When I was 25, it was a very good year. There were, beautiful girls wearing… nurses uniforms and… telling me to wake up…
“Wake up. Wake up, John.”
Groggy, I opened my eyes to a white and pink room that smelled of a combination of death and the avoidance of death. A few days later, I left the hospital to 30 days convalescence leave and barely another year as a member of the “US Military” club before I would become a member of the much less exiting “US Veteran” club.
The “disabled” branch.
Mere moments later, with the top of my stomach wrapped around my esophagus, I was out of the military.
Off to college I went, assuming– like some blind, stupid fucking idiot– that I would live a long and completely normal life.
I can’t even complain. I mean, I can complain, but I’m unable to take myself seriously when I do.
“Oh woes is me, I’m a veteran with a gimpy throat.”
I mean, it’s not like I’ve lost a limb, or have Type II diabetes, or am blind, or suffer from PTSD. Who the fuck am I to complain? I have to take a pill every day, big fucking deal.
Quit your bitchin’, you fucking baby!
The problem: There’s this background noise. It’s a noise that’s always there.
It’s like a high pitched whining that you can only hear really well when it’s quite, but which still affects everything else you hear in a subtle way. It’s the squeaking of a door that means someone mean is coming home to hurt you. It’s the grinding of a gear that means your car is about to break down on a deserted road.
But it’s not a door, and it’s not a car. It’s your throat. And the grinding doesn’t go away.
It’s always there.
And you have to learn to live with that. But it’s hard sometimes, because you know that you have an esophagus that’s just waiting to become cancerous. Oh, sure, it’s really rare. Only about 5 in every 100,000 people get esophageal cancer, and basically all of them are over 50. So you’re crazy to think it would be you.
But the background noise isn’t just the sound of your throat. It’s the sound of air passing through other people’s throats. It’s voices.
It’s mostly the voice of the surgeon who operated on you when you were 25. The one who said that your esophagus looked like that of a 50 year old.
How old are most people who get esopha–? Well, fuck.
And it’s also the voices of others around you who like to remind you that you’re fucked. It’s not their fault, because we all like to prove what we know about things. We all like connect with someone and to feel smart, so when you mention Barrett’s Esophagus to anyone who’s seen an episode of [name a random medical show here] or has read a single website about heartburn, you’ll hear their voice as they prove to you that they know something about it.
“Barrett’s Esophagus turns into cancer.”
There it is again. That reoccurring phrase. I’ve heard this more times than I care to remember over the past 13 years and every time I hear it I come closer to screaming. My actual internal reactions vary, but they are always something similar to:
“Yes, I do know that I may have cancer eating away at my throat right now, thank you for fucking reminding me. I’m so glad you feel it necessary to tell me something that I couldn’t possibly live without already knowing! Especially when that something is ‘you know, you’re probably going to die.’ Now fuck off!”
I don’t say this, of course. Not because it would be mean, but because I empathize with them. I do the same thing, I’m sure. We all do. How many times have I said something stupid to poke a wound in someone else? It’s not their fault, but that doesn’t help.
The fact is, that my entire adult life has been lived with a constant, persistent, and increasingly loud level of background noise that basically amount to the syllabic equivalent of “Prepare to die. Soon.”
The noise is loud, and affects everything I do in my life, every day, because the simple fact I have to admit is that my chances of being one of those 5 out of 100,000 are– more than likely– 100%.
I have to be honest with myself and admit that I will have esophageal cancer. For me, it’s not a question of if, it’s most likely just a question of when.
It’s really just an exercise in math and risk management. When they look at those numbers, I have to admit to myself that they don’t say:
“…and of those 100,000 people, the majority of them had completely fucked up throats by the time they were 25, and they still didn’t get cancer even by time they were dead at the ripe old age of 80.”
It’s a condition that leads to cancer, and the longer the condition exists, the higher the risk of cancer.
Wow. There’s a fucking paradox for you. Think about that for a minute.
The longer it exists, the more likely I am to die of cancer, but the longer I exist, the more it exists.
So the longer I live, the more likely I am to…
Talk about fucked.
So this is the background noise of my life. You may feel it’s a bit forced, but from my perspective it’s entirely accurate to compare it to the guy in the foxhole, waiting, in silence.
I’ve heard time and time again, and have actually felt in real life, that it’s that waiting that drives people crazy. If the firefight comes, then you fight– you can deal with that. If the firefight is avoided, all the better. But the waiting! That will get into your spine, crawl up into your skull, and drive you fucking insane.
And that’s how I feel a lot of the time. Waiting. For the firefight in my throat. That’s when sometimes I feel that the guy who leaves the military with one arm is lucky. He’s not waiting. Blindness? It’s done, and you live with it.
I try to live a normal life– I think I do a pretty good job, actually– but that fucking background noise is always there.
That fucking waiting!
I eat well, I take my medicine, I actually have a really good life. And I don’t think about it every second of everyday.1 But there’s always the background noise.
And the occasional heartburn which isn’t heartburn. I’m not lucky enough to get just heartburn. I get “Oh shit, is that the cancer?” I don’t get indigestion, I get “Has it come?”
That’s why I’m so worried after this last endoscopy, because I’ve been having heartburn consistently for months, and sometimes even outright pain and trouble swallowing. After doctors visits, medicine changes, etc. they took a look, took a bunch of biopsies, and now I wait.
That fucking waiting!
They can’t tell me anything about what they saw, I have to wait for the results. Two weeks. So now I’m waiting on top of waiting. There’s another paradox: I’m waiting to find out if I get to wait.
Because if the results come back bad, then I have to deal with having esophageal cancer before I deal with being 40. I know that’s not extremely likely, but it doesn’t help that the background noise and the waiting have pushed me so far to expect it that it’s all I can think of.
“You know, Barrett’s Esophagus turns to–”
“WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP!?”
And I almost want it to be true, because then at least I wouldn’t be waiting.
Because the worst thing about this all is that if the tests come back good– if everything is fine and dandy even though it’s hard to swallow– then I don’t have esophageal cancer.