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The Cold Truth of a Brain-Cancer Diagnosis

MEN'S HEALTH MONTH | First Person

June 29, 1998|RICHARD PITTMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Richard Pittman, who lives in Huntington Beach, has survived for three years with a grade III astrocytoma tumor as well as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy

It's like being sucker-punched--I didn't see it coming. I'm knocked off my feet, out of breath. I grope for the ropes, struggling to stay focused. Far off, bells are ringing with a garbled sound, as if my head is in a bubble. Now it's quiet. Though there is silence in the room, I hear in my mind's ear that famous Apollo 13 voice crackling over a radio with the understatement of the century: "Houston, we have a problem."

I am staring at pictures of my head taken the night before. As art, I'd title it "Apple Slices," by Andy Warhol. For there, in front of me in stark black and white, is row after row of what looks like successive slices of an apple. But I know what they really are: magnetic resonance images of my brain. Automatically, I start scanning the images from the top. Left, right, left, right, my eyes swing across the rows in familiar silent reading fashion, dropping down and left to the next line at the end of each row.

A few rows down, two buds appear on the images, which I take to be my eyes, confirming the orientation of the slices. Now, halfway down through the ranks, a white spot appears on the left side of the apple. I watched it double in size, then redouble into the shape of a ragged blotch. I continue scanning. The blotch grows and advances relentlessly in each succeeding frame. Like time-lapse photography, I see it push through the gray mass that is my brain, invading and distorting the ventricles. Left, right, left, right, scanning is now too slow. I skip down to the next row and then the next, accelerating time and the inevitable. A slow rot is consuming this apple.

Down, down, then faster than it appeared, the white blotch begins withdrawing. Without thinking, my eyes are now scanning the rows right to left, right to left, like some Muslim cleric, until they have silently chased the blotch back into the unseen hole it crawled out of.

I hear my wife, Diane, sigh. The neurologist is just staring at the film. Somewhere a central heating blower comes to life. We are all sitting motionless, caught between horror, wonder, and disbelief. What is this? How do I get rid of it?

The bubble pops and time resumes its usual pace. ". . . are successive computer-generated slices of your brain. . . . There seems to be a large growth here, but I'm not familiar with tumors like this," intones the neurologist, struggling to remain calm.

"Yes, yes, I can see that," I say. "But now what?"

*

A diagnosis of cancer is a cold shock. A diagnosis of brain cancer is even more devastating because it hits you at the essence of who you are. From the moment you hear the news, you begin to doubt your abilities and perceptions. You know there is no appendage to be lopped off, no organ to be cut out to limit the disease's spread. A diagnosis of brain cancer can explain prior unusual behavior and cast doubt on who you can still be in the future. It is a special kind of timeless hell.

All boys wonder what they are going to do when they grow up. We start out young hoping for rodeos and airplane races, and graduate to presidential campaigns and Olympic finals. Along the way we learn that nothing is guaranteed and that success is hard work, endurance and little bit of good luck. So now I know. My big race in life has just started, not with the crack of a starter's pistol and the roar of the crowd, but with a sigh and the soft hum of central heating. I have seemingly lost a Great Cosmic Lottery. My challenge now is to spend the rest of my life fighting a brain tumor.

Boys also wonder aloud, lying back in our secret hideaways, what the worst thing is that can happen to them. Youthful imagination runs rampant. Kidnapped by aliens? Captured and tortured in war? Marooned on a desert island? The reality of cancer is actually the worst of all these things and far beyond my boyhood conceptions.

As maturing adults, we begin to confidently think of ourselves as almost indestructible, having conquered just a few of life's trials. Our nightmares are more about suffering petty social humiliations. Cancer is that, too.

Only after we grow up and have children of our own do we realize that the worst thing that can happen to us pales before what we can imagine happening to them and being powerless to prevent it. Because it's me with the tumor, and not them or Diane, I am relieved. I will learn how to fight this tumor and survive. They will grow up and live.

What will change? Fun family rituals will take on a new, weighty significance. The girls' simple bedtime pleas--"Daddy, tell us a story about when you were our age" and "What was it like to live in India?"--now beg for a lesson that I might not be around to teach. Into these impromptu vignettes, once intended only to entertain and relax before lights out, I'll now weave parables about the values that are keeping me growing, and about having fun. I'll start writing stories about adventures and work in Africa, India, Alaska, and the enormity of what I'm living with now.

*

Diane and I walk briskly out into the parking lot, heading for a second opinion. Naively hopeful, we are already engaged in the battle, plotting strategies and discussing whom next to call. The action feels good, purposeful. Only after we're home for the night, exhausted, do the tears catch up.

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