Denial is the sincerest form of courage!

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Of all of Tony’s posts, this is the one I felt revealed the most about his humanity. He artfully describes that poignant moment each of us must face when we realize our time is near. Far from being depressing and morose, Tony shines with his usual humor and wonderfully positive attitude.

Current Status, or “Denial is the sincerest form of courage!”

By Tony Bliss

So here’s the deal – I said in my first post that I wanted this blog to be an honest look at this crazy little thing called leukemia, or technically now lymphoma – so it is with that in mind that I make this post, which has a slightly different tenor from my previous light-hearted posts…

No, not THIS kind of tenor! I mean “The course of thought or argument running through something written or spoken.”

Many people have commented on my “courage” in facing this challenge, but I have to admit it’s been kind of a hollow courage up until now. People have started contacting me since I haven’t posted anything  in two weeks, expressing concern, wanting to check in, etc, and the reason I “went dark,” quite simply and painfully, was because my so-called courage abandoned me!

My kindred spirit, perhaps…?

Here’s what happened…

Approximately two weeks ago it became self-evident that the latest round of chemo was NOT, in fact, going to lead to an immediate transplant. It was self-evident because the lymph nodes in my neck began to take on the approximate size and shape of the bolts in Frankenstein’s neck.

Some signs you can’t ignore, no matter how much you’d like to! At least I was slightly less pallid than him…

I don’t know why this particular chemo failure was different, but suddenly, out of nowhere, it occurred to me I could actually die. Like, prematurely and stuff. And just like that I was fresh out of my false courage.

You know how when you get in a car to drive you don’t think anything about it? I mean, it’s a dangerous activity, as your parents no doubt communicated to you every time they shrieked, grabbed the dashboard, and pushed the alarmingly non-existent passenger-side brake pedal through the floor while teaching you to drive. At one point I was sure my father was going to actually open his passenger door and put his foot down on the pavement to get some Fred Flintstone braking action!

Clearly, driving is dangerous, and initially it does take courage as you learn the ropes. It requires nerves of steel, quick reflexes, and the ability to restrain yourself from updating your Facebook status while cruising at 80 mph down the interstate – in a word, driving takes courage!

But when was the last time you felt brave driving? I mean, think about  it – every trip behind the wheel you’re taking your life into your own hands, the lives of your kids, friends, and fellow drivers. You’re entering a rolling death trap and you haven’t even finished your first coffee of the day yet!

This mindless courage we all display when getting behind the wheel is exactly the kind of courage I had about my cancer until two weeks ago. Oh sure, in much the same way we all drove our first few months with a white-knuckled death grip on the steering wheel, I faced my first couple of months with cancer with introspective thoughts like, “Will I live?,” “Do I have enough life insurance?,” and, “I hope Deborah’s second husband isn’t too much better looking than me.”

The next Mr. Deborah…?

But you can’t live like that for very long, honestly, it’s just too emotionally taxing. It tires you out, and makes you lose focus on the things that really matter, like spending time with your family and enjoying the time you do have, living in the  here and now. If Deborah can land George Clooney after I’m gone, then more power to her! And so you  learn to focus on the positive, because frankly it’s just easier. The initial chemo 3 years ago went well, life was good, and at some indefinite point I knew it would get worse, but that was supposed to be 8-10 years away.

Even when it got worse after only 3 years (can anyone say  “rip off!”?!?), it all seemed so cut and dried. Here was the plan the doctors put together:

  1. Get chemo
  2. Go into remission
  3. Get a transplant
  4. Tell George Clooney to take a long walk on a short pier

Simple, right? No questions, no fuss no muss, and we live happily ever after until I die in a car wreck because I couldn’t resist updating my Facebook status with “Survived the transplant, so suck it, cancer!”

Thanks to Pastor Floyd Ingram, wherever you are, for this perfect image!

Cut to two weeks ago and me admiring my stylish reptilian neck in the mirror – like I said, I don’t know why that time was different, because it’s not like any of the previous chemos had worked either, but it suddenly, miraculously dawned on me that THE PLAN WAS NOT WORKING!

Oh, sure, Step 1 was a marvel of planning accuracy and productivity! I was getting chemo out the yin yang, every 4 weeks like clockwork, a bigger, faster, stronger chemo – I’m pretty sure Steve Austin will start administering my chemo any day now!

If Steve Austin can’t put me in remission, then nobody can!

But it’s that pesky Step 2 that keeps applying the monkey wrench to the plan. And two weeks ago it dawned on me that it’s at least possible we might not get past Step 2. I mean, think about it – there’s not an endless variety of chemo protocols. Carl Sagan isn’t in the lab at MDA whipping up “billions and billions” of chemos. At some point, some time, there won’t be another protocol waiting in the wings. No remission means no transplant, and no transplant means thanks for playing, but…game over. The reality is, I had simply never faced that as an option before.

The last two weeks, needless to say, have been sobering. And that’s saying something for a teetotaler! For the first time since that initial diagnosis I really considered my mortality. This period of introspection (which, let’s face it, is a Dale Carnegie word for depression) happened to coincide with a period of intense physical exhaustion as well, which didn’t help matters. For the first time ever, I never really recovered between chemos. My typical chemo cycle has been

  1. Receive chemo
  2. Feel almost immediately better, as it relieves the symptoms of lymphoma
  3. Gradually feel worse over the course of the next 2 weeks
  4. Gradually feel better over the course of weeks 3-4
  5. Rinse, repeat

But every chemo protocol I’ve had in the last three months has been more aggressive than the previous one, so I guess this was bound to happen at some point – after my last chemo, Step 4 of my typical cycle changed to “Continue feeling bad and ralphing over the course of weeks 3-4.” This did not help my mind-set as I contemplated what I was by then sure was my impending doom. At one point I was ready to pick out which antique Mt. Dew container would serve as my urn . (For those of you who don’t know, Mt. Dew and I have a long-standing relationship…)

Me and Mt. Dew – together forever!

To sum everything up, thus did I wallow in despair for two weeks, driving my poor wife to distraction as I contemplated all the miserable ways I would come to my demise in between bouts of clutching my stomach and diving for the nearest vomit receptacle. I realized during this period that any so-called “courage” displayed on my part was simply denial – a complete sham.

I’m not even saying that’s bad, necessarily. We all cope in different ways, and denial-as-courage worked for me for a long time, so what the heck. The good Lord made rose-colored glasses for a reason, and I availed myself of them when I needed to, and that’s ok.

So where does that leave me now, you ask? Fortunately, life goes on, and this melancholy phase has passed. One day, last Thursday to be exact, I woke up feeling suddenly much better, physically. Stronger, more energetic, less queasy, and I’d gotten a real night’s sleep for the first time in ages. And it’s amazing the influence your physical well-being exerts on your emotional well-being – life didn’t look so bad anymore! In fact, it looked significantly better, because I’d finally faced the full picture. I think this two week panic (believe me, I tried to come up with a Dale Carnegie word for that, but panic was the only word that fit) was ultimately a good and necessary step on the road to dealing with cancer. Sure, it’s still scary – but that sledgehammer has hit me between the eyes now, and should the plan officially fall apart at Step 2 and the doc says “no mas,” at least I will in some form or fashion be prepared to face it.

Plus, let’s not forget, the worst case scenario is still statistically quite unlikely to happen. So I now face the future once again with a rosy countenance and a blatant disregard for all but the best possible outcome. News flash, Deborah Bliss – it’s time to take Clooney off speed dial!

In short – the kid is back!! :-)

Now, all of the above hasn’t really addressed my current status, so just briefly here it is:

  • The previous chemo didn’t work
  • Last Friday I checked back into the hospital and started a new, yet more aggressive chemo, not, sadly, administered by The Six Million Dollar Man (we CAN rebuild him!)
  • In roughly 4 weeks we’ll run the same old tests and see if this chemo works

In other words, it’s the same status I’ve had for the last three months, basically. Based on the fact that I only recovered from my last chemo exactly one day before I started this current chemo, I anticipate not feeling in tip-top shape over the next four weeks, but hey, you never know, right? Now that the kid is back, I’m choosing, with my eyes wide open this time, to look on the bright side. Life is good!! :-)

Last but  not least, I’m going to end with today’s Fun Fact – it is not only possible to cut yourself shaving with an electric razor, but I actually did it. As it slid off the Mt. Everest that is one of my lymph nodes, it managed a nice little gouge at the base of my neck. There was blood and everything, and a band-aid had to be employed. The Overachiever strikes again!