Pizza Night: Milestone on Recovery Road

I prefer miracles over medicine, but enjoy being alive most of all. With a diagnosis of cancer comes an assault of life-altering information. You are no longer just feeling sick; you are ill. You aren’t fighting off some foreign invader; you are being attacked by your own flesh. Treatment success rates are given to you in percentiles and the percentiles matter. The devastation of the therapy is contrasted with the known path of the disease and it actually sounds like the better option.

I still chuckle when I see drug commercials on television. You know the ones. People who look somewhat healthy are all shown celebrating the various fun activities of a normal life: family dinners, beach outings, fishing trips, and the like. The cheerful voiceover announcer begins to talk in soothing tones about the new drug you should ask your doctor for to treat your condition. “Do you suffer from an overactive bladder? Are trips to the bathroom keeping you from going to the beach? Nopeasama® could be the drug for you. Patients treated with Nopeasama® have shown marked improvement in bladder control and have been able to reclaim their lives.”

The music is uplifting and the lighting bright. The fancy logo scrolls across the screen as the announcer’s tone drops in volume and elevates in seriousness. “Nopeasama® has been known to cause diarrhea, severe vomiting, and frequent nosebleeds in some patients. Other possible side effects include dizziness, drowsiness, depression, and dehydration. In some instances, Nopeasama® has caused blindness in small hamsters and redheads. If you are a small hamster, do not take this product.” I laugh, but I laugh like a man whistling through a graveyard.

Faced with a choice between a highly probable death and a course of therapy guaranteed to cause permanent damage, I signed up for the treatment. This seems like a no-brainer and it actually is. Had I taken more time to think about it – or if I had known then what I know now – I might have chickened out and ran the other way. After all, dying in and of itself isn’t that scary of a concept to confront. Perhaps a story might help to explain what I mean.

Pretend for a moment that you are the hero in a classic Western movie. You are minding your own business, leaning up against the hitching post while you watch the dusty traffic on Main Street. A man in a black hat rides up to you, leans forward in his saddle and says, “You know, I could kill you, Cal.”[1] You see, that threat only carries a minimal level of menace. We in the audience barely squirm as you calmly stare the villain down with a cocky I’d-like-to-see-you-try smirk on your face. “CUT!” the director cries. “Let’s do that again; only this time, make me feel it.” You knew this was coming, because black hat always blows his line on the first take.

“I’m gonna kill ya, Cal,” black hat says. “But I’m gonna kill ya slow, see; so it hurts. Hurts real bad. And I’m gonna make your woman watch while I do it.” Now the audience is nervous and black hat hasn’t even given the details yet. Then he says, “I’m gonna make your tongue swell up so big that swallowing water will be nothin’ but a distant and painful memory. I’m gonna fill the lymph nodes in your neck with so much fluid, they’re gonna explode clean through your skin. Once I’m nearly done with you, you’ll wish you had taken me up on my offer!” No cocky smirk this time, black hat is serious and you’re in trouble. What’s worse, your woman is looking real nervous and on the verge of tears. “Offer? What offer you talkin’ about, Cancer Bill?” The villain looks pensive. Misery was his game and he was fairly good at causing it by sneaking up on folks. But it was always a gamble when you asked them to volunteer for it.

“Oh, well, we can go through all that I just talked about or you let me bolt you down in the Mask and shoot you with my fancy new ray gun every mornin’ for seven weeks straight. Your neck will burn worse than that time on the cattle drive when you forgot your bandana and lost your hat in the windstorm. But you won’t mind that much because about the middle of the third week, your throat’s gonna feel like I shoved a brandin’ iron down it and let it sit a while as I watched the smoke come out your nose. And in case you get any funny ideas about making things better with some ice cream or mamma’s chicken soup, I’m gonna fill your veins with my special snake venom. It won’t kill ya, maybe, but you’ll wish you’d died. All you gotta do is make it to the end of the seven weeks and I’ll call the feud off.”

“Well, why didn’t you say that in the first place, Cancer Bill. Sign me up for the torture. It sounds like the more sensible deal. Besides, makes me nervous when my woman cries.” Cue the sunset.

Upon reflection, my decision to undergo chemotherapy and radiation for head and neck cancer was perhaps more cavalier than courageous. They warned me it would be painfully difficult and leave me a changed man. But I had no idea how painful and nor did I appreciate the challenges that the differences would make. Which brings me to pizza night, or almost.

Shortly after my second dose of chemo, anything that had even a remote connection to tomatoes came off the menu. I love tomatoes. Fresh tomato slices served with dinner? Sign me up. Tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches? Any time of year. Ketchup? Good on eggs, potatoes, burgers, meatloaf, and any meal that needed help. Stews, spaghetti, eggplant parmesan, lasagna, and pizza. I loved them all. But I especially love a good pizza. All of this and any possibility of it came off the menu. Tomatoes turned into nausea inducing rusty metal with a crust of sugar in my mouth. And they tasted that way long after my throat had healed and the chemo was gone. It hasn’t been until recently, now some nineteen months after my last infusion of the life-saving deadly cocktail, that tomato sauce has been tolerable.

So it was that after an impromptu movie date with my bride, I spied the pizzeria across the courtyard from the theater and said, “Let’s get dinner.” “Are you serious?” she asked. “Yeah, I’m game.” I said. Never mind that taking on crust substantially adds to the challenge of swallowing food without saliva. Never mind that often times I eat by memory as how food now tastes frequently bears little resemblance to how it used to taste. Never mind that it was after eleven o’clock at night. It was pizza and for the first time in a while, I really felt like I got the draw on Cancer Bill.

It didn’t taste like it used to, but it came real close. And it only took me three glasses of water to get two small slices down. But I was thankful. Thankful to have come through. Thankful to be alive. Thankful to eat pizza. And thankful most of all for my bride.

[1] If you’re name isn’t Cal, just go with it. It’s a movie, for goodness sake!

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