Clinging to facts in this age of health scares
I'm kinda mad at my body lately.
Even though this June I will celebrate 20 years of battling with prostate cancer (from surgery to radiation to various kinds of new-fangled therapy), it seems intent on letting me down lately, the most recent chapter being a spell of blood clots emanating from my bladder which eventually led to emergency surgery to stick a drain in that tired old organ, allowing the plastic bag that follows me everywhere to tell the world whether my pee is the pale amber of light beer or something more in the cabernet family, indicating more blood than I would like.
This little detail, coupled with the androgen deprivation therapy that my new medical oncologist at OHSU's Knight Cancer Center has prescribed, has me especially nervous about the COVID-19 that has now closed schools, canceled March madness, the NBA season and pretty much every entertainment venue one can think of.
Well, that and the fact that I've now reached the ripe old age of 72.
So, like most of my fellow baby boomers out there, I'm laying low, limiting my exposure to people and praying the wrong person doesn't sneeze on me.
The other person who lives at our house and I would be more than a little nervous in these times simply because of the medical experiences we've endured in our later years. She's had a bit of her lung removed because of cancer, a section of her intestines taken out — and, more recently, pretty serious doctoring on her heart thanks to atrial fibrillation. I, meanwhile, have 13 procedures on the list of surgeries I keep in my phone — not to mention the high blood pressure, high cholesterol and my metabolic syndrome, meaning I'm on the doorstep to diabetes, if not actually across the threshold.
So, neither of us takes any of this coronavirus stuff very lightly. But, to borrow from one of the local TV news departments, we'd rather deal in facts, not fear. Fear, you see, can be deadly.
You don't get to be my age — and with the variety of life experiences I've had — without making some peace with the idea of dying. There have been too many reminders of how close we all are to checking out to remain afraid of death.
It's pretty common, when you're first told that you have cancer, to come face-to-face with the reality of your own mortality. When you go on to beat it, however temporarily, and then are told again, "Well, your cancer's back" — and then repeat that pattern three or four more times — the message eventually sinks in pretty clearly: Mr. Kelly, as much as you thought you might be the first medical miracle to escape a final demise, it ain't gonna happen.
And yet, I've been told by doctors who know way more about these things than I do, that, "We can keep you alive for many more years." That's what my last urologist told me last spring, just before he retired so he could spend more time with his own family. I remember chuckling at the time and saying, "I'm not sure I need 'many' more years, being in my 70s already."
Still, I took some solace in his words.
"In fact," he told me, "it is our objective to have you die of something else entirely."
That, too, made me feel better, although I'm not sure why one form of dying would seem any more welcome than another — except for the obvious one, that a longer life is always preferable to a shorter one.
So, no, I'm not really afraid of dying, except for the fact that it would leave my partner — the woman I've been married to 53 years this May — alone to face this crazy world alone. And that, I must admit, is a gut-wrenching prospect. Even though she long ago threatened to stab me in my sleep if I ever talk about her by name in the newspaper, I do love her so much it hurts.
And that is precisely why I'm mad at my body these days. Over the years it's gotten me through some pretty tough times. It allowed me to play organized basketball for many years — from Pee Wee Basketball in fifth grade through high school, Navy and finally city league ball in Woodburn in the late 1970s. It allowed me to climb Mount Hood when I was still a smoker — and later, after having quit that terrible habit, years of running and other forms of exercise. It got me through four years in the military, and it permitted me to heal rapidly after falling off a ladder and breaking multiple bones a dozen years ago.
My confidence, that it has many more of those reprieves in store, is diminishing. I feel like a cat with seven or eight lives already behind me, not at all sure of the actual number.
Sometimes I wish I was a little better at keeping track. Could this pandemic be No. 9? Nobody knows.
Mikel Kelly retired from the newspaper business in 2015 and still contributes an occasional opinion piece to this company.
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