Cancer Journal: A Happy Birthday Despite Bad News

By Mike Celizic
|  Thursday, Aug 19, 2010  |  Updated 1:45 PM PDT
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Cancer Journal: A Happy Birthday Despite Bad News

MSNBC/Susan Houriet

Mike Celizic at a TODAYshow.com get-together.

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Editor's note: Mike Celizic is TODAYshow.com’s ace morning news reporter as well as a sports columnist for msnbc.com. He is renowned for his ability to write compelling, accurate stories at lightning speed, as well as for his trademark hat, which he never removes, even when appearing as a guest commentator on MSNBC.

Last year Mike was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma. As a dyed-in-the-wool journalist, his first instinct was: Report on it. Thus he is sharing this cancer journal with TODAYshow.com and msnbc.com readers as he turns his reporting skills to his most difficult subject: his own mortality.

I’m dying.

The lymphoma we’d thought we’d beaten into remission back in May came roaring back last month. We threw some really nasty chemo at it. The cancer ate it up and came back for more. 

And so I’m going to die, and not in four or five months. I’ve got probably a couple of halfway decent weeks left. Then the lymphoma will take over my bloodstream and kill me.

I don’t have to die that quickly. I could undergo months of brutal and debilitating chemo that will leave me wracked by pain and barely in control of what few senses I have.

The chemo itself could kill me. And even if it didn’t, I wouldn’t have a single day when I’d feel even vaguely normal. I would then have to get a bone marrow transplant — if a match could be found. There’s about a 10 percent chance that I’d survive, and a smaller chance that I’d be cured.

Taking that chance might be worth it to some, but not to me.

The object isn’t to live as long as you can, but as well as you can. I’ve lived very well; had a grand and glorious life. I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do except meet Al Roker. I’m not afraid to die. But I don’t want to die, and there’s the problem. I love life, love this glorious planet, love simple pleasures, love living.

The choice
I learned my situation Wednesday. I’ve spent a lot of the time since crying like Glenn Beck, only for real.

But there’s no other choice for me. It’s about controlling what life I have left. Enter treatment, and you surrender all control for a tiny chance of survival at a diminished capacity.

I already tried that. I’m not going to do it again.

So I’ve made the most personal decision I ever will make. It’s taken every ounce of my courage and 40 years of philosophizing and thinking and reading and traveling and learning to make. The easy choice would have been to go into chemo. For me, it would also be the wrong choice.

I’m writing this because I owe it to all the wonderful people who started reading the blog I started when I began treatment for lymphoma last year. It was called “Adventures in Cancerland.” I wrote two really swell entries, I say with no modesty at all, full of insight and humor and perspective.

Related: Adventures in Cancerland, Part 1 — The diagnosis

Related: Adventures in Cancerland, Part 2 — Lust for life

Then  I quit.

Sorry about that. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write; it was just that I was waiting for an adventure, and one never presented itself. Getting treated for lymphoma turned out to be as tedious as picking cat hairs off a cashmere coat. It was not exciting. The painful parts weren’t that painful. Nothing gruesome happened.

I left the hospital in December, spent three months in isolation at home, and was cleared to return to real life. Sometime in May, I was officially in remission.

But it didn’t last long. The cancer came back in July, and this time it’s not messing around.

My oncologist, Dr. Ariela Noy, came into my room early Wednesday here at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She’s an extraordinary doctor and person; tenacious, dedicated, talented, caring — name a quality you want in a doctor, and she’s got it.

It was my birthday, and she fidgeted as she told me the situation. We’d talked about this scenario, and she wasn’t surprised at my choice. I did promise to sleep on it, and then we had a good hug and cry. (I’m not usually given to crying, but this has opened the floodgates.)

I called my wife and told her. I promised to sleep on it, and she promised to come in today to collect me and my belongings.

Birthday contraband
I sent some emails to some close friends. One, Joe, emailed telling me to hide the nurses and be ready for an 11:30 a.m. visit. He showed up with major contraband: a huge bacon cheeseburger with wedge fries, an ice-cold Corona and cups and plates. My nurse, who should probably remain nameless, thought it was pretty funny.

I could only manage about four sips of beer, but the first one was the most perfect beer experience of my life. After six weeks without one, the hops exploded on my palate. There was barley, a perfect, cold crispness; it was the best beer I’d ever tasted.

It was the same for the burger. Juicy goodness with bacon and tomato and lettuce, salt and pepper. I only managed about five bites, but after three weeks of pudding cups, I was in heaven.

We went up to the 15th-floor terrace to sit in the sun. I smelled cigarette smoke — a good smell for me — and it was coming from a cancer patient in the farthest corner. I had given up smoking when I was first diagnosed a year ago, but there’s no point to that now, so I bummed a smoke.

For a day that started out with “You’re going to die,” this was turning out all right.

I went back to my room, Joe went back to work, my nurse grinned at her naughty boy. About an hour later, she came back in carrying a birthday cake, leading all the nurses and aides on the floor as they sang “Happy Birthday” to me.

I totally lost it. When she came back later with a bunch of birthday balloons, I was reduced to a soggy mess.

When I could talk, I told my nurse friends, “This is one of the best days of my life.”

I never thought I’d say that about the day I learned I would die, but it’s the absolute truth. The big things are great and memorable, but it’s the little, unexpected pleasures that make life so wonderful.

I’m going to miss it. Terribly.

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