Tag Archives: identity

Cystoscope - photo by Michael Reeve via Wikimedia Commons

The Lie Called Cancer

This month I offer excerpts from my two memoirs, Masterpiece: A Love Story and The Lie Called Cancer. If you want to buy them, you may. If you want a free copy, tell me in the comments.

Be advised this story contains some adult medical themes and terminology

Spring 2019

The scene is a certain urinal in a certain South London supermarket. The crime was the appearance of a blood clot the size of a pea. Life did a full stop for a few beats as I stared at it, astonished that such a thing should fall out of my body. Bright red, it contrasted sharply against the fresh white porcelain. For a moment I imagined it pulsing with a life of its own, ready to snarl, turn viciously and attack. I stepped away feeling violated.

‘Babe,’ I said, rejoining my wife in the aisles. ‘We need to head to the GP now, and put off the shopping until tomorrow.’ Melanie looked puzzled, but only until I explained. Now it was her turn to have life do a full stop for a few beats. We abandoned the shopping and headed out.

It was the Thursday before Easter, and my surgery* was about to close for four days. They squeezed me in for a quick consultation. I left a sample in a bottle (results not to be known for a week due to the holiday). Dr. Kuracisto gave me a course of antibiotic ‘in case its just a urinary tract infection.’

Well, it wasn’t that. It eventually turned out to be bigger than that. It was a crime, and the crime was a lie. It was the lie called cancer.

I didn’t know it was cancer then, of course, and it was way too early to think seriously about cancer, and I didn’t. The blood and pain could be from many causes. Until I had more information, there was nothing to do but wait.

It’s so easy to think worst-case when something happens to my body, especially with a vivid imagination like mine. That pain in my knee? Could be an inflammation. If it’s inflammation, it might be arthritis. In fact, it probably is arthritis. Arthritis is incurable and untreatable. It’s probably rheumatoid arthritis. My mum had that, and it can be inherited. So, for sure, that’s it.

Before long I have myself so crippled in my mind I’m ready to shop for a wheelchair and a van with a lift. You never know how soon I might need one, right? Best to be prepared!

Why do I think about the worst-case about my body? Well, it’s not like I can quickly whip out a list of best-case items when blood-in-the-urine is involved. I’ve thought about that for almost a year now, and I still don’t have item #1.

Faced with a potentially scary track ahead, my train of thought derails immediately, instead of pulling into a bright shiny station with free coffee and helpful baggage handlers. Those noisy worst-case scenarios always shove to the front of the queue, waving their First Class tickets, ready to ride my train all the way to the last stop.

Let’s face it, even a ridiculously optimistic person like me sometimes has to throw in the towel and conclude the only positive aspect of the situation is that I had an extra towel to begin with.

But I’d ride that train to the last stop as well. I had no choice.

It’s an odd sensation to stand before a toilet and wonder what’s about to come out. It had been so easy to take this for granted. I’d never concerned myself with it. Have you? Isn’t peeing an unthinking act? Until now, my experience only involved pee. But, when you add blood, urination morphs into the fancy Greek medical term haematuria.

Now that I was focused on the bleeding, I also became aware of some discomfort during the act itself. The discomfort was probably there before the previous Thursday’s display made it all obvious, but I hadn’t noticed it. If I had, my trip to the GP would have happened much earlier, I suppose. But I didn’t. And so, here we are.

In the absence of information, how to proceed? Step one for me always should be to pray. That’s what Christians learn. It’s supposed to be automatic, like gently turning into a skid when your car fishtails. I constantly surprise myself at how often prayer is not my first choice. I turn the wrong way into the skid more often than I care to admit.

Then, when I do finally get around to prayer, I must remember that not all prayers are created equal. Let me give you a little Theology 101 about that. Only a couple of paragraphs. Hang in there. I’ll start here: it’s inarguable to me that God is good, 100 percent. If not, why believe in God?

Evil is not from God. It’s either caused by the devil, is influenced by the devil, or results from my own sin. The Bible reveals this repeatedly from the first page to the last.

God didn’t create cancer (or any other illness for that matter). Because cancer isn’t good, it can’t be from God, your love of the book of Job notwithstanding. End of Theology 101.

If you aren’t a Christian, you now have a pivotal choice.

You can take my word for all this and keep reading, your best option IMHO (In My Holy Opinion). Or, you can study the Bible for yourself to see if it’s true and then come back. I’ll see you back in a few months – you’ll need to be thorough. Or, you can decide in a moment that this is all a bad investment and go read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for the third time.

The antibiotics came and went, but the symptoms remained, and the test was negative – no Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). I found myself back in Dr. Kuracisto’s office.

‘How do you feel?’ (This is Standard Doctor Question #4).

‘It still hurts when I pee and sometimes blood comes out. Otherwise, I’m just chuffed!’

‘Well you definitely don’t have a UTI, but there is something amiss in there.’ He reached for some gloves.

‘Pull down your trousers and lean against the bed,’ he said. Dr. Kuracisto stepped into his phone booth and burst out as Professor Jellyfinger. During rectal exams I can’t help but wonder, did I wipe well enough? And, how do they teach that in medical school? The probing is rude but not outrageously uncomfortable. It’s mercifully short.

‘Your prostate is slightly enlarged but that’s not unusual for a man your age. That’s good news. I’ll write a referral to the Urology Department at Kings Hospital,’ he said. ‘It’s on a fast track, so you should hear from them in a few days.

NHS prioritises well, to the dismay of some patients who are forced to wait for minor operations. If a GP suspects cancer, a case is automatically on ‘fast track.’

‘What will happen over there?’ I asked.

‘They’ll likely give you a cystoscopy. That’s an internal examination of your bladder, to see what’s going on.’

Well, let me just look that up.

According to NHS documentation, the procedure available to me as an outpatient is called a ‘flexible cystoscopy.’ This device has a camera and a light on the end, and a tube that allows water in and out. It’s about as big around as a pencil.

The cystoscope is inserted in the urethra, which is the tube that allows urine to pass out of the body. The urethra is not as big around as a pencil. It’s about as big around as the stem of a Q-tip.

Read ‘inserted into the urethra’ as ‘inserted into the penis.’ No man wants to hear about this, much less contemplate it. Yes, ladies, I’m certain this procedure is just as physically disturbing for you as for us. But for me, as a man, it’s also an assault on my ego. Just sayin’.

Okay – so now I had some information. It appeared that life was about to get more painful. Much more painful.

I waited as patiently as I could, only occasionally drumming my fingers on the table in frustration. My main occupation had to be prayer, doing nothing about any of this (as though I could). That’s easier said than done sometimes.

(Insert big self-piteous Christian sigh here)

It’s exceedingly tough to sit tight while my head yells at me about doom and destruction, such as the eventual need to buy that wheelchair van. I’ll give you a few examples, but only because I’m certain this never happens to you: official mail is automatically bad news; being called into the head office means I’m sacked; my candidate will always lose the election; it’s not only cancer, but terminal cancer, so pick the bouquets for the memorial service now!

I had to repeatedly remind myself I knew nothing, and shouldn’t decide pre-emptively on something as ‘the truth’. All I knew with certainty was that there was blood in my urine. Inventing a reason for it would be mindless speculation. There’s no truth there, only mindlessness.

Speculation leads me to fear, which makes me lose my bearings. Such feelings aren’t a signpost. They are paint thrown on the signpost so I cannot find the way.

My only choice was to respond through surrender. I kept in front of me the only truth I had, tiny slice though it was. Surrender meant wait, rest and pray. Yes, there was an answer – God’s answer – but it hadn’t arrived yet.

Like many things in the Christian life, the way forward was simple. Wait, rest and pray. I wished I was better at them.

Read more here

Cystoscope – photo by Michael Reeve via Wikimedia Commons

Alan 1961

Masterpiece, Part 3

This month I offer excerpts from my two memoirs, Masterpiece: A Love Story and The Lie Called Cancer. If you want to buy them, you may. If you want a free copy, tell me in the comments.

Read Part One here

Read Part Two here

It was a day exactly like every other day in recent memory. A day made for drinking. A day to be spent in secret.

Limp, drained, devoid of feeling or expectancy, I searched the room, as though to find a clue about how I had come to be there. Nothing. Out the window, the world was slowly stirring. I leaned outside in the humid stillness, puffing on a Marlboro like a man does when he’s killing time waiting for an overdue train.

I felt an anxiety that had nothing to do with what was external to me: the broken promises, the damaged relationships, the unfulfilled potential, the strife, the lack, the emptiness! That anxiety – what woke me – was all internal, and it boiled up inside me with an unexpected urgency of its own. It was all from things long denied and ignored, and I had no control over it any more. It was my brokenness and my inability to glue any two pieces of my life back together. It had fallen apart 40 years earlier.

The burden of the years suddenly pressed down on me and squeezed out words I didn’t expect or intend.

‘God, where are you?’ I heard myself asking. ‘Why are you leaving me like this? Where do I go from here?’

Seemingly against my will I asked God these questions, but didn’t truly crave answers. Answers involve facts, and facts can lead to reason and reasoned arguments can change minds. That’s a dangerous path for a man in denial. It was better to remain unreasoning. New ideas were too painful, and I was tired of pain.

I would have preferred more drinking, but the bottle contained only stale fumes. I had checked vainly out of long habit. The fuel of my life had at long last run dry.

If something else would just come and sweep all of it away, I thought. All of this: the searing emotional pain; the admissions of guilt; the burning of shame; the heartache of vivid failure and of failing others; the oppression of loneliness; the uselessness, and the lies, all those lies. I wanted something other than God to make the change happen. Facts could wait until the wound was drained.

Suddenly it was too late. There came an unspoken Answer to my questions, and it made me shudder.

‘There is nothing left but to swallow whole truth,’ I heard in my mind. It continued to ring in my head as the moment turned more lucid. I fell into a vision, as I did when I was a child. It was startling. I’d forgotten this would happen to me often.

I was lifted out of my body, and I looked down at myself in disgust; I had driven my life very far in the wrong direction (’What would Mom and Dad think if they saw me now?’). I had a vision of the stereotypically hard-headed man who refuses to stop and ask for directions after becoming hopelessly lost. My stubborn pride had taken me off the edge of the map and I was alone in the wilderness.

Or was I?

I watched myself light another cigarette and smoke it, slowly and deliberately. The sky continued to brighten and the cusp came. I saw myself move through a veil that divided the broken world of the motel room from a pure, clean, supernatural world. I saw myself move into a clear and connected place after years of being lost and away. I moved from death to life and waited there.

When the vision ended and I returned into myself, seeing out of my own eyes again, there was no footing, and I fell. Instead of plunging into the abyss I had long feared, I found myself on hands and knees, still in that clean place.

An ambulance keened its call as it hurried past to help some other injured, dying soul. In its wake, the rasping trill of a red-winged blackbird rose up to greet the day and give me encouragement. There was at least one hopeful song available, and so I borrowed it. My childhood bird manual described the red-winged blackbird’s call as ‘konk-uh-REE!, konk-uh-REE!’

Conqueree. A word for me, defined on the spot: ‘One who is overcome by a conqueror’. When I hit the floor in the previous moment, it was a simple act but one of the most difficult in my difficult life. I was unwittingly shoved irrevocably into the world of faith, the way a man is pushed out of the path of an oncoming train.

I had been conquered by alcohol. I was a conqueree, but conquered by the wrong spirit, an evil spirit. (‘If I admit defeat, maybe I’ll be raised up by a better Conqueror,) I thought.4 Maybe I’ll find God, like Matt and the other AA guys had.

(‘God hear me! Help me!’) I shouted in my mind.

(‘Please remove my obsession to drink! I can’t live like this one more minute! Will you help me? If You don’t, I think I’m going to die.’)

His silence pounded in my ears as I waited for an answer.

Read more here

Alan 1961

Masterpiece, Part 2

This month I offer excerpts from my two memoirs, Masterpiece: A Love Story and The Lie Called Cancer. If you want to buy them, you may. If you want a free copy, tell me in the comments.

Read Part One here

Surprisingly, I had a credit card in my pocket (these are very useful for procuring alcohol) and could have chosen the University Inn, a new upscale motel nearby, but my heart was set on the Value Motel, a seedy, rundown complex adjacent to Interstate 5 in a less desirable part of town about five miles away. I was, at that moment, beyond pretence.

It was stiflingly hot when Matt pulled into its gravel entryway, just at dusk. We rolled up under the Value Motel sign pylons. Everyone along the Interstate for a mile in both directions could see its neon glory: VALUE MOTEL. BREAKFAST. ENTER HERE. $21/$23.

He switched off the car, still saying nothing, pulled away the shoulder belt to create some slack, and turned in his seat to face me. As the sunlight faded, we were bathed in the intermittent flash of the directive arrow urging Interstate drivers to EXIT NOW!

Several families, clearly in residence, not on vacation, ignored us as children ran around the parking lot: loud, unruly, violent. The adults were too busy with their own argument to notice, or perhaps care. A pair of men stood off toward the corner of the two story row engaged in what looked like a drug deal or some other hook-up; three more nearby were throwing back some cheap beer. Everyone and everything appeared to have experienced better days, so I knew that it was the right place for me. Nevertheless, I was frightened, but if you had asked, I would have denied that as well.

I mumbled a thanks and started to get out and felt Matt’s hand on my arm as I turned to leave. I looked back at a caring face with a pair of raised eyebrows under curly brown hair.

‘See you at the morning meeting tomorrow?’

‘Yes. No. I doubt it. Probably not.’ It was an involuntary settlement on honesty. Not my default, but why lie? I had no idea what Monday would bring. Besides, the only thing on my mind, it being Sunday night, is that the liquor stores were closed until 9:30 the next morning, and I had to somehow nurse what I had until then.

Matt let me go with an AA cliché. ‘Easy Does It,’ he said.

Matt was experienced enough to know that I was in no shape to have a conversation, or receive any real kindness from him beyond the lift. Redemption would have to wait for another day. It didn’t even occur to me that he would call my family on his way home to let them know where I was, and that I was, presumably, tucked in safely for the night. I didn’t care about that (’Leave me alone!’). My only need was to negotiate the transaction for a safe and private place to continue my liquid self-immolation.

My burden of guilt and sense of valuelessness only gave me enough strength of will to spend $21, for the cheapest room (’I don’t need more than this. I don’t deserve more than this’). There was no room for my personal value at the Value Motel, only my person.

I deserve to be sleeping out in the weeds somewhere,’ I thought, out on the edge, like some of the hard cases who told harrowing stories of ruin and redemption in the thousand-some AA meetings I had attended.

These were guys who rode around the western USA for years in boxcars, or who drank or fought themselves out of one town after another. Guys who lived in dumpsters. Guys who would get tired of a logging or construction job after a while and pick a fistfight with the foreman. One guy who camped out in an empty corn crib and tried to drink himself to death after being fired as a useless farm hand. Another who got sober while living for an entire winter in an open horse trailer, becoming a successful entrepreneur and business owner. Yet another who struck and killed a child while driving in the kind of drunken blackout that was a regular feature of my life.

All true stories, all told by guys I knew and admired. They had made it out of the darkness I was still living in. They had stepped into the other side of life, the side where the sun shone, and the birds sang and there was a spring in their step and life’s equation was factored with joy, fulfilment and peace, rather than depression, restlessness and strife. In their moments of truth, they came to AA and found a relationship with God.

It was the place of my childhood, that relationship. It was what I had had as a boy, but it was now a place I no longer could imagine. My world had long since turned to black and white, all beauty washed out. And God was nowhere to be found.

But these sober guys were all in four-dimensional living color. They showed up in AA after torching their lives. I stood amazed as they grew from the ashes into dependable men, seemingly overnight, while I continued to drag my tired body down the road toward death. I had to acknowledge how they had changed, because seeing was believing. I saw them recover and become men of faith, but didn’t believe I could.

They had results, while I could only muster excuses. God is fine for you’, I thought, but not for me. If God worked for you, good on you, but faith couldn’t work for me. It had failed me long ago. If God was real, He was only real for you, not for me. God answered you, not me. I didn’t deserve anything from God anyway. Not after what I had done, and what I had been, and what I was.

In retrospect, it’s no wonder that I was taken in by such a pack of lies. My worth had long before drained out of me like spent dishwater when the plug is pulled, leaving only a scummy residue. My life needed a good scrub, but instead I chose to protect my freedom to drink. And so it was that I drifted into the Value Motel, knowing it would give what I thought I needed for one more night. (’Leave me alone!’)

Tomorrow could wait. That was my powerless and repetitive excuse to avoid facing the guilt and shame that filled my life.

For $21, I had a room with no frills, a view of the freeway and no TV. Heavily stained carpet. No air conditioning, but a window with no screen (too close to the ground for an effective suicide attempt). A sink but no towel. A cracked sink. There was a mirror over the sink, to be ignored. A button lock on the door but no deadbolt; a security chain whose missing receiver was marked by four damaged screw holes on the plastic door frame. A door to a shared toilet. The lingering stale smells of cigarettes and urine. The room had been painted white once long ago and superficially cleaned, possibly within the last week.

The evening’s entertainment was liquid, which, as always, produced a bad movie inside my head. It was the same old plot with the same old cast of characters, a seemingly endless string of complaints, resentments, assessments of victimhood, lists of unfair circumstances, people who had turned against me or who simply didn’t understand, angry diatribes, mournful memories and unresolved problems. I was very engaged in mental conversation with people who weren’t there, but who made my life miserable nonetheless.

My victimhood was complete.

At last the bottle was as empty as my heart, and my anger was spent, and I passed out of myself into a restless, dreamless, uneasy sleep. I came to with a start hours later, sweating, vaguely sick but not yet craving more booze, although that would come soon enough. It was maybe sometime shy of five in the morning, the time of day when the body is at its lowest ebb. I had no watch or clock, but as I lay staring at the ceiling the slowly growing light told me the day would begin soon enough. Another long, hard, empty day with no hope beyond the knowledge that the liquor store opened in less than five hours. I didn’t plan to be late.