The man in the blue coat

A testicular cancer survivor learns that hope is a gift and that fear is a frequent companion.

Published April 7, 1999 9:50AM (EDT)

For someone who's always late, it seems a miracle to me that on Tuesdays, just past 6 p.m., I can dash out of the midtown New York skyscraper where I work -- on time -- to proceed uptown. I cruise past the tourists and the swank boutiques, entering Central Park just across from the Plaza Hotel, steadily making my way over to 67th Street near the East River. From there, it's just moments before I see my reflection in the dark glass doors of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

And with a deliberate step forward, I cross the threshold of the uber cancer treatment hospital -- known inside as simply Memorial.

A lot has changed at Memorial and with me since I first walked into the hospital 15 years ago as a 26-year-old diagnosed with a nasty case of testicular cancer. Within minutes, I had signed the releases allowing the surgical team to split me open from stem to sternum -- and to go hunting for cancerous lymph nodes.

Just hours before the surgery I was visited by a tall man in a pale blue coat. I don't remember very much of what he said -- only that after about 10 minutes I looked up at him from my bed and said: "Oh, so you're a cancer survivor. Cool." He nodded affirmatively -- and then left me a gift called hope.

The next day my docs spent eight hours in my abdominal cavity and removed two dozen malignancies. Three weeks later I started four cycles of highly toxic chemotherapy.

A trial by ordeal -- to be sure -- but a decade and a half later, I'm still here and cancer-free.

On Tuesdays now, I enter Memorial as one of the 50 cancer survivors volunteering in the hospital's patient-to-patient program. Clad in the familiar pale blue coats, we walk the hospital floors visiting recently diagnosed patients.

We're actually part of a match game: breast-cancer survivors paired with breast-cancer patients; prostate with prostate, and in my case testicular to testicular.

Once I've put my coat on, I take an elevator directly to the eighth floor, the urology ward, where I get my marching orders from the head social worker and the night nurses.

It's busy up there.

Among the patients I recently visited was a middle-aged dad named Peter. In addition to having "my" cancer, Peter was in my old room. As I enter the room, I feel anxious. Just like in l984, I'm filled with the consuming terror that swims in your blood and pools in your throat. Actually, there was a time when I so feared my fear that I could barely walk in the hospital -- much less do this kind of volunteer work.

But these days I have a pact with my fear. And I've gotten kind of personal with it. I even have a name for it: Maxxx (yes, he's an X-rated fear). Every week, Maxxx and I say hello to each other -- kind of a nodding acknowledgment that we're both still here. I find living with my fear -- with Maxxx -- easier than banishing him, where his only goal is to devour me.

But back to Peter. Curled up in bed, he looks more like a 14-year-old boy than a 40-year-old dad. With just wisps of hair on his head and a baby-soft face -- your beard often stops growing with chemo -- he greets me tentatively. As I recall all too well, patients at Memorial -- and elsewhere -- are overwhelmed by the constant flow of hospital personnel.

"My name is Steven," I say to him.

I tell him that I'm a volunteer. I keep it short. We're instructed not to say the word "cancer" because you never know what a person actually understands about his or her disease. (A colleague of mine in the patient-to-patient program told us that when she was a patient in the mid-1960s, when the hospital was called Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases and they didn't tell you what your diagnosis was, that until she opened her chart she was sure she didn't have cancer, only an "allied disease." She was shocked to learn she had breast cancer.)

He beckons me to sit and he continues to watch television. I look at the screen and I look at him. I look at the screen and I look at him. I guess he's in no rush. And, for once, I'm in no rush. With the hospital frenzy all about us, we just sit there side by side looking at the TV screen.

This time is Peter's, however he wants to use it.

And with other patients, I've held a hand, done paint by numbers, even trekked outside so that one man -- IV in tow -- could light a cigarette. It's not a time for judgments. All I need to be is present -- present to the men and women I'm visiting and present to myself.

But even if I don't mention the word "cancer," Peter knows what's wrong with him. Finally, he tells me about his orchiectomy (the procedure for removing a cancerous testicle) and I tell him about mine. He recounts his chemo experience (particularly with the hateful platinum drugs) and I tell him about mine.

Now, he's really paying attention and he looks up at me, his blue eyes focused on my whole body but especially my hair. It's like all the pieces have suddenly come into focus and he says incredulously, "You're a cancer survivor?"
"Yes, I'm a cancer survivor," I say to him, remembering the tall stranger who presented himself to me years ago. And at that moment, the ability to say those words out loud is what my survival is all about.

Peter continues to look at me as though I'm an apparition, and while I cannot promise him that he'll survive -- just as I know my survival could be whisked away tomorrow - I know my gift is passed to him. I, too, am a gift called hope.

And yet every man and woman I sit with, talk to, hold hands with also gives me a gift. Several weeks ago I was visiting Mary Ann, a mother of three, struggling with a very difficult case of cancer of the appendix. (She got me as a match because we're almost the same age.)

After describing how her most recent surgery had not held -- on her first day home fecal matter began to leak from her navel -- she asked me if I had ever been afraid during my treatment. I answered yes. But then she asked me what I had been afraid of and what it felt like.

I was startled by her directness -- both in describing her bodily functions and her question. And for the first time in all those years, I took myself back to the summer of l984 and described to Mary Ann the night I went into my backyard and came undone by a torrent of tears. No one could possibly understand how chemo burns in your veins or fear lodges in your gut. Or how you're simply terrified that you're not going to survive.

And there we were in that big cancer hospital holding hands and crying together. She thanked me, but I really thanked her for showing me her courage and reminding me of mine. But more than anything, we had laid bare our souls and connected in a meaningful way.

This was the real thing. Mary Ann and I were both experiencing life -- not just speeding through it. Not surprisingly, it's at those times that my pal Maxxx is smallest and weakest, and I am largest and strongest.

And so at the end of every shift, I take the elevator down to the main floor. I shed my blue coat, call in my report to the social worker and step out into the night. Moments later, I am walking about the wide expanse of York Avenue and see my reflection against the big city lights and beyond. And search as I might, Maxxx is nowhere to be seen ... until next week.

By Steven Petrow

Steven Petrow is assistant managing editor at Time Inc. New Media.

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