I attended my second Relay for Life Survivors’ Dinner this evening and my wife and I enjoyed a good meal along with several inspirational stories of people dealing with cancer.
Before last year’s dinner, my first since my cancer diagnosis in July 2009, I was told that I might be asked to give a speech about my experience with the disease. I had most of the speech prepared, but found out shortly before the dinner that I would not be giving it after all. I was a little disappointed, but upon further reflection, having a large group of mostly elderly cancer survivors listen to me talk about my nuts was probably not the best idea.
Still, I thought the speech was pretty good–entertaining, at least–and I decided to go ahead, finish it this evening, and post it on here.
And so, I give you my Relay for Life Survivors’ Dinner Speech That I Was Not Asked to Give:
Good evening, my name is Lee Smiley and, like the rest of the speakers tonight, I’m a cancer survivor. My experience, however, is a little different. It is a tale of laughter and tears, of hardship and triumph, of sickness and health.
And it all started with Legos.
Well, that’s not entirely true. The Legos came later.
When you tell a friend you have cancer, the question you most often hear is, “What kind?” For most of us, our answer is usually followed by a story, some personal anecdote about someone close to that friend who has battled the same disease. “Oh, my sister is battling breast cancer,” they might say, or “My father had prostate cancer.”
But when you tell someone you have testicular cancer, that pretty well ends the conversation. There are no follow up questions. Nobody asks you, “Oh, which side?” What you usually get is an awkward silence, maybe a smile, and a quick change of subject.
In early 2008, I started having troubles in—to put it nicely—my nether regions. What began as a mild discomfort gradually grew into serious pain, to the point where any impact stronger than a light breeze would double me over, near vomiting. It reached the point where my children would run up for me to hug them and I’d recoil in terror as though they were about to mug me.
After much “suggesting” from my wife, I did the un-male thing and went to the doctor, who diagnosed a bad case of epiditimytis, a bacterial infection of the testicular lining immortalized in the Mary Poppins song, Supercalifragilisticepiditimytis. I can tell you, it was quite atrocious, but after a round of antibiotics, I was back to normal.
Or so I thought.
A year or so later, I was back at the doctor. When asked about my symptoms, I told the physician that I was having similar pain to before, but now it was accompanied by serious fatigue. I may be a little chubby, but don’t let that fool you. I play tennis, chase my four children around, and have a somewhat physical job, so for me to be winded after ten minutes of hitting a tennis ball made me fairly sure that something was wrong.
My wife, bless her, wanted to contribute to the list of symptoms. She told him that “it feels like a Lego in there.”
“A Lego, huh?” the doctor asked as he checked for the offending toy.
“Hey, I’m a mother,” my wife told him. “I know what a Lego feels like.”
She got me to wondering if, perhaps through some unfortunate childhood swallowing accident, it could actually be a Lego in there. The theory did nothing to explain why, if it was a little plastic cube, what was supposed to be there wasn’t, but it did make me dredge my memory for something that could explain what was going on. Nothing came to mind, so I started, instead, to think of what I could build with it once it came out. A Lego fertility clinic, perhaps.
After a few tests, I was referred to a urologist in Paris, Dr. Mobley, who sent me immediately to the hopsital there for further tests. One of these was an ultrasound of the Lego, which was done by a attractive young woman who took me into a dark room and told me to take off my pants and underwear. She gave me a bath towel and told me, “Lie down on the table and use this to cover yourself.” I thought about asking her if she had anything bigger than a bath towel—a king size sheet, maybe—but she was gone before I could think of anything other than, “Okay.”
When the attractive ultrasound tech came back and began scanning for the Lego, I did everything in my power to not think about the attractive ultrasound tech scanning for the Lego. We talked, though, and to hide my unease, I tried to be funny.
“Can you see the baby?”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
I thought about asking if this counted as getting to second or third base for her, but thought that might take me too close to thinking about what she was doing. Instead, we talked about her family’s farm—what they grew, how they grew it, and how it had nothing to do with where she was touching.
With the ultrasound done, I went back to Dr. Mobley’s office and found he already had the results from the test.
“You definitely have a mass there,” he told me, and that was all it took to set my mind off again. While my wife was crying over the diagnosis, I was imagining rows of sperm, all sitting in little pews, while another sperm cell in a priest’s robe stood before them reading the Gospel. Before I could decide whether my testicular mass would be in English or, for a more exotic experience, Latin, I realized that my wife was about to come apart if I didn’t say something.
“Well,” I said. “What now?”
Dr. Mobley told me he thought the mass was a seminoma, a rare form of testicular cancer, and that he wanted to remove the Lego.
“Okay,” I said. “When?”
“How about tomorrow?” he asked, and when he didn’t smile or anything I knew he was serious. I had started vacation that day and would be off for another eight days, so I told him yeah, I could do it. We had been planning on going to see my father-in-law in Kansas that weekend, but that plan vanished with those three words from the doctor. In a matter of minutes, I had gone from complaining of a child’s toy stuck in my body to having cancer and surgery less than 24 hours away.
So, back to the hospital we went, this time to preregister for the surgery. There were more tests, to the point that I told them if they wanted to take any more blood from me they were going to have to put some back in. And I told jokes. Jokes at the registration desk. Jokes with the nurse in charge of my prep work. Jokes that were inappropriate and, I suspect, in danger of getting me hauled off to the psych ward as soon as the surgery was over.
The next day, we went back to the hospital for the surgery. Step one, once I was placed in a room, was to have a nurse come in and shave virtually my entire body. Despite having a surgery that required about six-inches of incision, this lady acted as though she was mowing her lawn. I couldn’t tell if she thought she was prepping me for surgery or sheering wool. During this process, a dozen or so people came in and out of the room for various things—bringing supplies, asking the clipper-happy nurse a question, checking that the remote for the television had batteries—and I’m sure all of them stopped outside my room to snicker about what they saw. On top of this, my wife and mother sat nearby, unsure of whether to laugh at me or cry.
Soon, they came to haul me away, but not before I assured my wife that I would see her soon, as long as I didn’t die on the operating table. Somehow, she found this less than reassuring.
As they wheeled me to the surgical suite, I made hand signals to mark which way the bed was turning, just in case there was another bed headed that way that needed to know our intentions. For some reason, the staff thought this was hilarious, as did I until they wheeled me into a room that looked like a torture chamber from a horror movie. Everything was stainless steel—the tables, the shelves, the surgical instruments, even Dr. Mobley, who had donned a suit of armor and was talking to an assistant about proper jousting techniques. Okay, I made that last part up. Sue me.
Next came the anesthes—
I woke up in another room. Despite having a large bandage covering a sewn-up hole in my abdomen, I felt pretty good. Several hours had passed, more than they expected, as I reacted strongly to the anesthesia, strongly enough that I became sick when I tried to go to the restroom. A nurse brought me some phenergan for the nausea and I was—
I woke up again a little while later. I still felt pretty good and this time, when I went to the restroom—which I had to do before they’d let me leave—I managed without being sick. I got dressed–feeling myself and thinking of the tagline from Highlander, “There can be only one”–and received permission to head home, along with a prescription for some mild pain medication. Still under the influence of the meds, I asked my wife, “What do a confused squirrel, an asylum on high alert, and I have in common?”
“I don’t know,” she answered.
“We’re all missing a nut.”
I thought it was funny. Her, not so much.
They brought a wheelchair for me, but I wasn’t ready to leave. Not yet. As I was having part of my overproductive reproductive system removed, my next-door neighbor was giving birth to her second child, and I insisted on seeing them before I went home to begin my recovery.
As I looked at the little newborn girl, I thought of all the wonders of modern medicine, how doctors can save a life, while just down the hall, they bring a new one into the world. I thought of all the amazing, everyday miracles that happen every day in hospitals and doctor’s offices all over the world. Diseases are treated and cured. Hope is given back to those who have had none. And babies are born. Babies like this one.
Then, I thought, “I should really get her some Legos.”