I wasn’t particularly happy.
It was Thanksgiving. A time you’re supposed to spend with your family, at home, wherever that may be. I was told, long ago, that that would not be the case. I had things to do. Such is the job, and such is the life. If there’s anybody who understands that life owes you nothing, that plans can be dashed at a moment’s notice, it’s me. That, I can live with.
But it was also time. One year after I had wrapped up my large-scale cancer treatment, it was time for a significant checkup.
I use the term “significant” loosely. Aside from the “having cancer” part of it, having a rabidly aggressive form of cancer is both good and bad: it is often more treatable by chemotherapy drugs that target fast growing cells, but it is often tough to detect during routine screening – the cancer often grows so fast that it’s tough to catch during annual or semi-annual screenings. It’s a fun game that isn’t any fun at all.
I tried to get this done last week. I had an appointment scheduled up at Hopkins on November 18th, but things got…gacked up. Long story short, half my tests were authorized – I was able to get an abdomen and pelvis CT, but not a chest CT. Things got screwed up between the hospital, the doctor, and the insurance company, so I wasn’t able to do what I needed to do. I left Hopkins last week in a fit of rage – tempered, of course, since a cancer clinic is no place for rage. But damn – taking a day off of work to go fiddle around and do nothing in Baltimore is not my idea of a fun time. The only saving grace was that the following Friday was the day after Thanksgiving – no traffic, car available, and Emily around to mitigate my boredom.
Oh, and this – the opportunity to beat both cancer and Ohio in 48 hours. 0-2 might literally kill me. 1-1 wouldn’t be much better. It had been 483 days since I was diagnosed with cancer. It had been 2,925 days since Michigan last beat Ohio. The sick poetic gods who had dictated my fate over the past year and a half would have it no other way – two days, two enemies. Destroy, or be destroyed.
Sometimes, I wonder why we care so much. How stupid it all is. Why, on Thursday night, I couldn’t really figure out if I was more nervous for Friday or Saturday. I can’t put it much better than Brian at MGoBlog did, in the aftermath of Bo’s death in 2006:
Intelligent people do not spend a goodly swath of their life pouring emotion and precious time into a contest that affects no one and changes nothing except some inky scribbles in media guides.
You wonder why. It occurs that at some point the Michigan program acquired the traits you hold dear -- loyalty, honesty, tradition, victory. And you wonder: if you were a different person who valued other things would you care so much? It occurs that at some point the Michigan program acquired other traits you share but do not hold particularly dear -- cantankerousness, stubbornness, an inability to suffer fools gladly. And you wonder: do I like Michigan because of the way I am, or am I the way I am because I like Michigan?
I’ve discussed the eerie similarities between my battle with cancer and Michigan Football. Yes, it’s weird. Yes, I think it’s true. And yes, I damn near freaked out over this two day stretch.
I awoke Friday morning without the slightest worry though. The good and horrible thing about my type of cancer is that it’s overwhelmingly likely that I’m going to catch it first – that I’m going to find a lump, feel something, recognize something is out of wack, etc. It’s not the type of cancer that boils slowly below the surface for a long time before a scan catches it. It’s very aggressive. Six-month scans are not terribly effective at catching these things early.
And I felt fine. Emily had made a fantabulous Thanksgiving dinner. I didn’t have an astronomical amount of work to do so I was able to take Thursday completely off. I watched the Lions, got irritated, ate good food, and stayed up late since I’ve been a little sick and sleep time has not been great to me or my cough.
For a guy who has a history of horrible Friday experiences, getting your annual scan on “Black Friday” was an insanely reckless decision. But hell, I wanted this out of the way, and traffic would be light, so this was the plan. I walked into a mostly-empty Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, I wanted nothing more than the experience to be over.
One chest X-ray, one abdominal and pelvis CT, and some blood work later, it was over. The seminal vesicles, they were unremarkable:
Read that if you care, but dawg, my insides are totally uninteresting to people who look for interesting things amongst your insides. That is a win. My chest was equally uninteresting, aside from my overexuberant inhalation:
It was so long ago. I remember the day perfectly but vaguely, meaning I remember everything that happened but don’t really remember why. We had several friends in town. We inexplicably tried to stay up all night. Our dorm room phone – yes, I was a Freshman resident of Mary Markley Hall then - was inexplicably ripped out of the wall at some point during the evening, leaving a couple Ann Arbor-bound friends stranded. But the game, I remember. I also remember not rushing the field. For starters, beating Ohio wasn’t out of the ordinary back then. And besides, I would have plenty of chances to do that in the future.
You could have told me two things on that sunny day back in November 2003: 1) The next time you beat Ohio will be eight years from now; 2) The day before the next time you beat Ohio will find you in a Baltimore cancer center as a patient. I would have had a hard time picking the crazier one.
Fast forward 2,296 days. I had acquired two degrees, a girl, a job, a dog, a new home, and a malignant tumor in my chest. Forget days. We hadn’t beaten Ohio in a lifetime.
Dr. Ambinder is an odd guy. Undeniably smart, friendly, and good at what he does. But a man of subtle quirks. Reminds me of me. I like him.
Biggest deal with Dr. Ambinder: He is impossible to read. I’m convinced he could deliver news of a clinical cure or a terminal illness in the exact same manner. He’s like a quieter version of Dr. Hartman. The moments between his entry into a room and the delivery of substantive test results are sheer agony. It kills me.
This time, Dr. Ambinder led with the mundane. Apparently, insurance companies and health care providers have become wary of spewing radiation into patients’ chest cavities in recent years, especially when folks have disease sites that are easily examinable by a doctor during a physical exam (like mine). So instead of a CT scan, x-rays and physical exams will do. So that’s what we did.
When we finally got into the details though, there wasn’t much there: I’m fine. I pretty much knew I was fine. It is still no less reassuring to hear that from a doctor.
The most significant thing is that I’m just over a year out of treatment for a disease that tends to recur quickly and aggressively if it is going to recur. There are no guarantees in this business. I’m very aware of that. But as Dr. Ambinder put it, “all the odds are in your favor.”
It has been a very long time since that was the case.
It had also been a very long time since the odds were in Michigan’s favor. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to watch it with people. I wanted to watch alone. At the bar. At home. By Saturday morning, I was absolutely apoplectic that I wasn’t in Ann Arbor, but absolutely sure that, if we suffered another soul stab, I might not survive if I was. I wasn’t sure if I had paid my dues and should bring my reformed fortune back to Michigan Stadium, a la Notre Dame, or if I should keep my karmic stench as far from Ann Arbor as humanly possible.
But it was all irrelevant. Just win. That was all. The energy was palpable all week. You could feel the game.
The records didn’t matter. The rankings didn’t matter. They never do. Maybe you think it’s stupid or overblown. Maybe it is. Maybe you have to live the rivalry to understand it. None of that mattered. From a guy who is in a position to compare the two, the same rule that applied to cancer applied to that game: Just win. Win, and the aguish and pain and pent up frustration becomes tolerable, almost worth it, and, most importantly, a part of the past.
Whether football program or man, when you fall and skim rock bottom, there is no stronger desire than the desire to get back. Sometimes that journey is hell. But those who stay…
“Well, it looks like I’m going to graduate you,” said Dr. Ambinder as he finished his physical exam. For the first time in a long time, it became real. I have been very, very careful not to declare Mission Accomplished, doing so only in a post in which I made the claim ironically amidst an explanation of why achieving remission was no big deal to me. I don’t celebrate until the clock reads 00:00 and everybody has left the field. The problem with cancer, though, is that you’re never quite sure when that happens.
But “graduate"…that was a powerful word choice. This is contrary to some of the information I’ve posted previously, but disease recurrences of my particular type of cancer become rarer with each passing month, especially after the first year. The bad thing about having a rabidly aggressive form of cancer is that it can come back in a hurry before it gets picked up during a scan. The trade-off is that the chance of that occurring decreases over time. It’s a pretty terrible roulette wheel.
But after my conversation with Dr. Ambinder, it finally – finally – felt like I was free to start moving on. I will never dance on a grave. But I won’t have to. Moving on, closing a horrible chapter, exercising the demons, making all this bullshit occupy the past instead of the present or the future…well, that’s all I needed.
The ball floated into the air, finally landing in Courtney Avery’s arms. Seconds later, Denard Robinson took a knee, Dave Pasch welcomed Michigan back to “national relevance,” and the celebration was on. Ohio State fans were quick to remind everybody about their underdog status or depleted lineup. Michigan State fans mocked the enthusiasm over beating a 6-5 team. Other fans scoffed at Michigan fans rushing the field after beating an unranked opponent. As if any of that mattered in the least.
None of it mattered. Because for the first time in a long time, those snide comments were coming after a 10-2 season and a win over our most hated rival. It was a testament to all we had endured. Finally, all the pain and disappointment of the last few years was worth it.
I remember sitting at Scorekeepers in September of 2007, watching ESPN replay a blocked field goal over and over again, dubbing that day’s game the “upset of the century.” I sauntered into the Toledo game late back in 2008, only to see a game-tying field goal sail wide right. I sat through losses to Purdue at home, Northwestern in rain so cold that I think it was biologically impossible for it not to be snow, and sipped terrible Four Loko as a bald, beaten cancer patient as the rest of the room fell asleep during last year’s Ohio game. True fans – the ones who stayed – endured all of that. This was vindication. Other fans can make all the snide comments they want. All I heard was other fans talking about Michigan again.
And as Dr. Ambinder told me it was time to graduate, I remembered sitting in that chair, downing 11 drugs in 7 hours. The pills, the needles, the feeling of having the life slowly drained from your body. Literally not being able to stand for almost a month, and constantly wondering when it’s going to get better. Or worse, if it’s going to get better.
I don’t know what the future holds. There’s nobody more cautious about that subject than me. But I do know that the future is a bit more certain and certainly brighter than it has been in a long time. Implicit in the jubilance in the aftermath of Saturday’s game was a message: Michigan is back.
And so am I.