Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Who Loves You

Yesterday was another typical shower before Holy Coffee. Things went as you'd expect: there was soap and water and a towel and delusions that it may actually be Saturday, and I'm up for no reason. When I snapped out of it, I found them. They were sitting on my shoulder haphazardly, like I rolled over in bed and they just stuck to me. Then I looked over at the other shoulder and reality steamrolled me like the Bull Charge to Little Mac: I'm finally going chemobald.

Now I've been pretty lucky with this whole cancer thing so far, but there are times when you just can't escape what's really going on here, and that's the fact that the C Note (another great title for a cancer blog, BUT NOT THIS ONE, FOOL) is really the master plan of the Hair Club for Men gone horribly awry. Oh, you scoff, but see it as I do: businessmen with newly regrown flaxen locks chide their woes in a board room when one of them says, "hey, fellas, I think I figured it out. First, we make people kinda sick. Not too sick, but it'll suck monkey nuts all the same. During the treatment process, we invent a drug called VinBLASTine [editor's note, actually the way it's labeled] that will also kill your hair follicles! Hand over fist, I tell ya! Hand over fist!" Stupid fake hair people.

To be fair, my hairline is on the same trajectory as Caine from Kung Fu; it is slowly wandering from one end of the globe to the other. It's been this way since my late teens. Knowing that hair loss was a possibility with my treatment, I was mentally prepared for my dome to be exposed for all the world to see after I first heard the happy news. Not to beat that dead horse, though, but it's different for everybody. My nurse, Julie (a lieutenant in the war), even warned me not to do anything drastic like shaving my head because I may thin out, I may go totally bald, or I may just be the hairy bastard I've always been.

Here's another wacky thing about going chemobald: it's gonna grow back, and chances are, it's gonna be totally different. There are not-too-uncommon reports of people gaining natural curls and even different colors post-treatment, so let's dare to dream and speculate together, just you and me...

You may not know how metal I am. Well, I'm fucking metal. So metal, in fact, that I don't need any face paint to let you know how serious I am about my metalocity. Never mind the smirk; it's just there to throw you from the trail. Fun Fact: I am wailing on a flying-V in this same picture, some idiot intern just cropped it a little too much. That kid's fired.

So you thought I'd make a Kung Fu reference and just leave it, didn't you? Silly reader, Kung Fu is like a high five: you can't just let it hang. In a past life, my Wing Kong brothers and I freed David Lo Pan from the Hell of 1000 Upside Down Sinners. Know what the key ingredient was in that martial arts pie? ME, TURKEYS. Now I'm going to put cancer in the same kind of Shaolin-style grip. Just wait.

This requires no explanation. I want it to happen. Badly.

Fingers crossed, everybody!

Friday, July 23, 2010

PSA: The Funky Cancer Train May Be Coming To Your Town

...if your town happens to be Toledo, OH. Yes, it's that time again; time for me to leave my spicy wife, my comfy couch, and my gi-fucking-gantinc television to bring the Cleveland gospel to the rest of Ohio's youth.

For those of you that don't know what I'm talking about, I'm surprised you're reading this blog (but not too surprised. Cancer is hilarious). I'll sum it up for you: I don't recruit students, I sell dreams. Period.

OK, let me start over. I work for a large state school located in Northeast Ohio. I'll let your acute powers of deductive reasoning guide you to which one. Anyway, as an admissions cat, I travel in the fall months from Monday afternoon to Friday evening hitting high schools, college fairs, and other special events planned for kids, parents, and high school guidance staff. It's a strange sort of working vacation. Meaning, I get to leave my desk for about a month and a half for some new sights (and bad restaurant food) at the expense of being away from my home for most of the week. It's really great for a week or two, then gets a little old, but that's what keeps The Man paid and off my back.

Anyway, since contracting the 'itus, I have to start avoiding large crowds because my immune system is kind of kaput. That means ixnay on the college fairs, which is a problem for a guy like me. True, it's best to meet with students face to face in high schools to properly give them the time they need to hear my pitch and comprehend it, but missing college fairs means missing lots of kids. Plus, I start radiation therapy at the beginning of October, and that shit's everyday, man. I can't get zapped and then drive to Toledo right after.

So the solution is thus: I'll be carrying a limited engagement in the Northwestern Ohio area between September 1(ish)-September 30. Most exhibitions will be one night only, but check your upcoming listings and invitations for show times and feets of skill and strength.

Come say hi, too.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


This was my last beer. Gaze upon its size, bottle volume, and angry gargoyle. That, friends, was a tasty beverage. It was also the last stop on the bus tour of tubby guts before my forced cancer diet. I look back at it fondly, mostly because I'm proud to know that I was coherent enough to take this photo, but I don't exactly miss it.

The thing with The Drugs(TM) is that there are things that you are no longer aloud to do and things that you no longer remotely want to do. Case in point: hooch. Yes, I do miss coming home from work, cracking one open, and playing Street Fighter until my main squeeze gets home. But after a few rounds of chemo, the thought of ingesting something that not only has a hopped flavor but also potentially makes me vomit (but that's a stretch, my tolerance is that of a rhino) (sorry, not to brag) sounds about as enticing as a bowl of Cheetos swimming in vinegar and grape jelly.

Yes, there are certain restrictions that I have had to adjust to after beginning The War on Cancer. Sobriety is one of them. As well as limited amounts of caffeine and lunch meat that must be toasted before serving. You'd think for as much as I tended to drink on weekends and the vast amount of coffee that I drink that it would be tough. Actually, my next point makes it easy. And by that, I mean that most food looks vile and disgusting now.

I eat a lot of peanut butter. Tons, even. In fact, I have a jar of reduced fat Jif and a loaf of bread in my office at work at all times. My coworkers used to poke fun at me because of this (they now come begging for food). I'm also a big pretzel guy, though there isn't anything more to say about that. Now, take my two favorite foods and fuse them together. Three months ago, it was the perfect storm. Just looking at them now makes my stomach turn. So it goes in Chemoville; what's up is down and what's yummy is putrid.

The plus side: Hamburger Helper is still really, really good.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Things I Shouldn't Be Doing But I Am, OR: Everything is Irradiated

And now, a wall of text.

Early Monday morning, Cleveland Heights native Harvey Pekar passed away. Though no cause has been made clear so far, Pekar had struggled from lymphoma 15ish years ago, and reports on the internet tell me that he also had prostate cancer late in life. He was 70. You might know him from his appearance, and Paul Giamatti's portrayal of him, in the 2003 American Splendor film based on his life and his work in underground comics.

I'm not going to go into detail about the guy because it would be more fun for you to at least rent the movie and find out for yourself. He seemed like a cool guy to me, and this is the measuring stick I often use to judge most people in the public eye (George Clooney seems to make a career out of it, as did Paul Newman), but it seems that I'll never really have a chance to find out. I will say, though, that I've actually had multiple opportunities to meet him personally that I've always passed on. Not for a lack of wanting, I just always seemed to have something better to do. Plus, I never actually read any of the comics that he wrote, so I think I would have just come off as some sycophantic schlub. I'd like to think I saved him the trouble of giving one more person the old stink eye by waiting until I had first hand knowledge of his work.

Funny, then, that my hip-chick wife reserves Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel about Pekar's struggle with illness prophetically just before his death. She did it based on interest alone, not the irony that he had lymphoma and so do I. I'm sure it wasn't completely lost on her, but when we were having a conversation about it Monday evening, the look of realization on her face that maybe this is or isn't the right book to have at the moment was kind of priceless. I appreciate the thought, but she didn't need to be sensitive about it; I'll read it anyway and probably enjoy it.

It will also fit into a current trend that I must have subconsciously started right when I found out that I had the Big C. I really don't know if it's questionable practice or just fate's wacky sense of irony, but here's a list of stuff I probably should be avoiding, but have decided not to...

Fallout 3
A friend of mine pointed out that I play video games like you read books or watch TV; meaning very often. A few months ago, I bought an Xbox 360 and basically opened a vein and began mainlining games that were either exclusive to the console or that friends of mine have been meaning to force me to play. One of these was last year's superb post-apocalyptic Fallout 3 where you play the role of a man born and raised in massive nuclear fallout shelter hundreds of years after the world goes to shit only to be forced to leave it and forge a new life for yourself in the wasteland that was Washington DC. In this vast expanse of dilapidated buildings and rusted, mangled cars, one of the things that you have to be keenly aware of for survival (outside of mutated dogs and Mad Max-esque gangs) is your ever-increasing radiation levels. Drink some water, get irradiated. Take a potty break, get irradiated.

So, when my surgeon called me to confirm that I, in fact, had Hodgkin's, it was at that moment when my ex-vault-dwelling hero -we'll call him Marvin- relieved himself and received a small spike on his ersatz Geiger counter. I found this weirdly fitting that very soon from this moment, I would also be doused with these invisible rays to try to keep me alive. You may think that this had me scared shitless, but I am not a weaker man. No sir. Think of the benefits: Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider, The Incredible Hulk was bombarded with gamma rays, all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles swam through radioactive ooze to get where they are. I could go on, but you get the point. I'm going to breed an army of super soldiers, and I'll be their Professor X. And when the world needs saving and injustice is crushed, you can thank Fallout 3 for getting us there. Then you can thank me.

Dante's Inferno
No, no, not the epic poem. The other video game that I should have stayed away from. In it, Dante Alighieri is reimagined as a soldier from the first Crusade that returns home after a brief scuffle with Death himself to found his wife, Beatrice, murdered and her soul taken to Hell. Dante takes it upon himself to descend into the underworld to bring her back. Yes, this really is the plot of the game.

Dante's trek through the Nine Circles is as graphic as it is dark, but you'll have that when you take a trip through Hell. During the game, we find that our hero wasn't exactly the nicest guy: not only did he cheat on his wife, he killed countless innocent prisoners during his time in the Middle East and threw his brother-in-law under the bus for it. Dude was kind of a dirt bag. But we get that he's sorry for it, and he makes no bones about staying in the netherworld after springing his main squeeze from the clutches of, you know, Lucifer.

Now, I have a pretty good attitude about the whole cancer thing, but times like this make you think about the afterlife a little more often than usual. When your super angry protagonist is going through each individual realm of the dead, it's hard not to reflect on your own life and wonder if you might end up a moaning corpse that some ex-crusader is going to use as a ladder. I'll go ahead and spoil it for you in that Dante makes it out of Hell, and (hopefully) so will I, but the mind wanders even if what you're playing is ultimately mindless.

Breaking Bad
This same friend that observed my video game playing habits and I were talking about TV shows that we like one day. He's a pretty big Breaking Bad fan, a series on A&E about a high school chemistry teacher that finds out that he has terminal lung cancer so he reasons that his life kinda stinks, so he'll start a meth lab to bank some money for his family before he kicks the bucket. "Maybe you shouldn't watch it right now," he says.

But he's wrong! So wrong! The whole show reminds me of a quote from singer/songwriter/cool guy Warren Zevon, who also died of mesothelioma. When his doctors told him that he only had so much time to live, they encouraged him to quit smoking and begin treatment that would confine him physically. He basically told them to fuck off and recorded The Wind, a collaborative album with a variety of other artists (like Bruce Springsteen, but we'll get to him in a second) that became the crowning achievement of his musical career. Zevon knew he was going to die but he wasn't going to let him get in the way of ensuring his legacy, and I think that's something we can all appreciate.

If I found that I was also terminal, would I start a meth lab? Probably not. I would, however, make damn sure that the people that I have loved are taken care of in some way, even if I have to call every artistic friend that I know to create something to let them know that I'll miss them when I'm gone and that I'll be there when they need me. Maybe Springsteen will play on the soundtrack, too.

The Gaslight Anthem's American Slang
Like a lot of people, I've always had a love/hate relationship with age. Everybody wants all of the benefits of it (i.e. drinking, voting, respect of small children, the knowledge that if you want a twinkie you can just go get one) but without any of the consequences (i.e. wrinkles, mortgages, cancer, the fat that comes with twinkies). Age has been a recurring theme in a lot of the creative work that I've done in my life from photography projects in college to the writing I occasionally do for video game websites every now and then. I even started a novel about it about 10 years ago that I'll probably never finish. That's age's other big problem, stuff just gets in the way.

The Gaslight Anthem is a band that seems to understand this. On American Slang, their third album, singer Brian Fallon's imagery shifted from big cars/need for fame/lost love Springsteen homage that their last album, the fantastic The '59 Sound, dove so deeply into. Instead, the Jersey quartet found a liking to other frequent motifs that The Boss developed over time: fear of getting old, reflection once you get there, the regrets that come with it, and what to do next. Clearly, if The '59 Sound was their Born to Run, then American Slang is The River.

Frequent allusions to past youth creep in early in the album and are laced subtly throughout. The second track, "Stay Lucky," speaks of moving on past moments that never arrive and how you're "never gonna find it/ when your knees, they got so weak/ but it's right here/ when you need it/ like when you were young/ and everybody used to call you lucky." Noticeably less punk and more mid tempo than their previous work (especially the decidedly raw Sink or Swim), songs like "Bring It On" and the somber closing track, "We Did It When We Were Young" both accept this age with aplomb and look back with sad eyes on times gone by.

Spingsteen was 26 when Born to Run was released in 1975. The album was a turning point in his career by breaking his "next Dylan" image that his labels tried to sell and moving to a large, arena filling sound that was done with heavily layered guitar work and a huge rhythm section. He also did it with songs about leaving his "romanticized teenage street life" (a quote from's review of it) and embracing the fame that was dangling just outside of his grasp at the time. I turned 30 in December and if you ask me, 26 is pretty young to give up on your youth and move on. On the flip side, 26 is also a bit past the age where you realize that you're gonna have to be a man sometime. But just for the sake of argument, maybe 26 is that perfect age when the two thoughts become one. My 26 was probably the worst year of my life, and I sure as shit became a man because of it. Maybe it was for him, too, and he has a rock 'n roll masterpiece to show for it (and something that I will ritualistically pass to my future son. Candles will be involved).

I am terrified of growing old. When I was a kid, I remember a conversation my father and I had on the swings in the back yard of my house. I told him that I didn't want to grow up. He said that he didn't either when he was my age, but it wasn't so bad. I think about the last ten years of my life and how I drifted through it with a huge amount of ambition and very little drive. When I was 23, I wanted to have comics published by now. When I was 26, I wanted to have a career that challenged me creatively as well as pleasing me professionally. In 6 months I'll be 31 and the laundry list of things I wanted to show for it is barely 1/10 finished, no Born to Run in sight. To me, the duality of perspective on American Slang offers a sort of solace for that. Plus, the title track is a great single.

This week I'm on something of a sabbatical from playing video games, so I might just finish up Breaking Bad. Anything else you can think of that I should probably avoid (but won't)?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Perhaps appropriate because tomorrow is my second session with The Drugs(TM), let's talk about chemotherapy.

Cancer, for what it is, is a different beast for everybody that's lucky enough to get it. Some people are sick for months (if not longer) before realizing that they should get it checked out while others have no idea that something's wrong until they get a routine physical; and these two people could have the exact same type of problem. So, too, is it with chemo. There are folks out there that are sick for the entirety of their treatment, and then cats that feel like the dirt under a New York taxi cab for about three or four days and then are totally fine. I'm guessing that the former in the previous example are the ones that have to go through chemo once a week (or more, God bless 'em). I'm very lucky in that I get Frankensteined to those machines every other week and not more.

But the treatment itself is probably the furthest from a happy ending that a person could possibly expect. For a lot of people, it's not even a means to an end, just a crap shoot that they'll make it out on the other side feeling better than when they started. After getting my body blasted once with the juice that persecutes my bad cells, I can tell you that any sympathy people have had for guys like me that are 90-100% curable is completely wasted. Two weeks ago I saw an elderly man in a room by himself, so infused with tubes that he may as well be that stupid surfer from The Matrix, just staring at the wall waiting for his machine to beep so someone will either change his IV bag or let him go home, where I assume that he may just continue staring.

My treatment lasts roughly 3-4 hours. This, as you can probably guess, is basically a big chunk of your day that's used for reflection. Or Gameboy. Mostly reflection, though, even with the Gameboy. For me, the first time through it was one of the times that I couldn't escape what's really going on, even if I actively try to pay as little attention to it as I can. There's a tube in my wrist that's pumping me full of medicine. I'll pee red for a day or two. My immune system will begin to take a shit. I'll wake up feeling like I'm hungover, but without having to piece together how I got there. For the next few days, and even though I'll have a house guest for some of them (we'll buy video games. You'll see), a general feeling of malaise will occupy my person. That's chemo for you.

This sounds like shit, and it is. But it's not. Be with me here for a second. People get worse before they get better and all of that, but that's not what I'm getting at. Sitting in a hospital ward and staring at the wall while bags of liquid slowly deplete your white blood count is a cruel way to let the world finish you. But it won't happen to me, this much is certain (at least in disposition). Tomorrow I have to go talk to someone.

Or at least bring him some juice, I think. Maybe see if he likes Motown.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Power Fist of Remission

No, I'm not in remission. But I'm gonna be! It's gonna rock your socks off!

So just a recap:
Cancer showed up at the door one day.
"Your boy, lymph node, said I could move in. So I'm movin' in."
To which I replied, "F-you, squatter!"
This is about the eviction process.

It was kind of a process getting the ball rolling. After doctor visits, surgery, and various tests, it was up to me to find an oncologist that fit my abnormally high standards. Honestly, I didn't think they were going to be, nor did I think I needed them to be. See, most of the time when something goes awry in you personal temple, your doctor points you in the direction of the person that takes care of it. From surgeons to radiology, your doctor generally has an opinion of where you should take care of Ailment X. Not so with oncologists. The thing is, you could be with this guy for six months to a year, and if he has the personality of a cabbage or makes you as comfortable as the one guy that sits next to you in an empty movie theater then this isn't the doc for you. That means the onus was on me to find mine.

Alright, my doctor (whom is a pretty cool lady) gave me a hand sifting through the list of the ones that Medical Mutual said was on the up and up. But like finding a DJ for your wedding, there had to be an interview process. Thankfully, the first guy that we decided on was a good fit. I think mostly because he's British, but the mountain of published work and awards the he has also kind of helps. Seriously, if someone were to tell you that you had the Big C tomorrow, you would want it from a very reserved, soft-spoken, tallish gentleman that calmly laid out his plans for your recovery in the King's English. He could have also told me that I had sweat stains and that I shouldn't drool so much and I'd have been pretty cool with it.

And so it goes with a Dr. J. Sweetenham: a very kindly and brilliant man that surrounds himself with other kindly, brilliant people. His fellowship doctor (not that I can remember his name. Sorry, man) and nurse were very helpful folks that have no beef cracking inappropriate jokes with me to ease the tension (of course you can find a vein, Julie, the heroin helps as much as it hurts). But getting back to the original point, Dr. J. (as we'll call him. Next week I'll ask how his sky hook is) took a look at my medical history, checked out my previous tests, confronted me in a freestyle hip hop battle, and basically told me that it's go time. Get your shit together because we're starting chemo next week, fool (paraphrased). After all of the back and forth and hurry-up-and-wait, this was like hearing that Christmas was tomorrow, and it just sort of crept up on you.

Last Thursday is when the magic actually began. It was a long day. The Cleveland Clinic, though, is seriously the cancer killing capital of the midwest; and just as much for medicine as it is for comfort. Again I'll remind you that I hate being sick, a disposition that extends to stints in hospitals. The air is stale, the nurses are rude, and the food is bad. The Clinic somehow found the right alchemy to subvert all of that, though (except, perhaps, the food, though it was still pretty healthy). Most rooms in the chemo ward, or section, or whatever it's called are private. I have my own bathroom, a television, and a kitchen stocked with complimentary juice and caffeine-free beverages (because I can't really have much anymore). A social worker met with me to discuss various support groups that are available to me and financial aid for helping to pay for medical bills and such. It's worth pointing out that the TV is equipped with the cutting edge technology of yesteryear known as a video cassette recorder (or videus analogus in captivity), but I actually see this as a benefit because I finally get to watch all of those VHS tapes I've been hording for the last ten years. All in all, it ain't my own home, but it ain't too shabby.

At the risk of this going longer than it already has, I'll leave you wanting more knowing that this is all the good stuff. In our next episode, we'll take the time to talk about how much it kinda sucks monkey ass to go through chemo (spoiler: it's shitty), and possible ways you can deal with it to get the skip back in your step.

I hope everybody had a great 4th of July, too. Be cool, fools.