Thursday, July 18, 2024

Opinion: Cancer is special


“Look, doc, I’m disappointed.” My radiologist arches his eyebrows in surprise. “Now that I’m nuclear-powered, I was hoping to run a lot faster, but I can’t see a speck of improvement, and my wife’s beating me at tennis.” He laughs.

Six months after being diagnosed with high-grade prostate cancer, the kind that can metastasize, I’m learning what a special disease cancer is. I’m midway through eight weeks of daily radiation and drugs. An early lesson is how people react. Heart surgery? I’ve had two. “Hey, you’re looking great!” friends said afterward. But not cancer. Thank goodness for my buddy Jim, who kids me about being more radiant than ever. Others pause in awkward silence or avoid me.

I’ve written about health care for three decades, including for two of the nation’s most prestigious medical journals and Business North Carolina. The assignment I most remember is when Duke University Medical Center handed me a white coat and let me shadow the nation’s top oncologist. I remember how he would pull up a stool, unconsciously cross his knees and jiggle his foot when he had to tell patients for the first time there was no hope.

Always though, I knew I was only a spectator. Aloof. Objective.

Now, I’m a participant.

Every day, I experience the wonders and frailties of medicine that might save my life.

On my first day of radiation, the nurses asked me what kind of music I like. I tell them Mozart and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Now I lie here, staring at the ceiling and listening to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and CCR’s psychedelic “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” as a $2 million focused-beam radiation machine blasts my cancer with, I’m told, surgical precision. No pain. Just lookin’ out my back door.

Several years ago, I also wrote for a large medical school’s practice journal about the dangers of what some doctors call cookbook medicine: A patient has this kind of cancer cell, is this age, has these other ailments and, according to actuarial tables, has this many more years to live, so this is the treatment. “Hey,” I silently scream now. “Look at me, please! I’m not just ingredients. I’m me!”

On my desk is a 2-inch-thick folder of medical bills. I have the best insurance money can buy. But AARP estimates the average cost of treating a curable cancer is $150,000, and drugs alone can exceed $100,000 a year. Twenty years ago, in this magazine, I wrote how a hospital billed a self-pay patient $80,000 for surgery for which a huge insurance company negotiated less than $20,000. The practice lives on.

They tell me my cancer doesn’t appear to have spread beyond the prostate and related seminal vessels. Though it’s potentially deadly, statistically, I’ve got more years ahead. More medical stories to write, maybe.

But cancer is indeed special. I survived combat in the Army, open-heart surgeries, a couple of car wrecks. I’ve known disappointments, maybe a few achievements, and love. I’m no longer just a spectator.

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