I got my my prognosis from a very serious man, who was seated in a very small office, with very small chairs, and very bad lighting. Before he said anything, I was already aware of almost everything
I knew all that because I’d been Googling everything I could find about recurrent Hodgkin’s Disease (HD). I knew the prescribed treatments and the statistical survival rates almost as soon as I found out my cancer had returned most uninvited. I’d run straight to my computer because it’s what we all do nowadays. In the 21st century, when someone receives a diagnosis of a disease, ailment, or condition, that person immediately goes online and tries to find out if they are going to be lain waste to by their particular malady. This is 100% true in all cases, even if one has only been diagnosed with conjunctivitis.
This is modern day phenomenon that has really chapped the hides of doctors in a way nothing has since the invention of malpractice lawsuits. You see, before the internet, doctors and patients had a very specific power dynamic, a relationship that had existed for centuries. Much like priests who plied their trade before the Bible was published in any language other than Latin, doctors were to be the sole gatekeepers of information.
For thousands of years, doctor’s everywhere got to seem abnormally smart and mysteriously wise. They were full of received wisdom from on high and only they could tell you what was wrong and what to do about it. They were shamans, Rasputins, miracle workers and healers! How fun was it to be a doctor before Google! The deliciously helpless look on a patient’s faces as their doctor diagnosed them with a descending transtentorial herniation (sprained ankle) or an acute onset of helix aspera (tonsillitis).
But alas those glory days are over, never to return. Nowadays any jackass can walk in off the street, take an educated guess as to what’s wrong with them and what medicine they need, and the doctor is left with nothing more to do than run a couple of tests and then write the appropriate prescription. All while begrudgingly admitting the patient was indeed correct. I assume this is why doctors tell patients things like, “Well, that may be the case, but let’s run a few tests to rule out other things that are insanely fatal and terrifying and that I’m only bringing up so I can scare the bejeezus out of you because I’m quite tired of you jackasses coming in here and correctly telling me what’s wrong with you!”.
This new doctor/patient dynamic would greatly affect my relationship with the aforementioned very serious, man, who was to be one of my major players in my fight with cancer. He was so serious all the time that I took to calling him Dr. Overly Grim (OG for short) behind his back.
I was at his office with my wife at the time, or WATT, as I will refer to her from now on. I call her WATT because she was my wife at the time but now we are divorced so she is not longer my WATT. This is definitely a positive thing – for her and for me.
I also call her WATT because I don’t like to type, say, or even think her name. When I do any of these things it makes me feel like I’m back in the house we shared, having another screaming match or having another something thrown at my head. Seeing or saying her name reminds me that while we didn’t spend a lot of time happy, we did spend a lot of time not having sex. It’s just kind of a major downer, and life is full of major downers. So I don’t do it, and instead I call her WATT. I’m not alone in this practice. I know a few other people who never call their ex by their name. They prefer terms like, “that asshole”, “that prick”, “the mistake”, or my favorite one, “Voldemort”.
My relationship with WATT was rocky from the minute we got married until the minute I returned home to find my possessions in a storage locker. I suppose this is what happens when you marry someone you hardly know after only four months of dating.
I should’ve known better than to do that, but I had just survived cancer (for the first time) and doing something like that makes you feel very romantic and very urgent. Plus WATT was beautiful, we had fantastic conversations, and she liked me. You just don’t find that easily in Los Angeles. At least not all three in the same package.
In fact, in the preceding eight years in which I’d lived in LA, I’d usually settled for somewhere around 00000000000000000000000000000000148301 out of three. Then I met WATT, who was a cool, clean, perfect for the money and we spent several months on what seemed like a very long first date. WATT was good for me then and she helped to heal my soul. Being with her was fun and I needed some of that after surviving 5 months of cancer treatment and the most brutally tough work experience in my life.
*I had a writing job on a TV show that was so bad it was like a satire of how evil show business can be. Most times it felt like my life was being scripted by Paddy Chayefsky. Every day was chock full of mean people, credit stealers, insecure egotists, yellers and backstabbers, and it never stopped, even up until the end. Just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, after surviving months after months of pettiness, snide remarks, and soul-destroying levels of ass kissing – they laid me off the day after I finished my chemo. Hollywood! You gotta love it!
Yes, there were some warning signs that WATT was a little “daft”, as the Irish call it (or “bat-shit crazy” as my Gramma Pat would call it), but nothing so prohibitive as to warn off a 28 year old idealist who had a long history of not analyzing decisions before he made them.
Yes, occasionally she’d get jealous when I’d hang out with my friends, even though she had specifically told me to hang out with my friends. Yes, often times she would give me the silent treatment over a perceived slight, however minor and frankly ridiculous. And yes, she had gone through my phone once or twice to see if I was still in contact with my ex or maybe to see if I was a Russian spy. But these things weren’t enough to scare me off because they were on the whole minor infractions, and they were also pretty typical behavior in relation to the women I’d gone out with in the past. So I just didn’t register the ominous things they portended.
In retrospect, I wish she had burned down my apartment and drowned my cat.
In WATT’s defense, it must have been tough for someone married only a month to find out their partner has been diagnosed with something so awful and deadly as recurrent lymphatic cancer. However that’s about as far as I’ll go in her defense. I am going to try and refrain from casting aspersions on her too much, though, or attacking her character, as she’s not here to defend herself. So I plan on relegating her to the background for most of this book, even when she was in the room. That’s because I don’t want this to be a sad or depressing tale, but rather an uplifting, inspiring and funny one, and talking about your ex-wife is probably a good way to undermine that.
Back to the appointment…
WATT and I were there to find out my official treatment plan an prognosis. I had received my official diagnosis many weeks prior to the scheduled appointment with OG. Since that time, I’d had a chance to discover all the news, good and bad (mostly bad) that pertained to me. I knew I needed a Stem Cell Transplant (SCT). I knew the immense and multiple risks the procedure would provide. I knew names of the drugs they would probably use. I even knew I that before the actual SCT, I would have to go through a few rounds of “warm-up” chemotherapy (more later on that procedure with the most hideously casual moniker).
Most important of all I knew the survival rate, or as I called it with morbid humor, my “odds of still being alive” , or “OOSBA” . I pronounced this as “ooh-sba”. As in, “Give it to me straight, Doc. What’s my OOSBA?”).
I arrived early for the appointment, with WATT in tow, at Kaiser-Permanente Hospital. It’s located on Sunset, on the border of Hollywood and Los Feliz, in an especially dirty part of Los Angeles. The hospital sits across from the Church of Scientology’s headquarters, which can best be described as a grandiose, yet creepy building that looks like it’s populated by deranged, power-mad cultists.
The Kaiser building is your standard, fluorescent lit collection of offices and cubicles. Kind of drab and very dreary. I was not receiving an aura of healing from my surroundings and it gave me a sense of unease as we entered the parking garage.
It took me a maddening little while to find the doctor’s office that we needed to go to. It was located in something like Sector C, Upper Quadrant X, Building 401, Room 29321D, Suite LQR99. Why is it that hospitals, places of incredible tension and anxiety, are also devilishly difficult to navigate around, which only increases the tension and anxiety? It’s like they were all designed by MC Escher after he’d smoked peyote.
Getting lost meant that I actually showed up at the doc’s office about five minutes late. As I signed in, the desk lady asked me who I was. I told her and she proceeded to look at her computer uncomprehendingly in a search for my name. After what seemed like forever, she irritably pointed out that I was late and handed me a clipboard full of papers to sign.
There was too much tension in the room for me so I blurted out, “Well, I’m here now, and I’ve sure as heck got cancer! Can I still see one of the doctors?”. This was funny to me but not to anyone else in the room. My record of increasing tension with my humor instead of lessening it is astounding. I’m really terrible at diffusing things. If I was on a bomb squad, I bet I could get the bombs to make much, much bigger explosions.
We waited for a bit and were finally called in to meet Dr. OG. He was a sort of a funny looking, tallish man in his late 50’s, and he looked very much like Groucho Marx, right down to the Groucho mustache that he wore without any trace of irony. Maybe without the Groucho mustache he wouldn’t have looked so much like Groucho, but then again maybe he would’ve. It’s a chicken and the egg thing when it comes to Groucho mustaches, I tell you.
OG had the conciliatory air of a funeral director and he offered us chairs and a Kleenex box upon entrance. He introduced himself and I learned he had the same name as a very famous TV detective. Because I’m me, I instantly pointed this out to him, not realizing that of course everyone else he had ever met in his entire life had done the exact same thing. He gave a deep sigh and shot me a look that let me know my comments were not appreciated.
OG took out his clipboard and proffered the Kleenexes once again. I asked him why he wanted me to take those and he said, “Well, sometimes the patients get a little emotional.” I told him I didn’t think I would, and he gave me a smug little look that said, “Oh, you will. I’ll break you down. Just you wait, smart ass.”
As he read off my diagnosis to me, followed by my course of treatment and my odds of survival, I sat there calmly, waiting for him to finish. The whole time he talked he used a his best “calming voice”, or at least what I guess he thought a calming voice should sound like. His tone was oddly robotic and I got the sense he had given this exact same speech word for word, many times before. On top of it all, he kept pausing intermittently and looking up from his clipboard dramatically, almost as if he was giving me time to begin weeping uncontrollably.
There was no real emotion behind any of his words and I sort of stopped listening to him after a while. Here I was in a small office with a man I’d never met, who was pretending to care about me and looked like he sort of hoped I’d cry. It was clear to me he wasn’t actually connected in a real way to me at all. Anyways, we had only met two minutes earlier so how could he be expected to care about imminent threats to my mortality? I was wishing he’d just been businesslike or straight to the point, because the whole “I care so much about you, person I just met” Oprah-vibe was pissing me off.
Part of the problem was me. On a good day I don’t like to be in a subservient position to anyone (and this was defiantly not a good day). I’ve never enjoyed it when someone feels that they’re smarter than me, even when they are smarter than me. I didn’t get the sense that OG was any great shakes intelligence wise, I just thought he was more knowledgeable about a certain subject than I was and he was using this to control our power dynamic. I got the uneasy feeling that he actually enjoyed these talks with patients because of the ability it gave him to manipulate their emotions. I don’t know if any of that was true about it him, but he had definitely managed to annoy the shit out of me and we hadn’t even been talking that long.
I grew impatient and by the end of it, I had started to finish his sentences for him, or cut him off with an impolite, “Yes. Yes, I know.” He was at first confused by my behavior, and by the end he was greatly annoyed. He shuffled his papers in a sort of pouty manner and asked me where I had heard all that information. I said I’d been doing some research online. BIG MISTAKE. I should have told him one of the previous doctors I’d met with had given me the run down. Or I could have told him my dad was an oncologist, or that an angel had appeared to me in my dreams and read medical textbooks to me in tongues. Anything besides the internet.
His face crumpled and he looked disgusted with not just me, but my whole generation. “The internet,” he said, as if he were saying the name of an some ancient enemy. “All you guys think that what you find on there is true, but it isn’t. It drives us doctors crazy!”. I didn’t have the heart to point out that everything I had said was in fact true. “Listen,” he said, “don’t go on there anymore. It’ll only drive you crazy. and fill your mind with nonsense. Then he left the room without saying goodbye and so began our rather rocky relationship.
I was to meet regularly and chat with OG again many times over the course of my treatment. He saw me at my best, he saw me at my worst, he even saw me naked a bunch. Throughout it all I never doubted that I was always annoying him. He was a good doctor, but he liked to be in control and he he had zero sense of humor. As I said, I deal with everything through humor, for good and for ill. So he’d be doing some gruesome medical procedure on me (like extracting my bone marrow through my hip, ouch), or trying to have a serious conversation with me (always a dicey proposition) and I would bounce jokes off him right and left at rapid speed.
Every joke I uttered would land on off his face and then tumble slowly down to the earth like a fly that had been killed mid-flight. Then it would lay on the floor between us, dying an awkward death as we sat there staring at each other.
Each time I tried to be funny it would literally make him wince, like I had just taken a little bit of time off of his life. I’m sure if he could’ve gotten away with it, he would have told me to shut my stupid mouth. To OG’s credit, he never did. Our relationship was doomed to always be based on annoyance and bewilderment. This extended even up to years later, when he was no longer my doctor and I ran across him.
It was a happy day, a few years after my SCT, and I was giving a speech at a gathering of fellow survivor’s. We were on the grounds of the hospital where we’d all been treated and where OG was still working. I had been speaking at this particular gathering every year, and I always poked gentle fun at the hospital, the doctors, the nurses, and of course myself. It was always a big hit and I’d been invited back every year.
OG found me in the crowd after my speech. He grabbed me by the arm and told me he wanted to talk to me. Since everyone else that day, from patients to the chief of oncology, had been effusive in their praise, I naturally assumed OG wanted to compliment me as well, or to tell me that he was so glad to see me doing well. Perhaps he was happy he’d played such a large role in helping me overcome cancer. Boy, was I was wrong.
“Hey,” he said, stone faced and with piercing eyes boring a hole in me. “I saw your speech last year and I didn’t think it was very good. I don’t like it at all when you poked fun at the hospital. I didn’t like it at all. It was too much and I just found it all really annoying and It wasn’t funny.” Then without another word, he stalked off angrily. He looked like a man who’d just gotten something off his chest. I sat there, open-mouthed and uncomprehending. I didn’t understand what had just happened. I was unsure as to how I could’ve made so many other people so happy, but made this one man so mad.
That was the last time I ever saw him.
Years later it dawned on me why he was so mad. It wasn’t the speech. It was our first meeting. OG had never, ever forgiven me for day. One of his favorite things about being a doctor, perhaps even more than doing good, was how how smart and strong it made him feel. He liked the power of having information, and of revealing that information bit by bit. He liked being a rock for people in their time of ignorance and need. That’s why he had the Kleenex. Not because he was a super empathetic individual, but because this was his moment to be a shoulder to cry on, and he wanted to milk it a little bit. He loved that moment as much as he loved anything else about doctoring, and I had taken it away from him. I felt sort of bad.
When I realized this, I didn’t really get angry at him. Yes he was deriving pleasure from being strong when others were falling apart, but so what? I’m just a comedian. I make people laugh for a living and I still get bummed out at work. OG was an oncologist, which is the most depressing job in the world behind maybe ambulance driver or beached whale caregiver. Even the word “oncologist” is depressing. When I tell people what I do, they think of laughter and good times. If you tell someone you’re an oncologist, they immediately start to sweat and check themselves for lumps. So if he got joy from the rougher edges of his job, then so be it.
In essence, the reasons we didn’t like each other were all based on simple miscommunication. All the times OG was expecting me to be weak and needy, I was pretending to be strong. I was joking around, making light of the situation, coming off as cocky, even. Every time I did that, I took away an opportunity for him to be the strong one in the room, the Gary Cooper, the man with the calm demeanor and all the solutions.
It wasn’t a one way street, either. When he didn’t laugh, it made me feel stupid for joking around, and it also made me more concerned about my health. If he’s not laughing at the awesome jokes then it must be because I’m in trouble here! He must know something dark and terrible that he’s not telling me! What OG didn’t understand, is that I wasn’t being strong when I kidded around. I was actually being the weakest I’d ever been in my life. I was crying out for help, and my constant wisecracks were a desperate attempt to hide that from him and everyone around me.
It’s too bad it went down like this because we had a lot to offer each other. I could have taken him away from his depressing job and made him laugh for a moment, and he could have been a rock when I needed one most. Looking back, it’s all a shame. We were at cross purposes and neither he or I ever got it. Ten years later I still wish* he would have let me make him laugh, and I’m pretty sure he still wishes I would have shut the hell up!
*I also still wish he’d had a better sense of humor because I’m really funny and I don’t care what he said about my speech, so there. Ha!