Hoping there's time enough to be saved Cancer: A patient wonders if he will live long enough for a new treatment.


NEW YORK - I wanted to wait to ask my doctor about the new cancer hope until after he hung my new bag of chemotherapy on the silver IV pole. I couldn't wait that long. Hope is like that. The Cancer Life, of which I am a member, is an impatient society.

"So how many people have called you about the cure this morning?" I asked, pretending to joke about a question I desperately wanted answered.

"Oh, angiogenesis is a real thing," Dr. Bernard Kruger said. "It is very encouraging."

Like most patients, I steeled myself against bad news before asking the overwhelming question: How soon?

"Maybe four or five years away."

Can I make it that long? It is the question being asked in every ward, beneath every IV pole, as cancer people measure out their lives, one drip at a time.

The dread never goes away. On some days, you don't bump into the fear for several hours. Work helps. But then something happens - a voice, a story, a scent - and the dark, brooding weight of cancer is back with you. The smallest thing can steal your courage.

Maybe it's the baby crying. Or maybe your daughter asks you to help her with her homework, and you begin to think about next year's class. Or maybe there is a story in the newspaper. It was Carly Simon the other day. I have bawled in the dead of night watching a cable show on Gilda Radner. Katie Couric's brave smile destroys me.

I never think: Why me?

If you ask why something bad happens, you'd also have to ask why something good happens. I have lived the life I dreamed about.

Last Sunday, we opened the newspaper, and there was hope on the front page. Maybe we don't have to die. Maybe some will live long enough to be saved.

I couldn't wait to get to my doctor this week. It was all I could do not to beep him on Sunday. My wife was laughing on the phone all morning.

The older kids understood, too. My son is 13. When I was his age, I was reading "Of Mice and Men." A newspaper narrative about tumors and mice is tale enough now. I have not heard the easy laughter in our house in a while.

Optimism is kind of scary. I keep thinking about the Egyptians who starved to death in biblical times, believing there were barges of food waiting just beyond the horizon. My barge is just one of millions.

Many are more desperate. Some have no chance to even hope for this cure. Who would have thought two years ago that a person would rather have AIDS than cancer? But there is more hope for living with HIV than my colon cancer.

I started a new chemotherapy, Camptosar, nicknamed CPT 11. I have spent more time with my oncologist in the past year than with some of my friends. He has become a version of my favorite bartender. He mixes my cocktails.

His kindness under these circumstances - imagine having a job where you lose so many so quickly - is breathtaking. He has a general practice on the side just to keep from going crazy. I trust him with my life. I know people say that, but the words and trust have meaning on death row.

The new drugs have created two stories. There are people living the Cancer Life who have hope. Then there are people who figured they could make a fast buck. I do not feel so bad for the investors who paid $80 something for the stock on Monday and lost a bundle.

But there is no time for revenge. You just hope you can make it to the finish line.

"There may be three or four other genetic drugs," Kruger said. "These are hopeful times."

On my way to the office the other day, a cop wrote me a ticket for a defective tail light. He said he was happy to be writing a ticket to the Daily News columnist who wrote about Brooklyn cops and Abner Louima, the man they are accused of beating nearly to death.

I left Kruger's office last August to write that story. I disappointed the cop who wanted an argument. I left, wishing the cop a raise. Then I parked the car and waited for Kruger to hang the bag.

People with cancer and big money are calling their doctors now to pay for the cure. It doesn't exist yet. Maybe Dr. Judah Folkman's cure will save only mice.

"You have to see if you can get on the list," my wife said as I left in the morning to go see Kruger. "You can write about it."

There are too many writers with cancer. Too many singers, actors and politicians. Even too many doctors. Too many workers, period. We wait in line to be saved. It seems to me that graceful living, and dying, demands such patience.

You can't take someone else's place in the lifeboat.

Mike McAlary was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary this year for his reporting of the Abner Louima police brutality case in New York City.

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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