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Dog Time, Cancer Time

by Dana Jennings

Inspiration image

Bijou, like all dogs, runs on primal time. She isn’t constantly barking on her cell and doesn’t stay up late to catch Conan or Letterman. She eats when she’s hungry, drinks when she’s dry, and naps when she’s sleepy. The absolute, very best moment is the one that she’s inhabiting right now – whether stalking a bunny, shredding a sock, or snoring away in a swatch of sunlight. And during and after cancer, I also came to understand that the very best moment is right now.

Cancer, like any dog, insists on its own time, also runs on primal time. If you try to defy it, it can break you, physically and spiritually. So, as I coped with prostate cancer, I took some cues from Bijou. I ate when I was hungry, drank when I was dry, and napped when I was sleepy.

Cancer doesn’t know from deadlines and BlackBerries, from Twittering and overnight delivery. It is analog and organic in a digital world. If you have a Type A personality, you will need to adjust to Type C – for cancer. (Or, even better, Type D for dog.)

I went on Cancer Standard Time the moment I learned, at age 50, that I had prostate cancer.

Each phase of the disease – diagnosis, surgery, radiation, and other treatment – carries its own distinct sense of stepping outside traditional time, its own bitter flavor of dislocation.

I went on Cancer Standard Time the moment I learned, at age 50, that I had prostate cancer. I’d had a biopsy three days before, and I thought I fully understood that the odds were 50-50 that I might have the disease. Yet, I realize now, I secretly believed that I couldn’t possibly have cancer. That only happened to other people.

In the instant that I found out, I felt stuck in time – What? What? What? – like a scratched CD skipping and stuttering in the player. I wondered whether I had heard wrong.

I chose to have my prostate removed, and the three months between the diagnosis and the radical open prostatectomy were a blur. I was swept up in a whirlwind of tests and scans, treatment decisions, and negotiations with my insurer. (They were hostage negotiations, with me as the hostage.) Those days hurtled forward, caught in the gravitational pull of surgery.

In the hospital, time held no meaning. Once I entered that always unsettling time machine of anesthesia, and came out breathing on the other side, I inhabited each hazy post-op moment, not worrying about the past or the future. All I knew was that I could hit the morphine drip every 10 minutes, that I could nap whenever I wanted.

Those three days revolved around the cycles of doing the hospital shuffle, of having my four drains emptied, of having my blood pressure and temperature taken. I didn’t quite know what day it was, and it didn’t quite matter. I was alive. I trusted the date printed on page 1 of The New York Times.

Then life became more complicated.

Nine days after surgery, I received the results of my pathology report. I found out that my probably Stage 1 prostate cancer, which had appeared ordinary enough, was unexpectedly aggressive. It had surged through the prostate and was now classified as a Stage T3B. More treatment was needed.

There’s nothing like a dog to snap you back to the moment.

I used to joke that my goal was to live to 106, making a gradual transition from writer to sage. When I was given my pathology report, I felt all those taken-for-granted decades squirming through my fingers. Age 106? Let’s shoot for 60, or even 51.

But before I could focus on the next phases of therapy – hormone shots and radiation – I had to complete my post-op healing. You have to become healthy before more treatment can damage you again in the name of curing you.

But healing, too, comes in its own time. No matter how hard you push – and pushing isn’t necessarily bad – you have to understand that the cancer and its treatment will push back.

I spent seven weeks recuperating from surgery that summer, and time once again bent in weird ways. It was the first summer I hadn’t worked since I was 14, and I luxuriated in the languors of childhood: comic books and rhythm ‘n’ blues, walks and spontaneous naps, and, of course, my loyal pooch.

As I convalesced, there was a fairytale sense of being outside of time. I half expected to see vines and creepers swaddling my house, as if I were some kind of Sleeping Beauty with a buzz cut. The world’s quaint concerns weren’t my concerns. Obama? McCain? Palin? Oh, if you insist.

That was partly why returning to work that August was so jarring. On the streets of Manhattan I had lost a couple of steps. I felt myself in sharp relief to the frenzy of zoom and zip that characterizes New York. Whenever I tried to push ahead physically, the cancer, the healing, the treatment pushed back, reminded me that, after all, I was still a patient.

It was like a physics problem: If the world accelerates, but cancer makes you decelerate, where does that leave you?

Radiation treatment posed that question even more profoundly. Radiation is exhausting, and I felt as if I had been nudged into an alternate timeline. I kept working, kept up some semblance of a social life. But I also seemed to fall behind. I had somehow traveled outside time, and my frame of mind felt gray and snowy, like some Eastern bloc city of the 1950s.

With Bijou as an example, though, I understood that living in the moment was crucial. But what if you can’t grasp the moment? What if you feel as if you’re living in a no-moment? I sometimes felt like one of those forlorn characters in old-time songs who moan, “Dark hollows will be home.”

But there’s nothing like a dog to snap you back to the moment. Bijou’s cold nose nudging my hand or her warm tongue licking my foot would bring me back to this world, bring me back to myself, like the prince who kisses Sleeping Beauty to bring her back to the here and now.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dana Jennings is a prostate cancer survivor, assistant editor of The New York Times Arts & Leisure section, and author of several books, including Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death and Country Music.

Excerpted from What a Difference a Dog Makes: Big Lessons on Life, Love, and Healing from a Small Pooch by Dana Jennings. Copyright © 2010 by Dana Jennings. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.