Thank God for Medicare

Shilo Zylbergold | Best Medicine
Thank God for Medicare

image by: David Drexler

When you’re chewing life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle - Monty Python

Enough already. Why does it have to be me all the time? It feels like I’m walking around with a bullseye target on my front and a “kick me” sign on my rear end.

To quote comedian and film director, Woody Allen, “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”

All I can say is “thank God for Medicare” as I have recently started my third face-off with cancer.

Ten years ago my family doctor discovered an enlarged prostate gland and further tests showed I had early stage prostate cancer.

The cancer was slow growing, so for the first few years I went about my usual business while getting the occasional blood test and annual biopsy. This was euphemistically called “watchful waiting”. Since it’s impossible to actually watch your prostate, I decided to do the waiting while in my La-Z-Boy chair, following one sports show after the other. About three years later, the PSA blood test results worsened and the biopsies showed a more aggressive form of cancer cells, perhaps influenced by all the high sticking and rough play I’d been exposed to.

At this point I made the decision to undergo radical prostatectomy surgery. The operation seemed to have been successful, although recuperation was difficult and there were more than a few aftereffects that certainly impacted my quality of life. However, over time, my PSA count slowly but steadily started to rise again. It seemed that not all of the cancer cells had been removed by the surgery, and now the remaining ones were starting to multiply again, much like the rabbits in our garden. Intervention, this time in the form of external beam radiation, was advised.

For six weeks, five days a week, I journeyed over to the Cancer Agency to get my daily dose of radiation, which would have been more interesting had I turned green and developed some superhuman qualities. Alas no, but for almost four years I have been clean of prostate cancer.

Thing is, this time around, I’ve got a cancer called cutaneous t-cell lymphoma (CTCL). This cancer happens when T-cell lymphocytes, white blood cells whose normal function is to fight infections, turn malignant and lodge in various parts of the body.

Initially, the type of CTCL the doctors thought I had was classified by the name of mycosis fungoides (and let me assure you that the “fun” part is grossly exaggerated), but just recently the diagnosis has been changed to Sezary Syndrome, an even rarer form of lymphoma. This type of lymphoma affects the skin and since the skin is our biggest organ, it’s a head to toe experience!

How rare, you ask. The chances of coming down with Sezary in North America is about one in ten million. Compare that with the odds of winning the big prize in Lotto 649 (the Canadian mutation of Powerball) if you buy a single ticket: 1 in 13 million. Considering I was born in the 6th month of the 49th year of the last century, you might say I had just won the jackpot in cancer’s Blotto 649.

Here’s the rub. For the past five years, I have been afflicted with a condition which has caused my outer layer of skin to go beet red and then slough off, leaving clouds of white dust to settle everywhere I go. If you didn’t know what I did for a living, you would guess I was a drywaller. Added to that, I live with a constant and severe itching, which has been making daily life miserable. Every morning, I wake up feeling as if I had spent the night sleeping in a patch of poison ivy.

Over these years a number of dermatologists have hummed and hawed over me. I have had biopsies and lab tests and light therapy. I have been passed from specialist to specialist, with no one being able to definitively diagnose me.

The consensus was that I was suffering from a super bad case of psoriasis. Following these dermatologists’ orders I slathered numerous prescriptions of salves, creams and ointments all over my body. I tried assorted potions and elixirs that were suggested to me by concerned friends. I soaked in bath water infused and permeated with substances ranging from Epsom salts and baking soda to oatmeal and Tea Tree oil. I went on cleansing diets, elimination diets, and especially cheating diets (meaning my resolve often wavered). I added so many supplements to my meals that there was no more room left on my plate for any real food.

Beyond conventional medical personnel, I made appointments with naturopaths, herbalists, traditional Chinese acupuncturists, integrative medicine practitioners and holistic healers. I injected myself with some cutting edge pharmaceuticals that were supplied by drug multinationals at a cost that rivaled the gross national product of several Third World countries (luckily I was subsidised by my wife’s extended health care plan).

Not one of these treatments and interventions made a lick of difference. My physical torment continued to worsen. Every morning began a personal challenge for me to find some way to get to the end of the day.

Finally, at the urging of a close personal friend who happens to be a doctor of internal medicine in Vancouver, I was sent back for another group of biopsies and a specialized blood test called a blood flow cytometry.

Results? The good news is that I don’t have psoriasis at all. No wonder none of the treatments worked. The down side of my medical condition is that, as of this date, Sezary Syndrome, which I DO have, is incurable. And my debilitating symptoms continue.

So I ask myself now, “why me again?” I don’t want to be accused of whining or wallowing in self-pity and anyway, as rock and roller Jim Morrison of the Doors once said, “No one here gets out alive,” but haven’t I already had my fair share of this cancer business? Soon I’ll be heading back to Victoria for chemotherapy and who knows what else.

But enough, already. This is supposed to be a humour blog. Seriously, I’ve been searching for the funny part of this experience. The prognosis does not look good. No one knows what causes CTCL, and Sezary is aggressive. I can expect somewhere between two to four years left on this planet and after that all bets are off. The upside is, as a man who likes beating the odds, I’m hoping for more than just a few more opinion pieces to inflict on you, dear reader. As Monty Python says, “When you’re chewing life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle…”. I plan to keep the humour flowing! But what do I know? I guess the last laugh is on me.


Shilo Zylbergold lives on a small island somewhere in the southwest corner of British Columbia, Canada. He grows vegetables, teaches math, and is a columnist for a local paper. Send complaints to [email protected]

Shilo Zylbergold

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