The Cancer Journey

this is not how i die

The high speed crunch of gravel under my bikes tires was the only sound that punctured the quite of the Appalachian forest.

The day had not gone as planned. Exploring the back roads outside Asheville, NC I was convinced I could find a gravel road that would take me up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. If my map skills were correct I would pop out just a few miles below the start of the climb to the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River.

The gravel road turned to a a large rocky double wide track and soon my map reading skills (or lack of) were confirmed as the road narrowed to an overgrown trail.

No worries. The climb to this point and had been long and hard. The way back would be fast and fun.

And here I was, flying down the gravel road.

And then there I was flying over the handle bars. Flying for so long I begin to run through the options of what would happen when I hit the ground. Broken collar bone. Concussion, Cuts and bruises. Or worse.

Oof. My face and helmet slowed my acceleration as I skidded down the road. My bike laid behind me. Stopped in place with a large rock that had flipped up wedged between the tire and the front fork.

I laid in the dirt accessing my injuries. This turns out was not how I would die.

I would test the death by bike theory a couple of more times in the years to come. Once more by launching over the handle bars during a sprint finish at a race. Thirty two miles an hour face first into the pavement didn’t kill me

The inattentive old man in the Honda CRV couldn’t get the job done either. Despite the illegal u-turn in downtown Morrison, CO that sent me over the hood, into oncoming lane of traffic and again face first on to the pavement. The theme was the same but fortunately for me the result wasn’t death.

How do I die?

Thanks to David Baron, author of The Beast in the Garden, I was sure for the longest time that it would be death by mountain lion. Baron lays out in chilling detail the beauty and stealth of the American mountain lion and how they have come back to the reclaim the land we stole from them.

Long before I moved to Colorado, where we have mountain lions like dogs have fleas, I was convinced that every solo bike ride or hike was solo only in that I didn’t see the mountain lion stalking, scrutinizing, and evaluating me as a meal option. Only after it realized how scrawny and lacking in meat on my bones was I passed over as a meal. Sometimes it pays to be lacking in caloric value.

Baron hypothesizes that anyone who spends any time in the wilderness in mountain lion country has been stalked or observed by a mountain lion. Often on late night commute homes, I felt lucky to make it home alive. I would thank my lucky stars as I pulled up in to my driveway. Amazed I hadn’t been snatched by a mountain lion from behind the wheel of my car while sitting at a stop sign or attacked from behind while pumping gas. Yes, the mountain lions in my death scenario stalk hapless white suburban dudes late in the evening. At the bottom of the urban food chain my time on Earth was destended to be short. I was convinced they were every where. It was only a matter of time.

You would think a vacation to the beach would help ease my mind but where mountain lions could not tread sharks waited for me to place my tasty little toes in the water. Vacations to the beach are relaxing for some, but for me they are nothing but a long sandy funeral procession.

Death by shark began long before the paranoia of death by mountain lion set in. Growing up in Georgia every summer required a family vacation to Florida. As we crossed the state line a bulletin would go out and the sharks like horse flies swarming on a cows ass would begin to gather off shore.

Maybe age six was a tad to young to see Jaws and maybe age six is also way to young to begin thinking about how you will die.

Feigning fun splashing in the ocean as a child I would pee in my little swim trunks hoping that sharks would find the taste of little boy mixed with urine unappetizing and at the least not very nutrious. At the same time standing in the water shivering with fright, wondering if the scab on my knee had been loosened by the warm salt water and was now sending out an invitation for sharks in a hundred mile radius that there was a young boy like a wheel of stinky French cheese marinating in salt water and urine ripe for the eating.

At some point I stopped thinking about how I was going to die. Occasionally as I pedaled solo through an eerily quite grove of trees or sat on a surfboard bobbing off the coast of Oregon at Otter Rock, I would be struck with a moment of “Oh, shit!” this it. Then a bird with chirp or an curious otter would poke her head from the water to inspect the strange creature floating on the board and the thought would fade from my head.

It wasn’t until my doctor called me a in January this year to tell me that I had cancer that I began to think that maybe the mountain lions and sharks would not get me after all.

But this is not how I die? Actually I don’t know this, but I believe it’s true. One bilateral neck surgery and half way through six weeks of radiation treatment I feel strong, confidant and resolved to keep on going.

Radiation sucks but it doesn’t feel like the life is slowly being drained from. I am tired. My throat is dry and sore. Food taste metallic but I force myself to eat.

I am fortunate.

I see the eyes of some of my fellow patients and can tell they are fighting. No, deciding if the struggle is worth it. I don’t know their diagnosis or their treatments but they are obviously worse than mine. Maybe the chemo that is poisoning their bodies while killing off the cancer is just too much for them to handle. I hope not. Maybe this is the second, third or fourth time their cancer (It is always our cancer. It’s too personal to be anything but ours) has come back. The fight that was there in rounds two, three and four has disappeared. I hope not.

Their stress is real and palatable. We all wear mask, because this year fighting cancer got a little bid harder when COVID19 showed up. Fighting for our lives just got a little bit harder. Like running a marathon while being chased my mountain lions but now someone is shooting at you too.

The mask dehumanize us and the encouraging or friendly smiles are lost behind the surgical material and cotton that shroud our faces. We try to be human to each other especially since what is happening to our bodies feels some inhuman.

Monday through Friday I pass a gentleman in the hallway. I leaving my treatment and he is headed for his. I call him 9am, the time of his morning treatment, but don’t actually know his name. This doesn’t stop him from always greeting me with a big hello or telling me to enjoy my weekend. Maybe he calls me 845.

I like his optimism. Somehow I don’t think he is afraid of sharks or lions. We don’t have time to. We both have bigger battles to fight.