Death Suddenly Entered the Room


Before I jump into the piece, I first want to apologize for the break in Californist content, though this is currently a one-man show, I passionately remain Californist. I love and am proud this site and have great plans tailored for California-centric content. 

Many of you have noticed that there's been a break in content. The trajectory of life has handed me a new set of cards. And although I want this website to be exclusively California-related news, this event has changed my life and the ability to focus on other aspects in my life for the last month. That is now changing. Below is chronicle and an explanation for the absence. 

Rest assured, during this experience, I will be traveling and writing about our state for the Californist with regularity again.  I'm eagerly looking forward to this.   

Death Suddenly Entered the Room

Two months ago Hil, my girlfriend, and I found a bulge on the side of my neck about the size of your pinky finger. It didn’t hurt, but it looked odd. It came suddenly, out of nowhere, I hadn’t changed my diet, hadn’t been doing any weird exercises. I had been fighting a viral infection for a month so it seemed there was a connection with the bulge.

I called my doctor immediately. He physically evaluated me, felt the lymph node regions and calmly said, “It’s likely an infection. See me soon if this doesn’t clear up.”

A month later, although the node shrank, it was still there. I returned to my doctor. Told him we should consider pursuing the next steps, whatever they were, “Do you think we should explore a biopsy?” I asked.

“I don’t want to deprive you of that option,” the doctor said. I’ll never forget that statement.

He wrote me a script to get X-Rays, a MRI, blood-work, see an Ear Nose & Throat specialist and said, “If it doesn’t clear up in three months, give the specialist a call and get the MRI done.”

I got the MRI done two days later. Why wait.

When you search the internet for causes of neck bumps, you find two responses: inflammation/infection from a virus and lymphoma -- cancer.

The MRI showed the large lymph nodes, but no extra masses. I met the Ear Nose & Throat specialist and he said, “Let’s do a biopsy, it’s a simple out-patient procedure where we remove cells from the region using a needle.” A fine-needle biopsy is what it’s called. And it’s actually five needles, one for anesthetic and four cell extraction needles. Big needles. All in the neck. Good times.

The next week I went on my trip to Yosemite, one of the best trips and adventures of my life. The hiking noticeably reduced the size of the bulge in my neck. It decreased size! HELL YES. I returned home and Hil observed the same. Floating on optimism, I visited my Ear Nose & Throat specialist and confidently explained, “Doctor, I’m feeling spectacular. The nodes in my neck feel like they’ve decreased. Seems like it’s going away.”

“That’s great, Christopher, let’s pull up the ultrasound and have a look.” He squirted that gooey gel shit on the handheld device and started maneuvering the ultrasound scanner like a technician checking the sex of a baby.

His face quickly changed to stone sullen. I could read that expression a mile away. I knew what it meant.

“I’m concerned,” is all he said.

That was one of the worst experiences of my life, hearing those words. I staggered back to the parking lot, sat in my car and called Hil. “You should have seen his face. This isn’t looking good. I think cancer has entered the conversation on a serious level.”

She’s been incredibly supportive throughout this experience. “We’ll get through this, whatever it is,” Hil said. I bravely lost my shit in the car.

The fear. Death suddenly entered the room. That’s how it felt, honestly.

The results of the needle biopsy were inconclusive in terms of diagnosis, but bared the elevating phrase, “Atypical cell formations.” Not a phrase you want to see.

“We’re going to need to do a surgical excision biopsy and remove a node or two from your neck.” I was warned this was a forthcoming possibility, that fine-needle biopsies often result in ambiguous conclusions.

A couple weeks ago, that’s the surgery I had. It was an outpatient operation, took a couple hours or so, I don’t remember anything about it. Apparently I was talking about skateboarding as they finished the procedure and brought me out of surgery-sleep, general anesthetic. I have no memory of that. Skateboarding indeed is cool, so I’m glad I was talking about cool shit.

Recovery from surgery was honestly pretty chill. My dear friend Reese brought over her projector and screen and we watched a bunch of Chef’s Table all day. Took a pain pill the day after surgery and zero beyond that.

My family and friends were there during the operation. There’s no strength in the world like what you receive from great people in your life pushing you forward. More than anything else, relationships, people, are the most important thing in life. Nothing makes that clearer than experiences like this. I’m lucky to have such generous, humble and extraordinarily compassionate people in my life. I will never forget that or them.

“I have bad news and good news,” the specialist said a day later regarding my biopsy results, consulting the pathology report.

“You have Classical Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.” Cancer of the lymphatic system. The one that killed my grandmother when my mom was seven.

“Fuck,” is all I could say.

“Yeah. I know,” the specialist replied.

“So what’s the road ahead like? Tell me about Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.”

“That’s where the good news comes in. The prognosis is good for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Great cure rates if we caught it early, but it’ll still be chemotherapy and radiation. Those are the only treatments for lymphoma.”

“Do you think we caught it early?” I said.

“Not sure, we’ll have to get you PET/CT scanned to determine that. This is where you and I part ways and you transition onto the oncology road.” Oncologist is a fancy word for cancer doctor.

And so I began the road through oncology. Staging. What stage am I? I started consulting lymphoma forums looking for possible answers. Cancer forums are great, but they’re also brutal. You get these long, often beautiful stories of good souls enduring some of the roughest experiences a person can emotionally and physically toll. Most people on the lymphoma forums are stage 2, a few stage 3 and 4. The stories are hard to read. You picture yourself in the plot. I discovered many stories of people having bulges in their necks, many ignored the bulge because, like mine, it didn’t hurt. Maybe it’ll go away on its own. That’s a common statement. Though optimistically, a recurring climax to their lymphoma stories is that it seemed like most people were NED. That’s an acronym you see all over the place in cancer forums. NED stands for No Evidence of Disease. This is the goal.

My fears grew during this unknown time. My fears of chemo, radiation, getting sick, feeling and looking like shit grew. I don’t care about losing my hair, I just don’t want to feel horrible throughout this experience. Many people contacted and told me about the road ahead. “It all depends on staging, the treatment for lymphoma is different for everyone,” they said. The doctors had been telling me that I’m in great health. I’m fit, lean, my age matters, blood-work looks fantastic. All of it. You cling to these glimmers of optimism. When you enter the world of cancer as a patient, you gain a PhD in discussing cancer. White blood cells. Reed-Steinberg mottled formations. ABVD. A Hickman port. You learn all these words and concepts to soften the blow for when your doc tells you they’re a part of your experience.

Keeping your attitude, your optimism and confidence up is huge. Research indicates that optimism and a strong will manifests and correlates with strong recoveries. You need to have a strong will, despite the fear. And no one is more afraid of cancer than I. I’ve seen it tear down many lives in my world over the years, my father, my mother’s family, my childhood best friend, colleagues, great teachers and influencers. Cancer. Fucking cancer. Suddenly it’s your experience. And you have no choice but to go forward because it’s the only direction to go. The day after I got diagnosed I was in a daze. I kept hearing that Dylan Thomas poem that’s in Interstellar.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I know how melodramatic that is to read, but it’s the truth. The feeling is a typhoon of emotion. Nothing prepares you for that, regardless of your mindfulness.

But then I came through the other end of the path of acceptance. Let’s get down to it then. I started making calls. I sent emails. Researched everything I could about Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. If it has a good cure rate, what can I do to help?

I got my team together, everyone I wanted in the local medical world. Told my boss and everyone is supportive. Regardless of the time ahead, my job is secure, I have insurance. I’m telling you, those are things you wouldn’t think you’d feel so much relief over, but you do.

I got fitted for my radiation mask, a big mesh plastic bust from my chest to completely over my head. I had to wear this skin-tight mask during my PET/CT scans. You can’t talk with it on and holds you in place for sometimes an hour. Thankfully, I don’t have claustrophobia because--man, this would have been a trigger. The radiologist-tech said I look like Hannibal Lector with it on. Bonafied creepy.

I got PET/CT scans last week. The results came in yesterday.

I’m Stage 1A.

We caught it early. You don’t know the kind of relief that news brings, it could have just as easily been a stage 3 or 4. I’m still in for a couple months of chemo and a month of radiation, but finding out that the early diligence paid off is extraordinary. I have Hil to thank for that. After this, I told her, spin the globe, pick a place and we’re there. I don’t care where.

I had to cancel my trip to China because of this. Oh, and this is a funny story. When Hil asked my primary care physician, “Doctor, he has an upcoming trip to China, do you think it’s a good idea for him to go?” His reply--I’ll also remember this for the rest of my life, “I’ve had patients die in China.” Unbelievable.

All I can do for now is eat well, exercise and hope my body responds well to the chemo. My medical oncologist says, “We’re aiming for a complete cure. No relapses. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and have never had a relapse for this type of lymphoma.” So that’s what we’re hoping for. That’s what I’m hoping for.

I’m cautiously optimistic. Though right now I feel strong-willed and confident. Whatever it takes, I’m going to rage ahead. I no longer sense death has entered the room and that feeling, beyond all others, is the best.

Here’s to the adventure. Cheers.