Wednesday
Mar062013

25. Getting Out

After a scary experience with blood gushing out of my neobladder in early 2012, I had a breakthrough. For the good. I haven't said those words a lot. A couple things began to work in my favor and permanently shape my adjustment to a new lifestyle.

First was talking more with Rhonda, Dr. Schenk's nurse. Rhonda is one of those people you come across when cancer strikes. She's understated, sympathetic and knowledgeable. And she keeps Schenk focused on the immediate task at hand. In turn, Schenk mentors Rhonda on all aspects of medical treatments. For instance, when Shenk performs cystoscopies, after he examines me he has Rhonda take a look through the tubular camera as well. It's easy to think of Rhonda as a kinder, gentler version of Schenk. By this time, Rhonda had become a go-to person for my medical treatment.

Rhonda explained how to manage muscus production in my neobladder. This had been my big enemy in adjusting to a new plumbing system. Namely, the neo would continue to act like the small intestine it formerly was and produce muscus. Lots of muscus inhibits the ability to void a bladder, and can be addressed only with catheters.

Before I had surgery, I didn't really focus on this aspect of the neobladder. Now, I could harly avoid it. Each time I would go to void my bladder, I would take a deep breath and hope that the darn thing would work well -- a feeling that continues to this day. When the neo worked, it became a highlight of my day. When it didn't, I would sigh and wonder whether the extended life God had given me meant a life filled with struggle.

How could I manage my way through all this? Well, different drinks and food groups affect muscus production, Rhonda told me. Dairy products are the worst, with sodas and coffee having a somewhat lesser effect. In other words, many of the things I normally consumed would have to go. Argh. Still, go they did.

And things began to improve. Nowhere near normal, of course. Let's say my condition improved from pure grief to difficult. Not exactly the kinda change that makes you jump for joy. But it was enough progress to free me to do something else: get out more.

My first big outing: a concert featuring the Smithereens, one of my more favorite power-pop bands who were popular in the 1980s and 1990s and now represented one of the best bar bands anywhere. For the past several years, Kate and I had made an annual ritual of going to see the Smithereens at the State Theatre in Falls Church, Va., my hometown. This year, we were able to attend the band's soundcheck before the show. Dennis Diken, a drummer in the mold of Keith Moon, stopped by to chat. When I told him about the importance of this night, he was incredibly warm and supportive.

Before and after the show, I also met others who were either battling cancer or who had lost loved ones to it. It's like cancer is a force that organically connects people with each other. The whole evening, filled with singing, dancing, drinking and conversation, reminded me how wonderful a night out could be. Another step in my recovery.

Next up: nighttime classes at Johns Hopkins University. Again, one aspect of being a cancer survivor is deciding which aspects of your past to bring with you into the future. Before my diagnosis, I had been pursuing a master's degree in American Government at Johns Hopkins. But now, in recovery from cancer, my heart wasn't in it. Kate convinced me otherwise. "Finish what you started," she implored. Indeed, I had only one class remaining, which was intended to complete the full thesis.

Doing so meant getting comfortable with the idea of bringing my bag full of applicances with me. I knew I would have to adjust sooner or later to this new lifestyle. And Hopkins classes seemed like a good way to start. Once in class, my mind began to reengage with subject matter that I hadn't thought about it quite a while. That part of my mind began to wake up, if you will, from a long slumber.

The Hopkins community was incredibly supportive and generous. Professors I had known from pre-diagnosis days, such as Dorothea Wolfson and Tom Stanton, welcomed me back with open arms. We spent time discussing the contruct and merits of my academic arguments, as well as catching up on the events of the past year. With their counsel, I completed my thesis on the future of the U.S. housing finance system.

The faculty was kind enough to give me the award for best thesis in public policy and administration. At the graduation ceremony, Dorothea recounted not just the focus on my thesis, but my illness as well. To top it off, she described how I had submitted a paper soon after I was diagnosed with the plea, "Go easy on grading the guy in chemo." Fellow graduates around me chuckled, with one telling me he wished he had thought of that ploy. A good experience.

Then I began to stretch myself. Before my illness, I had been a season ticket holder to Washington Nationals baseball games. And Kate and I woud occassionally go to Baltimore Orioles games as well. But during my illness, I couldn't attend many games at all. Now, as my body began to piece itself back together, I wanted to change that. In fact, I set a goal to attend more games than ever before.

First, I needed to change my seats. Up until now, we had sat in the cheap seats. But with a neo, I needed access to better-quality restrooms, which meant buying expensive seats on the club level. And these seats came with a minimum of a 42-game plan, more than double my prior plans. Translation: a lot more money. Kate and I discuss any purchase over $500, and this was many, many times that amount. In years past, she would frown on things like this. When I ran it by her, and explained why, she just said, "Do it." Hmm, maybe I can get something extra out of this cancer thing!

Lucky for me, the year I had chosen to attend lots of ballgames came during a season in which the Nationals, a traditional doormat in its division, posted the best record in all of major league baseball and made it to the playoffs for the first time. It was such a sharp reversal that Michael, my usual baseball companion, couldn't bring himself to invest himself emotionally in the Nats because, he feared, they would only return to form and break his heart. By late summer, when the team was cruising in first place, I told him, "Michael, I think you can like these guys now."

He did, and he got to see his first playoff game. I spent the remainder of my time at the park with Kate, creating a post-crisis relationship with her, if you will, as well as many other friends who I hadn't spent much time with since becoming ill.

One of my favorite moments occurred when the Orioles came to Washington to play. Now, Kate is more of an O's fan than a Nats fan, and normally there's no real conflict there. Except when they play each other. So she wore her Orioles garb at the game. This caught the attention of Mike, the usher in our section and a prince of a guy, who seated me promptly but couldn't locate a seat for Kate. "No seats here for Orioles fans!" he exclaimed. Once finally seated, Mike just ragged on her the entire game. We laughed our way through it all.

A touching moment occurred at season's end. Mike introduced us to his fiancee and his grandson, who was just a few months old. Never have you seen a person smile with such joy as Mike did on that day.

From a sports perspective, emotions flowed the most in a playoff game when Jayson Werth hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to win that game for the Nats, forcing an elimination game the following night. Then, on that next night, with the Nats one strike away from advancing to the next round in the playoffs, Drew Storen, the relief pitcher, failed to hold the lead and lost the game for the Nats. And the season ended right there.

From utter joy to utter depression in less than 24 hours. An emotional roller-coaster, it was. But as we left the ballpark for the last time, I reflected on it all. Now many months removed from a life-threatening illness, I was actually able to feel emotions that had nothing to do with cancer. I was able to begin rebuilding relationships with those I cared about and who cared about me. I was able to meet new friends.

Yes, I was still struggling with the longer-term effects of cancer. But I was moving forward. I was building a new life, with a new set of experiences. As we walked to our car, I looked up with thanks at the crisp October sky, held Kate's hand, and said, "Next year will be even better." And I wasn't talking only about my baseball team.

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