Clueless! March 2, 2014

Friends and Family,

Have you ever read stories or seen movies where the Native American tracker is called to some wilderness location to find someone? He looks around, sniffs the air, maybe drops a couple of blades of grass to get wind speed and direction. Then he walks a few steps, and sees a pebble on the path. He looks at the pebble and says, "They came through this way within the last two days."

The brilliant tracker sees things that the rest of us mortals miss. For example, that the pebble was from rock that doesn't come from this area, and that since it rained three days ago and there is no mud on the pebble, it hasn't gotten wet.

I am not a Native American Tracker. Never mind the pebble, sometimes I miss the billboard sign for the freeway on ramp. I trample clues, I don't find them.

This tracking of clues is a skill that I wish I had, because I would have a much easier time reading the signs of what is happening to my health. In the past the cancer has grown when I thought it would be stable, and has been stable when I thought it had grown. Last year I had a sharp mid-back pain and was pretty sure it was cancer in a rib. My doc ordered an X-ray, and I felt a bit foolish, because it was nothing.

At least it seemed like nothing, until I had a routine CT scan a month later. This more precise scan showed that the rib had cancer after all. I was wrong in accepting that I was wrong the first time.

I went through this again in December when lower back pain led to a CT scan within 24 hours of calling my doc. (With my history, I think a bad case of hiccups would lead to a CT scan at this point.) The pain was diagnosed as arthritis in my back. This was baffling to me, because there was sharp pain and sudden onset. That didn't sound like arthritis to me, but I wasn't the radiologist. I'm not even a tracker!

Fortunately, they referred me to a physical therapist (PT), which was even more puzzling to me as an approach for dealing with inflammation in the bones! But again, who's the doctor-tracker here? I'm much closer to Inspector Clouseau than Dr. Kildare.

The PT did her own diagnosis based on which ways I could move without hurting, and said it was a torn disk. That made more sense to me. Better yet, treatment based on this has been very effective, so I'm buying every word of it. After two plus months in a back brace, parking in handicap zones ("playing the cancer card," I called it), and a few outings in a wheelchair, I'm now back at the gym lifting weights, doing core exercises, swimming, and shooting errant 3-pointers with abandon. The world looks pretty spectacular again! Except.....

Except for The Cough. It's been getting worse the last couple of weeks. But what does it mean??? Is it part of this cold that I've had for the past couple of months that has waxed and waned? Or is it a sign that the cancer has grown in my lungs again?

There are two ways that my oncologist tells me that we can tell if the lung cancer is growing. One is with CT scans. The next scan is a couple of months out. The other way is based on the following three questions: 1) How are you feeling? 2) Has it been harder to breathe lately? 3) Have you been coughing more lately?

Now, assume for a minute that you have a chest cold. 1) How are you feeling? 2) Has it been harder to breathe lately? 3) Have you been coughing more lately?

You see why I feel so clueless right now? I don't KNOW how I'm doing. I don't know if Tarceva has run its course and I need to hurry on to the next treatment before the cancer gets a bigger foothold, or whether I have a cold.

It reminds me of a scene from the comedy RED ("Retired Extremely Dangerous"). A frail-looking Morgan Freeman is escaping the nursing home to join his fellow ex-spies in one last mission. He climbs out and sits on his window ledge, closes his eyes, and lets go .... dropping about three inches to the ground.

So with this cough and heavier breathing, am I in for a Morgan Freeman-type drop? Or is this a real-life multi-story drop? Don't ask Inspector Clouseau - I'm clueless!

This stuff comes up frequently. Here's another recent one: I had a headache three days in a row. Does this mean the cancer has spread to my brain? To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a headache is just a headache, but the real answer is that I don’t know.

You may be wondering, “How do you deal with it when you never know how long you’re going to live?” That is the question!!!

Genevieve and I have both thought about this a lot, and have come up with the same answer. We handle it by staying in the present.

We do our best to think about how special today is. When I hold Genevieve, it feels like the greatest pleasure in the world. A good cup of coffee is a wonderful treat. Moments with friends feel that much more special. Stopping to smell the roses isn’t just a metaphor – It’s a reality. A sunny day – or hour – is cause for celebration. A walk outside in almost any weather feels like a gift. Watching my granddaughter Caitlin in a Hula show feels as special as a once-in-a-lifetime event. Even though we have seen her shows for the last nine years, we’re only seeing THIS show once, and she will never be 14 again.

It’s much, much easier to treat each moment as special when you’re only thinking about today.

You may not be as clueless as I am, and it may not matter as much if you are, because life and death are probably not hanging in the balance for you right now. I hope this lack of a sense of urgency for you doesn’t deprive you of the gifts Genevieve and I have been able to receive from doing what she calls “staying on the page of today.”

I hope you have an amazing today. After all, it’s the only day you can live in.