I took the diagnosis of non-small cell lung cancer (Stage 4) quite well, I thought. Except for occasional bouts of hysterical self-pity and thankfully rare gestures of melodrama.
Oh, I’d resisted it, denied it, although I knew all along that I had it. I ignored the warnings of my hapless local doctors, and when I finally agreed to a checkup, along came the Great Fire that destroyed a large section of Sonoma County. The hospitals were burnt to the ground or else unreachable. I watched the fire from the top of the hill: It never reached us, but the sky was dark as night. Oh well, I thought. Can’t go anywhere, but nothing wrong with me anyway.
The near-forceful intervention of good friends was what saved me as I found myself in the city, where the fire, though unseen, could be smelled in the very halls of the hospital where they’d put me. A room all to myself.
Which is how I came to be a patient in the cancer immunology program, where the latest “miracle” drugs for the treatment of inoperable cancer were being tested—with remarkable results. They put me on Keytruda, with a mix of two other concoctions, one of them fairly toxic. The first course knocked me for a loop, flat on my back for two weeks: It was a small death, or at least a brush with the same, and yet I bounced back. In a month I was on my feet; in two I was back in my garden.
They changed my medication, which I received intravenously in five-hour triweekly infusions, to eliminate the toxic chemo—the traditional treatment before the FDA’s 2017 approval of immunological drugs—and the result was apparent within 24 hours.
Or was I being dramatic? Was this a case of confirmation bias—faith healing, if you will?
I don’t believe so. Indeed, after observing a series of otherwise inexplicable occurrences—within my own body!—I believe I know why my cancer has gone into what the doctors are marveling at as a case of “spontaneous and rapid remission.”
To begin with, you can’t even get this stuff in your veins unless you have a high expression of a particular mutation in your cancer cells. Sans these mutants, the drugs have almost no effect on the disease. I happen to have a very high expression—over 98 percent—and so I got into the program on that basis. I don’t think they’d seen many patients with such a high expression. And the higher that number, the better the patient did in every sense.
The first thing I noticed was that my hair—at 66, half grey—began to darken. At first I thought I was just engaging in wishful thinking, or that the bathroom light needed to be changed. As the process seemed to continue, unabated, I looked askance at my somewhat battered countenance in the mirror and thought, Is it possible? I finally brought up the question to my partner, who snarled, “Looks the same to me!” and quickly changed the subject. I brought it up to another friend, who looked skeptical but noncommittal. Both these people saw me fairly often, and that made the difference. Because at that very moment another mutual friend—whom I hadn’t seen in months—walked into the room, took one look at me, and said, “Hi, Justin! Gee, your hair sure has gotten a lot darker since I saw you last!”
After some assiduous research, I uncovered an academic study—a small one, admittedly—that followed a group of 65-plus patients receiving immunological anticancer treatments. The majority reported hair repigmentation, and these reports coincided with the best response rates.
OK, it’s a rare side-effect—only one or two other drugs report anything like it. But it didn’t stop there.
My doctor ordered a PET scan—which shows what you’re really made of, quite literally. Every bump and crevice is revealed: the height and thickness of every node and nodule, natural and unnatural, all of it described in a document I read with minimal understanding.
Now these drugs are no Sunday-school picnic. They’re hard on the body, harder on some than others. I was lucky; I only got the usual—nausea, lack of appetite, headache, all easily treated. After three infusions, however, I woke up one morning to a brand-new side effect: sharp pain emanating from the left side of my posterior all the way down my leg. I could walk only with great difficulty. What was going on? I called my doctor, and what he told me started me down a very strange path, the end of which I can hardly imagine.
The PET scan, as I told you, is akin to the Eye of Sauron: Nothing escapes it. When I mentioned this back-and-leg pain my doctor told me the scan had detected injury—scar tissue—in the area I was complaining about, and then I remembered! There had always been something familiar about this particular pain, from the moment I felt it that morning four months into my treatment, an old trauma from the gym. How may times had I injured my lower-left backbone and stayed injured for weeks? I vividly recall having to crawl from my desk to the bathroom on my hands and knees.
So why were these old injuries reasserting themselves—or, more meaningfully, how? My last gym visit was eight years ago; I gave it up when I moved out here to cow country, where most properties are multiacre and every day is a workout. And then came the cancer, which slightly complicated my plan to become the second Luther Burbank (whose old farm is just down the road from Rancho Raimondo).
In any case, this sudden eruption of the ancient wound lasted less than a week, at the end of which I had my next and somewhat modified effusion. I woke up the following morning with nary a twinge of pain. Getting out of bed, I gingerly applied pressure to my left leg. Nothing unpleasant occurred. Instead, I walked into the kitchen and made myself a cup of very necessary coffee.
The next day I started shaving, but before I got very far I noticed there was blood streaming down from under my right ear. I had cut myself there three days before, but the cut was superficial and had healed in a day or so. Yet there it was again, fresh as the day it appeared.
That’s when I began to get suspicious. Sure, I could’ve inadvertently reopened the cut without knowing it. That’s what I told myself, but I didn’t believe it, not really. Because other things were happening.
Not only was my hair considerably darker after five months, but other old injuries were reappearing—and being summarily repaired via some process that had taken possession of me and was now driving me toward an increasingly uncertain fate. My face is smoother, my beard lighter and by now entirely bereft of any trace of white hairs. My significant other turned to me the other day with quite an odd glance and said, “You know, you’re looking a lot different.”
“Well yes,” I answered somewhat impatiently, “after all I have cancer.”
“No, no,” came the reply. “I don’t mean that. For some reason, you’re looking better—younger.”
Impossible, I thought. It’s just a subjective impression, wishful thinking—surely it can’t be happening.
I have a scar on my right leg, an old one that was the result of an encounter with a family member who thought it was smart to throw a steak knife at me for reasons now lost in the mists of time. For a few days it began to fester and bleed—and then it began to heal itself, to close over and achieve a smoothness that hadn’t been there before. The scar was gone in a week.
By the time my old appendicitis scar started acting up I was horrified but not surprised. The anticancer “miracle drug” was working, albeit not exactly as intended. It was fighting the deadly cancer cells the only way they could be defeated—by putting me in the place I was before they ever appeared.
I was traveling back in time—or, rather, my body was. The doctors never really noticed; or if they did they dismissed the possibility out of hand, just as I had.
At first, I was frightened, but fear gave way to happiness. After all, the cancer was gone, or so the doctors told me. And then I began to ask myself a question, the answer to which I dare not imagine: Where and when would it stop?