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.