up at Hopkins a heads up, so I did that.
I met with Dr. Ambinder a couple weeks ago and explained my deal. I always feel like a jackass when I do this, in part because all junior associates feel like jackasses all the time, but in part because I feel like I’m wasting the doc’s time by wandering in with every little ailment when there are actual sick people out there. But Don made a good point the last time I saw him – they’re most irritated with the patients who wander in and talk about some lump or ache that they’ve been ignoring for six months. And the people up there have been fantastic about getting me in whenever I need, so I feel slightly better about the whole. Plus, it’s cancer. And I hear that is quite serious.
So Dr. Ambinder does his exam, pokes at all the nodes, and tells me he’ll be right back. But he didn’t say anything else. And as he’s gone for two minutes…three minutes…five minutes…ten minutes…I start to worry. He comes back in the room about holding some papers. He hasn’t given me the all clear yet. I wonder if I’m about to get smacked in the face.
“Well here’s the thing…your counts are a little off, so I think we want to check that out a little further,” he says.
“Uh…what do you mean my counts are off?”, I ask, wondering how he could determine all this from a simple physical exam.
“Your blood work. Some of your numbers here are a little low,” he replies.
“I didn’t get any blood work today.”
Searches the page for the date.
“Ah shit. Well, let’s get you some bloodwork. Everything else is fine by the way. I wouldn’t pursue this any further.”
So I go and get the blood drawn, slightly relieved but still hoping that my counts from May have returned to normal levels. Dr. Ambinder says he’ll give me a ring when the work comes back, and I head on my way.
That ring came a week later, on the drive from DC to Ann Arbor. My blood counts have returned to normal. That was the first victory of the weekend.
You know when an athlete does something he hasn’t done in a long time – like when a baseball player returns from a season-ending injury, and they flash that graphic at the bottom of the screen that says, “First hit since (some date like two years ago)”? I felt that was the graphic that should have accompanied the cracking of my first Coors Light last Saturday.
There was less fanfare, of course. But it was even more meaningful, to me at least. Because it was a major step toward putting the past in the past. I remember the start of virtually every football season, and as much as I enjoyed finding some tickets on the ground to last year’s opener, I didn’t much enjoy the rest of what I was going through at that time. And I wasn’t particularly enthused about being the odd man out, dragging around bags of water, Gatorade, and pills. I very much enjoyed taking in the Iowa game in Dave Brandon’s suite. I didn’t care for the reason I was up there.
So yeah. This…
There’s a point at which you seriously wonder if you’ll ever get to experience this again. And once you reach that point, you will never take it for granted.
Something else happened over the course of that Saturday: It was the first time in a long time that I felt that the Universe wasn’t actively kicking me in the groin. I’m certainly grateful for the current status of my cancer battle, but I had also been dealing with random, irritating and mysterious aches and pains, culminating in a week where I gacked up my ankle (still gacked up, btw), got caught in an earthquake while I was on crutches, and then got hurricaned. That sequence sort of makes you wonder what plague is up next.
But last Saturday. We were expecting rain, we had the ponchos purchased, and we had the umbrellas ready. But then this:
Turned into this:
In two hours. And after all the shit I had been through, it was hard not to feel the faintest bit of optimism for the first time in a long, long time.
The game…well there’s not much I can say about that that hasn’t already been said. We shelled out…more than a couple dollars to make it to this game.
I guess I’ll go with this: In the waning seconds of the third quarter, the Notre Dame fan section (that I was sitting next to) began an “It sucks…to be…a Michigan Wolverine!” chant. I thought it was odd. Odd in the sense that it hasn’t been very much fun to be an Irishman from Notre Dame this past decade, and given the last-second victories we pulled out the last two years, you might think it was a little bit early for that chant. Chicken counting prior to hatching and all that.
Seconds – and I mean seconds later – they got this in their faces:
Minutes later, this would happen in front of me:
And the comeback was on. When Michigan scored with 1:12 left, I thought there’s too much time left. When Notre Dame scored with :30 left, I thought, well, this won’t be the worst thing that ever happened to me. And there’s still time left. Then Jeremey Gallon turned invisible and Roy Roundtree did Roy Roundtree.
In the aftermath, I posted this Facebook status:
Which was a cryptic way of communicating that after several years of universe inflicted pain that manifested itself in on-field pain and off-field tumors, it finally felt like there was some closure. This wasn’t just because of the game, of course. But it was significant, for reasons I’ve mentioned, for me to be back in Ann Arbor, somewhat normal again (at least as normal as I get), with friends, watching a football game.
And it was even more significant that things turned out the way they did. Often times, we think somebody or something has it out for us because something bad happens. Or a couple bad things happen in succession. I know I’ve been guilty of that. But I think the real reason is that the little things that do go well go unnoticed. Our selective focus picks up on the bad, and then we tend to build exaggerated patterns out of those events.
But I just went through a period where all of that was reversed. Where things were so bad for so long that you just stopped noticing the bad stuff, and you focused on the good. Think about a day where all your hair falls out, you have cancer, you’re not quire sure what the future holds or if there will even be much of one, and your itinerary contains the administration of 11 drugs over the course of seven hours, followed by you trying to fall asleep before you throw up. So when that becomes a part of your daily routine, you really start to focus on the good things. The good things become anomalies, and instead of focusing on the bad and wondering who is out to get you, you focus on good things that happen and thank that very same cosmic force.
Hence the above status. Since a number of life changes – geographic, home, professional – coincided with my cancer ordeal, it has been pretty difficult to find some closure. Everything is different now and it’s hard to separate many of these changes from the pre-cancer post-cancer fault line.
That Saturday went a long way toward accomplishing that goal. Even though I was sitting amongst the proletariat and not in the AD’s suite, I was very much like the other 114,000 people in that stadium. Instead of being very much unlike them. I was back in a familiar place doing familiar things, just the way I had always done them.
[Ed: Of course, it wasn’t all the same. I kept wondering if they made college girls that young when I was still a student. It’s like they’re admitting fetuses now. And if their fathers knew that they were out in public dressed like that. Dear Lord. Made me uncomfortable. And I went to Red Hot Lovers (hot dog joint) where I proceeded to refer to the place as Red Hot Lovers until the dude behind the counter told me it was now called Ray’s Red Hot. And I tried to buy a case of beer at Champion’s only to find out that Champion’s is now a giant hole in the ground.]
All of that, combined with a stunning victory on a historic evening, got me a little closer to normal again. After a while, you begin to wonder, when was the last things really broke in my favor? And not in the “your cancer hasn’t spread very far” sense. When was the last time I really felt normal?
For the first time in a long time, that Saturday was it.