Yesterday was the two month post-op check with my head and neck oncology surgeon Dr. Robert Hunter. He asked me a question that has had me thinking a lot over the last 24 hours.
After talking about how tough the recovery has been but how well things have healed, he asked me if I felt better now than I did prior to the surgery. That answer was easy — yes, no question. The constant pain in my jaw from the exposed bone that was slowly disintegrated is gone. I have very little pain in my jaw and it is infrequent. I am eating better. I am speaking more clearly. I am just feel better all around (I’m also not on chemo, so there’s that).
Then he very genuinely asked a question in a way that I could tell he wasn’t sure how I would respond.
Was it worth it?
Before I share some thoughts that this question triggered, let me give a quick health update.
I shared some pictures and videos after surgery that showed me pretty banged up. Not walking, tons of swelling, dozens of staples holding different incisions together, drains coming out of my neck, etc. Oh and of course the sick mustache that always sprouts when I can’t shave for a week.
So last you saw of me on the blog I looked something like this:
All of that is now in the rear view (but objects are closer than they may appear, the body just has a great way of helping you cope by distancing your mind from previous pain).
If you saw me walking down the street with a bunch of other people you wouldn’t even notice me. I look totally normal again. I don’t look sick. All of the swelling is gone. My neck scars are less noticeable and my forearm and leg scars are usually covered up with clothing, so I really look like a real human being again.
I posted a video from the hospital about 5 days after surgery where I was fighting with all the strength I had to take five steps. Last weekend I walked around in the mountains for an hour and even did something that sort of resembled jogging for a few hundred yards. No more limp, just my normal strut. Here is a video of me walking down the hallway of a hotel:
Here’s a selfie from the chemo stall this morning as I get my weekly immunotherapy infusion:
Pinch me. Seriously. There is only about 6 weeks between these two pictures. And while there is a deep valley of darkness and suffering that I had to pass through during those 6 weeks, I can’t help but feel grateful and in awe of where I’m sitting right now. I’m eating, talking, walking, smiling, and best of all I’m living.
So by now you know my answer to Dr. Hunter’s question. Absolutely yes, it was worth it.
Now I have be real with myself. I still have cancer. Stage IV metastatic squamous to be precise. I’m not cured. I don’t look or feel sick, but I’m strutting around town with a ticking time bomb inside of me. It might never detonate. It might blow me to pieces this year. Or next. Or in five years or ten. Or never. “They” say it will detonate eventually and that I can’t escape it, I can only delay it.
But I am no different than anyone else that doesn’t have cancer. We all think that we are going to live long lives, that we are entitled to some amount of future time, that life has some element of certainty. It doesn’t and that is okay.
The path forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d just spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d have a plan (write that book). Give me 10 years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The pedestrian truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day? My oncologist would say only: “I can’t tell you a time. You’ve got to find what matters most to you.”
I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.
I’ll write more about Paul at some point and is amazing book “When Breath Becomes Air.”
So back to the question of “(Is) it worth it?”
“Was IT (the pain the surgery caused) worth IT (the sustainable improvement in how you feel)?”
You can fill in the parenthesis with your own mandibulectomy surgeries of your life, but I think it is a phenomenal question that I intend to think about a lot more going forward.
Most things that fill our lives are relatively meaningless — they aren’t worth IT. It doesn’t matter how easy or hard IT is, if I’m pursuing something that is meaningless IT will never be worth it. Not a single time.
There are just a few things that we have in our lives that really matter — and yes, absolutely they are worth IT. It doesn’t matter how easy or hard IT is, if I’m pursuing something that is full of meaning and rich with purpose IT will always be worth it. Every single time.
Thanks for the question, Doc.