Friday, January 27, 2006

A Palate Cleansing Sorbet

So first I'd like to thank everybody again who's sent me well-wishes, prayers, support, etc. I'd especially like to thank those who have shared their own cancer stories with me. Granted, sometimes the stories send me spinning down a rabbit hole of fear but that's real life and there's no reason to run from it. I'm feeling stronger every day (almost every day) and there are moments when I almost feel like I did before any of this started (which isn't necessarily all good, either). I do intend to write more about it but haven't been up to it recently.

John August tagged me with this meme that's going around and it seemed like a nice opportunity to check in with a post that's a little more light and fluffy than the last few. Of course it relates to film and pop culture, which many of you treat more seriously than cancer. Fair enough.

Without further ado:

ONE (1) earliest film-related memory:
1975. A huge year in film for me. I had a summer pass to the six-plex and my mom would drop me and my brother off outside. APPLE DUMPLING GANG. ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN. Two of the greatest Disney live-actions of all time. And then they accidentally took me with them to see JAWS.

Best. Summer. Ever.

TWO (2) favorite lines from movies:

I only have one. And it's the title of this blog.

THREE (3) jobs you’d do if you could not work in the “biz”:
High school English teacher
Sushi Chef
Poet Laureate of Rhode Island

FOUR (4) jobs you actually have held outside the industry:
Ran teleprompter at Christian Science Monitor Daily news program
Busboy at New York Deli on Boulder mall (home of Mork)
Scorekeeper and Announcer for men's softball league
Wrote advertising copy for local Denver cable company

THREE (3) book authors you like:
Neal Stephenson
Tim Powers
Terry Pratchett

TWO (2) movies you’d like to remake or properties you’d like to adapt:
Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME (God knows I've tried)
Neil Gaiman's THE SANDMAN

ONE (1) screenwriter you think is underrated:

Robert Riskin

Robert Riskin wrote many of Frank Capra's best movies and yet we never have or will hear the term "Riskin-esque."

One other bit of news...The WGA, using the same wisdom it used when it decided to give the studios a break on VHS and DVD residuals, has asked me to moderate their annual Words Into Pictures Panel next Thursday night February 2nd. The panel traditionally consists of all of the writers nominated for WGA awards. So it'll be those guys. And me. Years past the event has sold out the Writer's Guild Theater (it's open to the public I think) and there's lots of press and fancy people there. And me.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I know I am.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Le Broken Clock, Part Two


One of the many reasons I debated writing about this whole kidney cancer thing was a fundamental problem of genre. Namely, I never intended this to be a thriller. As I mentioned in the previous post, this whole ordeal began for me over Thanksgiving. We're now in January and, as much as someone can know these things, I've got a decent handle on the third act. I didn't really have a plan for how I was going to lay this all out, but it seems clear from the outpouring of concern that it would be irresponsible of me to dole this out chronologically. My family and friends have lived through it that way already, and trust me, it's a rough ride that no one else should have to take, even strangers who simply know me through my blog. Of course, my father claims he's learned more about my life through the blog than our thirty-odd years together, so consider yourself blood.

Despite the fact that it is at its core dramatically unsound, it's only fair that I give you the most current information I have. Maybe later I can double back and reflect on the path I took to get here, and perhaps it will free me up to approach the whole thing from various angles, as opposed to the more traditional lone protagonist three-act structure. Maybe I won't write anything about it after this. Who knows.

Here's the deal: I had a malignant tumor growing on my left kidney. I use the past tense because on December 27th I had what is known as a partial lower nephrectomy. Removed from my body were: a malignant tumor some two and a half inches around, approximately 10% of my kidney, and half of my eleventh rib. The rib was a surprise. I remained in the hospital five days, and have been home since New Year's Day recovering. I have an eight inch incision in my side. I cannot drive, lift my son, sit up in bed, or sneeze without crying.

Biopsies performed during the surgery indicate the cancer had not spread. I will be scanned every 3-6 months for the next five years but will require no chemotherapy and no radiation for this particular cancer. Without being too dramatic about it, there is a very good chance my bout with food poisoning saved my life. Which goes to show, if you see a taco stand and it looks even the least bit sketchy, get in line.

I do not believe in God, and I do not believe in fate. The last two months have been tough on this particular atheist, but as an infinite monkey I have little choice but to bow down to the powers of natural selection and mutation, even when it's happening inside my own body. There are those who suggest a greater power must be looking out for me. But the greatest power I know was doing last minute post-production on Munich so I didn't bother calling on him, either.

I do believe in poker. I was addicted to cards, and so I quit. But they converted me to their ways. I believe in math, random chance, probability, and mostly, luck. Professional card players understand that poker is short-term luck (good and bad) eventually balanced out by long-term skill. Living, more likely, is long-term luck balanced out with occasional bouts of short-term skill. In this case, the luck is all mine and the skill belongs to those who found my tumor and took it out.

I did not fight cancer and I certainly did not beat cancer. One night cancer came and grabbed me hard by the arm, yanked me down the stairs and stood over me on the landing while I begged for mercy and waited for the rain of blows to come. Some did, enough for me to know I couldn't have withstood the whole barrage.

And then without explanation it disappeared. And let me live. Like some monsters do.

Thank you everybody.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Le Broken Clock, C'est Moi

The problem with being a hypochondriac, similar to a paranoid, is sometimes you're right.

Some of you may remember I used to write a blog around these parts, and occasionally waxed glib about my doctor Fish and my inability to convince him that whatever small ache or pain I felt that week was, from what the internet told me, cancer. Many of you (if there's any of you left) will remember that sometime before Thanksgiving I fell ill with one motherfucker case of food poisoning and was hospitalized for three days--whereupon I began a serious relationship with heavy narcotics through an IV tube. I managed to kick the junk--or "stop" as they say in the common parlance--only to become extremely addicted to the world of daytime television and self-loathing. Which brings us right up to the "Diary of a Mad HouseJosh" portion of the program.

Some days later the Fish calls me in for a follow-up visit. It goes something like this:

FISH: So...You feel okay?
ME: I feel good.
FISH: All right. Good. Well. You know the CT scan they took of your abdomen when you were in the emergency room last week? They found a couple little anomalies we need to check out.
ME: Anomalies?
FISH: Shadows. Masses, really. One on your kidney and one on your adrenal gland. I'm sure they're nothing.
ME: They're masses.
FISH: They may not be.
ME: You said masses.
FISH: We really don't know. We need to do more tests.

Now as a practicing hypochondriac I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have fantasized about my doctor sitting across from me at his big desk and telling me I've got some rare and amazing disease that I will soon battle and heroically conquer, thereby earning myself the respect of health care professionals across the world. I always imagined the jokes I would make in the face of probable death, and how Lance Armstrong could just kiss my ass.

Here's how it really went:

ME: But....but...what?
FISH: They're probably cysts. Harmless. Don't freak out.
ME: I'm freaking out.
FISH: Well don't.
ME: Well too fucking late. When can I do more tests?
FISH: I'd like you to do them today.
ME: Today! That soon?
FISH: You're freaking out.
ME: Are you even really a doctor?

That afternoon I went to get an ultrasound and an MRI. The ultrasound tech wasn't old enough to drink and for my money seemed to enjoy his job just a bit too much. As I lay on the ultrasound table my wife held my hand and the tech pushed the probe across my belly, pinging my insides for foreign submersibles. I thought of the ultrasounds I'd enjoyed with my wife as we'd watched our son grow inside her and I couldn't help but think that this was almost certainly not as fun as that and in fact if it was any farther from what I've known my life to be I'd be wearing ruby slippers and my wife would be Toto.

TECH: Yeah...there's that adrenal...that looks like a cyst.
ME: Well that's good news, right?
TECH: I don't interpret, dude. That's not my thing. Let's move on to that kidney...

It took him a while to find the spot on my kidney. He had to check the CT scans, confer with the radiologist, and then dive back in. Finally:

TECH: Dude...There it is...Man...See how I almost missed it? It almost looks like your kidney tissue there...
ME: Cyst?
TECH: That's no cyst, dude.
ME: So what is it?
TECH: I don't interpret, dude.
ME: You don't wanna guess?
TECH: Not my job. But...lemme just say this...I see a lot of gnarly shit. A lot. Seen a dude in here with testicular cancer...I thought...that dude is so fucked. Year later he's back for a follow-up. Completely clean. So you know anything can happen. Good luck, dude.
ME: Thanks, tech.
TECH: By the way...the radiologist who looked at your CT with me said "I hope that guy's getting himself an MRI really quick" and I told him you were getting it today and he said "Cool."
ME: Well thanks to both of you. I feel very reassured.

The MRI was fairly uneventful because you're stuck in a tube and can't really cross-examine anybody with any sense of accuracy. Besides, I was starting to get a funny feeling about where this whole thing was heading and I decided maybe the safest place for me was laying quiet in a big tube holding my breath.
Unfortunately, the hospitals don't cotton to patients parking themselves in their MRI machines until they get the results they want. So my wife drove me home instead.

I will spare you the next twenty-four hours of absolutely excruciating hell waiting for Fish to call me with the results and skip right down to it. The Wednesday night before Thanksgiving weekend I hear this:

FISH: Well. You've got a cyst on your adrenal gland. Harmless.
ME: That's what tech said.
FISH: As for the mass on your kidney...It appears to be a tumor.
ME: Tumor as in...tumor? What else can you tell me about it?
FISH: Well...we need to have a specialist look at it.
ME: But...
FISH: But it does not appear to show any benign characteristics.
ME: Meaning...
FISH: Meaning we cannot say it is benign.
ME: Does it show "non-benign" characteristics?
FISH: Yeah. You could say that.
ME: Is it time for me to freak out?
FISH: I would.

Finally some fucking advice I could follow.

I hung up the phone after getting the name of an oncological urologist and one other piece of advice from Fish: under no circumstances was I to get on the internet and google anything including the words "kidney" "cancer" or "tumor." I was specifically to avoid phrases such as "kidney cancer" "kidney tumor" and "Josh has kidney cancer and will be dead in three months."

That last one was a certain no-no.

For the last month I have debated whether or not to write about these events and the ones which have followed. Up until recently I had decided not to do so. Frankly, I could see no benefit. If you're a reader of the blog, you're pretty familiar with the way I approach things. I like me the jokey-joke and it pleases me to jump up and down and do my monkey-dance in my monkey cage for the tourists. The blog is fun for me and wouldn't be nearly so if I didn't press "publish post" at the end of each long blogging day.

But this is not that.

This is not fun for me, nor do I think it'll be fun for you, either. You won't learn much, because I'm a fucking ignoramus. I never did like research and I certainly didn't start for this shit. Some people want to know all they can about their disease, but I figured it would only keep me on the phone longer explaining it to my friends. Besides, Fish told me to stay off the internet. So I did.

There is little inspirational to my story--I'm not an inspiring guy and if you're looking for inspiration here you have stumbled across the absolute wrongiest blog you could find. If you've come here after googling "kidney" or "cancer" or any such combination, God be with you and return to the search results page and click the next entry. If, on the other hand, you got here by googling "monkey," "sweatpants," "burrito," or "coward" then belly on up to the blogbar, my friend. I can't tell you much about where I'm going, but I'll tell you where I've been.

Stay tuned.