Ever have one of those weeks where everything just happens all at once? Like a slow moving train wreck, you can see it all coming, but aren’t really sure when or if it’s going to hit until it does? Last week was one of those weeks, and it all started with a couple of phone calls…
Ring (Bzzzzz) Ring (Bzzzzzz).
I looked up from my laptop to my buzzing iPhone to see my boss’ name staring back at me. I was used to early morning meetings, but this was earlier than usual.
“Let the games begin!”, I thought to myself, smiling.
“Hello?”, I answered.
“Hi, Scott, do you have a few minutes to talk?”, my boss asked.
“Sure, what’s up?”, I replied.
A new voice chimed in. She introduced herself as Tracy, from HR.
“Hi, Scott. We regret to inform you that as part of the restructuring, your job has been eliminated.”, Tracy told me over the phone.
I’ve never been laid off over the phone before. Chalk it up as another COVID first, the pandemic has changed the way we live, work, and apparently, are dismissed.
My company, like all companies, has had an incredibly rough year. A couple weeks ago the CEO had announced a restructuring and 20% headcount reduction. The call wasn’t a surprise, but still left a pit in my stomach given that I was pending radiation therapy for my prostate cancer. In the United States health insurance is typically tied to employment. An interim solution, COBRA, can bridge your insurance till your next job but it’s not only messy to set up, it’s also incredibly expensive.
Tracy walked me through the process of returning my laptop, COBRA, severance, and vacation payout. At the end of the call my boss chimed in.
“Thanks for your service, Scott. Call me if you need anything.”
And that was it.
Or so I thought. Within minutes my phone rang again.
Ring (Bzzzzz) Ring (Bzzzzzz).
This time I considered letting it go to voicemail before ultimately picking it up.
“Uh …. hello?”, I answered, a little more cautiously this time.
“Hi, Scott. This is Karina at UCSD. I’d like to set up your initial body mapping for radiation therapy.”
“Oh! I’ve been expecting your call. I guess you finally got insurance approval?”, I replied.
“Yes, we did. Sorry about the delay.”, she said. It had been almost a month since I had been told I was healed enough from surgery and ready for radiation therapy.
“No problem. Honestly, I wasn’t in a mad rush to get my crotch irradiated until just a few minutes ago”, I replied, more than a little concerned about what would happen once my health insurance was migrated to COBRA. Between surgery, appointments, and hormone therapy I had quickly maxed out my out-of-pocket within the first few months of the year, I really didn’t want to start from zero again. Cancer is an expensive beast to tame.
Wisely, Karina avoided the bait about why I was in such a hurry and proceeded to outline the procedure.
“You will need to perform an enema and drink 24oz of water leading up to your appointment.”, she told me over the phone.
“Scott, are you still there?”, she asked.
“Like an enema, enema?”, I asked.
Thirty-five years ago I had my first experience with an enema at, of all places, a waterpark. There was a slide there named “The Nairobi Express”. Three stories up, at the top of the slide, there was a large sign instructing riders to cross their legs. At the bottom was a shallow pool of water designed to slow riders down after their descent.
In my excitement I ignored the sign and forgot to cross my legs. After launching myself off the platform and craning my head back in glee to see that I had beaten my friends to the bottom, I tore into the pool of water at the bottom and came to a very sudden and painful stop. After three lengthy trips to the bathroom I spent the rest of the day on the “Lazy River” nursing my wounds.
“Scott, can you do that?”, Karina repeated.
“The enema!”, she reminded me, a little agitation creeping into her voice.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve uh, kind of done one before.”, I replied
“Between my bladder being full of liquid and my rear being loosey-goosey you’re really putting your CT machine at risk, you know?”, I joked.
“Is that a yes?”, she repeated.
My mapping appointment was in two days. As I was, unsurprisingly, fresh out of home enema kits, I decided to do some shopping. My wife, Jodie, and I had been doing the majority of our shopping online since COVID. Shopping online, we hoped, would limit our exposure, but in this case it would also allow me to discretely buy an enema kit. After viewing the purchase options I started laughing.
I turned around to see Jodie hovering behind me.
“Check this out!”, I showed her my screen.
“… if I buy the Open Box item we can save $1.99!”, I chuckled.
She just kind of stared at me in horror for a minute.
“Please don’t.”, she replied, flatly.
“I’ll buy two, just in case.”, I smiled.
“In case you like it?”, she shot back.
“Ha. Ha.”, I replied dryly while clicking the “Buy Now” button.
After completing the transaction I looked to my corporate laptop next to me on my desk and frowned.
It sat there like an ugly scab; a reminder that I was now unemployed during the worst recession in history, during a pandemic, and undergoing cancer treatment. I had an urgent desire to ship it back to my ex-employer as soon as possible. I strapped on my face mask, pocketed a bottle of hand sanitizer, tucked the laptop under my arm, and headed to the UPS Store.
The UPS Store was crowded. It took about ten minutes before it was my turn to talk to the clerk.
“I’d like to return this laptop to my employer.”, I told her, handing her an index card on which I had carefully printed out the shipping address.
“How would you like it shipped?”, she replied.
“It’s not mine anymore and I’m not paying for it, any suggestions? What’s the most expensive, elaborate way to ship this thing?”, I joked.
“We could overnight it!”, the clerk next to us chimed.
“You can do better than that! Is there a white glove courier service, too?”, I smiled, adding, “I just got laid off a few hours ago. Have you seen a lot of computer hardware being, uh, returned?”
“Lots. That guy that checked out just in front of you had a whole box of electronics!”, she responded.
“Same here!”, a voice behind me announced. I spun to catch the eyes ( we were all wearing face masks after all ) of a man about my age motioning to a laptop slung under his arm.
COVID had not only made telecommuting the new norm, but the corresponding recession and subsequent layoffs had also created a booming business for the UPS Store.
“What do you do?”, he asked.
“Software developer….”, I replied.
“Oh? You’ll have no trouble at all finding work!”, he reassured me, “There’s lots of work for programmers!”
“I, uh, can’t start looking for work yet. I need to take care of some things first…”, I replied, not quite willing to open up to a complete stranger about my cancer, much less the six weeks of radiation therapy I was in store for, “It’s, uh … complicated.”
At this point I stared at a rubber bracelet on my wrist. I had strapped it there almost a year ago. It was bright blue and embossed with the words “Prostate Cancer Awareness”. While looking at it I recalled a discussion I had with my psychologist last week about looking for work while undergoing treatment for cancer. He reassured me that it was against the law to discriminate. However, he also warned me to not bring it up during interviews nor post about it publicly. He told me that hiring managers would likely look at my public profile and, although illegal, might inconspicuously reject my resume upon discovering my cancer. Oddly enough, in stark contrast to his suggestions, here I am writing about it …
“Sir?”, the clerk asked.
“Uh, yes?”, I replied.
“That’ll be $42.95 for shipping.”
“Is that the best you can do? Any chance you can round up?”, I replied.
“Unfortunately, no.”, she said smiling.
It’s always nice to end the day, and this one in particular, with good news, and this news came from my oncologist, Dr. Stewart.
“Your PSA is still undetectable.”, Dr. Stewart told me over the phone.
“Are you still planning on keeping me on Lupron and Zytiga for two years?”, I replied.
“Yes, you’ve almost completed a year, too. Congratulations! So, how are you doing?”, he asked.
“I’m doing good!”, I replied, “I’m still on a plant-based, low-sugar diet. I’m still able exercise every day and keep up with my kids, too. I’m a little tired all of the time, but I assume that’s just due to the hormone therapy that I’m on. Overall, I am still able to do everything I was doing before.”
“Also, I also just got scheduled for radiation, so I can get that underway, too.”, I added.
“Good!”, he replied. Although this was a voice call I could almost see him smiling on the other end. “And the plant-based diet? A while back you were complaining about how restrictive it was …”
“It’s delicious!”, I interrupted, “Tell you what? One night I’ll invite you over for dinner and you can decide for yourself!”
“You’re doing a good job, Doctor. Thank you!”, I told him.
“You’re doing all the work”, he responded.
He was wrong, and we both knew it. Fighting cancer requires a team. He had alluded to such almost a year ago during my first appointment with him when he referred to himself as my team “quarterback” who would help me navigate my upcoming treatments. My team has only gotten bigger since then – my family and friends are all on my team as well, and they are all helping me beat this thing called cancer.
“Dad! A box came from Amazon for you! It’s heavy!”, Kaylee screamed excitedly as she plopped a small box in front of me.
With the girls peering over my shoulder I ripped off the packaging tape, opened the box, and discovered that I was the proud owner of two enema kits. I opened one of the boxes to discover that each box had 4 treatments.
What in the hell was I going to do with 8 enema kits?!?!!
“Dad, what’s an enema?”, Ashley asked me.
I looked over my shoulder to see that my girls had taken a keen interest in my new toys.
“Uh….”, I floundered. Sigh“… It’s, uh, a bottle of fluid that people stick up their, uh, butt to wash everything out.”
“Ewww gross!”, they screamed in unison, “Are you going to DO that?!?!!”
“I have to for my appointment tomorrow….”, I replied grinning at them.
“Does it hurt????!?”, they asked.
“Generally I consider the bunghole an ‘exit only’ hole….”, I said, and then, seeing a little too much amusement in their eyes, added, “… I have enough for everyone if you want to try it, too!”
“NOOOOOO! Gross!”, they shrieked, eyes bulging.
I clamped my ears shut as the girls shrieked and ran away, leaving me alone to read the instructions.
One upside to COVID is the traffic, or lack thereof. With so many companies enforcing a work-from-home policy, I made the 20-mile drive to my appointment at UCSD in record time and, only after parking, had I realized that I had only finished about half of the prerequisite 24 oz in my water bottle. I walked up to the payment kiosk, hastily chugging water, and entered a 10-digit code given to me during my phone call a few days before. Radiation therapy is a daily process that can extend well over a month. UCSD, like many hospitals, charges for parking, and as a consideration for patients undergoing therapy, offers free parking to those undergoing treatment.
As I walked up to the entrance of UCSD’s Moores Cancer Center I spotted a red 1984 Ferrari Testerossa parked in a valet spot. It being one of my favorite super cars from my youth, I ogled over it for a while, briefly forgetting about my appointment.
“Cancer has no bounds”, I thought to myself. Somewhere in that building was the owner, likely some old rich dude ( with good taste ), getting treated for a similar disease to my own.
After checking in and sitting down in the waiting room I continued to sip my water and watched people come and go. A lady about my age with no hair walked by. An older man, seemingly perfectly healthy, chatted on his phone. A heavyset lady in a wheelchair rolled by. Due to COVID restrictions there were no guests allowed inside, just patients. Everyone here, including me, had cancer.
“Scott Vandervort”, a nurse announced from the doorway.
“That’s me!”, I said, hopping out of my seat.
The nurse told me that my appointment would start in about 20 minutes and wanted to make sure that I had a full bladder.
“I’m still nursing this bottle here.”, I tapped the bottle in my other hand, “It’s almost empty. However, I can top it off again for good measure.”
“Please. If your bladder isn’t full enough we’ll have to run the scan again. You also did the bowel prep as well?”, she asked.
“Yes…. it should be sparkling clean in there as of this morning.”, I said.
“I, uh, don’t have to do that for every visit do I?”, I asked. I already knew the answer, but wanted to hear it again for reassurance.
“No, just for the mapping scan ….”, she started.
“… because I have seven more!”, I interrupted, grinning.
“…. won’t be necessary.”, she confirmed.
After she left I let out a huge sigh of relief and continued to chug my once-again-full water bottle.
Precisely 20 minutes later the same nurse retrieved me from the waiting room and led me, bladder sloshing, to an exam room. A large CT machine filled the room and two other nurses were busily preparing it for my mapping.
“Do I need to change into a robe?”, I asked.
“Nope!”, one of the nurses replied, “We’re just going to have you lie down on the gurney, create some forms for your legs, perform a quick scan, and give you three tattoos to help align the machine for next time.”
“Can I pick the tattoos?”
“They’re the size of freckles and, honestly, none of us are very good artists.”, a nurse replied.
“So no pink dolphins?”, I joked.
The whole process took maybe 10 minutes. The tattoos felt like pin pricks, no worse than a shot. Later that night while examining myself I could barely find them.
“Whatever you did to prepare, do it again next time. It was perfect. A+”, the nurse who had retreived me from the waiting room told me.
“Except the enema…”, I clarified.
“Didn’t you have seven more?”, she said grinning, “… but, no. No enema is required next time.”
She then handed me a card with a date on it, August 27th.
“Here is your first radiation appointment. Prepare exactly like last time. You did good!”
With the appointment over I was led to a small bathroom to drain the 48 oz of water that I had accumulated leading up to the appointment. The fact that I could still cram that much fluid into my bladder without leaking after having a radical prostatectomy was, oddly, reassuring.
During the walk back to my car my stomach started rumbling. As part of my cancer regimen I had been doing intermittent fasting. I looked at my watch and realized that I hadn’t eaten anything for almost 18 hours. I stopped mid-step as it occurred to me that my fasting probably helped with the scan, and would probably help with my radiation treatments as well.
“No food, no gas, right?”, I said to myself.
Nodding, I decided to continue the intermittent fasting through my radiation therapy to see if my theory was correct. In the meantime, it was time for lunch. I pulled my phone from my pocket and called my wife, Jodie.
“The mapping is all done. It was easy. Do you and the girls want vegan nachos from ‘Greens Please’ for lunch?”, I asked.
The cheering in the background was as good an answer as any. “Greens Please” is one of our favorite restaurants. Their Vegan Nachos are Scrumdiddlyumptious. I couldn’t think of a better way to wind down a hectic few days.
“Good! I’ll see you all in an hour! I can’t wait to show you my new tattoos!”, I said jokingly.
Take care. Stay healthy. Live life. Eat [Vegan] Nachos
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