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OPINION | DANNY POWELL: The clarity that comes with cancer

by DANNY POWELL SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | October 24, 2021 at 1:48 a.m.

People celebrate anniversaries for all sorts of reasons. I do as well, mostly the normal ones like our wedding and birthdays. But I also celebrate a different anniversary every August, one that reminds me of one hot summer day 10 years ago when an odd lump that appeared in my underarm turned out to be metastasized cancer.

Each summer since then--usually in July or August--I dutifully and gratefully make my way back to the UAMS Cancer Center for an annual checkup with the oncologists there. Gone are the days of weekly visits, then monthly, then quarterly, as my leash gradually was lengthened. Now I go once a year.

This past August I made the trip again, marking 10 years since I'd first walked in to see a doctor there, my petrified wife alongside me, and we sat and discussed with that kind doctor the possibilities for further treatment after the tumor had been resected.

The building remains the same, gleaming and airy, its architects having done a fine job of making sure the patients within are able to experience sunlight. The nurses and doctors that helped me are mostly gone now, having retired from their important and taxing work.

My protocol doesn't involve a scan any longer, so I wonder if the technician--a Kentucky basketball fan--is still fitting IVs into strangers before calmly guiding them through the process of injecting iodine in their bodies as they're moved back and forth through a tube that reveals what's inside them.

Who knows what the machine would find? It's like taking a very final exam every three months, then nursing yourself through the day or two it takes for your grade to come back. The technician seemed to understand the anxiety.

The piano lounge still beckons, though it's silenced on this visit because of covid. The memory of sitting there years ago with other patients, listening to the wonderful volunteer play "Here Comes the Sun" still is fresh, the tune conjuring up sad memories of a friend who'd died of cancer, and who had the George Harrison version played at his funeral. I don't ever recall crying when I was at the Cancer Center other than that day.

The gift shop still sells different colored wrist bands, each color representing a form of the disease. There are so many colors. The memory of my wife and I, on one of my first visits, digging through the bin of wristlets while searching for the color of my particular cancer is still vivid.

Our laughter reached near hysterics as we processed that the color assigned to my cancer was black. "Isn't that the color of death?" we'd announced to each other, as we roared with laughter, freaking out the nice volunteer working the cash register, who couldn't find the humor in our hysterics.

We dug and dug through the bin, but there were no black bands to be found. I later ordered a black wrist band on the Internet. I wear one on my visit today, as I do every day.

I sit in the exam room seven stories up, waiting for the doctor to come in, and remember my first meeting in one of these rooms when I was told there was only one treatment option--interferon, a drug first used 60 or so years ago--to try to keep the disease from coming back.

Now I marvel that in the past 10 years, three or four new drugs have been developed, my ancient therapy no longer applicable. The clinical trial I participated in helped bring one of those new drugs to market, and it's still helping people.

One of these days it may help me if my cancer decides to reappear, as doctors now have different options and combinations of therapies to try. I smile as I recall that Jimmy Carter benefited from one of those new drugs.

As I sit and wait and scan the antiseptic interior of the exam room, I wonder why I am still allowed to be here, enjoying the benefit of another year's checkup. Why did my body respond to treatment when others didn't?

My internal chemistry--aided by that now outdated auto-immune drug that was injected into me--has staved off recurrence as I've aged. How did it work? The randomness of who gets well and who doesn't continues to baffle me.

In those 10 years I've seen our two children graduate from high school, then one from college, while the other is set to do so in May. In July I attended our son's wedding, something I didn't fathom during those days. Because of the efforts of so many who labored and still labor in this building and in faraway labs, I've been gifted the simple privilege to grow older.

Last weekend I attended my 40th high school reunion, another anniversary of sorts. A few nice people asked me how my health was, and I was surprised and touched they'd remembered that I'd been sick 10 years ago when we attended our 30th reunion.

I thanked them for asking and told them how lucky I was that I had health insurance, reasonable co-pays, and an understanding employer that allowed me time off to go to the Cancer Center to get scans and receive medicine and stay home when I felt too lousy to go to work.

I relayed that I was lucky that my body and the auto-immune drug I'd taken had been compatible and no sign of the disease had reared up since then. I told them I figured the cancer was still circulating in me somewhere, but for now it seemed to be staying dormant, and that was a good thing. I emphasized again how lucky I'd been, and still am.

My annual visit to the Cancer Center brings back with clarity each year that at one time I was a scared patient, dependent on so many strangers in the medical community who worked tirelessly and compassionately to cure me, dependent on the luck that I had access to health insurance and to quality care, and dependent, ultimately, on nothing more than the randomness of nature and healing.

I don't deserve what I've received any more than those that weren't as fortunate as I was deserved a poorer result. I realize again and again that we should all have been so lucky.

Danny Powell lives in Conway with his wife of 31 years and Jack, a good dog that makes bad choices.

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