Saturday, February 28, 2009

Splitting hairs

Feral cats have been tripping the alarm sensors in the parking lot at my workplace at night, and our facilities manager is trying to find a good home for them so she can get a good night's sleep.

My officemates may suspect that the feral cats have moved on from the parking lot and now are prowling the suite that we share.

Three weeks of radiation therapy under my belt, and I am now experiencing the Full Monty of its side effects. I'm shedding hair from my scalp even faster than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bobby Jindal are losing allies in the GOP.

Anyone stepping into my office and looking at the floor around my chair might think that they entered a Supercuts by mistake.

I was warned about hair loss before I gave my cancer docs the green light to hunt down my malignant cells with ionizing rays. And right there on Page 12 of "Your Guide to Radiation Therapy," it says "If your head is being treated you may suffer from a temporary loss of some or all of your hair (called alopecia)."

Only my head is being treated with radiation, so seeing more of my forehead when I look in the mirror is not a surprise to me.

The radiation therapy guide offers reassuring words –"your hair will usually start growing back after you have finished your treatments"– even as it raises the specter of doom. The book tells me that on rare occasions, the hair loss can be permanent.

The way I see it, that's alarmist rhetoric straight from Karl Rove's playbook.

No one should ever suffer permanent hair loss. I can preclude that outcome just by scooping up the individual strands after they fall and preserving them in a large plastic tub.

My hair loss will be permanent only if I forget what I did with the tub. And eventually I'll have enough of a hair crop to weave a nice sweater.

As for the bald patches left on my scalp, somewhere in my closet I have a Chia Pet kit with unused chia seeds. I know that tactic has the whiff of desperation, but it's worth a shot.

And even if chia seeds fail to stimulate hair growth, I still can spare myself from Uncle Festerhood in my autumn years.

My radiation therapy guide says that if I lose hair "a hat, turban, scarf or wig may help you feel better." It goes on to state that "these items are usually considered tax-deductible medical expenses."

I'm more of a fez guy, so maybe I should visit Little Turkey and stock up on some in bright spring colors.

Even if a fez doesn't make me feel better, seeing a fez deduction on my 2009 tax return might give Timothy Geither a good laugh.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Gee, that face is familiar

Early last month, the optometrist down the block from my office threw up a large sign in his storefront window promoting free eye exams.

The sign shows a smiling, middle-aged couple relaxing at what looks like a beach. The guy is wearing a beige sweater, powder blue shirt and a pair of eyeglasses, and the woman is sporting a white turtleneck sweater.

Every time I went for a walk and found myself standing at that corner where the optometrist is located, I stared at the couple and asked myself, "Where do I know you two from?"

I figured it out the first week that I began radiation treatments and chemotherapy.

One night, I spent time reading a 50-page brochure titled "Your Guide to Radiation Therapy,"which I picked up at Kaiser's Radiation and Oncology Department. After closing the booklet, I took another look at the woman featured on the cover.

It was the same woman in the sign at the optometrist's shop!

Not only did the cover of the radiation therapy brochure feature the same woman, she was wearing the same white turtleneck sweater, her hair was styled the same way, she was wearing the same jewelry, and the photo was taken with that same sandy shore in the background.

And inside the booklet, on Page 3, there was another photo of her, next to the same guy in the sign at the optometrist's shop.

When I first spotted this brochure, and laid my eyes on this woman and her companion, I thought that maybe someday I would run into them as I zip around Kaiser, accessing services for cancer patients.

Now I'm not so sure. I guess that there is a strong possibility that these folks are models cherry-picked from a digital image warehouse to splash onto the radiation brochure.

I wonder where I'll see them next?

Maybe Radiation Lady is hiding a tattoo beneath her turtleneck and I'll spot her at the newsstand on the cover of Biker Chick magazine.

Maybe she and Cancer Dude, in addition to monitoring their eyesight and keeping on top of their risk for cancer, also make sure they get enough fiber in their diet and I'll see them on a cereal box in the breakfast aisle at the grocery store.

Or maybe I'll spot Radiation Lady on the back of a dust jacket for a best-selling novel written by an author whose real mug is too homely to move books off shelves.

One thing is certain: Whatever they decide to shill next, Radiation Lady and Cancer Dude are both part of my life now.

At least until my cancer goes into remission and the optometrist down the street changes his marketing campaign.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The amphibian who went A.W.O.L.

We partied like it was 1972 on Tuesday in the Radiation Oncology Department at Kaiser.

I'm really digging my new role as drive-time DJ for the department. When I arrived for my 5 o'clock appointment on Tuesday, I handed the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" over to one of the radiation oncologists, along with a note asking to cue the album up on track 14.

He pumped up the volume more than usual, and we all enjoyed the Stones' ballad "Let it Loose," followed by the quartet of classics from Side 4 of the original album: "All Down the Line," "Stop Breaking Down," "Shine a Light" and "Soul Survivor." Then the CD started over, and the opening track "Rocks Off" closed out Tuesday's session.

While being zapped with radiation, I fantasized that I was laying on a couch at Nellcôte, a mansion in southern France rented by Stones guitarist Keith Richards when he and the Stones fled England to avoid harsh taxation. "Exile" was recorded at Nellcôte, and later mixed at Sunset Sound Studios, just a few miles west from where I'm being treated for cancer.

As I was buttoning up and getting ready to leave, the radiation oncologist said he had never heard "Exile" before, and asked me if he could take it home to burn a copy for himself.

Of course I said it was fine to burn a copy. Sorry, Mick and Keith.

In my excitement at spawning a new Stones fan, I forgot to deposit my stuffed toy frog inside my ThermaSplint mask, as I always do before leaving at the end of my session.

Kaiser's Radiation Oncology Department agreed to babysit my frog between my radiation sessions. They always have it waiting for me on the treatment bed when I arrive for my 5 o'clock appointment each day.

When I got to my car, I realized I didn't have my glasses, so I headed back to the Radiation Oncology Department. I found my glasses in the nurse's station with a note that said "Mr. Serchia's glasses" attached.

And then I headed home. My frog rode shotgun.

I arrived 25 minutes early for Wednesday's appointment, but it wasn't until 10 minutes after 5 that I finally heard my name.

When I made it back to the treatment room, the three radiation oncologists were huddled together.

They all looked solemn. One of them placed a hand on my shoulder and said, "Mr. Serchia, I'm afraid we have some bad news."

My eyes widened.

"We can't find your frog," he continued. "We looked everywhere but it hasn't turned up. We're so sorry."

I smiled, then raised my hand and showed them the frog, which I had been carrying wrapped inside my rolled-up newspaper.

The team of oncologists all released yelps of joy. I was pretty happy, too. After being told I needed a G-tube and a tracheotomy and then learning that I have cancer, I don't know that I was prepared to handle more "bad news."

At the end of Wednesday's session, the radiation oncologists made me promise to never take my frog home without letting them know.

"Please don't ever scare us like that again, Mr. Serchia," one of them begged.

I placed my frog inside my ThermaSplint mask, and one of the radiation oncologists locked it in a cabinet.

He'll come back home eventually. First, we have another 20 sessions of radiation to survive.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Where's the beef?

Remember that Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan used to repeat whenever he talked about the Soviet Union?

Well, starting today, I'm going to follow the Gipper's lead and think "Trust but verify" to myself every time I step on a scale.

But I am tempted to leave out that part about trust.

I'm guessing that there are, say, 300 scales within all of Kaiser Permanente's facilities at its Los Angeles Medical Center. And if I were to step on each one of those scales to get weighed, I am convinced that they would yield 300 unique results.

Last week, I stepped on one of the scales in the Radiation Oncology Department, and a nurse recorded my weight as 129.9 pounds.

I was pretty shaken up. When I got out of the hospital last month, I weighed a smidgen over 130, and I was determined not to shed any more pounds.

I started making sure that I took the time to pour three square meals of Isosource into my G-tube each day, and sure enough I gradually added weight.

But when I saw that 129.9-pound reading last week, I felt like Sisyphus at the bottom of the hill. If I were a boxer, I thought to myself, I probably would be matched in the ring against Rose Kennedy.

And once you take my trach and G-tube into account, my actual weight is even less.

This week, the nurse in Radiation Oncology asked me to step on the scale again, and I did so with trepidation.

This time, the scale said that I weighed 138 pounds!

My eyeballs popped out of their sockets. 138 pounds?! There is no way that I could have packed on more than eight pounds in less than a week.

With names like Enterprise and Galactica, the treatment rooms in Kaiser's Radiation Oncology Department have a sci-fi theme. So does that mean that the scales are calibrated to produce weight readings on different planets of the solar system?

I can't think of any other explanation.

Doesn't the County of Los Angeles have a squad of inspectors whose job is to monitor the accuracy of gasoline pumps and scales at deli counters? The minute I get my voice back I'm getting my Supervisor on the phone because the County needs to add Kaiser Permanente's exam rooms to the Bureau of Weights and Measurements' beat.

I admit that I have always been a little weird when it comes to my weight. Any of my medical providers can tell you that my habit when getting weighed is to stand with my back to the scale, and to close my eyes and ears while the nurse records my weight.

But now that cancer has moseyed into my life and snuggled up to my AIDS, I need to get a handle on how my weight influences my health.

Even if my true weight is in the upper 130s, I know that's low for a guy my height.

My sister-in-law recently told me that I need more meat on my bones. The other day, a buddy who hadn't seen me for a week or so remarked that I looked "gaunt." And on Tuesday, one of my bosses at the office told me that I was looking mighty skinny these days.

I got the same treatment in radiation therapy on Tuesday when the Radiation Oncologist grabbed my shoulder in order to slide my body on the bed and get it better aligned with the machine.

"You need to put on some weight, Mr. Serchia," he said. "Maybe you should add more cheeseburgers to your diet."

My head was locked into the ThermaSplint mask so he couldn't see me roll my eyes. But I reached under my shirt, pulled out my G-tube and pointed to it.

"Well," the radiation oncologist said, "you can always toss a few Double-Doubles in a blender and pour them down the tube."

Double-doubles, of course, are off limits in my diet. I practice mealtime monogamy. The only thing I pour down the G-tube's hatch is nutrient-rich vanilla Isosource 1.5.

I guess I just gotta start pigging out on the stuff. In honor of Fat Tuesday, my doctor increased my Isosource allotment from six cans each day to nine.

That's a whopping 3,375 calories.

Sooner or later, it's bound to start sticking to my ribs.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A slice of pie

It was only last week that the conclusion of my round of 33 radiation treatments seemed as remote as the U.S. economy rebounding.

Then the radiation oncologists at Kaiser gave me the green light to bring my own CDs to play in the treatment room while getting radiation.

Now I'm fretting about the treatments zipping by too quickly. Twenty-two more sessions remain, and there's no way I'm gonna be able to cover all of the musical ground that I want to cover in such a short span of time.

I played a string of hits by Elvis Costello and the Attractions last Thursday, and early '70s Bob Dylan songs the following day.

The Dylan selections sparked a conversation between the two radiation oncologists about pop music in the '70s. While I sat immobile with my head locked inside my ThermaSplint mask, I heard one of them mention one of his favorite songs from that era, Don McLean's "American Pie."

Over the weekend, I spotted a copy of "American Pie" marked at $3.99 at Amoeba Music, so I picked it up.

When I walked into the treatment room on Monday, the radiation oncologist asked "Bring any tunes in today, Mr. Serchia?"

Office Map
I gave him my routine thumb's up and raised the "American Pie" CD.

He was delighted to pop the CD into the player. He said he used to own the 45 rpm single of "American Pie" –which split the eight-minute song into two halves– and it had been many years since he last heard it.

Just before leaving the room to begin my radiation session, he turned up the volume on the CD player and pressed play. Don McLean's melancholic voice drowned out the whirring and clacking of the radiation machine.

A long, long time ago
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they'd be happy for a while.

But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn't take one more step.

I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.

After that mournful prologue about the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in a 1959 plane crash, "American Pie" shifts into a jaunty mode. It was unavoidable on the radio in late 1971 and early 1972, and it still sounded pretty good to me as I laid on the treatment bed getting zapped with radiation.

The session went by quickly. After it ended, I buttoned up my shirt, dropped my frog into my ThermaSplint mask and handed it to the radiologist, and gave him a thumb's up.

When I placed the CD back into the tray and closed the cover, I realized that Don McLean was making that same thumb's up gesture.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Your Get-Out-of-Watching-the-Oscars Pass

You all need a break from hearing about my woes, so this weekend the C-word is taboo on my blog.

Instead, I want to perform a public service by releasing you all from any obligation you may feel about watching Sunday's Oscar® broadcast.

You can fulfill your Oscar® duty just by scrolling through my 13 predictions for the show.

Trust me, you'll feel better about yourself on Monday morning if you spend a few minutes on this blog and go out bowling tomorrow night instead of watching TV.

  • Peter Gabriel will busk on the sidewalk outside the Kodak Theatre so he can have it his way and play his Oscar®-nominated song "Down to Earth" in its entirety.

  • Gabriel's sidewalk audience will start drifting away at the one-minute, five-second point of the song anyhow.

  • The visual effects wizards from "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" will demonstrate their computer skills by digitally "aging" everyone in the Kodak audience as the show progresses, making Sunday's broadcast feel even longer than it already is.

  • Due to a production team error, the tear-jerking montage of luminaries who died in 2008 will accidentally include a living plumber named Lou M. Arie, making him famous for a day or two.

  • Newspapers will dedicate endless column inches reporting that the size of the Oscar audience took another nose-dive this year, which kind of makes you understand why newspaper readership is shrinking just as fast.

  • After watching Hugh Jackman flub a few of his lines in the opening of the show, an exasperated Bruce Vilanch will cut out the middle man and perform as host of the show himself.

  • Mickey Rourke will attempt to snag $1 million for charity by plugging herbal-health remedy Airborne when he accepts his award, but he'll pull a Chief Justice John Roberts and get the script wrong.

  • Kate Winslet will deliver the Airborne line flawlessly, but the price she pays will be getting bodyslammed by Mickey Rourke.

  • Oscar® show producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark will yank host Bruce Vilanch off stage and replace him with Flight 1549 Captain "Sulley" Sullenberger, who lands the broadcast safely under the five-hour mark, and earns him an invitation to host next year's show, too.

  • Progressive-minded people worldwide will look the other way as the Academy perpetuates gender bias by presenting separate acting awards for men and women.

  • The sole female nominee in the original screenplay category will call for a Best Original Screenplay by a Woman award.

  • Robert Downey Jr., energized by being nominated for performing in black-face in "Tropic Thunder," will announce that his film "The Soloist" is being yanked from release schedules again so that it can be remade with Downey playing both lead roles: the white journalist and the homeless black musician.

  • Questions about the credibility of the Academy® will be raised when former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is enlisted to present the Best Actress Oscar® and announces Angelina Jolie as the winner.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Aim is True

One hundred and twenty-nine pounds doesn't give me much heft, but I thought I would throw some of that weight around in my appointment in Radiation and Oncology on Thursday.

I'm probably already pushing the buttons of some of the staff at Kaiser by asking them to babysit my stuffed frog overnight for the duration of my treatments.

On Thursday, I decided to go a step further by appointing myself as sound engineer for my daily treatments.

So far everything from flamenco to mushy love songs have been played at each of radiation therapy sessions I've had, and I've wondered whether the music is part of the broader strategy to clear my body of cancer, by torturing the toxic cells into submission.

Hearing "That's Amore" last week was particularly unsettling. Doesn't the Geneva Convention monitor this sort of thing? (By the way, a friend defended Dean Martin after I trashed him last week in this blog. OK, maybe it's time for me to finally forget that Hollywood Palace show from 1964 when the host treated the Rolling Stones shabbily when they performed.)

I thought that the music was being piped in from a remote location, but I realized that each treatment room had its own CD player.

So today, before leaving the office to head to Kaiser for my 5 o'clock appointment, I grabbed a random CD from my drawer and threw it in my backpack.

When I arrived at the treatment room, I held up the CD and pointed to the CD player. The radiation oncologist was all too happy to pop the disc into the player.

So on Thursday, instead of enduring radiation while "Don't Worry, Be Happy" or Barry Manilow played in the background, I got to hear Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

"Alison" got the session rolling, followed by "Watching the Detectives," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio." Just as "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" was kicking in, the ThermaSplint mask was lifted from my face and the session was over.

I was so happy that I practically skipped to the parking garage, and as soon as I sat down, I sent a text message to a friend.

"Yay!" I reported. "I can bring my own CDs into radiation!"

My friend replied: "R U sure? Isn't that like putting foil in a microwave?"

I didn't understand what he meant at first. But once I got home I Googled "foil" and "microwave" and learned that it's really not such a good idea to put aluminum foil into a microwave oven.

Anyhow, I'm feeling much better about the 24 sessions of radiation remaining in my treatment plan, knowing that I'll be programming music selections for my entire residency in Radiation and Oncology.

For all I know, I may have rescued my ears from being assaulted by Celine Dion while my cancer cells are being cooked.

Your requests are now being accepted.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

2-4-6-8! Five more weeks to ra-di-ate!

It's really inconvenient that my cancer cells are nesting inside my head, of all places.

That makes it all too easy for them to eavesdrop on messages that I listen to on my cell phone.

On Wednesday afternoon, someone at Kaiser phoned my cell and left a message telling that my radiation therapy appointment had been canceled because of a power outage in the Hollywood area.

Right after the message was over, I heard the gang of cancer cells on my tongue all shout "Kegger!!!"

Wednesday's session was to have been a mini-milestone: it would bring me to the 25-percent mark of my cancer treatment adventure. I wasn't thrilled about skipping a day and allowing cancer cells to run roughshod on my tongue for a day, like microscopic Bluto Blutarskies.

So I decided to pretend that I didn't get the call canceling the appointment, and to head to Kaiser anyhow. I have a stubborn streak running through me as wide as Duarte.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the Radiation Oncology Department, the power outage had been resolved and the reception area was full of patients waiting for treatment.

I weighed in at 129.9 pounds –a drop of six pounds since last week.

I stared at the scale and asked myself, "129.9? Is that a weight, or a price for a gallon of gas in the '70s?" I think I last weighed less than 130 in my fingerpainting period.

If I'm not careful, my doctors might decide to give me a second G-tube so I can pack twice as many calories into my belly.

Once I entered the treatment room, I unbuttoned my shirt and picked up the stuffed frog that sleeps in my ThermaSplint mask in between radiation sessions.

The radiation oncologist helped me on to the treatment bed. "Does the frog belong to one of your kids?" he asked.

I looked up and shook my head no.

"Do you have any kids?" he asked.

I shook my head again.

"Oh," he said. "Well, is the frog from your wife?"

I was slightly stunned. I just can't remember the last time that someone failed to instantly size me up as gay, or at the very least, as someone who prefers to sleep on Disney's Aladdin pillow cases.

Well, you don't need to have good gay-dar to operate a radiation machine, right? I hope some cancer cells died on the battlefield during Wednesday's session.

Time –and tongue– will tell.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Who kidnapped G&G?

You can find a silver lining in just about any disaster, and I just stumbled on an up side to my cancer diagnosis.

Getting cancer has required me to spend a lot of time in doctor's waiting rooms, and hanging out in doctor's waiting rooms means that I have caught up with Highlights for Children, and leafing through Highlights for Children has opened my eyes to a terrible injustice.

Who is responsible for what has happened to Goofus and Gallant?!

Don't worry, I'm not charging that any homicides have been committed. Irresponsible Goofus and kind Gallant are still featured in Highlights, as they have been for the past 61 years.

But you would barely recognize the 2009 version of Goofus and Gallant from the G&G who I grew fond of whenever I spent time in a doctor's office as a kid.

You remember what G&G were like.

Gallant was always beaming and Jesus-like, holding doors open for his friends, and careful not to let wax build up in his ears.

Goofus, on the other hand, always looked like he had just tumbled out of bed, wore clothes that appeared to be smeared in dog waste, and usually had his middle finger cocked into position to flip the bird at his teacher, the neighborhood pastor or an invalid needing an escort across the street.

That, at least, is the Goofus and Gallant of my memory.

The other day at Kaiser, I picked up a current copy of Highlights and started to flip through its pages to see what Goofus and Gallant were up to these days.

Click on the links in the preceding two paragraphs and take a look, will ya?

Get a close look at the 2009 version of Goofus and Gallant. Can you even tell them apart?!

I sure can't. If I had to choose, I'd say that the kid in the green shirt in Goofus because his hair is not neatly parted, and Gallant is the guy wearing red, but what's up with the dippy expression on Goofus' face?

Where's Goofus' rebelliousness? His insolence? The defiance of everything his goody-two-shoes brother stands for?

Somewhere along the way, Highlights sucked the drama out of the Goofus and Gallant saga. Goofus still has top billing in the feature, but the boys today might as well be physically interchangeable.

It appears that Goofus and Gallant's slide began in 1994, when the artists who draw the feature tossed out their black charcoal in favor of colored pencils. Then just four years ago, they switched from sketching with pencils to computer graphics.

Well, this cannot stand.

As soon as I get cancer out of my system and I get my tongue back, I intend to do a lot of ranting about this gross injustice, probably starting with calling for an Amber Alert to raise public awareness of the abduction of the Goofus and Gallant we know and love.

I may fail at getting Highlights to resurrect classic Goofus and Gallant in their pages, but I don't intend to give in so easily.

AARP is another staple on the end tables in the doctor's offices that I frequent. So why not petition AARP to come up with a new updated version of G&G?

In this telling of the G&G story, their biological clocks would not be frozen five years shy of puberty. Their ages would be naturally represented at 68, as they would be if they had grown up at the same pace as everyone else.

In my version, Goofus would smear Crisco on the wheels of the walkers of all the residents of the nursing home, grind up Viagra and mix it into Gallant's Metamucil . . . you get the picture.

I think a geriatric Goofus and Gallant could really take off. But first, we gotta expose those two imposters in Highlights.

Monday, February 16, 2009


I got a queasy feeling in my tummy about Monday's radiation session as soon as I stepped into the treatment room called The Ark.

The Ark hadn't been one of the rooms where I expected to be treated for cancer at Kaiser. Maybe I was moved there because of Monday's rainy weather.

As I dropped my belongings on the counter, I heard flamenco music playing.

The radiation oncologist eyed the music magazine that I placed on the counter below my jacket. A mildly cantankerous photo of Nick Cave was on the cover.

"Is that music OK?" the R.O. asked. "We can put on something else, if you like."

Knowing that "something else" could even be worse –on Friday, the selection was Dean Martin's Greatest Hits– I gave the R.O. my reliable thumb's up, and settled into position on the bed with my frog on my belly.

As the R.O. clamped the ThermaSplint mask over my face, she said that there was no need to take X-rays today so the session shouldn't take long.

I heard the door shut and then closed my eyes as the machine started to whir and emit light, same as the previous five treatment sessions.

After about 10 minutes, I realized that the machine had stopped making noises and no lights were flashing.

More time went by, with no activity by the machine. All I could hear was that damn flamenco music.

Then I heard the door open, followed by footsteps advancing toward me.

"Mr. Serchia?" I heard the R.O. say, as she rested a hand on my shoulder. "We're having trouble communicating with the machine. We need you to stay here while we work on the problem."

In an ideal world, words like "trouble" and "problem" would never cross a radiation oncologist's lips when you are in the middle of being exposed to dangerous radioactive rays. Still, I gave her another thumb's up.

More time –another 15 minutes, I'm guessing– passed, with no apparent resolution of the problem.

The R.O. returned and unlocked my ThermaSplint mask. "We're going to wrap up today's treatment next door," she said, helping me up.

We abandoned The Ark for the treatment room next door, named Liberty. I took position on the bed, bent my knees over the cushion and held my frog tightly as the mask was placed on my head.

After about 10 minutes, the radiation machine in Liberty also seemed to not be working.

Again I felt the ThermaSplint mask being removed. "Mr. Serchia?" the R.O. said. "I'm sorry this is taking so long. We're going back to the first room, now."

I gave her the thumb's up, but that gesture was at odds with the expression on my face, and the R.O. noticed.

"If I were you," the she smiled while we moved between the two treatment rooms, "I would definitely not buy any lottery tickets today."

Fortunately the machine in The Ark was working properly so it took just another 10 minutes on the bed to wrap up the treatment.

It was past six o'clock by the time I was released. A radiation session that is already uncomfortable at 15 minutes had expanded to more than an hour, and I could not get out of the Radiation Oncology Department quickly enough.

I remembered the R.O.'s advice about not buying any lottery tickets. And I decided to thumb my nose at it.

On the way home, I pulled into a 7-11 and did something that I had not done in the 25 years since California voters approved Prop. 37.

I bought four lottery tickets: Three for the next three MegaMillions drawings –one for each round on the radiation bed– and one "Find the 9's" scratcher.

The scratcher was a loser, of course. And because I moved up through the California public schools system before lottery skills became part of the curriculum, I struggled with the MegaMillions slips. I needed to complete three slips before the 7-11 clerk told me that I had done it properly.

My numbers are 7, 10, 34, 48, 53 and Mega 38. Maybe one of you reading this blog can keep an eye on the drawings and let me know when I hit the jackpot.

God knows I earned it.

Cancer haiku

New Sign at the Entrance to My Apartment Complex

"This building contains
Chemicals that cause cancer"
Oh, now they tell me


The Radiology Waiting Room

Smiles, laughs, chatter
Cancer isn't contagious
But happiness is


Man, Service Is Slow Today

Syringe stuck on "F"
Call Josephine the Plumber
To clear clogged G-tube


Weather Alert

Uh, oh! Flash flood watch
Drowning risk high for folks with


Wasted Words

Nausea sure would be
A pretty name for a girl
Chlamydia, too


Airspace Violation

Hindenburg flew in
My room overnight and made
My mouth its hangar


Treatment Time

Laying motionless
Hoping the radiologist
Is a good marksman

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Silence is golden

After a half century of lurching from one role model to the next, I've decided to settle on someone new to guide me through my cancer crisis.

Ron Mael is the senior member of the band Sparks, who performed at UCLA's Royce Hall on Saturday. Ron and his younger brother Russell have been making records since 1971 and last night they performed their latest album, "Exotic Creatures of the Deep"; an album from 1974, "Kimono My House"; and a smattering of songs from over the years.

I've been a Sparks fan for a long time but it wasn't until last night at Royce Hall that I realized how much I could learn from Ron Mael during this awkward phase of my life.

Ron makes being speechless look totally cool.

Sparks' songs are full of words but Ron doesn't sing any of them. Ron leaves the singing and between-song patter to Russell, while he stands behind his keyboard and stays mum.

Every now and then, Ron steps away from the keyboard. At one point in last night's performance, a stage hand brought a microphone on stage and Ron stood behind it. But Ron didn't speak into the mic.

How cool is that?

Me, I've been mum since early December, thanks to a renegade tongue that has ballooned to outlandish dimensions.

I get by with grunts, making scribbles in a note pad, and by overusing the single hand gesture in my repertoire: a thumb's up to signal approval.

My attempts to compensate for speechlessness are slowly driving the people around me crazy, and the reams of paper that I consume for scribbling notes are bound to result in some kind of sanction from Al Gore's people.

My penmanship is also getting sloppy. The other day I tried to warn the radiologist at Kaiser that I felt nauseous, but he couldn't make out my lower-case a, and I almost resorted to upchucking on his shoes to get my point across.

And that thumb's-up signal is really getting on everyone's nerves.

But as I watched Ron Mael perform at UCLA last night, I realized that I was missing out on an opportunity to make my disability work in my favor.

Ron is just another in a series of men who have used the absence of speech to their advantage. From Harpo Marx to Shane to Marcel Marceau, history is full of guys whose speechlessness made them more interesting, not pathetic.

So until my tongue gives up the fight and allows my voice to return, I'm going to try out some new styles, inspired by the great silent figures of our time.

If you see me out and about, I just may be sporting white greasepaint, a horn and a cowboy hat. You can't tell me that's not a definite look.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Five down

When I first laid my eyes on my custom ThermaSplint radiation head gear in the Radiation and Oncology Department, Hannibal Lechter's mask came to mind.

Turns out that I got my movie monsters crossed.

After spotting an ad for the latest film in the Friday the 13th series today, I recognized my ThermaSplint mask in Jason Voorhees' creepy disguise.

You can bet that I will avoid "Friday the 13th" this weekend.

After five straight days of radiation therapy, and my next session not scheduled till Monday, I need a break from anything that will remind me of cooking under ionizing rays inside that ThermaSplint cage.

I know I began this week optimistically but tonight I am bushed from the barrage of treatments.

All day at work today, I felt as if I were going to throw up, and I still felt that way when I was locked into position for today's radiation session.

As I mentioned a while back, it would be a major loss if I were to barf. That would draw the curtain on 32 consecutive vomit-free years.

I would have to reset my no-vomit clock, and I wouldn't match my current record until 2041, when I will be 83 years old.

I made it to my parking space in the alley behind my building without incident, but once I turned off the ignition, I popped the seat into reclining position and fell asleep in my car.

My apartment door is only about 50 feet from my parking space, but I just didn't have enough energy to make it there.

I've got five days of treatment under my belt, but I have a long road ahead of me: 28 more radiation sessions to go, and two more rounds of chemotherapy.

It's not even 8 o'clock but I'm ready to turn in for the night.

I know that not every day will be like today. That's what I'll be thinking when I rest my head on my pillow.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Signed, sealed, delivered

It's less than two days before Valentine's Day, and you know what that means.

This is the time of year when you learn exactly how lovable you are.

I'm 51 years old, single, and I'm gradually replacing my human body parts with artificial devices made of plastic and rubber. I'm probably the last guy you expect to be plucking one of Cupid's arrows from his rump this Valentine's Day.

So imagine how surprised I was when I opened my mailbox tonight and watched a flurry of Valentine-sized mail fall to my feet!

After I knelt down to collect the mail off the floor, and got a closer look at the return addresses, I really got excited.

EVERY piece of mail was from Kaiser Permanente!

Who from Kaiser was sending me valentines? I wondered.

Maybe one valentine was from one of the recovery room nurses who told me I was a dead-ringer for Ben Stiller?

Maybe another valentine was from that hunky nurse in the hospital who demonstrated how to clear secretions from my trach with a pipe-cleaner?

Or maybe –my heart began to flutter– both of my daytime-soap-opera-ready doctors had sent valentines to me!

As I examined the mail more closely, a sad realization washed over me.

None of the envelopes had been sealed with a shiny red heart, scented with perfume, or even addressed by hand.

Each one had the dreary presentation of business mail, and each one was labeled "Please Open Immediately."

I bent the first piece along the perforation and tore it open.

It was a notice telling me that I had an appointment at 5 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 23 in the Radiology Oncology Atrium at 4950 Sunset Blvd.

Then I opened another.

It was a notice telling me that I had an appointment at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 24 in Kaiser's Radiology Oncology Atrium at 4950 Sunset Blvd.

I reached for a third piece.

Another notice, this one telling me that I had an appointment at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 25 in Kaiser's Radiology Oncology Atrium at 4950 Sunset Blvd.

In all, no fewer than 10 appointment notices were delivered to my mailbox today, all of them reminding me of my daily 5 p.m. gig in Kaiser's Radiology Oncology Atrium.

If you've been reading my blog, you may remember that I will have 33 sessions of radiation therapy, and that they are taking place every weekday between this past Monday and Thursday, March 26.

With the exception of this week, when my radiation sessions took place at 3:24 p.m., 3:48 p.m., followed by three days in a row at 4:36 p.m., all of my remaining radiation appointments are taking place at the same Bat-time, same Bat-place.

Is it really necessary to send a reminder –at first-class postage rates, no less– for each and every one of these appointments?

I mean, I'm counting on these guys to treat my cancer and restore me to normal. With that much at stake, I'm not likely to blow them off.

I suppose that I'll be getting the remaining cards from Kaiser tomorrow. Someone in Kaiser's appointment correspondence department probably spent the better part of his or her day today preparing 20 more of these appointment notices to me.

I'll be opening my mailbox tomorrow with a fair amount of trepidation, and there better be at least one valentine from my pals at KP.

Everybody needs to be loved by somebody. Yeah, even if that somebody is an HMO.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Creature of habit

One thing that cancer can't take away from me is my insistence to cling to rituals.

I read the newspaper in a pre-determined pattern, always saving the front page for last and front loading the funnies. At the movies, I seek out the same seat every time, and I get moody if it happens to already be occupied. My gym workouts and running routes haven't varied in years, although both activities have been sidelined since I got a G-tube in December and a trach last month.

And even though I am only three days into my series of radiation treatments, I'm already creating rituals for my daily visits to Kaiser.

One of these rituals was spawned last fall. While shopping at Rockaway Records in Glendale, I spotted a Rhino compilation of Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson's hits: a CD I had passed up many times before.

I flipped the CD case and saw that Track 10 was Ashford & Simpson's song, "Found a Cure."

When released in 1979, "Found a Cure" was popular in clubs, made the Top 40 on the pop charts and reached No. 2 on the R&B rankings. A few years later, AIDS emerged and some of the people who danced to "Found a Cure" in the disco era saw it as an anthem for the plague years.

I always loved the song, but at that moment my heart really connected with "Found a Cure" and I needed to hear it again. I bought the CD, kept it in my car over the months and have played it hundreds of times. Mostly, I go straight to track 10 and hit repeat when it's over.

This week, I decided to play all seven minutes and one second of "Found a Cure" every time I go to my radiation therapy.

If I press play on the track when I arrive at Fountain and Gower, it carries me right to the entrance of the parking garage adjacent to the Radiation and Oncology Department, and gives me a boost of hope.

Another ritual for my cancer treatment began Monday evening when I looked across my living room and spotted a stuffed toy frog that my Pos Ped friend Shirley gave to me when I was in the hospital last month recovering from my trach surgery and biopsy.

Earlier that day I had a miserable time laying on the metal bed getting zapped with radiation with the hard plastic ThermaSplint mask clamped against my face. When I looked at Shirley's smiling frog, I said to myself, there's no reason why I need to lay on that cold metal bed alone.

I sat down with the frog and dressed it up with some bling. First, I pinned a metal Rolling Stones tongue to its collar –a symbol for my own tongue's recovery– and then I added the Mickey Mouse pin that my AIDS/LifeCycle friend Chris E mailed to me last week with a get-well card.

Finally, I took the prayer card from my mom's funeral in 2007, and strung it around the frog's collar, too.

When I showed up at the Orion treatment room for my second session of radiation therapy, I held the frog against my stomach. I thought about my Pos Ped friends who are pulling for my return to health and waiting for me to get back on my bicycle. I thought about Disneyland. I thought about my favorite Rolling Stones riffs. And most of all, I thought about Mom and her incredible strength.

When the radiologist removed my mask to lock it up for the night, I asked him to keep the frog inside. The mask is a perfect size to serve as the frog's nest.

Today, when I walked into the Orion, Shirley's frog was resting on the counter, smiling, and waiting for our session to begin.

That frog and I may not find a cure, but I hope we get darn close.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

And so it begins

Back at the office this afternoon following my second round of radiation therapy, two co-workers told me that I looked so much better than I did the last time they saw me, which was a few weeks ago.

I reached for some scrap paper to reply. "I must be glowing!" I scrawled. "Just had radiation therapy."

Monday was my maiden session of baking the DNA of the evil cancer cells in my head, and today was my sophomore round of Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT). Early in the day yesterday, I had my first chemotherapy session, in the chemo ward about six blocks away on the Kaiser Kampus.

So much happened on Monday, I wasn't ready to report any of it in this blog. My admittedly oblique post yesterday traveled from my imagination to the pixels on your computer screen, and maybe I should have left it inside my head.

But now I'm ready to write in the first-person about my first days of chemo and radiation therapy.

Chemo came first, bright and early Monday morning. A week ago, my oncologist took me and a friend on a tour of the chemo ward but returning there on Monday felt like I was seeing everything for the first time.

I weighed in at 136 pounds, up a bit from last week. My sister-in-law, visiting California over the weekend, told me that I need some more meat on my bones. Vanilla Isosource 1.5 isn't an animal product, but some of it is starting to stick to my skeleton.

The first surprise was being led by a nurse to a private room for my session.

The setup I observed last week looked more like a chemo beauty parlor with each station separated by curtains. If the nursing staff fills up the private rooms with patients before moving on to the beauty-parlor chairs, that is a powerful incentive for arriving early for my remaining chemo treatments.

My nurse helped me settle into a chair that looked like it had just arrived from a Barcalounger showroom, and then said she would be back to start my IV. I leaned back, popped up the footrest and opened the newspaper.

Dr. Buchschacher, the doctor overseeing my chemo, caught me struggling to read the fine print of "Get Fuzzy."

All I really want from my medical providers is competence, patience and a little humor. It's a bonus when a doctor looks like he could blend in with the medical staff on any daytime soap opera, and so far two of the doctors guiding me through this cancer odyssey fit that bill.

Dr. B explained what would be happening to me that morning, and gave me reading material on Carboplatin: the chemo drug best suited for cancer in the ovaries, lung, and head and neck. He ran down the side effects I might experience from Carboplatin, which reminded me about a question that had been nagging me.

"If I can't swallow or get food through my mouth," I wrote in a pad, "what will happen if I throw up?"

I had visions of a barf Sig-Alert breaking out in my digestive system: vomit rising through my throat only to arrive at a dead end at my mouth and creating a foul gridlock that would have nowhere to escape but through my pores.

Doc told me that it is very unusual for patients taking carboplatin to throw up, and that was enough to allay my fears.

We set up the dates for sessions two and three –March 3 and March 26– along with a visit or two along the way to see how things were progressing. Then he wished me luck and we shook hands.

Another type of medical professional I admire: someone who doesn't lunge for a Purell dispenser after shaking hands with a patient without latex protection.

The nurse came back to start the IV.

As she rolled up my sleeve, I remembered seeing her last week. When Dr. B was taking me on the tour of the ward, he pointed out my veins to a group of nurses, and promised that they would like having me as a patient. I guess I have veins that flaunt their presence, a treat for any nurse fixin' to do some needle-pokin'.

"I'll put the IV in a place that will make it easy for you to read the newspaper," she said with a smile.

She started with an IV drip of saline in one port of the IV, followed by an anti-nausea medication. Minutes later, a pharmacist came to give me a tablet of Ondansetron, also to control nausea. As I washed the Ondansetron down my G-tube, I felt confident that my 32-year-long record for not vomiting would survive my cancer crisis.

And finally, the third port in my IV was attached to the bag of Carboplatin.

By 11 a.m., the bag of carboplatin was parched dry, and the IV machine began to beep. The nurse arrived to remove the IV and said I was free to go.

I felt fine. Closest I came to feeling nauseous all morning was when I read the latest developments of the unsanitary conditions at that peanut processing plant in Blakely, Ga. (Who knows? Moseying along and nesting in my mouth when it did, cancer may have spared this peanut-butter lover from death by salmonella.)

I had lined up a friend –oh, why be coy? this friend is a saint– to drive me home if I was feeling weak from Monday's barrage of treatments.

But I had more than four hours to kill before my radiation therapy appointment. After picking up an Ondansetron prescription in the downstairs pharmacy, I walked six blocks to the eastern edge of the Kaiser Kampus and decided to hunker down in the radiation waiting room.

I checked in shortly before noon, took a seat, and then –just about three and half hours ahead of my scheduled appointment– my name was called! I didn't even have time to open my backpack to fish for the book I intended to polish off during the wait.

My treatment room for the radiation sessions this week is called Orion, and next week I'm being shuffled off to Liberty. (The other treatment rooms on the floor are Enterprise, Novalis, Trilogy, Galctica, The Ark and Ortho. Someone in the Kaiser hierarchy reads way too much science fiction.)

I weighed in for the second time of the day –the nurse fussed with the weights on the archaic scale in this exam room and called my weight at 140. I shuddered: Did I gain four pounds in a single session of chemo?

The nurse then escorted me down a walkway with photographs of nature settings along the walls that led directly to the door into Orion.

There, I was reunited with the ThermaSplint mask of my head that I insist is a gross caricature of my features, and guided into position on the metal bed. As one radiologist propped up my knees with a cushion, the other clamped the mask over my head. It felt like a vise.

And then they exited the room to begin my exposure to ionizing rays, continuing the work that the carboplatin had begun a few hours earlier.

I quickly learned that radiation therapy shares similarities with the two MRIs and CT scan I have had over the past month or so, only with a layer of sadism provided by that ThermaSplint mask.

My nose and lips were shmushed against the hard plastic. Drool leaked from the corners of my mouth and dribbled down my neck. My trach, exposed below the mask, was the only thing that seemed to be sparing me from suffocation.

The session lasted for a fortnight of misery. Peering through the slits in the mask to discover a "calming" illuminated photo of autumn leaves on Orion's ceiling, and hearing soft pop music oozing through the room's sound system only made my time on the hard metal more wrenching.

I had begun to compose a letter advising Attorney General Eric Holder of the domestic torture I endured when the machine finally stopped emitting noises and flashing light. I heard footsteps approach.

One by one, the latches of the cage were popped open, and the mask was lifted from my head. It was slathered in drool.

As I buttoned up, the radiologist wiped the mask clean. "You know," he said, "if at any point during treatment you feel uncomfortable, just raise your hand and we'll take a break."

Oh, now you tell me, I thought.

I staggered out of Orion, and found my way to the elevator, doubting whether I could take 32 more radiation sessions.

Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday through March 26?! I was tempted to call Dr. B and beg to have my treatment plan flopped: Gimme 33 sessions of chemo and just three of radiation.

But once I got out of the building and felt the fresh air on my skin, my tensions eased. And I still was not feeling ill effects from the chemo.

Having taken the whole day off from work, I hopped on a bus to head down Sunset to the Arclight to catch the new 3-D animated feature, "Coraline."

The movie was relaxing. But when it was over and I walked out of the theater, I got very worried.

My vision seemed blurry and perspective was distorted. And everything was dim. Was this a side effect of chemo? A consequence of being blasted with ionized rays?

An Arclight employee helpfully set me straight. He pointed out that I was still wearing the 3-D glasses I wore during the film, and offered to take them off my face.

And that was the last time I felt any discomfort.

I don't know if this is even medically possible, but after a single morning's dose of chemo and 15 minutes of radiation (yes, that's how short it really was), I noticed some changes:

My tongue's size diminished noticeably.

I slept like a baby last night, and when I woke up this morning, my Aladdin pillowcase was dry.

My tongue was larger in the morning, but it did not approach the zeppelin-like dimensions of the past few months.

I didn't need to reach for a tissue or use my office wastebasket for a spittoon all day.

It's way too early to call a victor in my bout with cancer, but I do feel like I am going in the right direction.

The biggest surprise of all? My return visit to Orion this afternoon wasn't torture at all.

The mask fit comfortably. The radiologist asked me to doff my shirt today to keep it from getting soaked in drool and sweat but that wasn't necessary; my clothes and the mask were both dry at the end of the session. And the duration of today's radiation therapy felt more like five minutes instead of 15.

I know you had to read a lot of words today to get to here, but my next sentence is the take-home point:

Don't mean to be a Pauly-anna, but I think that maybe –just maybe– I'm gonna be fine.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Apoptosis Now?

Scene: The author's oral cavity. Players: two cancer cells waging war on healthy cells on the author's tongue tissue.

Cancer Cell No. 1: Whatcha doin', Sarge?

Cancer Cell No. 2: (in an exasperated tone) What does it look like I'm doing, soldier?! I'm clobbering healthy cells, and eliminating them by apoptosis. (Pause) Somebody has to pick up the slack in this unit. C'mon, git fighting, soldier!

Cancer Cell No. 1: Oh, right. (gently pokes a healthy cell with a finger) Say, why are we beating up on these cells, again?

Cancer Cell No. 2: Marone! So we can take over this tissue and metastasize! (rolling eyes) Didn't they teach you anything in boot camp? (muttering to himself) Why do I get stuck with all of the nitwit neoplasms?

Cancer Cell No. 1: Gee, I'm sorry, Sarge. I'm just not as aggressive as the other cells. Maybe I'm meant to play a different role in this operation. Like, maybe I'm supposed to be the morale-builder in our unit.

Cancer Cell No. 2 (wrestles a healthy cell to the ground and pummels it senseless) I can't hear you, soldier.

Cancer Cell No 1: (smiles broadly, then raises voice) I got one for you, Sarge: Knock, knock!

Cancer Cell No. 2
: (with a heavy sigh) Who's there?

Cancer Cell No. 1: Got two!

Cancer Cell No. 2: Got two, who?

Cancer Cell No. 1: Got tumor in my tongue, what's your excuse?! (rolling on the surface of the tongue, laughing uncontrollably)

Cancer Cell No. 2: Cut the clowning. That conduct is highly unbecoming for a cancer cell in active engagement with the enemy. We gotta kick these healthy cells' asses if we ever intend to claim the tongue for our side and move on.

Cancer Cell No. 1: (eyes widen) Move on?

Cancer Cell No. 2: Yeah. I got ambitions for our unit. I've been reading up on what part of the body we should hit next. Here, take a look at these brochures.

Cancer Cell No. 1: (opens top brochure in a stack) Oh, I've heard of this place: "Cologne." Isn't it on the Rhine?

Cancer Cell No. 2: (sobbing) That says Colon, not Cologne, you limp node! And, no, I'm not sending our unit there. The colon is a disgusting place, even for cancer cells.

QUICK CUT TO: interior shot of the author's colon, then back to the tongue.

Cancer Cell No. 1: (holding up brochure) OK. How about this Cervix place?

Cancer Cell No. 2: Oh, gimme that. I grabbed the wrong brochure down at headquarters. The cervix is not an option for us. Here, check out Prostate.

Cancer Cell No. 1: Oooooh, nice!

Cancer Cell No. 2: The prostate is a bit of a schlep from here, but it's small and easily conquerable if we put our minds to it. And from the prostate we can divide into separate fronts and march in different directions, like – (sniffs) say, soldier, do you smell something?

Cancer Cell No. 1: I do, Sarge. I meant to mention that an hour ago.

Cancer Cell No. 2: Uh oh. (sniffs again as a worried expression comes to his face) I hope it's not chemo.

Cancer Cell No. 1: (eyes widen) Keno! I love Keno! Let's play! I'm tired from all of this fighting.

Cancer Cell No. 2: I said chemo. (flipping through a manual) Yeah, it's chemo, all right. Intravenous carboplatin. Lethal stuff. It's wiped out billions of cells like us. And it's completely sanctioned by the Hague Conventions.

Cancer Cell No. 1: Wiped out? Hague Conventions? What are you saying, Sarge?

Cancer Cell No. 2: I'm saying that this guy called in the heavy artillery today. He's putting up a fight! That means we gotta work double time, triple time, quadruple time in order to . . . (beads of sweat form on his forehead)

Cancer Cell No. 1: (also sweating) W-why is it g-getting so h-h-hot in here all of a sudden, Sarge?

Cancer Cell No. 2: Radiation therapy. Man, he isn't pussyfootin' around. We're getting a real one-two punch here. It's going to get pretty nasty for us. We've had a real field day wreaking havoc on this tongue, but this (places one hand under his vest) . . . this could be Waterloo.

Cancer Cell No. 1: D-does this mean that I'm never going to get to see to the Prostate? T-that I'm not going to m-metastasize? And be a hero?

Cancer Cell No. 2: (shaking head) Keep that white flag handy, soldier. You may need it.

Come back later this week to find out how my first day of chemotherapy and radiation therapy went.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

I'm not alone

On February 9, 1964, the Beatles performed in the United States for the very first time, appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Watching the show was a pretty big deal for me.

On February 9, 2009, I'm going to be checking in at Kaiser for my very first chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatments. Tomorrow's appointments are going to be another pretty big deal for me –probably bigger than the Beatles (sorry, John).

I'm probably as nervous now as the Beatles were on the night before performing on Ed Sullivan.

I want the treatments to succeed, so I can recover the functions that I have lost and get on with my life.

And I'm lucky to have a rooting section of people pulling for me by lifting my spirits, visiting with me, sending me cards and gifts, and by sending text messages –just a minute ago, I received another text message from someone wishing me luck with my treatments tomorrow.

I didn't know much about cancer when I got my diagnosis, and I still don't know enough about the disease. I'm learning as I go along.

Here are a few things about cancer that I have learned: According to the American Cancer Society, about 1.4 million cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States in 2008. More than 565,000 people died of cancer in 2008 –that's more than 1,500 deaths per day.

And here is another thing I learned: a member of my extended family is not doing well in his battle against cancer.

So if you're one of the people rooting for me, I ask you to root for him, too.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Gimme Versace

My neck wear had another growth spurt on Thursday.

Co-workers surprised me with a dandy blue viscose scarf for my birthday, bringing my collection of scarves to five. Only a month ago, I owned just one scarf, and that was one that I had forgotten that I owned.

Scarves allow me to conceal my trach in style, although at 51 I'm not sure I will ever get used to this concept of accessorizing my outfits. Gimme a pair of pants and a shirt and, hey, I'm golden.

But I instantly fell in love with the blue scarf my colleagues gave me. It simply screams, "Look at me, world. I'm a rock star!"

To be more specific, this scarf shouts, "I'm Mick Jagger!"

And the scarf's arrival into my wardrobe could not have come at a better time.

Today, I'm heading to the Norris Cinema Theatre at USC for a series of films about the Rolling Stones, including the classic documentary of the Stones' 1969 tour of the United States, "Gimme Shelter."

In 1969, Jagger was almost never seen on stage without a long, silky scarf, like the crimson number shown in this photo.

So I'm wearing my new blue scarf to today's showing of "Gimme Shelter," and I plan to hang out in the lobby, acting as Jaggeresque as I can. My swollen tongue, which pushes my lips out into a pout, only enhances the Jagger illusion.

I'm not expecting to get approached for an autograph, but I just might get some nods, winks and thumbs up from fellow Stones fans. I only wish that I had time to hit some thrift stores in search of slinky leotards and an Uncle Sam top hat.

There's just no telling where my new awareness of fashion accessories may take me. Yesterday, someone at the office actually told me that I looked "rakish."

One day I'm "trach-ish"; the next I'm "rakish."

It's a slippery slope into foppery.

Friday, February 6, 2009

"It's 3:24, Serchia. You're up!"

When I pulled into the entrance of the parking garage for Kaiser's 4950 building shortly before noon today, I took my place in a line of cars 10-deep.

After a minute, I realized that the line wasn't budging. So I stuck my head outside the window and saw that the motorist in the No. 1 position of the line was pounding the machine that, in theory, spits out parking tickets.

Before anyone pulled up behind me and boxed me in, I put my car in reverse and got out of the queue.

I had a noon appointment in Radiation and Oncology, and I could see that it could be hours before someone arrived to fix the broken machine. Off to the side, in a section of the lot adjacent to the garage, I spotted a sight as welcome to me as the Hudson River appeared to the pilot of Flight 1549.

It was a vacant parking space.

I tried to ignore the bold, blue sign above the space that read "High Profile Vehicles Only."

In my heart, I knew that my 1996 Toyota Tercel does not fit the traditional definition of a "high-profile" vehicle. On the other hand, my car is more battered than most vehicles on the road. I'm always being hounded by strangers to have them do body work for me. That should count for something.

Besides, if there had been a sign on a buoy in the Hudson that read "No Airliners Allowed," I doubt that Captain Sullenberger would have continued scouting for other landing options. I parked my car in the space and headed to check in for my appointment.

Today's visit was a dress rehearsal of sorts for the radiation therapy that begins on Monday.

I was reunited with the ThermaSplint mold of my head that was created a while back –it was barely a week ago but seems much longer– and directed to lay down on a platform, perfectly still, with the mask pressed tight against my face.

It's a good thing I have no voice.

As the two radiologists were locking me into position I thought I must look like Hannibal Lecter to them. If I had the means to hiss like Anthony Hopkins, I probably would have tossed out some wisecrack about eating liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.

Only after I got home and logged on to Google Images did I realize my radiation mask bears no resemblance to the mask that Hannibal Lecter wore in "The Silence of the Lambs."

Then I was led to a counter by a young man who gave me my appointment times for my Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT).

My first treatment takes place at 3:24 p.m. Monday. Tuesday, I'm up to bat at 3:48 p.m. Then on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I'm on at 4:36 p.m.

Then my schedule gets less taxing on my brain. The remaining 28 sessions all take place at 5 p.m.

My job is based near Beverly Boulevard and La Cienega. My daily radiation gig takes place on Sunset Boulevard, a few blocks west of Vermont. The two points are only 6 miles apart, but in the late afternoon, that commute can be brutal.

Finally, I have an opportunity to benefit from the sacred wisdom that Elizabeth Taylor once handed down to actors of tomorrow: "Take Fountain."

As I returned to my car and saw that Kaiser's parking enforcement squad had bought my canard that I drive a high-profile vehicle, I realized the next time I return to the Radiation and Oncology Department, it won't be for another assessment, more X-rays, or a second dress rehearsal for radiation therapy.

I will be going to Radiation and Oncology after spending the morning in Kaiser's chemo ward, and I will be getting zapped with the real deal.

I better lock myself into my ThermaSplint mask. Gonna be a heckuva ride.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Blend me a cake

Normally I like to let my birthday pass without calling it to anyone's attention, but breaking your own rules every now and then keeps life interesting.

February 5th is my birthday. Yep: that's today!

It's my 51st birthday, so today marks my arrival on the back end of the Paul Serchia Century.

I can hardy believe it. For a whole year I have been evading paying money to AARP for an official membership in that organization while also carrying an official-looking AARP card in my wallet that is absolutely worthless.

Does that make me a fraud? Well, AARP, if you want your card back you're going to have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.

This February 5th, however, I have two birthdays to observe. Today, the very day that I am I'm turning 51, my G-tube is turning 2.

Yes, two months ago to the day I woke up in the recovery room at Kaiser Hospital and found a strange new rubber and plastic tail protruding from just north of my belly button.

Since that blessed event, I have fed no fewer than 372 cans of Isosource, and dozens of containers of Ensure, into the hungry valve of my G-tube.

My Isosource intake alone amounts to 139,500 calories. That's almost equivalent to a week of Whoppers!

Most of my meals have been in isolation. But if I were technologically savvy, I would share a G-tube feeding with you by posting a video on YouTube. (If I had beefy pecs and abs of steel, I probably would figure out a way to make that happen.)

You'll just have to imagine a 51-year-old geezer pulling a rubber tube out from under his shirt, poking it with a plastic syringe and then pouring fluid straight into the belly.

I've had many botched feedings over the past two months, but I'm getting more adept at pouring nutrients down the hose.

Here's a dilemma I'm facing even as I write: I need to drive to Koreatown to meet a friend but I haven't fed myself dinner yet.

No worries; I can do what every other Angeleno does in his or her car: chow down on the road.

One hand for the tube; one hand for the can of Isosource; two kneecaps for the steering wheel. I just went online to peruse the California Vehicle Code, and as long as I stay off my cell phone during mealtime, I see no legal reason why I cannot drive and conduct a G-tube feeding at the same time.

Don't mean to blog and bolt, but I gotta get outta here.

But before I do, join me in a little celebratory song:

Happy birthday, G-tube!
Happy birthday, G-tube!
Happy biiiiiiiiirthday, Geee-tuuube
Happy birthday, G-tube!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Uneasy rider

There's nothing I would like better right now than to jump into my cycling shoes, hop on my bike and tear off into the night.

My bike is resting on the same patch of real estate in my living room where I left it late last November. If it could, I bet my bike would sue me for neglect or abandonment.

Once I got a G-tube, I got very nervous about riding my bike. For city riding, there are too many things that could happen that could result in taking a spill, and I don't want to risk damaging the tube. Long-distance rides are a problem because staying hydrated through the G-tube is too complicated to fathom.

The trach I got last month only expanded the reasons why I shouldn't be riding my bike.

Fortunately, my cycling friends haven't abandoned me.

When I was hospitalized following my biopsy and surgery, my fellow Positive Pedalers buoyed my spirits with visits and text messages and hugs. Positive Pedalars are cyclists with HIV/AIDS, and I fly a Positive Pedaler flag on my bike whenever I ride.

My AIDS/LifeCycle friends have also been keeping an eye on me, through visits, e-mails and messages on my Facebook page. AIDS/LifeCycle is a 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles which raises funds for HIV services. I've done the past three AIDS/LifeCycles, and I'm registered to ride in ALC 8 this May.

Today, I got a get-well card signed by dozens of my ALC friends in the mail. I've missed every ALC training ride since October, the ALC holiday party and a recent ALC 8 countdown party at the Petersen Auto Museum, so knowing that my ALC family hasn't forgotten about me feels as wonderful as a swift descent on a smooth country road.

Tucked inside the get-well card was a Mickey Mouse pin with a note attached. The note read:

"Mickey heard about your eventful year when I was at Disneyland a few weeks ago, and wanted to send his best wishes and a big Mickey hug. I thought this pin would be the best way to deliver them. Hope you enjoy it! Love, Chris and Mel."

I haven't cried in a long while –I didn't even cry when my doctor told me I have cancer three weeks ago– but I cried when I read the messages in the ALC get-well card.

If chemo and radiation succeed in knocking out this cancer, and if I can get this G-tube removed and my trach plugged up, I just may have enough time for a compressed training season before AIDS/LifeCycle 8 begins.

I don't know if I will be able to pull that off. But I sure hope I get the chance to try.


Help me raise funds for AIDS/LifeCycle 8, May 31- June 6, 2009
My AIDS/LifeCycle page

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Best man for the Gob

I got a sneak peek at the chemo ward at Kaiser on Monday.

Dr. Gary Buchschacher, a hematology and oncology specialist at Kaiser, took me around the ward after giving me an overview of my chemotherapy treatments, which get under way on Monday.

I'll be getting chemo three times over the next six-and-a-half weeks, concurrent with the 33 radiation therapy treatments I'll be getting. Dr. Buchschacher will be directing the chemotherapy part of my treatments.

Carboplatin is the type of chemotherapy drug I'll be getting, delivered intravenously. According to the doctor, the side effects of carboplatin are less severe than the side effects of other types of chemotherapy.

Well, I hope so. I haven't upchucked since the winter of 1976, and I'm not going to allow chemotherapy to topple that record without putting up a fight.

Kaiser's chemo ward, on the 8th floor of a building on Vermont, seems to be a pleasant enough place, and Dr. Buchschacher and his team are friendly and knowledgeable.

After my appointment on Monday ended, I headed to the lab on the second floor to have blood drawn.

The guy who stuck me with a needle and drew several vials of my blood must see his career as some kind of homage to Michael Jackson.

He was wearing only one glove!

Universal precautions to prevent transmission of HIV have been a CDC standard for, what, more than a quarter-century? I guess this guy never got that memo. Shoulda said something to him, and maybe I still will. The name on his badge was the same name as a certain bawdy Southern city, except for one letter. I ain't gonna forget it.

Back on the 8th floor, I got excited when I saw signs pointing to a Cancer Library.

Before I even got discharged from the hospital last month, Kaiser had mailed an information kit about the cancer program to my home. In that kit, Kaiser's Cancer Resource Center is prominently mentioned.

The only trouble is that no one at Kaiser seems to know where the Cancer Resource Center is located. So over the past few weeks, I had been trying to hunt it down.

The sign I spotted on the 8th floor was my first break in the case. "Cancer Library" is reasonably close to "Cancer Resource Center," right?

The arrows in the signs led me back to the waiting room of the Oncology Department, where I had just been an hour earlier. I handed a note to the receptionist, asking her to direct me to the Cancer Library.

The receptionist kind of sighed and then she said she would meet me at the window at the nurses station. When I got there, she pointed to a desk in the corner of the waiting room, with a computer on it.

"That," she explained, "is the Cancer Library."

That's a library? I thought. Where are the books on shelves? Where's the Dewey Decimal System? Where is someone with her hair in a bun shushing people for talking aloud?

I'm at the kindergarten stage in my cancer awareness, so I walked over to the "library" and sat down to see what I could learn.

The computer stored electronic modules of some cancer brochures. There were six modules in all. I decided to take a crack at "Chemotherapy and You" and "Radiation Therapy and You."

I zipped through the introductory pages of the first module, eager to start learning more about the adventure that awaits me next week.

Disappointment metastized in my heart. Each page in the sessions was illustrated with a photograph that had absolutely no relationship to the text.

In a section on side effects, I found a page describing "fatigue." It was illustrated with a photo of a well-coiffed woman in an elegant home, smiling down upon some kind of fancy dessert. The scene looked like an outtake from a Martha Stewart home entertainment guide.

Next, there was a section explaining the principle of "external beam radiation." The photo accompanying that text showed a girl and a woman working cheerfully on a jigsaw puzzle.

Then there was a page on coping with side effects. The photo showed two kindly grandfatherly types –imagine Hal Halbrook and Robert Young– playing a friendly hand of cards.

And the text? "Be gentle when wiping yourself after a bowel movement."

Never mind the threat of chemo undoing my 33-year record of not vomiting. I felt the slosh in my stomach rising up through my G-tube just by looking at the modules on the Cancer Library!

Each mouse click threw up another non sequitur on the computer screen. Going through the sessions felt like watching Greta Garbo dying in "Camille" with a Three Stooges soundtrack.

I hurriedly clicked through a few modules, printed out a couple of Certificates of Completion to stuff into my patient chart, and made a note to revisit the Kaiser Cancer Library at another time.

Say, after my cancer goes into remission. Maybe then I'll be ready to look back on all of this and have a laugh.

By the way, you may wonder why I titled this blog "Best man for the Gob."

It has nothing to do with what I wrote today. It's just the title of an episode of "Arrested Development" that I watched again the other day.

Think I have a future in making educational modules about cancer?

Monday, February 2, 2009

A church with benefits

I've been giving serious consideration to weaseling my way into the Church of Scientology.

Dunno if you have to apply for church membership, wait to be invited to join, or born into Scientology like Suri Cruise. I'm just thinking that as I get deeper into this cancer thing, there's something about the Church of Scientology that is very appealing to me.

The Church of Scientology's Los Angeles headquarters is located at 4810 Sunset Blvd.

Kaiser Permanente's sprawling Los Angeles Medical Center occupies a string of buildings from 4700 Sunset to 4950 Sunset, with the Church of Scientology smack dab in the middle.

So if I were a member of the Church of Scientology and housed at the massive Los Angeles facility, I would live just a short stroll away from all of my doctors' offices, my pharmacies, the radiation and oncology services, and the hospital.

That would be so cool.

Take today, for example.

Too cheap to park in the main parking facility on Edgemont Street, when I have an appointment at Kaiser I typically tool up and down the side streets searching for free parking or a meter flashing "FAIL."

Today the Parking Gods were smiling down upon me: One of the two free parking spaces designated for patients on the Kaiser Kampus was available to me. (Actually, a Shelter Clean truck was parked illegally in one of the two spaces but I just waited for its driver to return to the truck and exit the lot so I could claim the space for myself.)

I had no fewer than four appointments or tasks to handle in my visit to Kaiser today, and by the time I had completed them, it was the middle of the afternoon.

What a score: Five hours of parking in Los Angeles for free!

But if I were a Scientologist living at the Sunset compound across from Kaiser, I could have rolled out of bed, threw on a shirt and pulled up my trousers, and found myself sitting in an exam room having my blood pressure taken in a matter of minutes, without having to contend with the hassle of driving a car, dealing with traffic, and parking.

It's significant that my appointments today spanned the breadth of the Kaiser Kampus.

I began at the pharmacy at Edgemont, hopped across the street to my head-and-neck surgeon's office, walked a few blocks east to the Insurance Department, walked several blocks west to the Radiation and Oncology department, where I was told I needed to be on the 8th floor of a building all the way at the eastern limits of Kaiser's property.

I did a lot of walking and dragging my heavy backpack, and spent a fair amount of down time waiting for my name or number to be called.

If I had my own nest on Scientology's real estate, I could have slept in later and spent some of that downtime between appointments in the Scientology rec room, watching "I Love Lucy," "The View" or educational videos about L. Ron Hubbard.

If I seriously want to join the Church of Scientology, I better move quickly. I'm going to need to be at Kaiser every weekday for six and half weeks, starting Monday, for radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

Just think of the time and money I would save if I could walk to and from my radiation and chemo sessions.

Problem is, I would want to resign from the church no later than after my final chemo treatment at the end of March.

That could trigger a tsunami of unpleasantness. I have read that leaving the Church of Scientology is a tad more complicated than, say, dropping out of the Ralphs Club or telling a Pilates instructor you don't need him anymore.

Well, then, here is money-saving Plan B: snare a Metro pass for the months of February and March, and travel to Kaiser on the Red Line, which stops at practically the front doorstep of the Los Angeles Medical Center.

Or just bite the bullet and drive myself to my radiation and chemotherapy appointments, tithing occasionally to the Gods of Parking for benevolent treatment.

In the long run, that might be in my better interests than joining any church that has the word "Science" contained in its name.

I never was a very good science student.


My hometown paper is evaporating before my very eyes –next, I expect Sam Zell to save on the cost of newsprint by ordering Cathy & Irving to move into the Bumstead household– but The New York Times still manages to maintain independent specialty sections. Here's an interesting report from the Science section of Tuesday's New York Times: New Oral Cancer Tests: Crucial or Wasteful?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A special visitor

I felt too bleech! to blog today.

I wrote something to post this morning but it put me to sleep when I read it back so I swallowed up the text with the delete key.

But despite my physical and mental lethargy, today turned out to be eventful and I didn't want to hit the sack before sharing the reason why.

My brother visited me this afternoon.

The last time I saw my brother was in September 2007, in Tennessee. He had just moved to Colorado from California when our mother died, and we were both in Johnson City for Mom's funeral and to be with family.

I had planned to travel to Colorado last month for my eldest nephew's wedding, but my doctor and I were in hot pursuit of a diagnosis of my medical problem. At the same time I expected I would be in Fort Collins, celebrating, I was in the hospital for my tracheotomy and biopsy.

From my hospital bed, I sent and received scores of text messages from people at the wedding, so I felt like I had a digital presence there.

Today, my brother flew to California for a business conference in Ventura County, and he had time to visit me at home before heading up the coast.

The last time my brother saw me, my throat was intact, I had a voice and I could eat and drink through my mouth. I was also at least 30 pounds heavier, having lost weight by not being able to swallow food.

My brother didn't seem freaked out by my trach and G-tube, and didn't have a problem reading my handwriting when I kept up my end of our conversation today. And he has lost more weight than I have over the past few months, by watching what he eats more carefully.

One of the biggest treats of his visit was clicking through photos from the wedding celebration on my brother's camera.

My brother is confident that I'm going to pull through my radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and he told me about people he knows who are cancer survivors and in good health today. He has known me as long as anybody else, so it means something to hear him tell me that I'm going to be OK.

I'm beginning the week tomorrow with another appointment in Kaiser's Oncology Department, and I'll also be seeing my head-and-neck surgeon. I still have another seven days to wait before treatment begins, but that day will arrive.

A friend told me yesterday about a dream that he had: I had completely recovered, and my friend and I and my brother were eating at the International House of Pancakes.

I'm gonna do all that I can to make that dream come true.