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San Diego man writes The Grand Voyage of Cancer

Turns into Choose Your Own Adventure story

Why yes, that is the Grim Reaper on the side of that model airplane. Why do you ask?
Why yes, that is the Grim Reaper on the side of that model airplane. Why do you ask?

I knew it couldn’t last. I had spent the first half of the year on an almost absurd winning streak. My endeavors seemed blessed in every way. My daughter had won the boyfriend lottery. Business was booming. And best of all, my marriage was recovering from my affair with alcohol. I rarely even thought about the bottle any more, let alone craving what it offered. But the voice in the back of my head took note of all this success and said simply, “You just wait.”

That was a new one — waiting through good times. What I know is how to wait through hard times. Often, that has been the only answer: wait it out. Eventually, the pain goes away. Eventually, you get to a place where the hard times are a distant memory, and you can say things to other struggling souls, things like, “It takes a little pain to punctuate the beauty in life, or else it would get boring.” Or, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Or, more honestly, “Wait it out, because life can’t be all a shit sandwich all the time, can it? Surely, if you don’t give up and keep sucking in the wind and making turds every day, then eventually, the problem will go away and leave you to your happy times and good friends, right?” Right.

In January of 2024, I began to notice changes in my body. For a while, they were easy to dismiss — or at least deny. But only for a while. Full of fear, I visited the doctor. Tests were ordered. A CAT scan showed an abnormality in my bladder. The wait was over; I now knew what the next hard time would be. “You have to make time to come in right away for camera work,” said the doctor. I know two things about doctors: if they are ever urgent about anything, it’s terrible. And if they say something will be “slightly uncomfortable,” it will be torture. Guess how he described the process of inserting a camera and pumping my bladder full of water so he could get a good look around.

The camera showed plenty of healthy flesh; the view reminded me of when I was a kid and held a flashlight up to my cheek — then as now, I could see the veins and muscles of my interior. Then something popped into view like an evil jack in the box, a surprise something that didn’t belong. “There it is,” he said, gesturing at the screen next to the exam table. It looked like a wart. Underneath it was a spot that looked like a raw wound.

I blurted out the obvious question: “Is it cancer? “

“I can’t tell,” said the doctor, smiling, “but most likely! Either way, I’m going to cut it out.” He explained that until they did the surgery, they could not tell if the growth was on the surface or deep in the wall. They couldn’t talk about Stage This or Stage That. But they could see that it was close to my kidneys, which was less than optimal.

He began describing the various ways things could play out, and as I listened, I started to feel like I was in a Choose Your Own Adventure story, where the story plays out differently depending on what path you select. I could choose a quick surgery followed by regular camera work, because the spot was likely to return. Or I could choose a long surgery involving a stent in my kidney. The book could be called The Grand Voyage of Cancer. There was also the chance that no matter which path I chose, I would be on the dread metastasized death march, with the disease already in the bones and elsewhere. The odds were low, but so were the odds of getting bladder cancer at 55.

I walked out of the office in what felt like slow motion. My legs felt heavy. My internal voice was stern and declarative: You have cancer. The statement unleashed a torrent of emotions. Is disbelief an emotion? Is shock? In any case, they were present and accounted for, sounding off loud and clear. But the life that flashed before my eyes was not my own. Instead, I thought of my children. Would I be around to guide them to adulthood? Would I know my grandchildren? Thanks to the internet, I had plenty of facts and statistics. Without treatment, I would be dead in two years. Even with treatment, the odds of recurrence were high. My internal voice kept up its declarative mode: “You will most certainly die of cancer, and much sooner than you expected.”

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I visited my man cave. Really, it’s more of a storage unit, but it’s my space for my stuff. One side holds all of our Christmas decorations. I looked at the strands of lights, and wondered if I would install them in December. The other side is given over to music, climbing gear, tents, and tools. There is also a shelf where I store the gifts I have started to box for my siblings. I come from an absurdly large family. That’s a story unto itself. I am the oldest of my father’s kids, and boy, did he have a lot of kids. He had so many kids that he seems to have run out of names; I share mine with one of my younger brothers. He had so many kids that there are some who I do not even know; sometimes I get a pang in the grocery store, thinking one of the checkout clerks could be my younger sibling, but still a stranger.

I am the oldest, and I had the idea to make something special for each of them, as I’m likely to be the first to check out. I’ve always believed that works of art absorb some of the life energy of the artist, and so by giving them something I made, I would be giving them part of myself. My gift would be the main thing I’d used to get sober and survive the boredom of mindless covid lockdowns: a small model airplane. They would be as detailed and involved as you could imagine; each one could take a month or even two to build.

I looked at the two planes I’d managed to box so far. I thought of the 29 that remained, stacked and awaiting my attention. (Yes, I have that many siblings.) My internal voice remained calm, but I could detect a terrified note underneath: “There is no way you will live to build them all.” It seemed a crushing certainty. I started wondering if I should just sell the unbuilt airplanes. (If you abandon the plane project, turn to page 50.)

I looked around. All of these things, these toys...my guitars and sporting goods, my books and toy airplanes and music gear — all were bought for the purpose of filling my free time. My time to waste. The decorations? They were there to mark the passing of time as a family. Suddenly, it all seemed so silly. Yesterday, I had time. Now, an alarm clock was sounding. Now it was time to conclude unfinished business, to compile lists. Now it was time to get busy.

I made lists of things I would not be doing if the news came that my death sentence had been passed. No more painful dental work. Back taxes could wait. No more mental real estate given over to the news of the world: political nonsense and shrieking college kids got evicted in a hot minute. Then it was on to the positive stuff, stuff I would do. I would make peace with anyone I’d wronged, and do whatever I could to set my wife and kids up to be...without me.

The surgery came. I almost convinced myself that I didn’t need it. (You have no obvious symptoms. If you choose to ignore the doctor and go on about your life, turn to page 79.) But I walked myself into the operating room. When they put me on the table and spread my arms, I couldn’t help but think of death row inmates being strapped down and readied for a lethal injection. The mask went on, the doctor said, “See you in recovery,” and then I woke up. There was no pain, but I left the hospital with a catheter. Fun stuff.

Now, I wait for normal bodily functions to return, and for the lab results to tell me if I have cancer. This is the worst part so far. Some things are not going so well; there are indications of complications. When I call the doctor to report the scary stuff, I’m told to wait for a return call. The time for the call comes and goes. Do I wait some more? The waiting sucks. I can’t really sleep. I hover in a kind of semi-conscious twilight. Short dreams come. In one, I am a ghost, looking in on my daughter. I wish I could ask her boyfriend to marry her, because I want a grandchild, and I don’t have time to wait. I keep this to myself.

But I do pressure my son, who is working for the family business, to get the credentials that I never needed. Running a business is difficult, but he was working at a grocery store and majoring in video games instead of college, so I decided this might be the best opportunity for him. After my own father died, there was a time when I thought that he came to look in on me. I was in a financial crunch at the time, and I felt him say, “You’ve got this.” And I did have it. Now I want my son to have it.

While I wait, I look back. That much I have time for. Some parts of my life have been really hard, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t change much. “It takes a little pain to punctuate the beauty in life, or else it would get boring.” I take inventory of my beliefs, evaluate my relationships. I can no longer wait to be better to my friends and loved ones; that starts now. I haven’t been terrible, but I had to survive a rough childhood, and it left me with an edge. I can be harsh, quick to anger. Still, my feeble attempts to apologize are usually met with acceptance and statements of love, so maybe I wasn’t the shithead I sometimes thought myself to be.

The internal voice hasn’t softened any. It talks about life insurance money, about riding the disease into the grave. (If you heed the internal voice, turn to page 93.) But outside my head, nobody wants me to die. My wife wants her husband, my kids, their dad. My employees want their boss to keep the business going, and my bandmates want me back on guitar. Death can wait.

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Why yes, that is the Grim Reaper on the side of that model airplane. Why do you ask?
Why yes, that is the Grim Reaper on the side of that model airplane. Why do you ask?

I knew it couldn’t last. I had spent the first half of the year on an almost absurd winning streak. My endeavors seemed blessed in every way. My daughter had won the boyfriend lottery. Business was booming. And best of all, my marriage was recovering from my affair with alcohol. I rarely even thought about the bottle any more, let alone craving what it offered. But the voice in the back of my head took note of all this success and said simply, “You just wait.”

That was a new one — waiting through good times. What I know is how to wait through hard times. Often, that has been the only answer: wait it out. Eventually, the pain goes away. Eventually, you get to a place where the hard times are a distant memory, and you can say things to other struggling souls, things like, “It takes a little pain to punctuate the beauty in life, or else it would get boring.” Or, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Or, more honestly, “Wait it out, because life can’t be all a shit sandwich all the time, can it? Surely, if you don’t give up and keep sucking in the wind and making turds every day, then eventually, the problem will go away and leave you to your happy times and good friends, right?” Right.

In January of 2024, I began to notice changes in my body. For a while, they were easy to dismiss — or at least deny. But only for a while. Full of fear, I visited the doctor. Tests were ordered. A CAT scan showed an abnormality in my bladder. The wait was over; I now knew what the next hard time would be. “You have to make time to come in right away for camera work,” said the doctor. I know two things about doctors: if they are ever urgent about anything, it’s terrible. And if they say something will be “slightly uncomfortable,” it will be torture. Guess how he described the process of inserting a camera and pumping my bladder full of water so he could get a good look around.

The camera showed plenty of healthy flesh; the view reminded me of when I was a kid and held a flashlight up to my cheek — then as now, I could see the veins and muscles of my interior. Then something popped into view like an evil jack in the box, a surprise something that didn’t belong. “There it is,” he said, gesturing at the screen next to the exam table. It looked like a wart. Underneath it was a spot that looked like a raw wound.

I blurted out the obvious question: “Is it cancer? “

“I can’t tell,” said the doctor, smiling, “but most likely! Either way, I’m going to cut it out.” He explained that until they did the surgery, they could not tell if the growth was on the surface or deep in the wall. They couldn’t talk about Stage This or Stage That. But they could see that it was close to my kidneys, which was less than optimal.

He began describing the various ways things could play out, and as I listened, I started to feel like I was in a Choose Your Own Adventure story, where the story plays out differently depending on what path you select. I could choose a quick surgery followed by regular camera work, because the spot was likely to return. Or I could choose a long surgery involving a stent in my kidney. The book could be called The Grand Voyage of Cancer. There was also the chance that no matter which path I chose, I would be on the dread metastasized death march, with the disease already in the bones and elsewhere. The odds were low, but so were the odds of getting bladder cancer at 55.

I walked out of the office in what felt like slow motion. My legs felt heavy. My internal voice was stern and declarative: You have cancer. The statement unleashed a torrent of emotions. Is disbelief an emotion? Is shock? In any case, they were present and accounted for, sounding off loud and clear. But the life that flashed before my eyes was not my own. Instead, I thought of my children. Would I be around to guide them to adulthood? Would I know my grandchildren? Thanks to the internet, I had plenty of facts and statistics. Without treatment, I would be dead in two years. Even with treatment, the odds of recurrence were high. My internal voice kept up its declarative mode: “You will most certainly die of cancer, and much sooner than you expected.”

Sponsored
Sponsored

I visited my man cave. Really, it’s more of a storage unit, but it’s my space for my stuff. One side holds all of our Christmas decorations. I looked at the strands of lights, and wondered if I would install them in December. The other side is given over to music, climbing gear, tents, and tools. There is also a shelf where I store the gifts I have started to box for my siblings. I come from an absurdly large family. That’s a story unto itself. I am the oldest of my father’s kids, and boy, did he have a lot of kids. He had so many kids that he seems to have run out of names; I share mine with one of my younger brothers. He had so many kids that there are some who I do not even know; sometimes I get a pang in the grocery store, thinking one of the checkout clerks could be my younger sibling, but still a stranger.

I am the oldest, and I had the idea to make something special for each of them, as I’m likely to be the first to check out. I’ve always believed that works of art absorb some of the life energy of the artist, and so by giving them something I made, I would be giving them part of myself. My gift would be the main thing I’d used to get sober and survive the boredom of mindless covid lockdowns: a small model airplane. They would be as detailed and involved as you could imagine; each one could take a month or even two to build.

I looked at the two planes I’d managed to box so far. I thought of the 29 that remained, stacked and awaiting my attention. (Yes, I have that many siblings.) My internal voice remained calm, but I could detect a terrified note underneath: “There is no way you will live to build them all.” It seemed a crushing certainty. I started wondering if I should just sell the unbuilt airplanes. (If you abandon the plane project, turn to page 50.)

I looked around. All of these things, these toys...my guitars and sporting goods, my books and toy airplanes and music gear — all were bought for the purpose of filling my free time. My time to waste. The decorations? They were there to mark the passing of time as a family. Suddenly, it all seemed so silly. Yesterday, I had time. Now, an alarm clock was sounding. Now it was time to conclude unfinished business, to compile lists. Now it was time to get busy.

I made lists of things I would not be doing if the news came that my death sentence had been passed. No more painful dental work. Back taxes could wait. No more mental real estate given over to the news of the world: political nonsense and shrieking college kids got evicted in a hot minute. Then it was on to the positive stuff, stuff I would do. I would make peace with anyone I’d wronged, and do whatever I could to set my wife and kids up to be...without me.

The surgery came. I almost convinced myself that I didn’t need it. (You have no obvious symptoms. If you choose to ignore the doctor and go on about your life, turn to page 79.) But I walked myself into the operating room. When they put me on the table and spread my arms, I couldn’t help but think of death row inmates being strapped down and readied for a lethal injection. The mask went on, the doctor said, “See you in recovery,” and then I woke up. There was no pain, but I left the hospital with a catheter. Fun stuff.

Now, I wait for normal bodily functions to return, and for the lab results to tell me if I have cancer. This is the worst part so far. Some things are not going so well; there are indications of complications. When I call the doctor to report the scary stuff, I’m told to wait for a return call. The time for the call comes and goes. Do I wait some more? The waiting sucks. I can’t really sleep. I hover in a kind of semi-conscious twilight. Short dreams come. In one, I am a ghost, looking in on my daughter. I wish I could ask her boyfriend to marry her, because I want a grandchild, and I don’t have time to wait. I keep this to myself.

But I do pressure my son, who is working for the family business, to get the credentials that I never needed. Running a business is difficult, but he was working at a grocery store and majoring in video games instead of college, so I decided this might be the best opportunity for him. After my own father died, there was a time when I thought that he came to look in on me. I was in a financial crunch at the time, and I felt him say, “You’ve got this.” And I did have it. Now I want my son to have it.

While I wait, I look back. That much I have time for. Some parts of my life have been really hard, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t change much. “It takes a little pain to punctuate the beauty in life, or else it would get boring.” I take inventory of my beliefs, evaluate my relationships. I can no longer wait to be better to my friends and loved ones; that starts now. I haven’t been terrible, but I had to survive a rough childhood, and it left me with an edge. I can be harsh, quick to anger. Still, my feeble attempts to apologize are usually met with acceptance and statements of love, so maybe I wasn’t the shithead I sometimes thought myself to be.

The internal voice hasn’t softened any. It talks about life insurance money, about riding the disease into the grave. (If you heed the internal voice, turn to page 93.) But outside my head, nobody wants me to die. My wife wants her husband, my kids, their dad. My employees want their boss to keep the business going, and my bandmates want me back on guitar. Death can wait.

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