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November 16, 2019

You know the feeling you get when you almost died but then you made it through? I’m not talking about an auto accident where you bang into someone else and it scares the hell out of you, or when you slip at the top of the stairs but catch your balance before you fall. But maybe that is your near-death experience.

I’m talking about what soldiers, firefighters and police officers go through, where they really were near death, maybe trapped under a pile of burning rubble, or in a room where the floor collapsed, or taking hostile fire. In those death-defying moments, you take control, you act and you don’t think about death. You can think later. But for that moment, when destiny is in either your hands or Fate’s, you do what you were trained to do. And only after, when the threat subsides but while the adrenaline is still trying to work is way out of your system, do you begin to think.

So, when it all calms down, the first rational thing you do is a physical inventory. Is anything broken, am I bleeding seriously, am I shot? When you get those issues out of the way, your memory tries to recall the moments just before. And when you do, the adrenaline kicks in again, delivering an unnecessary jolt of pseudo-protection.

Your memory isn’t really accurate in those first seconds immediately after the event, because it’s influenced by the chemicals and protection mechanisms your body provided to keep you alive in those moments of danger. But you have to force yourself to think it through as best you can, to remember anyway. It’s your way of insuring that any mistakes are identified, to avoid them in the future, and to ensure that any useful information is not forgotten, in case you need to draw on it again.

But there is a more important reason for thinking through the threat. And that is to validate that you are still alive, that you have been given another day. You feel almost giddy that you survived and you appreciate life so much more. You want to live it richly and fully and you want to hold on tighter to the people you love. You think of the future and you think of your mortality. You want to live an even longer time because you almost got cheated out of your days, just a moment ago. Cheating death is a celebratory event and it focuses you on life.

But what about the guy that doesn’t get the chance to think about how he escaped death? What about the guy that just found out he probably has cancer, or leukemia and his death is likely nearer than he planned or hoped for? Now, rather than some distant vague concept, it’s an in-his-face reality every minute of every day. And although he doesn’t know exactly how to do it, dodging death becomes his daily goal rather than an indescribable experience to deal with later.

That poor bastard’s not looking back and thankful that he escaped death and is alive for another day. He’s now wondering what his remaining days are going to be like and how many of them he has. His free time will now be filled, not with golf and not with coffee klatches with his buddies, or casual dinners with his wife or friends, but with tests, examinations, biopsies, “procedures” and doctor visits to plan them, review them and discuss next steps - next steps that may fix things for a while, or maybe not.

He’s wondering how or when to tell his family and friends, or if he even should. And tell them what? That he’s got all the signs of one of the “Big C” things? That his calendar is filling with appointments with oncologists and hematologists? And even though he may not feel it himself, does he tell everyone that they should be positive because maybe the treatments will work and that if they all pray, maybe his chances will be improved?

How does he stay focused to the point his anxiety doesn’t overwhelm him? How does he rationalize that he still feels strong and alive and wants to do so much more, against the thought of a premature death? And how does he even consider that his coming death is premature, when so many of his friends and family haven’t outlived him? Maybe he wants to write a book, or take that bucket-list trip, or get tighter with his family? Maybe he wants to enjoy more of life with his wife and reward her for investing her whole life in him? How does he go about preparing himself and those he loves for his undated, but inevitable, early end?

Wouldn’t it be nice if his worries were premature? What if the symptoms can be reversed and he isn’t going to die just yet? That’s a thought everyone will want him to focus on. The guy would obviously be better off having hope. It would make his days easier and his nights less fitful.

There are plenty of wellness guides that encourage a guy to consider yoga and meditation, eat healthy and clean foods, try rest therapies and the like. It’s all out there, under flavor of the month guidelines for people who are about to check out.

I feel for the guy. What does he do?

Most people just can’t call it quits. They’re not wired that way. So the guy gets into what I’d call the “let’s-try-it-all” mindset of finding a great specialist, to suggest a recommended treatment to cure the problem. Then he dedicates himself to sticking to the regimen and thinking positively. I guess that works as long as the treatment shows progressive results and doesn’t kill him before the disease does. This is where grit and courage come in.

So now he looks at death as a near-present concept. This poor guy hasn’t just escaped a close call. He’s looking at death every day now. Every minute of every day, the idea hangs in the back of his mind that the end of his time is nearing. Maybe not front-of-mind every minute, but always there just the same. The uncertainty of what the last weeks or days will be like, the uncertainty of life after death, or not. Gnawing away at joy, eroding confidence, making it harder to smile unconsciously.

You feel sorry for the poor bastard. You want to tell him to hang tough, to be positive and courageous. You encourage him to not get ahead of himself with worry, and to let things play out, given that a positive outcome could be his.

There is a phenomenon called tachypsychia that occurs, during stress induced moments, where time seems to slow down for the person caught up in it. They say adrenaline contributes to it. I’ve felt it many times, where my vision seems more acute - sometimes tunnel vision and sometimes all encompassing vision - where things seem to move in slow motion, and I am able to react better to fast moving objects and circumstances. These moments usually occurred during near-death situations. But I wonder what it is like for the guy facing a likely terminal illness. Does time slow down so he can relish every remaining moment? Does it speed up so it feels like there is never enough time to be with the important people in his life? Does time slow down so the anxiety is multiplied with each waking second?

I’ll let you know, because that is what just happened to me. I'm the guy.

More …

November 18, 2019

To all:

On November 6, 2019 I had routine blood work done as part of an annual physical exam. My platelet count was quite low – very low. So, they ordered another test to see if the results were an anomaly. On the 13th, I received a call from my doctor’s office telling me that my test results from the 12th of November showed that my platelet count had fallen significantly. The diagnosis for such a condition is called Thrombocytopenia. On the medical web pages, they use scary words as the likely cause, words like Leukemia and Cancer. They suggested I get in to see an oncology hematologist as soon as possible, and that they would help me schedule an appointment if necessary. The soonest I could get in was the 22nd of November. So, I wrote the above piece like a journal entry in my life story, to try to release some of the anxiety that waiting produces. It is hard to remain positive, but it’s what I’m trying to do. Further complicating matters is a steady increase in my blood pressure. I bought a BP monitoring cuff and have been taking my readings at home for several days now. Although I tend to get some really good readings in the normal range, I also get some in the high range. Just great.

I figured the oncology visit would be mildly informative, but non-specific. I was right. The oncologist was warm and encouraging, avoided the words that frighten, and focused mostly on the next diagnostic steps, basically a much more intensive blood workup. From there, he advised, we would know more about the origin of the problem and what to do about it. I was to return in a week. More waiting.

November 27, 2019

The next five days of waiting were fraught with sleeplessness, disconcerting anxiety and high blood pressure readings, which moved from phase-one, to phase-two hypertension. Was something else going on or were the numbers just an over reaction to the waiting? Over-reaction? How does one “under” react?

We drove to the Cancer Center, which is a beautiful building with those horrible words written on the face of it. We arrived having driven through a very heavy, blustery rain, accompanied by forty-mile-an-hour winds, through a sky that looked black to the south and clearing to the west. I couldn’t even get an omen from the sky one way or another. I took it for what it was – a cold front changing from the mild weather of the past weeks to the dark and cold skies of the upcoming winter. But I couldn’t shake the symbolism of that either.

We were received in a warm and welcoming reception area and sat ourselves on plush furniture next to a beautiful gas fireplace. In a matter of moments we were called and began the walk down the corridor from the area that said, “Isn’t this nice?” to the clinical and cold area of the building that said, “This is where very sick people go to try to save their lives.” This time we were seated, not in the comforting room of the oncologist’s consultation office, but in a regular examination room. I found myself wanting to go back to the “encouragement” room. Muriel and I were both very nervous and held hands to comfort each other, symbolically saying, “no matter what, we’ll work through this together.” This was as much her crisis of fear, as mine.

Very soon, though it seemed like ages, the oncologist entered, shook our hands warmly, smiled with that encouraging smile of his, seated himself, and began.

“Let’s start with what brought you here,” he said, going over my original symptoms of low platelets. He must have seen the look on our faces that said That’s old news. Tell us what we need to know. Because he changed gears right away and said, “I have good news for you and I am sure that is what you want to hear.” And he didn’t follow it with, “And I also have bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”

Bottom line was, all my test results came back normal. All of them. No cancer, no leukemia, no destruction of platelets, no under-production of them, nor any excessive consumption due to some ominous disease or infection. There was no explaining it he said, other than an abnormality of the tests. When I asked if we needed to look further, he said, “No, you have nothing to worry about, our tests were extensive. Go on your vacation as planned and celebrate the good news.” But we agreed, to be on the safe side, that I will go back for one more test in late January, even though he did not feel it would be necessary.

I’ve decided to lean forward, grasp life by its ears, and ride it as hard as I can. I plan to get closer to friends and loved ones, and to express my feelings for them more sincerely. I want to treat strangers with kindness and the less fortunate with compassion. I will surround myself with people who see life positively, who do not hate, and who make me feel as important to them as they are to me. I want to make every one of my days count.

It seems like the thing to do, since I have just had a near-death experience and, for the time being, seem to have survived it.


November 28, 2019

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