A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Carcinoma 13


Having never read any of Douglas Adam’s books, the only thing I’ve taken away from them has been “Don’t Panic” because those words were written on the cover of at least one of the editions in his 5-part sci-fi trilogy. That advice has been more useful than anything in all the other books combined that I actually have read.

The most recent thing I’ve read, though, is the pathology report on the tumor that had caught a ride with my left kidney. Renal cell carcinoma of the clear-cell (conventional) type. There’s not a lot of drama in a pathology report. The wording is unambiguous, straight-forward—as cut-and-dried as the specimen under review. While not readily apparent, that phrasing is as close as the pathologist can get to “don’t panic” when it comes to kidney cancer. The report goes on to say “Stage 1a” and “clear margins” which are even more reasons not to panic and are, in fact, invitations to celebrate, to throw off the lab coat and dance naked around the microscope.

So why am I not dancing? Why am I not ecstatic? Or even relieved? And why am I stuck on that parenthetical “conventional”?

It is all rather oddly anticlimactic. I was never in any danger of panicking. It’s not that I’m immune to panic, or have inordinate willpower to overcome it. I think it’s partly due to aging. My reaction time is slower. My mind is less nimble. For a world-class panic, you have to size up the opportunity and seize it with dispatch. That just doesn’t happen much any more for me, thanks also to another aspect of aging: experience.

Diana and I do not live in the world of cancer; cancer lives in the world with us—with all of us. I don’t think I know a single person who has not been touched by cancer in some way, sometimes tragically but more often, not. Over the course of our more than 20-year association with cancer, Diana and I have become inured to it. It has become familiar. It has become a circumstance—maybe even a condition—of life. What it is not is the defining moment of a life, or at least it doesn’t have to be. We have gained friends because of cancer, and because of it we have lost friends, even within this month. That is not the nature of the beast; it’s the nature of life. I’ve also discovered that for me, when it comes to cancer—when it comes to almost anything, really—what I hope for, worry about, or am afraid of doesn’t usually happen, but something better often does. That’s a function of patience, not panic.

The upshot is I just don’t find panic to be profitable. Something is going to happen. I don’t know what that something this, and I’m not particularly convinced that it matters. When the mass appeared on my CT, it was pretty clear to me that it was cancer. I can read between the lines of medical jargon and I’ve paid enough attention to Diana’s visualizations and dreams to know how to interpret my own. The fact that the mass has turned out to be cancerous is not a surprise, though the implication that Diana has been cancer-free while I have not, is. That’s not devastating or debilitating; that’s just plain weird.

And then there’s the “conventional” label… renal cell carcinoma of the clear-cell (conventional) type. That it bothers me is also bizarre. The word clearly means something other than what I think it does in the oncological lexicon, but I still stumble over it. I think it’s because we’ve spent the last 8 years—almost to the day—focused on being anything other than conventional. Diana’s prognosis demanded that. If she went the conventional route—negotiated her way through her diagnosis by whatever means 99 people out of a 100 had—she would be dead. We had to set our sights on possibility, ignoring probability altogether.

My prognosis is almost the reverse. If my path is the same that 95 people out of a 100 follow, I will survive. It makes absolutely no sense to predispose myself to anything other than probability when it is so heavily in my favor, and when possibility is in fact highly undesirable and perilous. So no worries. Go with the flow. Stay the course. Be normal. As our son advises, “This isn’t the time to get creative.”

But… I want to. It’s not that the pursuit of possibility is inherently better, or more fun, or is a higher, more noble calling. It’s just that I find it… more interesting. In general, I prefer to spend my time and effort these days in the realm of possibility, and my particular instance of kidney cancer doesn’t even offer a foothold there. But everything around the periphery of the diagnosis—swapping hospital garb with Diana, preparation for surgery, descent into the sanctioned netherworld of opiods and AMA-approved S&M, negotiating the road to recovery trailing an IV pole and a foley bag—teemed with possibilities. There was something to be learned there, either about them… or about me.


13 thoughts on “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Carcinoma

  • Reply
    Ed Farrell

    Kelly, this a great and compelling story. I am passing this site onto friends and placed an order for the book so I can look into your story further.

    I came onto this site pretty much by accident. I started reading it because your face looked so familiar to me but I couldn’t for the life of me place it and I was hoping for some clue. I quickly gave up. But yesterday I was cleaning out boxes after moving and happened across my old 1968 La Sierra High School yearbook and began flipping through it. That’s where it suddenly clicked. We were friends our freshman year but I left Carmichael the following summer and never returned. I love my mind when it staves off old age with unexpected feats like that!

    I am heartened to see you’re managing to live so fully because of the difficulties you and your wife have experienced rather than in spite of them. That will give any thinking person pause and perhaps your book can speak further to them.

    As for me, I recently retired and moved to a little mountaintop outside Bellingham, Washington where I’m pursuing writing, photography, and software development (not necessarily in that order, depending on the week).

    All the best to you and I’ll keep an eye on your fine blog.

  • Reply
    Chuck

    Great job Kelly! Both you and Diana are such an inspiration!!! We are sending a ton of positive thoughts your way from the recovery side of the universe… So my friend stay the course, and keep your eyes wide open and your head on a swivel for all the wonders and oddities that you find along the way!!!

  • Reply
    Colleen Chartier

    Hi Kelly,
    Thanks for writing about your cancer experience. I’m out here as part of the virtual circle of linked arms wishing you well on your post-operative journey.

  • Reply
    Dave Alden

    Kelly, as always, you’re insightful and eloquent. Like you, I’ve never read Douglas Adams, but suspect there are truths hidden there that I would appreciate. Keep recuperating, keep writing, and perhaps find time for a little “Hitchhiker’s Guide”.

  • Reply
    Isabel Geffner

    Here are words to live by:

    “I just don’t find panic to be profitable. Something is going to happen. I don’t know what that something this, and I’m not particularly convinced that it matters.”

    Enlightened.

  • Reply
    Kathleen Alden

    Not really saying anything different than you are with this post…..just kind of running parallel with possibilities and probabilities theme….

    While my diagnosis is not cancer, it carries the tag of “terminal” in a more finite nature than the average lifespan probability.Panic wasn’t a place I went to with my diagnosis either….it was shock to be sure, but also a sense of wonder….”How the hell did I wind up with THIS?!” and “What do I do NOW??”
    After I wrapped my head (no pun!) around the diagnosis, my mantra became; “It’s not the end of the world”. Indeed it has not been in the past 2.5 years since then. Life became a new path, different and ‘probably’ shorter than I planned, but life still had/has positive possibilities and opportunities My choice was get all dark and gothic about a crappy diagnosis for my age….or…..go with the flow and see what developed. After I planned for the worst, prayed for the best….then it became about PLAYING with the possibilities and opportunities in the rest of my ‘new’ life and living well in spite of this disease.

    After all, as a dear and intelligent friend with the initials Kelly, :-) gently reminded me…..”None of us is promised a future”.

    Hugs and love you Kelly…..you are an amazing man!

  • Reply
    laura taylor

    Not allowing cancer to define who you are and what you do is admirable and I am certain difficult. To ignore the niggling worries and just live your life is the way to be. None of us makes it out of here alive. The difference between us is that some of us live our lives while we are here and others live their lives worrying about when it will end.

    Cannot tell you how sorry I am that you are also dealing with this devil. Wish you a quick and strong recovery. Glad the visiting cancer is common. You are an uncommon person. Thank you for being here.

  • Reply
    Ann Medlock

    Hey, you did get the unconventional, the bizarre, the exceptional–maybe even some magic–with that stone. You got an alarm bell and thousands haven’t. “Let’s knock this guy off his pins with pain, so he’ll have a CT scan.” I have some experience here: when my mom’s kidney cancer was discovered, it had moved into most of her bones. No alarm bell had gone off when it would have saved her life. You did get some magic, Kelly, and good on ya for it! I love that damned stone.

  • Reply
    Loretta Stromberg

    Kelly, it’s true one can become inured to Cancer. That disease holds no fear for me. Thanks for the happy news!!

  • Reply
    Larry Land

    Hi Kelly,
    Thank you for your blog. I’m sure your thoughts will be a source of comfort and strength for others who may be experiencing similar circumstances. When my time comes to receive news about some health problem that inevitably lies in my future, I’ll remember the words of encouragement from you and Diana. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with decent health, and so have my wife, daughter and grandchildren. But we know things can change. Since no medical school admission officers in their right minds would have considered me for a career in health care, and because I never had an aptitude for a career in health care, the only contribution I feel capable of making on behalf of those who are ill is to donate blood plasma and platelets about once every two months at the Virginia Blood Center. As a runner, I have been involved with Leukemia/Lymphoma Society fund raising efforts. I hope in the future I’ll be able to do more. Larry

  • Reply
    Mary McKenna

    Happy, happy, happy at the news of your 99% club, Kelly! Never has ‘conventional’ sounded so special! Much love to you and Diana. You continue to teach the rest of us how to live.

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