Ten Down, Twenty to Go

Today marks the end of Richard’s second week of radiation treatment, which means he’s a third of the way through this course of radiation combined with chemotherapy. And miracle of miracles, he’s feeling good so far. Some days he naps for a few hours, and some days he has queasiness and headaches that come and go, but overall, he’s in good spirits and tolerating the rigors of cancer treatment very well.


He looks good, too, which is more important than you might think. Looking good helps him feel healthy, and he’s able to maintain a positive attitude–which also helps him look and feel good. And it affects how other people–especially his health care providers–treat him, which in turn affects his mood and his ability to stay healthy. It’s all self-reinforcing, and sometimes the results are pretty dramatic.

This morning, after Richard’s 7:30 a.m. date with the gamma ray machine, we waited for his weekly consult with his radiation oncology docs. The first time we met with Dr. Chen, the lead doc, we were surprised by his manner. He seemed brusque as he talked about how serious Richard’s brain cancer was and how grim the prognosis could be. This morning Dr. Chen scanned Richard carefully as he quizzed him about how he felt and ran down the list of radiation and chemo symptoms, beginning with exhaustion and vomiting and ending with fevers and dizziness.

Richard said no to all of the symptoms.

“Good,” said Dr. Chen, and he smiled a charming smile. “You are a healthy guy.”

“Except for the small matter of his brain,” I said, unable to contain my sick sense of humor (pun intended).

Dr. Chen surprised me by laughing. Then he said, “Yes, except for that brain tumor. But we’re going to fix you.”

I immediately had a ridiculously silly vision of mechanics with tiny wrenches and screwdrivers working away at Richard’s brain. But my mood lifted. A few minutes later, Richard and I left the cancer center arm in arm, walking briskly in the frosty morning air, anticipating breakfast and smiling at each other.

“I’m a very lucky guy,” said Richard. “Because even though I have people telling me I’m gravely ill, I feel good. I can take joy from being here with you.”

Dr. Chen’s words reminded me of this quote which adorns the portico of the old Army Hospital on the Fitzsimmons Campus where we are staying. We walked over to visit the building, an Art Deco classic opened in 1918, one snowy day last week, and I was struck by the words. Afflictions, no matter how evil in themselves, Tillotson says, are good for us, because “they discover to us our disease and tend to our care.”

In other words, the birds that Richard hallucinated back in late August were good for him, because they pointed the way to the traumatic swelling in the right temporal lobe of his brain and thus, eventually to the brain cancer. And Richard’s remarkable ability to keep a good attitude through the scary rigors of radiation and chemotherapy is helping us all “tend to his care.”

Tonight we’re home for a few days, probably our only visit until Richard has made it all the way through this course of radiation. We had initially thought we might come home must weekends, but winter has come to our the mountains with all the snow and wind and slithery roads that go with the season. Also, we’ve realized how much effort it takes to wrench ourselves from the quiet cloister where we focus on cancer treatment to return to our ordinary busy lives at home.

But today was a beautiful day, and buoyed by Dr. Chen’s pronouncement that they’re going to “fix” Richard, we packed up after breakfast and headed west after a stop to visit my parents. It was an exceptionally lovely drive, with snow laying crisp on the foothills and peaks, and bright sunshine throwing dazzling light around and drying the highway pavement.

Along the way we saw the usual gorgeous scenery blanketed in crisp whiteness (that’s the Michigan Creek drainage in South Park above) and we also completed the wild ungulate trifecta. Our challenge to ourselves on the drive between home and Denver is to see as many species of wildlife as possible. One permutation is counting native wild ungulates (hoofed mammals). Sometimes we see all four species–elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and pronghorn–which makes a quadrifecta, but three is quite respectable.

Today’s trifecta began with the nine mule deer–six does and three spikes–bedded down in the earth mounds of the construction site next to where we’re staying, and continued through the forty or so bighorn sheep we saw hanging out on a mountainside above the tiny town of Grant, just before the highway climbs up and over 10,000-plus foot elevation Kenosha Pass. 

That’s one of the rams in the group above, shot through the car window after Richard obligingly turned around in a snowy pullout and slowed down in a gap in the traffic on the two-lane so I could indulge in my habit of documenting our travels. If I was a real photographer, I would roll down the window, or even–heavens!–stop and get out of the car. But I enjoy the challenge of shooting as we go. After the bighorns, we spotted a herd of 50 or so elk off at a distance in the snowy grasslands of South Park. But no pronghorns this time. I think they’re found a spot with less snow.


So think of us tucked into our bed, at home in the quiet valley in the photo above, the place where we’re looking forward to spending many more winters once we’ve completed this unplanned residency in the cancer cloister.