Cancer Didn’t Kill My Dad

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PHOTO: My father and my daughter, Isis Aaliyah

Another sad story from the front lines of the war on cancer.

Last summer my father was diagnosed with Lymphoma cancer on his inner right thigh. My pops was always the kind of guy that didn’t like to worry me or his loved ones; he had a tendency to be hush-hush about these kinds of things. Not that he was timid, his smile glowed and his charisma could warm the room—his sense of humor could break the ice in any startup conversation. However, it was his pride that circumvented my foreknowledge of what was actually going on until chemotherapy had already been scheduled.

Apparently it had been weeks since he had discovered the abnormality; he told me the week I was leaving to Seattle for the month to work  on the I-502 campaign, which legalized marijuana in Washington State. I didn’t really know what to say. I hugged him.

To me, this was serious business, so I ran down a series of questions about treatment and what was next for him. Not once did I think to question what kind of adverse effects could come from the chemotherapy. We obviously knew there were some nasty, undesired side-effects like hair loss, nausea and a general heavy toll on the body—but death was never really considered a plausible outcome—this was supposed to fix him.

His demeanor changed.

My dad finished up chemotherapy at the beginning of November; next up was radiation and everything was looking good with his blood-work. By this point, his hair had fallen out and he definitely had days where the ailments had got him down but his spirits remained high. It was a battle to get him to use cannabis alternatives for managing certain symptoms.

It wasn’t that he was opposed to using cannabis, he definitely had previous experience with it and was in favor of cannabis as a medicine as well as recreation but it was his fear of poorly grown or mishandled flowers. At least up front that was his reasoning; although I always sensed there was more: he was scared of the hospital finding out he used marijuana.

As far as I know, through most of his chemo treatment he didn’t smoke. I recall a few times where he asked if we could smoke a joint or something but he would only take a couple small puffs. I remember arguing with him about holding in the smoke.

It was when he started the radiation we noticed something was wrong.

My dad, toward the end of cancer treatment.

My dad, toward the end of cancer treatment.

My father called me one day, ecstatic, claiming that his oncologist reported he appeared to be in remission. A funny thing appearances are because even as he told me this, so filled with joy—something was wrong. Of course it was nothing new to sit back and watch something on TV with him and he would crash out on me but this wasn’t the same, he was falling asleep all the time, anywhere.

It became so problematic that his work had to call 911 because he refused to find another way home other than driving and he was falling asleep at his desk. I remember getting a call from one of his co-workers describing him as, “a candle flickering out.”

What was going on? Where was his charm—his warmth? They were right about the flickering; he was practically emotionless and completely uninterested. After a few more battles of him trying to drive and being so out of it, I finally took him to a hospital and set in process what were to be the final days of a man who had too many more left.

Initially, they thought that it was cancer.

His balance was diminishing; standing became a chore. I carried him into his next radiation appointment and vocalized this was wrong. After blood-work and an MRI, they discovered what appeared to be two small lesions on his cerebellum and admitted him right away. They believed the cancer had spread to his brain—everything became blurry. It felt as if I were in some video game that had a slow motion effect and the world around me was filtered through a dirty, smudged lens. Just breathe.

Things you can’t ever erase from your memory: a surge of emotion, fearing what was to come next and how much suffering someone so dear to you will have to endure. When suddenly in a monotone, blankly-expressed manner he says, “Don’t cry.”

“Things you can’t ever erase from your memory: a surge of emotion, fearing what was to come next and how much suffering someone so dear to you will have to endure. When suddenly in a monotone, blankly-expressed manner he says, ‘Don’t cry.'”

This set in motion a series of tests: MRI after MRI after CT Scan after blood-work after lumbar puncture and so on and so on. Relentless the Kaiser team was… and this went on for about 6 weeks; until, finally, after the head of neurology, oncology, neuro-surgery and internal medicine all came to the conclusion this was not cancer. All indicators in his blood and spinal fluid showed no sign of lymphoma or any other cancer and the only other place to check was his cerebellum—but nobody was willing to go in there to biopsy it; nor were we willing to let them.

So what was it that was stealing my father away from our family? A proud grandpa, a loving father and an amazing individual—true to himself and those around him.

Chemotherapy Encephalopathy.

A rare side effect in this form, chemo encephalopathy is most commonly associated with patients as “chemo head.” Patients often report a certain wooziness, a disconnect or lack of awareness. The doctors explained that some people that endure chemotherapy lose their ability to speak or to formulate large thoughts but it typically subsides as time passes after the chemo treatment.

For my dad, his symptoms told a different story that ultimately became his nemesis: losing his ability to swallow, losing his ability to speak or express thought processes, defecation and urination control-loss, balance, awareness of surroundings– and to think a couple weeks before these symptoms appeared, he was working 40-50 hour weeks and fully-functional.

It’s a strange thing—the brain malfunctioning. It’s not like taking LSD or eating psychedelic mushrooms; it’s not even necessarily like someone with some psychological illness. It was almost as if he was trapped inside his head and the rest of his body was giving up: no more talking, no more walking, no more smiling—just fuck it all. Maybe it’s because I treasured his intelligence that made this so bizarre. I knew his capacity, I knew his walk, I knew his talk and watching him in these final months in silent agony was vile.

My dad, receiving a bone marrow biopsy.

My dad, receiving a bone marrow biopsy.

No stream of tears or irrepressible outbursts of madness will vanquish the melancholy that eats away at the inside of my heart. Granted, we are nothing more than another living organism in this world and death brings life and the cycle continues—the unanswered for cancer that plagues our world, our people, is a terrorist with no allegiance.

Though boasted as the natural cure, Cannabis may not be the solution to this travesty of life but chemotherapy also isn’t the most desirable solution. I write this recount not for pity; I write to remind the many others who are out there with cancer and using cannabis to ask questions. Be aware of your symptoms as best as possible and if you have loved ones who are going through treatments, pay close attention. No symptom is too small and no question too irrelevant. I wish I had only been a little more involved; maybe I would have seen the signs for what they were in advance.

I remember the hours and hours that would pass as my father and I talked about world history, argued foreign policy, and debated back-and-forth about his nonchalant attitude that “it is what it is.” But the reality is that though some things are unchangeable, everything is what you make it. The moment you give up and take the world, this life, for what it is—you lose.

Let’s make this world a better, healthier place—let’s find the alternative.