Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Ghosts of Augusts Past

Each August – and especially late in August – I get a bit nostalgic about a couple of events that happened in the Augusts of 2002 and 2003. These are related to my fight with cancer and subsequent recovery, and I guess I will call them the “ghosts of Augusts past.”

By late August of 2002, I was two and half months into chemotherapy, and was more or less used to the routine and how I would feel at various points. My brother-in-law was coming down from Boston for a week and we had selected the week after chemotherapy, as I normally had a little more energy and a lot less nausea. I was looking forward to hanging out with him. But as his visit approached, I was feeling worse and worse, and when he arrived that Sunday I ached all over and felt exhausted. Usually by that time in my chemo cycle, I had a pretty good appetite and really enjoyed meals, but I remember the first night Tom was here, I felt awful, barely touched my dinner, and went to bed about 8PM. The next two days were pretty much carbon copies, and I kept apologizing, saying “I don’t understand why I feel so bad.” He kept saying “Don’t apologize! It’s not like I came down here expecting to be entertained!”

That Wednesday about 2:00AM, I awoke with a high fever, soaked in sweat, followed by chills. Fevers are really dangerous for cancer patients, so I went to the ER (where I got the first of my guardian angels) and was admitted to the hospital. I spent the next 5 days there, feeling about as awful as I ever had in my life. My brother-in-law had to go back home hours before I got out of the hospital, so any plans of hanging out together were dashed. None of the medical staff could figure out why I was so ill, and they called it a “fever of unknown origin”, but a bacterial infection was ruled out.

It wasn’t until about a month later that a pulmonary specialist looked at the CT scan images and considered all of the other data, including an abysmal pulmonary function test the week after I got out of the hospital. His conclusion was that I had suffered lung damage from bleomycin and was lucky that it had not killed me, and even better, that the damage appeared to be reversible. I made the decision to stop the bleomycin at that point, but I have always remembered how absolutely awful and weak I was the end of that August. I consider it the “low-water mark” of my fight with lymphoma.

Fast forward a year, and on August 24, 2003 I was standing on top of a mountain in western Maine, quite tired but healthy again, and feeling exhilarated. I have blogged about that story here, and here, and so won’t repeat all of those details, other than to say this was the specific point where I declared total victory over cancer. Of course, one can make the point that maybe that should not have been until I did my first marathon, although I look on that marathon as a huge explanation point!

So each August since, as the days begin to dwindle on the summer’s march towards September, I really like to reflect on the difference a year can make. One August, I was lying in a hospital bed, drifting in and out of sleep, racked with fever and chills, too weak to walk a quarter mile I would guess. A year later, I was standing on a mountaintop looking out over the forests and lakes of Maine – my promise to myself of the previous summer fulfilled, and cancer a memory. Every August since, I specifically try to do something to celebrate strength, good health, and good fortune. I am hoping that my “ghosts of Augusts future” will all be of that nature – strength and good health - for a long time to come.

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