Last Tuesday I found out that I have stage 4 gastric cancer that has spread to my liver. I think this means I’m dying.
But being a journalist, I can’t pass up the opportunity to tell the story of a man whose life and plans might be cut short unexpectedly, so this column will let you, the reader, live and die with me.
I’m calling this column “What I learned from dying” because that was a book I envisioned years ago where I’d interview people who were dying to get their unique perspectives on life.
If things go well this will be a long-term column that could serve as catharsis for me or a peek behind the gown for those who are curious. If things don’t go as well then maybe it’s just a long, rambling goodbye.
A year ago I felt better than I had in probably 12 years, and at the time I said I felt better than I had even in high school. I was working out, going to bed early, waking up early, I had endless energy and I was getting things done. Apparently that whole time I had cancer growing inside of me.
I got COVID-19 in late November, which gave me eight straight days of hiccups, so when I recovered but began having trouble swallowing, it sort of made sense. I waited for things to improve, but they didn’t.
I lost about 50 pounds from not being able to eat, so I finally scheduled an upper scope last month, which showed extreme inflammation. The doctor wasn’t sure why it was so extreme, but I was relieved to finally know what was happening and to begin medicines to treat it.
On a follow-up visit to get what I thought would be his official hypothesis for why I was so inflamed, where he’d tell me to continue the meds and see him in a few weeks, that’s when things took a negative turn.
“Not good” was a phrase he used a worrisome number of times. It was cancer, he said, and he hinted that it had spread. He told me he’d get me set up with an oncologist ASAP, but he continued to say things like “I don’t want to take away all your hope…”
Since that visit I’ve gotten a feeding tube surgically installed into my lower intestine, a jejunal tube, where I get 100 percent of my nutrition. That’s helped my energy, but the large, leaking hole in my side hasn’t helped my mobility.
I’m surprised at how I’ve reacted to finding out I have such a terrible cancer. To be sure there have been plenty of tears, and it’s still hard to say it out loud to people who are just finding it out, but so far it hasn’t taken a big toll mentally. I’ve always sort of refused to be sick and it’s generally worked, so this feels like it should work the same way.
I’m purposely avoiding thinking about all the plans I had to renovate the dumpy house I’m living in, how I was going to finally get my old 911 and my Bug convertible going and was going to go to so many car shows, or how my traveling girlfriend and I were going to see the world. I’ve begun to wonder about things like how to have a cool funeral, what will happen to all the cool old VW parts I’ve gathered over the years, and whether I can be cremated and painted into a cool piece of art.
I’ve told every doctor so far that I want as much information as I can get to make the most informed decisions I can, but apparently there are things that are best if I don’t know them.
During my initial visit with my oncologist, after he told me it was stage 4 and we discussed chemo, I said I knew it was a hard question to ask but that the first question everyone wants to know is how long they have to live and if he could give me any insight on that.
My sister and girlfriend were both there with me and each either shook their head or said “no, no, no” so the doctor just gave me sort of a side glance and didn’t answer.
I have a feeling the internet would have some information on that, but it also has a lot of scary things that I’d just do just as well to avoid right now. I’m sure if someone less invested than I were to google the prognosis for stage 4 liver cancer they might gain a little additional context for this column, but for now I’ll do without it.
By Dave Taylor