Advance Warning

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A story of the author's early days in chemotherapy

On the third day of my chemo treatments, she walked into my room and stood at the foot of my bed. She was a big woman, and with her arms folded across her chest, she was an imposing figure. The stern, unsmiling look she was giving me belied the soft-spoken and gentle caregiver I had encountered shortly after admission. Her demeanor indicated that she was there to deliver bad news, but that wasn’t possible. I had already received a lifetime’s worth of that in the last few weeks. Nothing she was going say at that point would surprise me…anyway, that’s what I thought.

First, let me set the scene: The type of leukemia I had been diagnosed with was nasty and potentially fatal. And so, I was discovering, was the treatment. As she stood there assessing me, there were fluids dripping into both arms and oxygen hissing into my nostrils. With the array of tubes and wires that were attached to my body, coming from monitors and hanging bags, I no longer looked like the amateur athlete who had been training for a triathlon just weeks before.

The drugs they were using to end the lives of the diseased cells seemed to have misfired and were ending mine instead. Eating was impossible; sleeping was sporadic. I had so much dope in my system that visitors claimed I spoke like Ozzy Osbourne on a bad day. The itchy scabs that formed on my head and chest – a reaction to the toxins that were being pumped into me – added an exclamation point to my misery.

My thoughts, which used to meander from events in my past to plans for my future, now consisted of short segments that were confined to the present. I had lost my past, I was surviving in fifteen-minute increments, and the only future I could imagine was my upcoming pain-free residence in the sweet hereafter.

It was into this pathetic setting that she spoke:

            “This is important,” she began. “You could do great harm to your wife.”

Alright, she’s got my attention. How could I possibly hurt anyone in my condition?

            “There are dangerous chemicals in your system,” she admonished me with a wagging finger, “and you need to use protection during sex.”

Sex??? I looked around the room to see if anyone else had entered, because she certainly couldn’t be talking to me. In response to the bewildered look I gave her, she spoke very slowly: "You need to use a barrier."

Ok, I had become very sick, not very stupid, I thought, I know what safe sex means, but what’s that got to do with me? It’s August 11th and I’m just hoping to live until the 12th. What does she know that I don’t?

And then I realized that this wasn’t about sex; it was about what sex represented at that moment…hope. It was about a day in the future—that’s right, my future—when all of the accoutrements of the war on cancer would be gone, the catheter would be missing from my chest, and our medicine cabinet would no longer resemble a well-stocked pharmacy. It was about a day when food wouldn’t taste like diesel fuel and I wouldn’t wake up in the morning feeling like I’d gotten a full ten minutes of sleep. And, yes, it maybe even pointed to a day when I would actually be required to heed my nurse’s warning.

Perhaps everything that I thought was gone from my life was merely on hold. At least, that’s what I hoped…

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