I enjoyed my cancer surgery

Is it weird that I kind of liked my journey to the outer space inside my body?

Published February 1, 2010 9:02PM (EST)

I wonder what it's like to be in a burning building or to get hit by a car. Not that I want to get hit by a car, but don't you wonder too? Don't you wonder what it's like in Antarctica and outer space? Being in surgery felt like being in outer space. Sure I was afraid but also amazed, awed, like in a museum of my own self. Like, do you realize what they did? And I was there! In fact, they did it to me. And I survived! I survived being drugged and cut open and having doctors move things around inside my body, and cut off part of my bone, my sacrum.

My friend Brian tells me the sacrum is indeed something sacred. I love the sound of "sacral chordoma," like something you might sing in a church. I wondered about the etymology and Brian suggests his scholarly meanderings indicate that the sacrum was the preferred bone to offer up in animal sacrifice, thus the sacredness of the end of the spine; Eric Partridge suggests that a "sacrum" may be among other things "a small chapel," which is nice to think that the small chapel of my pelvis has been remodeled, and with a remodel as we well know comes the opening of walls and destruction of old obstacles and the letting in of light and improvement of energy flow, but that is not what I started out to say. I started out to say that I am somewhat shocked to find that I looked at the surgery as a life-and-death adventure, and that I do not hold my life so precious and dear that I would not risk losing it to prolong it; knowlegeable men had said that this is your only sane course, so I approached it as a gift, a gift of our century of science, a gift of medicine without which I would surely die a slow and painful death, so think about that for a minute, OK, it's mildly sobering is it not, but in that necessity lay also adventure: We stand on this cliff and our attackers grow close. We can wait for them to slaughter us, or we can leap from this cliff and take our chances in the water. So we leap, preferring a chance of survival, facing the fear of the unknown, our skin tingling as we fall until we splash down ...

and I awake in a bright room with tubes down my throat, unable to talk but ebullient with the knowledge that I've been given new life; I've jumped into the lifeboat and skilled men and women have done the remarkable, have done it with pride, intensity and courage, skill and precision and energy and inspiration, have journeyed into me with knives and slain my enemies microscopic and perverse, and so yes I awoke ebullient like a man who finds himself launched into space, who has been on an amazing journey and lived to tell about it and then is cared for like a baby, friends and family hovering.

There was very little pain in the beginning, as I had all the intravenous anesthetics at work. I returned from surgery with a glow. Now I know how heart bypass patients feel, how the saved-from-drowning feel, how it feels to surrender to the necessity of battle or flight or in this case the knife and return starkly changed by the ordeal.

Why do I keep thinking "northern," "an ordeal across the ice"? Waking up in the ICU felt like waking up at the north pole, or in an alien spacecraft, frozen, barely human, transformed, but in the presence of controllers who seem deeply committed to your well-being, and whatever autonomy you once had, for whatever reason you have now given up and do not give it a second thought, as walking out of here is not even an idea, every movement seems fraught with danger, the kind of danger you don't even kid about, as if it might kill you to turn over, and it might, but you cannot speak because of the tube down your throat, a big tube, and not the only one, so your wife hands you a tablet and you write "Happy!" on it. Happy, yes, to be alive, to have come out of that blizzard of anesthesiological magic, having passed through the gantlet of surgeons' hands, having been opened and lovingly altered and lovingly closed up and sewn together and wheeled in here like a birthday prize. You feel important lying there with all these people around, with the button that brings a bolus of dilaudid and the button that brings the nurse: Ah, to be in the center, the focus of attention. We are not supposed to long for that with such ardor but it is one of the many longings that I readily admit to now that I am completely, body and soul, an example for study: Waking up in that hospital bed with tubes coming out was like being a star on the stage with his makeup all done when the curtain opens; that ICU room was my stage and the room beyond it a vast audience; the machines monitoring me were the cameras and microphones beaming my performance across continents and nations; my body was performing admirably; the notices were good; all the preparations had proved wise. I had given the surgeons exactly what they needed; my performance was praised and remembered; there would never be another one quite like it, you can be sure.

And then there was blessed solitude of long nights alone in a strange room in and out of a dreamy half-reality among humming, glowing machines and blinking lighs, my tubes tying me to a great outside world of fantastic science and also to the great and mysterious dark inner world of my own biology, reading me in ways that I have no inkling of, as though my body had been purchased for study or amusement or both, purchased by an institution whose people were for some reason keenly interested in my blood, my skin, my urine, my healing wounds and their swelling fluids, my breathing and my pain levels.

Yes, my pain levels! How wonderful to be asked every few hours, on a scale of one to ten, how is your pain right now? Imagine a world of such compassion that we inquired of each other about our pain? How to ask: How is your psychic pain this morning, boss -- on a scale of one to 10? Good morning dear, how is your pain, your eternal pain of loneliness that even I cannot slake -- on a scale of one to 10? And if she says, oh, dear, it's nearly 8, then we take immediate palliative measures! Dear me, how touching. What a world of compassion that would be.

And to think that sometimes, surprisingly often, I would answer honestly it was only a 3. The dilaudid was coursing through me every 10 minutes or so, and if I ever forgot to press the button the pain would rush up on me like a squad of thugs and unleash and electric fury through my leg and up my groin and the raw pain of incisions and bone-cutting was also ever-present but at times the sea would calm and there was nothing but a distant ache, to which I assigned the number 3.

Other times I could honestly say it had crawled up to a 7, and if I was ever in true distress a nurse would appear almost instantly to care for me.

I would not care to do it again; next time I would like to go to Cape Horn instead, or to the icy wastes of Antarctica. But this was an adventure, not just a medical neccessity; however unpleasant, it was a journey; however unpleasantly it has transformed me, at least it has transformed me, and some of us, the restless types, seem to crave transformation of any kind above the stasis of simply doing well.

By Cary Tennis

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