The Killer Inside Me 

Five years ago, I became one of the thousands of men diagnosed every year in the U.S. with HPV-related throat cancer.

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It was two weeks before my follow up when I noticed some blood in my stool. It was a bright red streak that sent a familiar chill of panic through me. It happened three days in a row. I took pictures and made an appointment with my primary doctor. He advised that, given my history, a colonoscopy should be performed. It was scheduled almost three years to the day that I was first diagnosed.

On the day of my x-ray I prepared a thermos of coffee and cycled to Mountain View Cemetery. It had, by now, become one of my favorite places. That day I sat silently on a hillock and stared out over a rising strata of morning fog. I sat for a long time. I remember feeling a profound happiness resting within me and suddenly caring a thousand times more deeply about everything around me. It's a feeling I wanted to go on and on.

I met with the technician and then I moved to a waiting room and leafed through some beauty magazines. After, I was led into an exam room and waited some more. Ten minutes later I was staring at a computer screen with my surgeon and was dazzled by the latest image. I had grown used to seeing the faint, shadowy void that snaked down the bend in my right mandible. Today we looked at a photo that revealed an almost total regrowth of the bone on that side. It was miraculous and I was flush with feeling. The surgeon sat in a chair opposite me and smiled.

"Congratulations."

He praised my perseverance and shook my hand. He seemed to me to be speaking in calligraphy.

"You're a success story."

He couldn't explain to me why the bone had healed: Was it the medication? The HBO therapy? We couldn't know for sure. What mattered was that, for now, it appeared as though I would get to keep my jaw. I felt like a cross-country runner collapsed on the happy side of a finish line. Like I had been running for years across an unnatural terrain of goosebumps and jitters. It was relief and disbelief fused and peering back at me in the form of my smiling bones.

And how did I celebrate? How did I mark this tiny miracle? With apple juice, chicken broth, and four liters of high-octane diarrhea maker. My colonoscopy was scheduled for the next day and that required 36 hours without solid food.

I was nervous about the procedure but also because I lied about having a ride home. They're not supposed to proceed unless you've arranged for someone to pick you up. My cousin was out of town, my brother was unavailable. Anyway, I couldn't find anyone and I had to lie. (I had a nice one-liner teed up if the time was right: "I figured you guys would be able to tell if I was full of shit." The time was never right.)

When they wheeled me in, I had a quick word with the doc and they had me lay on my side. Then the lights went out.

A few moments later I was awoken and the room seemed to be in a state of hyperarousal. I was fuzzy and uncomfortable as the situation slowly began to gel. The probe was still inside me and I was directed to a monitor, which showed a small but bilious tumor. I watched it get tattooed and biopsied before they slowly backed out the scope. Still in a smog of anesthesia:

"Good thing you came in."

"Glad we got it early."

"You got bad genes, man."

"It doesn't get much earlier than that."

They whisked me away behind a curtain and handed me a wad of baby wipes. I got dressed.

A nurse came in to ask if there was another number they could call to contact my phantom ride home. At this point I came clean.

"There's no one coming."

I apologized and said I had no choice. They immediately told me not to worry and began peppering me with questions. They wanted to be assured that I was clearheaded before they let me go. A nurse in scrubs wearing a huge diamond ring came over and put her hand on my knee.

"You liar."

She said it with a wink and I immediately tried to apologize again but she wouldn't hear it.

"We're gonna put a rush on that path report," she said. "We'll have the results by Monday."

She led me to a back door that opened on to 14th Street and Broadway.

California sunshine feels specific when you've just been told you have cancer. It feels unbefitting and a little tasteless. Here I was back on the street, ghosted again.

Whereas the first time around I felt like circling the wagons, this time was different. I felt like I was circling the drain. I didn't want to advertise. I told only my immediate family and kept the details on a need to know basis. Yes, it was colon cancer. There would be an operation. I may need chemo but it was too early to tell.

The surgery, a right hemicolectomy, would be done laparoscopically. A large portion of my colon would be removed and I would remain hospitalized for four or five days after. My sister would fly in for this one and be by my side.

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