In June of 2007 I started to have a mystery flu that lasted for a little longer than the flu is supposed to. I was having fevers that would last for a few hours and then subside, and then come back again. Some of the fevers were pretty intense, and involved me getting a form of the chills I had never had before in any experience with the flu. On the encouragement of my wife, I decided to see a local general practitioner in the second week of the mystery fevers.
I even told the GP what ought to have been an alarming detail — I had lost 11 pounds since the fevers had started two weeks earlier. Even with those lost pounds I was still somewhat overweight. So this doctor listened politely as I tried to recount all of my symptoms for him. He then paused, looked at his chart, and counselled me to think about losing a few more pounds (Diet and Exercise, Diet and Exercise…) and call him again if the fevers persisted for two more weeks. He did not suggest a blood test, and never mentioned possibilities other than the flu.
Meanwhile my parents in Maryland were freaking out. They wanted me to come to Maryland and do some blood work immediately. My father, a cardiologist, thought I might have a rare heart issue, and he wanted to do an ECG. We were also supposed to spend a couple of weeks in India with my wife’s parents around this time.
Painfully, I had to tell my wife to take our son (then not even a year old) and go without me; I didn’t think I could handle the trip, but I didn’t want her limited vacation time to be ruined because of my weird illness. I dropped them off at Newark airport and then came home and sweated through several further days of increasingly intense fevers before finally agreeing to go to Maryland to do the tests my parents wanted.
This was before the era of Facebook and Twitter, but we were well into the era of Google, and I had of course been looking up my symptoms online. Several of the results I was getting from these searches were indeed the flu. But ominously, the number one result when I searched for “persistent fever, chills, weight loss” seemed to make no sense: Lymphoma.
I came out negative for the heart issue. But after a CAT scan it was immediately clear that Dr. Google was right: I did indeed have a large mass of Lymphoma in my upper chest. A biopsy would be needed to confirm that it was Hodgkin’s specifically. But it was pretty clearly well-developed: Stage 3, and possibly Stage 4 (a PET scan showed traces of cancer had spread to my lungs).
For the next three weeks I stayed in Maryland. For several days I was in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices. Appointments with oncologists, radiation oncologists, second opinions. PET scans. A deeply unpleasant bone marrow biopsy. A biopsy surgery in the chest region under full anesthesia. Finally, the go-ahead to begin chemotherapy.
From the hospital I had to call my wife to tell her the news, and ask her to come back early from India. She came. My son, when he saw me for the first time after a couple of weeks of this horror show, gave me that big beaming smile of pure love and happiness that only a baby can give to a parent. That smile alone sustained me through some of the worst of those days.
I spent the next six months at home, dealing with chemotherapy. I spent more than a few hours playing video games online (if there had been Candy Crush back then I’m sure I would have finished the damn thing.). I read a whole bunch of entertaining novels I had been meaning to read (nearly the entire collected works of Graham Greene.). I did some blog posts on Sepia Mutiny on the days when I was feeling good.
But I also suffered through all of the side effects of chemotherapy: I lost quite a bit of my hair, including the large mass of hair that, as a Sikh, I had never cut in my life. I had weird skin issues, digestive issues… I’ll spare you. And despite the powerful anti-emetic drugs they have now to offset the nausea, I had a few instances of pretty epic vomiting near the end of the round of chemotherapy.
And along with everything else, I was cranky and depressed. I said mean things to my mom when she tried to get me to eat after chemotherapy (my mom was heroic); I said melodramatic and not-so-nice things to my wife (Samian was heroic); I found spending time with my young son to be a chore.
But I learned some things too. To avoid boring you with everything I thought about that fall, No one lives forever. let me boil it all down to one simple lesson: no one lives forever. I had been worried about not having the kinds of friends in my life I wanted; I had been worried about the limitations of the neighborhood we lived in and the house we were living in; I had been worried about my career.
Suddenly, in front of me was a pretty real chance that the course of my life might be very different than I had ever imagined it would be. Now I had to grapple with the reality that I would never write the Great Indian-American Novel, or become an academic superstar, or… maybe even live long enough to see my son learn to ride a bike?
What is your legacy really going to be? What do you want people to remember about you What is your legacy really going to be?…Hint: don’t say it’s the book you hope to one day write. when you’re gone? Hint: don’t say it’s the book you hope to one day write. You might never get to write it.
If you spend all your time worrying about the things in your life that aren’t perfect, you miss the very real chances to recognize the access to beauty and love you have around you right now. While I was sick and in treatment I couldn’t act on this awareness the way I would have liked. I have tried to do better in the years since then… I am still far from perfect. But in truth I think about this lesson nearly every day. When I am down about things or frustrated, this knowledge continues to sustain me.
Another bit of food for thought: until the 1960s, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was considered untreatable. Virtually everyone who got it died from it. And yet here I am, worrying about whether my TIAA/CREF retirement fund is doing ok and planning to buy my kid his first real bike.
So the next time you hear people complaining about “western medicine,” think about that. You know at least one guy who would be dead right now without it. Me.