I named my cancer Vlad. After all, he was a vampire sucking my life out through my kidney. I made his acquaintance in fall 2018.
“I’m here. I’m here. I’m HERE.”
On a sunny November day, I didn’t know I lied by telling my dog, “I’ll be back.” I didn’t know five days of pain would lead me to be in the hospital for two days. I didn’t know I had a monster inside me.
The chest pains that brought me to the first hospital vanished as I sat in the ER on that Sunday. My body seemed to know it had done its job, and I would get the treatment I needed.
It was obvious that the “C” word was coming because of the way the nurse at the ER sat down and beat around the bush. He wanted to avoid saying it as much as I was unprepared to hear it. When he said I had cancer, the word meant nothing to me. It wasn’t so much a slap in the face as it was Novocain to my psyche.
As soon as he walked out through the curtain divider, the other staff member brought in for support started talking. Whatever words she was saying went in one ear and out the other as tiny streams made their way down my cheeks.
“Surprise. Didn’t you know I was here? How foolish and blind.”
My first hospital stay followed my first ambulance ride. I asked the staff at the second hospital what I should be doing, but my ignorance led to embarrassing missteps. Was I supposed to ask before going to the bathroom? Weren’t they going to turn off the lights so I could sleep?
As I lay there with no one to talk to, I gave the name Constance to the nurse call button with the human icon. She assured me that she would be there to listen, no matter what. Though she didn’t have all the answers, much less a body of her own, Constance listened to my concerns and uncertainties.
Sleep failed me that night with the assorted switches and dials lit up around the room, the whizzing machinery of the patient next to me, the unmuffled voices coming from the corridor, and the awareness that I was unaware of so much.
Was I going to have chemotherapy and lose my hair? Would I be in the hospital for another day, or another month? Would my dog—who also had cancer—be okay without me? How could I get what I needed from home? Was I going to live? Was I going to die? What was I supposed to do if I only had a few months left.
The tears from back at the ER came back for an encore.
“Ignorant. Stupid. What a complete and clueless failure.”
The next day at the hospital was short-lived. A new CT scan confirmed that this was almost certainly cancer. My left kidney would have to go. A basketball team’s worth of doctors told me that surgery would—if my case stuck to the textbooks—get rid of my cancer.
The 15 worst-case scenarios playing on repeat in my brain popped in an instant. This cancer could be removed in a single procedure. I hit the cancer jackpot.
I forgot to tell Constance goodbye before I left the hospital that afternoon, but I don’t think she minded.
“Don’t get cocky. You don’t know me. I’m still HERE.”
My mind became a still pool of water after I returned home on that Monday night. Nothing I used to ruminate over all day before mattered anymore. Doing the dishes, a bothersome and time-consuming chore, became a brief and soothing meditation. Scrubbing each plate was proof that I was still here leading a comfortingly mundane life.
The world looked a different shade than I’d ever seen it before. All the life surrounding me exuded a fragrance I finally noticed. An unseen professional organizer did work on my mind pro bono.
“It’s me. Hello? Let’s be friends.”
Within a few days of that ill-fated yet miraculous hospital stay, I named my cancer Vlad. I even drew a portrait of him. Putting a name and a face to the demon inside me gave me power over it.
Did giving a name to my monster make me its master, or did that give it a form, freeing it to run wild?
“Nice name. Thank you. Thank you.”
“I won’t let you own me,” I told my cancer.
Vlad liked to slide offhand comments into my thoughts during all waking hours. A casual “You’ve wasted your life” here, or a sly “You’re right, I am your fault” there. Knowing a kind of devil’s spawn is filtering your blood makes it a tad bit hard to concentrate.
My mind always wandered back toward Vlad.
I scoured my house, cleaning every cranny and most of the nooks. I refused to let a messy house welcome me back after surgery. Vlad flinched in irritation if I scrubbed hard enough. I snubbed the needy vampire on my kidney by grasping at the mundanity of everyday life. He sulked inside me for weeks and poked at my consciousness to make sure I never forgot him. As the months grew colder, he grew bigger millimeter by millimeter. Vlad knew I was plotting against him.
The lack of rest before my nephrectomy didn’t matter. A long, medically induced nap was on the forecast for January 3rd.
The surgery building of the hospital campus buzzed with fluorescent light and bustled with patients pacing at 5:20 a.m. I arrived short of breath after driving myself to the hospital and running through the parking garage. While I simmered with irritation over my ride not showing up that morning, Vlad did not say a peep. No “Late as always” or “You deserve it.” His nonexistent lips remained sealed.
I sat around in a second-floor waiting room for longer than expected among groups of people louder than expected. The mumble pervading the room became too boisterous to pass as normal conversation. No one was willing to bow down to the morbid surroundings and let out the dark thoughts creeping in their minds.
I had no interest in entertaining Vlad as I leaned on his side of my torso in an uncomfortable chair. Precisely nothing came through my mind, and this indifference stifled Vlad’s chattiness. My little demon was having an existential crisis.
Staff called for me, and the next 60 minutes or so were a blur of nurses, anesthesiologists, and my surgeon going over policies and asking questions. The same questions over, and over, and over. A mask finally covered my nose and mouth, and it was time to say good riddance to my cancer for good.
“Bye, Vlad,” I said in my head.
Staring at the wall became my main entertainment during the next two days in the hospital. My body lacked the energy for such strenuous activities as holding my phone or raising my eyes to the TV. I kept wondering if this was what existence is like for old people with dementia. A foggy mind and sensitive abdomen meant that I had no complaints about sitting still and competing in a staring contest with the white, white wall.
Though I could still move only as well as an 80-year-old, it was a relief to be home with my precious pup on the night of January 5th. Moving was work, getting into bed might as well have been climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. As I let myself close my eyes that night, I got the answer to a question I hadn’t dared to ask. Vlad was still there.
“I’ve been lonely. It’s been too quiet. Let’s talk, shall we?”
“Vlad, you’re dead. You can’t still be talking to me. How are you here?”
“Dead?… Oh, don’t worry. As a ghost, I won’t leave.”
“I don’t want to talk to you. You should be gone. Just leave me alone. I need sleep.”
“Okay. That’s fine. I can visit you there, too.”
When Vlad spoke to me I could hear his slimy smirk. This ghost had no trouble communicating with my living body.
Two weeks after surgery, my urologist confirmed at the follow-up that Vlad was the type of cancer we thought. Congratulations! I was cancer-free as far as anyone knew. There was just one problem: I was being haunted from inside my own body.
Participating in kidney health symposiums, attending charity walks, and even venturing on rock climbing trips for young adult cancer survivors were not enough to exorcise my demon. Even if I called upon Saint Peregrine Laziosi, patron saint of cancer patients, I knew Vlad could not be persuaded to leave.
“Pretty day. Just like the day we met. Ah, memories.”
“Vlad, we need to talk.”
“Uh-oh. Here it comes. You said it,” Vlad chuckled.
“My life has completely changed since we met,” I said. “I see the world differently. I’ve lost weight. I have… a new puppy.”
“Oh, I saw! He’s a cutie. Shame what happened…”
“Vlad, there’s no room for you in my life now, but I know you don’t want to leave.”
“Give it up. Been over this. SO not leaving.”
“No, that’s fine. I understand. I wanted to let you know that I’m not okay with you being here, but it’s fine. The world I knew is gone now, and I can’t get rid of you. I don’t even really want to. You’ve changed me, and you’re part of me forever. I don’t want to be complacent, and I don’t want to go back. You remind me to look around and really see what’s there. Do you understand?”
Vlad was silent for three full seconds, a new record in his conversations. Then he said, “No, not really. You’re weird. Are we friends now?”
“No, I hate you. I hate what you and your friends do to so many people in this world. I just know that it’s important that I don’t turn my back on you.”
“Okay then. Well. I’ll be HERE.”
Vlad still talks to me, and I think he always will. He’s no longer a vampire slowly killing me. But as a demonic ghost, he both goads me forward and prods me when I’m down. Vlad came with me on a recent trip with fellow cancer survivors down the Green River in Utah. Yet, his muttering was a dull annoyance compared to the beauty of the red sandstone and shooting stars that became my new friends on the trek. I welcome Vlad in my life, but I also wish I had never met him.
If you’re listening now, Vlad, I just want you to hear this:
“Shut up. I’m here, too. Come at me.”
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://elephantsandtea.cdn-pi.com/contact/submissions/.