Friday, February 1, 2008

Taking a break from all your worries

A friend of mine from college told me he had stage four melanoma and his doctors had given him four months to live. This was about 16 months ago. He had melanoma about 10 years ago and his doctors removed it before it spread. But after finishing law school, getting married, and having two kids, it had come back. The goal with stage four cancer was not cure, but extension of life.

A few years ago, I became more aware of the finite length of my lifetime and that I might be halfway to a third of the way through it; I think this realization must come to everyone in their thirties. I won't say that I radically changed my life at that point and started living it to the fullest. But I did question the use of my time and I suppose TV was one of those things I questioned.

So my friend's news hit me like a Mack truck, and when he called me, I took the rest of the day off and cried. It's one thing to realize you have another 40 to 60 years left on this earth, quite another to realize that at such a young age, you might have months, maybe a year to live. I couldn't imagine what he was going through. Mostly I cried for his wife and kids, because it's not the natural order of things to to have to raise two children on your own or to have a father taken away so soon. And after the tears dried, I did wonder, what I would do if I only had a year left in my life?

A few weeks after my friend shared his news, I heard commentator Leroy Sievers on NPR talking about living with cancer. He keeps a blog at called My Cancer. I would look in on Leroy's blog occasionally as a way to relate to what my friend might be going through. Leroy's ups and downs seemed to follow my friend's. While the treatment made them nauseous and tired last summer and fall, they did shrink the tumors. I had a few dinners with my friend and his family last spring and summer. He still had his hair and the treatments were keeping the cancer in check. He even went on an Alaskan cruise with his wife last summer. Things were looking up.

But the tumors have spread recently, in both Leroy and my friend. Leroy continues to unsentimentally document his thought and treatment. I get emails from my friend's wife about once a month--it was in January, just a few weeks ago, when she shared the bad news that the tumors had spread to his brain after some promising results before Christmas.

You watch the movies about people with cancer or terminal illness and the characters are either having passionate affairs (Dying Young, A Walk to Remember, Sweet November) or cramming all the things they've always wanted to do into their last days (The Bucket List). So I have always thought that someone who had been given a few months to live would not want to spend that time watching TV.

But I don't think it's as cut and dried. This last fall I visited my friend while he was undergoing chemo (one week in, two weeks out, repeat). When I walked into his room, he was watching the news or some random daytime TV. He had shaved his head because it had started to get patchy and was shirtless because the drugs were messing with his body's ability to regulate his temperature. He said it got lonely during chemo. While his family he been flying into town as much as they could, he didn't have visitors or family around all the time. His kids couldn't visit the ward he was in and his wife had to watch them and frankly, he wouldn't want them seeing him like this anyway. He couldn't read books because one of his drugs made him lose his memory and he would lose his place. I suppose in those circumstances, TV was perfect for his attention span, a non-judgmental companion that could keep him company and distract him from the impending chills and sickness that came every night.

Thinking back on that visit, I shouldn't have been surprised to read in Leroy's blog on Wednesday that even cancer patients could really use some quality television, especially when he woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't sleep. With the writer's strike, he refuses to watch American Gladiators and was totally psyched to watch the mid-season premiere of Lost last night (which I watched online last night).

So I guess this is why I'm not totally giving up on TV shows, even though I'm giving up TV. There are shows that are basically engineered as commercial delivery systems, completely addictive with little nutritional value. But there are also shows where you feel like the writers have something interesting to say, shows that make you forget your worries, get you out of your head, and totally transport you, if only for a while. And everyone needs to take a break from their life now and then, even those that have less of that life to live.

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