Feeling the strength of my body is reassuring. I am weak by any measure and the shape of my body has changed tremendously. I was fit and muscular when I walked into the doctor’s office on December 3rd. My physical exam went well,the doctor said, before he invited me back into his office. I had this grin on my face. I thought as we walked back to the office that there was a chance I didn’t have cancer. The odds were against me. Earlier in the day another doctor had told me I had an 80/20 chance of having cancer. There was just something about the way he said it that made it seem so possible. I sat down in his office. Several doctors and students gathered around him behind his desk. The room was uncomfortably quite all of a sudden. I watched him shuffle through some paperwork and scroll through some pages on his computer. It was only a minute or two but it dragged on painfully. I watched and waited. Not a single sound was made. Then, in an instant everything would change. He looked up at me without any expression and simply stated, without emotion, “You have leukemia.” I heard each word as simply as it was stated and nodded in agreement. Yes, my body appeared healthy, but it was also dying on the inside. He took a minute or two to explain to me what type of cancer I had, what cancer was and that I needed to begin treatment yesterday. This is all explained to you like an accountant would tell you how much you owe on taxes for the previous year. It’s emotionless. You are being told that you have a potentially fatal illness as if you were being asked if you wanted a receipt. I reacted calmly and with an once of relief. I finally knew what was wrong with me. Then, to my complete surprise they say, “although we aren’t certain that the leukemia is what is causing your pain.” I laughed slightly. How could they possibly say that. After all this, still no one could explain the pain in my head. 60 days of pain, almost continuous, and not a single medical professional could tell me why. Moments later we are getting down to it. The doctor scribbles down two numbers. Its 4:30 they tell me. You need to get to a sperm bank immediately. The chemotherapy will make you infertile and if you have any desire to have children, you need to call these numbers and bank. I had known, for nearly 4 minutes that I had cancer. It hadn’t even begin to phase me and now I would be infertile. I picked up the paper, still unsure of everything that was going on and began to beg a woman with a thick accent on the other line for an immediate appointment. I did this while five people sat quietly around me. No one took notes, but they all watched me intensely. I had to ask over an over to be seen today. I had to explain that I had cancer and that I had to make a deposit tonight, within the next 15 minutes, or I would never be able to have children. She finally agreed and I began the walk to the office a few blocks away. My instructions were to return immediately after to determine if I would be admitted to the hospital that evening. I had to call my girlfriend. I should have waited. My mind was overwhelmed. I had known for almost a week that I had cancer but I had downplayed it to her every single day. I regret that now. I just wanted to protect her from it. In a way, her not believing meant that I was cancer free. I liked that feeling, that slim chance of hope that it might be something else. The phone rang and she answered. I explained, rather plainly, I had cancer. My chances of survival were good and that everything would be okay. As I told her, it became real. My voice began to break up as I made it block by block towards the bank. I was having trouble holding it together as I said the words to her, trying to reassure her there wasn’t anything to worry about. I was losing it, I told her I’d call her back, I couldn’t bear showing her how upset I was, I needed her to believe what I had said, knowing that I myself was completely unsure of what to expect. I had only known I had cancer for 15 minutes. I knew nothing. I arrived at the bank. It was a brownstone in Kip’s Bay. Ground floor, very typical doctor’s office. The woman with the accent was at the front desk. I confirmed who I was and she lead me upstairs to a small room. It was painted red with a large flat screen TV. Much to large for the room. There was a large stack of pornography all over the room. Fetish magazines, DVDs, and homemade montages apparently left by previous depositors. There was a two piece lounge chair that filled the room with a roll of medical paper that was poorly draped over it. It was a complete afterthought. It was disgusting. I scanned the room slowly and cautiously. There were large bottles of Purell next to the TV with tissue dispensers. The waste basket was full of dirty tissues. It was nearly 5 PM, it must have been a busy day. As I stood in this dark red room, I could hear the secretary typing on her computer outside. This room was made of paper. All sounds from within would be heard outside and vice a versa. I was upset. I stood in this room with a small clear cup, piles of porn and typing in the background. It had been 22 minutes since I was told I had cancer. I was expected to make a deposit in this cup. I was expected to guarantee my fertility now, in my mind set, in this sad and disgusting room. I paused. I waited and then I began. What proceeded was the saddest thing that has ever happened to me. I left the room, head as low as it could hang. Heart still racing slightly. Embarrassed. Ashamed. I proceeded down the stairs as instructed, past the secretary and into a window where I needed to ring a bell. I pressed it firmly and a woman shouted she would be with me. At this point everyone around knew I was done and I could feel judgement coat me like wet snow. I waited for the woman to take my deposit. Confirm my name, my date of birth. She lifted up the cup to examine it. “Was that enough?” I asked. She nodded. I walked back into the next room to meet with the woman with the accent. She handed me almost twenty pages of paperwork. I began to fill them out one at a time. The eighth page had a single question that drove my new situation directly inside me. What would be done with my sperm in the event of my death. Would it be entrusted to a single person or destroyed. I decided that upon my death, my sperm would be destroyed. Death, became a viable option in my future. Death became real. I proceeded to finish the paperwork.
I walked back to the doctor’s office. I had cancer, I had frozen my sperm for 6 months and now I waited to see if I would be able to go home one last time, or if I would be admitted directly to the hospital. I waited and waited in the lobby. The most depressing music playing out of the shitty speakers above me. One song after another about loss and pain and suffering. I listened and I waited. When they finally called me, I was exhausted. I listened to the doctor tell me that tomorrow, at 11 AM I would return to NYU, we would do a bone marrow biopsy and then, immediately after, I would go to Lennox Hill to be admitted. There was relief in this. I wanted to go home more than anything. I wanted to be with my girlfriend, my cats and my bed, one last time before I began this journey. As I sat in the waiting room absorbing everything, I made a few calls. I told my close friends that I had cancer and that I was going to a bar to have a beer and some whiskey. I wanted to say goodbye to them and celebrate my birthday. We met, we laughed and we drank. I wish I could have stayed out later but I needed to go home. I needed to be grounded, to hug Jackie, to be normal. I had leukemia now. I would be in the hospital for a month. Nothing was certain. We embraced and tried to be normal. We slept. In the morning I got up early. I was restless, nervous and scared. I said goodbye to Jackie and kissed her on her head. I found each cat and pet them on their head. Giving them a little snuggle. I’d miss them terribly. I glanced around me apartment. I grabbed my keys and locked the door. I put music on and walked towards the subway. I tried to be conscious of everything. I wanted to remember my neighborhood. My eyes welled up. I fought back the tears, the sadness. I made my way block by block, fighting the tears. I hadn’t cried in nearly 16 years and I wasn’t going to now. Not on the street. Not like this. I walked on and sucked it up. I boarded the train.
I walked up to the NYU building. I entered the building. I met with the doctors and they proceeded to take me to an exam room. I had to pull my pants down and lay on my side. They gave me a shot of lidocaine deep into my pelvis bone. I felt it. I felt the needle penetrate my skin, slide through my flesh and hit my bone. I felt every ounce of it. Then came the needle. I felt the doctor grip my body for leverage and slowly press this needle deep into my body. It hit the bone, and as he pressed and rocked, it broke through. The pain was unbearable. I felt the needle break my bone and pass into my marrow. I waited and squeezed my fists. I bit down as hard as a could. The nurse put her hands on my back and told me just a few more minutes. I clenched and waited. I tried to confront the pain in my mind but it was way to intense. Then, as fast as it began it was over. I pulled up my pants and headed back to the waiting room.
I was now headed to Lennox Hill hospital. It was a long walk but I wasn’t in a hurry. I made my way north up Lex and enjoyed the city. It was a beautiful day, unseasonable warm. I enjoyed every step. Then there I was, Lennox Hill. I entered into the ER and proceeded to wait nearly 7 hours to be admitted. No one knew who I was or why I was there. I explained to dozens of nurses and doctors that I had leukemia that I was told to come here to get treatment. That everything was taken care of already. They should have been expecting me. They weren’t. After being admitted that evening, I would spend the next four days in a hospital bed with fevers. Each day a different group of doctors would come in and give me a bullshit story about when my treatment would start. The days passed, more bullshit, no treatment. Fever after fever after fever. I waited and I grew ill. By that Friday I had developed severe pneumonia. I was supposed to be transferred to Mt. Sinai but with the help of friends and family, we were able to get me transferred to Sloan Kettering. This would save my life. I arrived at Sloan late that evening into their urgent care. A woman came into my room and said, “Michael, we have been expecting you.” I was overwhelmed. So much time had passed already. I was sick, more sick every minute and yet here I was finally in the care of someone that was ready to help me. They began tests immediately. They moved swiftly and efficiently. They drew blood, inserted IVs, punctured my arteries. They connected me to an oxygen mask and ran blood tests immediately. They looked at my face quietly, inspecting its symmetry. They asked questions and they inspected me from head to toe. It was decided that my illness was winning and that I needed to be sent to the ICU. I was given 24 hours to live and my mother was told to call the appropriate people just in case I passed. I fell into the grasp of my illness and began the first fight for my life. My family was flown in from New Mexico, some friends gathered outside the room. They looked at me like an exhibit at a museum. Waving and blowing kisses. I did my best to gesture back. I don’t remember everything from my first trip in the ICU but I remember fighting with all my might to stay alive. Days would pass and I would slowly get better. I would eventually be released to general population. M12, room 1222. Everyone thought that was a sign of hope. In my mind, as I approached the room, I knew it was the opposite. If I stayed in this room I would die. It was a sad old room and it crushed every ounce of my spirit. I stayed there, and tried to get better. By the fourth or fifth day I was back in the ICU in worse shape than when I had arrived the week before. I had lost track of time. I just floated in this tiny universe I now lived in. I was critical again. I fought to stay alive. After an amount of time, perhaps a week, I was released, once again, to general population. M17, a surgical floor. It was newer and I felt safer. I could survive here. I have a view of Roosevelt Island, the 59th street bridge and Long Island City. Its the kind of view you dream of having, just under extremely different circumstances. I have been out of critical care since Christmas. It has taken 25 days to get to this point. I couldn’t be happier to be alive and finally getting the treatment that I hoped to receive nearly a month ago. I have leukemia. It is aggressive and it will not wait for anything. If another week had passed, it is not clear that I would be sitting here writing this message with a clear mind and full of hope. My only goal now, is to not get sick. Don’t get sick, don’t die. It’s time to fight cancer. I want to be a survivor.