We all have to go sometime. But knowing approximately when doesn’t make it
-by Reese Erlich
I’m dying. It’s not easy to write these words. But it’s true.
In September 2020, oncologists diagnosed me with Stage IV prostate cancer. That means the cancer isn’t going away. Doctors can mitigate its spread, but I’ll never be in remission. The doctors want to help me maintain a decent quality of life until I die. (I notice that doctors don’t actually say “die” or even “pass away.” They never say “croak” or “bite the dust” either.)
I followed all of the doctor’s orders. I had annual prostate checkups, which included digital exams. (Please don’t ask for details.) But most prostate cancer is slow-growing, my doctor assured me. I would die of something else long before prostate cancer, he said.
I was inclined to accept the advice because I also have Parkinson’s Disease. I also wasn’t pleased with the idea of having a prostate biopsy and possible removal, which can result in incontinence and erectile dysfunction. Turns out the cosmic joke is on me. I got both. They’re just as bad as you thought. However, when dying of cancer, you can learn to live with just about anything.
My doctor and I adopted a policy of “watchful waiting,” which means having regular checkups and testing that might not otherwise be done. We should have caught the cancer, but we didn’t.
The doctors knew my dad had died of prostate cancer in his mid-seventies, about my current age. I had two problems specific to our times. I changed from Blue Cross/Blue Shield to Kaiser. There’s an inevitable delay in transferring files and finding new doctors.
And then the second whammy. A few months after joining Kaiser, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Kaiser and most medical facilities stopped seeing patients directly. They conducted office visits through video conferencing. Hah. Try doing a digital exam on Zoom. So I lost many months when the cancer could have been detected.
In September 2020, after visiting the hospital about another matter, I got a most uncomfortable call from my doctor. Go immediately to the emergency room, he said: “Your kidneys are shutting down and we have to find out why.” Eventually, tests showed that the cancer had metastasized through my legs, arms, back, and elsewhere. It was putting pressure on the valves allowing urine out of the kidney. Had we discovered the problem much later, I was headed for dialysis or worse.
After some digging, we found a CT scan from February 2019 that had been conducted for another problem. It showed no cancer. That means the cancer developed and spread in nineteen months. That’s very fast. In general, prostate cancer develops slowly, but not in some hereditary cases.
I don’t know how long I will live. Doctors, unlike bookies, are reluctant to lay odds. I’m undergoing a new therapy as you read this. It may prolong my life by months. Then again, maybe not.
So the question for me is: When to stop writing this column?
“Foreign Correspondent” began in August 2017. I used to think I would keep at it until dementia produced an incoherent jumble of words. Some may argue I reached that stage years ago.
But now it’s the fatigue that’s driving my decision. The cancer cells suck everything out of your system. I take two-hour naps every day, and the medication does cause drowsiness. I feel a strong urge to operate heavy machinery.
I’m lucky in that my brain seems to be outlasting my body. My mom and brother-in-law died from dementia. It was sad to see their bodies still function while they couldn’t remember names of close friends. (As I type, my head nods onto the keyboard as I try to remember the famous TV anchor with whom I once worked.)
Here are just some of the advantages of dying while still coherent:
You can tell tele-marketers what you really think of them.
You can tell mainstream media editors what you really think of them.
You can binge watch everything on Netflix while eating multiple bowls of ice cream.
You can die peacefully in your sleep as did grandpa, not yelling and screaming like the passengers in his car. (Full disclosure: This an old joke.)
Messages of sympathy are trickling in. They begin, “I’m so sorry to hear… .” These I don’t need. Send jokes and anecdotes, instead. The staff at The Progressive even sent oatmeal cookies.
Well, that’s it, folks. I could have written more about my life as a political activist and journalist. But I’ll leave that to those who look through my archives stored at Stanford University, or check out my Wikipedia page.
And so I write what I believe will be my final column, confident that I have life left in these withering bones. I hope I’ve helped explain some complicated world issues you might not otherwise have understood. I hope the activism earlier in my life and my writing and speeches later have helped bring about progressive change.
Oh, the name of that CBS anchor with whom I had the honor of working is Walter Cronk……zzzzzzzz