In the Spring of 2017, during the year after I turned 50, I got a note in the mail reminding me to get screened for colon cancer. That was the beginning of a journey I never expected to take.
During my time off work, preparing, having surgery, recovering, I wrote each day: sometimes a journal, sometimes a poem, a song, or the rock opera project I was working on. When I looked back at the end of the summer, a reoccurring theme emerged in some of those words: how the medicinal science that I had experienced for the first time in my life was so amazing that it almost seemed like magic. I half-remembered a quote from Arthur C Clarke on that theme, but then found an earlier statement by Charles Fort who said, “…a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known that it is what I mean by magic.”
For no particular reason I wrote my story with colon cancer as a cartoon strip.
Episode 1: Stupid Cancer
The title comes straight from the first page of my notebook that I bought on the same day I got my cancer diagnosis.
I should mention I bought a calligraphy pen earlier and enjoy the shapes it makes with letters. I am not trained, but writing with it makes me happy.
Episode 2: Computed Tomography
When I failed the initial screening test I had a colonoscopy, which I learned is commonly called ‘a scope’. It’s the long instrument with a camera on the end that goes inside you to look for bad things. My scope didn’t reach far enough so the surgeon sent me for a CT scan to make sure she had looked thoroughly.
A tomograph is a picture of a slice through something. It comes from the Greek word Tomos which means to cut. (I mention this same Greek root in my story “How to Build Your Own Nuclear Reactor: and What Your Friends Will Think” because our word ‘atom’ comes from Greek and means ‘uncuttable’). Anyway a CT machine takes many pictures that are a slice through a person, then puts them all together to make a 3D image. Each image-slice is an x-ray, so to make the whole tomograph picture a patient receives many x-rays, and quite a large dose of radiation.
I wasn’t expecting the CT scan and was still drowsy from my colonoscopy when I woke up in the CT room. I am grateful my surgeon asked for one though. Her thoroughness diagnosed my cancer. My bowel was inflated with gas to help make a good image. That was no fun.
Episode 3: The Second Scope
Seeing a cancer on the CT scan the doctor wanted a second try to reach the tumour, which was in my cecum, the very end of the colon, where it joins to the small intestine. She wanted to remove a piece for tests. So I needed a second scope.
Taking a piece of the disease to use for a purpose unknown to me gave me the thought for another episode about rattling magic charms. In the end the second attempt was not successful, so the doctors would only be able to do tests on my cancer after it had been removed in surgery. I was scheduled for two weeks time, but a vacancy came up and that was brought forward by a week. I just wanted it out of me as soon as that could be done, though I dreaded the thought of being cut open.
Episode 4: Fæcal Occult Blood Ritual
The initial test that I sent off in the mail involves wiping a smear of shit on a little card and sending it (sealed inside double envelopes) for testing where the lab looks for traces of blood. A colon cancer will bleed into the bowel so blood is a signal. This test is called the Fæcal Occult Blood Test. In medical terms ‘occult’ means ‘hidden’, but the name of this test is so evocative. You can replace the word test with so many better words, “Dance”, or “Spell”. I went with “Ritual”.
I was pretty happy with my sketch of Charles Fort, though my son said it looks like Nietzsche. I suppose there was an era where gargantuan moustaches were vogue.
The FOBT is used here in Canada to avoid the need for everyone to get a colonoscopy (only those poor souls who fail the test like me). It is easy to do. If you are over 50, send your shit in the mail. It saved my life and it might save yours.
Episode 5: Knotted Lumpen Mass
This was a poem I wrote some days before surgery. It was difficult thinking about something alien growing inside me.
I didn’t feel the need to add more.
Episode 6: 5 cm Tumour
After the doctor had given me the diagnosis based on the image from the CT scan, I drew it in my notebook, with a ruler to get the size correct. I am an engineer and like most engineers I am visual. Seeing something helps me to understand it. I did wonder how it wasn’t just completely blocking anything moving through my bowel.
My writing became more focused on the operation as the date drew near. Alison helped relieve some of my anxiety with humour. When I saw an asteroid, she saw a cupcake. These most difficult of times can be eased so much with simple affection. I am a lucky man.
Episode 7: From Where I’m Going Some do Not Come Back
I was scared before the operation. My notebook from that time shows that fear. I had never been admitted to hospital before. For each episode of this story I have a large sheet to gather ideas together from my notebook and build them into something that works in four panels. By the time I finished with this episode, I had written a song, not a cartoon.
These panels show a subset of the ideas behind the song. The whole working sheet shows how the song grew into being.
I was scared because some people die on the operating table. If I could choose the last sight to see, it would be my lover’s face. Instead it might be a crowd of masked strangers, keeping out of sight their charms, knives, snakes and other needful tools.
Update: here is the song semi-finished. Vocals and instrumentation are done. I need to get Colin to record a solo for the middle section.
Episode 8: The Magic Woman
The actual operation itself was surreal for me. It does not feel real for me to look back at the recent memory now. Prior to sitting in the surgeon’s office and being told The Result that I had colon cancer, I rarely visited the doctor, or took sick leave and had never used long term prescription drugs. My experience of doctors and the whole medical system was very narrow.
I enjoyed writing something with the cancer in the first person. Sometimes in the execution of art nice circumstances arise without a plan. I like how in the second frame I spanned ‘camouflage’ across two lines and the ‘f’ began a new line, which highlights the alliteration with ‘fleshy’. Where the idea of Dorothy came from I don’t know, but I immediately enjoyed the thought.
Episode 9: A Funny Story at 3 a.m.
I had to include this story just because it had a full measure of the wonderful absurdity of real life. For my first night on the ward after surgery I did not really sleep, but watched the clock and lay in thought. The next day I dozed a little but was beginning to feel run down from lack of sleep. The second night was a real nadir. Looking back now I must have seemed upset and worried that I was not going to sleep at all. I had an acute pain in my shoulder which I later learned was a phantom, when the real pain was coming from my diaphragm. It was enough to keep me awake.
One angelic nurse went out of her way to get me comfortable and comforted, and I slept. But then…
Nothing could dampen my gratitude and joy for three hours of sleep.
After all the wonder of magically reaching inside my body and removing a tumour the final deepest magic is the loving care, so essential for healing. I had a full measure of that. My family and friends were tremendous. What I was not ready for was the nursing staff. Recovery from colon cancer involves body functions. It’s inescapable. Through my episodes of pain or sleepless distress or walking the corridors wheeling my I.V. (Alison named it “Ivy” and would enquire how my new friend was feeling) and trying to fart or pass something solid: the nursing staff showed a practical, tender, down-to-earth love that truly held healing power.
That was my story about colon cancer. If it helps you or someone you know, I am happy. If you want to talk, drop me a line.
Now I’m going to get on and live some more…