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Monday, December 20, 2010


Cancer--probably the scariest word in the English language beginning with C.  Now that I'm living with it, I realize it brings a host of other words with it that start with C.  So, at the risk of sounding like a
Sesame Street
lesson that didn’t make it past Final Edit, I present my Comprehensive Compilation of Cancer-Centric C’s.  It's a mixture of things you'll need and things that just come with the territory. 

Chemotherapy.  Short for "chemical therapy," it's a planned attack on the tumor by using strong--and I mean serious ass-kicking powerful--chemicals.  They're toxic to even the strongest, otherwise healthy bodies and can cause nausea, diarrhea, constipation, mouth sores, anemia, fatigue, loss of appetite and hair, and a long list of other gruesome party favors.  One of the meds in my arsenal is Platinum.  While it may be a benchmark in CD sales, it's a heavy metal.  The week I have this drug, there is a nasty metallic taste in my mouth that won't go away.  Even my sweat and urine have the bitter aroma of it.

Some people with a severe case of cancer opt to quit doing "chemo" and choose death instead.  It can be that intense.  I have a highly treatable form of cancer, so this option isn't even on the table as far as I'm concerned.  But I can understand how anyone would make that choice.

Courage.  Courage isn't fearlessness.  It's feeling the fear and doing what needs to be done anyway.  I've often been told over the years I have courage.  I'm not so sure about that.  It's always been a matter of live or die.  You simply do what you have to do to keeping living.  For some of us, it's harder and more complicated than for others. 

And I've been lucky enough to experience fearlessness.  Right now, my energy is low and I wish I felt better.  But I'm not afraid.  I'll get through this and move on to what life has in store for me next.  But I'll take some courage in the meantime, anywhere I can find it.

Coping Method.  This is for real.  Maybe spirituality is already a part of your life.  If so, you know how it can help you cope with life's smaller setbacks.  Don't worry, I'm not going to shove God down your throat.  Just don't be too quick to count God out, either.  Meditate.  Pray.  Count your blessings.  Visualize.  And if none of that is your thing, lean on your friends like never before.  And if you're old enough to be reading this, you're old enough to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy coping methods, so I won't preach to you about that.

Compassion.  My definition of compassion is to have sympathy for those on a different road--even if it's a road you've never travelled or even wanted to.  Cancer is one of those diseases most people can feel a high level of compassion for its victims.  That's good.  Right now, I'm too tired to be my typical feisty self.  But, with any luck, it won't be long before I'm ornery, feisty, and--if not feeling well that day--a total bear.  Middle-aged men (make that mean of any age) can be short-tempered and downright hostile when we feel like crap.  Please remember to have compassion for me than.

Challenge.  This word has become so common in the past 20 years, I'll leave it alone here.  Everyone gets this one.  Yeah, it's a challenge to fight cancer.  I'm also "visually-challenged" and once in 1983 I took The Pepsi Challenge.

Vitamin C.  The chemo reduces your ability to fight colds, viruses, and anything else.  Last week, my white blood cell count dropped to zero.  That means no immunity at all.  The numbers have improved, but I'm making sure I get my Vitamin C so I can hedge my odds.  This winter, I hope I have enough white blood cells to rub together with Vitamin C to ward off those nasty bugs waiting to ambush me.

Check-In.  Just having someone call and ask if there is anything they can do is a source of comfort.  This is especially true in the case of someone who can't get out and drive to the store even when they're feeling fine.  It's easy to feel forgotten by the outside world--the healthy world--passing them by.  Sure, it can be uncomfortable talking to sick people.  They can sound so frail over the phone.  You tell them what's going on in your life and suddenly feel as if you're flaunting your health in their face.  I've been on both sides of this equation, so I know what I'm talking about.  Maybe the sick person has grown bitter and resentful.  If they weren't like that before the illness, you can bet that when it's all over, they won't be then, either.  My friends have called to check on me.  I've told them, without going into unnecessary details, what's been happening with me.  Then I want to know what's happening with THEM.  I've already caught myself saying, "Tell me something good.  Tell me something interesting."

If you remember to check on people in my situation, I GAURANTEE you, if they're any kind of human being, they'll love and appreciate you the rest of your life.

Creativity.  Maybe you've never been a particularly creative person.  You might be someone who says, "I can't even draw a straight line."  Really?  Wnen was the last time you tried?  Maybe you have a lot to say, a lot to get out, and writing might be the best way to do that.  Whether visual, musical, or whatever, you could end up creating art which moves people.  If nothing else, creative pursuits can sure help take your mind off things.  When my kidneys failed in 1997, I took up art after a 15 year break from it.  To my astonishment, my skill level was right where it had been--even though I had lost some of my vision.  With practice, I actually improved.  This brought me greater peace than anything else I did, and it made me feel closer to God.

Communication.  This is another word that doesn't need much explanation.  We all have our own definition, but I feel it's worth mentioning here.  Communication is going to be even more important now.  For some of us, just asking for help when we need it is the first step.

Comedy.  Humor.  Laughter.  It really is the best medicine.  If you haven't experienced this first-hand, YOU NEED TO TAKE MY WORD FOR IT.  From my personal experience, laughter and fear cannot coexist.  OK, there's nervous laughter, but even that's a great pressure valve.  There's evidence of the positive effects of laughter.  It helps strengthen core muscles, breathing, and whole bunch of other physiological benefits.  There are now exercise classes devoted to laughter.   Through all the current and previous health issues, I've maintained my sense of humor, often to the surprise of others.  It's been one of my best survival tools and I simply cannot recommend it enough.  Laugh.  Giggle.  Chuckle.  Guffaw.  It's your God-given right and now that you're trying to stay well, it's more necessary than ever.  I know people are worried about me these days.  The only time to worry about me is when I stop laughing, or making other people do so.

Conquer.  I WILL conquer cancer.  In my case, I've been lucky enough (yes, lucky) to have already survived some serious, potentially fatal health issues.  I got through it and it has given me a type of self-confidence regarding this that I just wouldn't have had otherwise.  I hope you'll continue to follow my progress and share this adventure with me, because eventually, when this is over, we will . . .

Celebrate.  I'll celebrate the good news when I've conquered this.  And I'll celebrate the smaller victories along the way, even if it's something as minor as having more energy than the day before.  Celebrate every bit of good news.  Celebrate life. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

At War With the Grapefruit

I’ve never liked grapefruit.  First of all, it’s too bitter.  Or maybe it’s sour.  I’ve seen people sprinkle sugar on grapefruit halves and eat them that way.  I have to admit that looks good, but I would need a layer of cake icing to make it work.  And I admit there’s something appealing about how a small spoon fits those wedges, making perfect bite-size chunks.

But I’ll be content to watch other people enjoy them, thank you very much.

Then there’s the name—grapefruit.  Who looked at one of them and thought of grapes?  I happen to like grapes and don’t appreciate their good reputation being tarnished by grapefruit.  Yes, grapes are fruit.  It’s like saying, “beanvegetable” to describe a vegetable that looks more like cauliflower than a bean.

Grapefruit continued to stay on my bad side when I started ordering Screwdrivers in bars.  A Screwdriver is vodka and orange juice.  According to vodka folklore, the drink was first popular with construction workers who ordered it after work and stirred it with their screwdrivers.  The addition of orange juice to the vodka makes it seem so healthy, too.  Kind of like washing down a donut with Diet Coke.

The problem there is that at times I’ve been given a Greyhound—vodka and grapefruit juice—when the bartender was out of OJ, lazy, or distracted.  At the risk of receiving a second drink watered down with orange juice or spit, I called it to their attention and told them I wanted a real Screwdriver.  If they’re out of OJ they can give me a Cape Cod—vodka with cranberry juice.  Now there’s a drink name that makes sense.  Cranberries grow in New England, where Cape Cod is.  I have no idea how the Greyhound drink got its name.  Don’t care, either.  It’ll never be more than a Screwdriver Wannabe in my book.

In 1998, when I had the kidney/pancreas transplant, they told me there was one food item I must avoid because it could render the anti-rejection drugs useless.  Grapefruit.  This would be the easiest adjustment to make to my new lifestyle.

Since then, bartenders don’t give me any attitude when I make them do a Screwdriver do-over, telling them, “I can’t have grapefruit juice.  It’s for health reasons.”  If they act skeptical, I launch into graphic descriptions of kidney/pancreas transplants and their immediate aftermath.  They rarely have the time or the stomach for much of that.

It seemed that I had successfully kept the evil grapefruit at bay.  Well, except for occasionally buying one by mistake because the grocery stores keep them next to the oranges and it’s not always easy for me to tell them apart.  But, this has happened less often than you might think.

Now the grapefruit has found its way into my life.  Actually, it’s found its way into my abdomen—in the form of cancer.  Yesterday, I met with the oncologist for the first time.  I was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks ago.  I had done some reading online about cancer treatments and their side effects, so I was well-prepared for this appointment.  One thing he told me surprised me, though.
     “You have a mass in your abdomen the size of a grapefruit.”
     It explains why my back and belly have ached the last several days.  The pain should subside a few days after starting chemotherapy next week.  Now, I’m actually looking forward to chemo—one more ironic twist to my ever-changing situation.  So, look out, grapefruit.  I’ve got some serious backup.  And we’re going to shrink you down to the size of a real, authentic grape.  And then keep shrinking you until you’re all gone.  And when I get through this, I’m going to celebrate—with a tall, cool Screwdriver, of cours.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Allow me to introduce myself.  I’m Jim Fairbanks and to call me unique is a bit of an understatement.  Ditto terms like atypical, unusual, unordinary, or odd.  I guess One of a Kind best sums it up, though I’ve known several people who were also one of a kind, but for reasons very different from mine.

Where do I begin to explain?  If you read the subtitle of this blog, you have an idea of my situation.  There are a lot of adjectives there, so let’s start with the most obvious ones first.

I’m middle-aged.  Most people (especially those who haven’t reached middle age) guess my age at around five years younger than it is.  Part of this is no doubt due to my personality, which can best be described as “smartass.” 

I live in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  This funky, picturesque city in the Ozarks is home to the University of Arkansas, where I graduated in 1986 with a BA in advertising/public relations.  About half my childhood was spent here and I’ve left and returned a few times since college.  This place has a way of tempting U of A graduates (and other former residents) to return.  It has a way of drawing eclectic, artsy, college town Bohemian types from all over.  I fall into both categories.  A guy like me isn’t as out of the ordinary as I would be in most towns this size.

It should come as no surprise to you that I’m a writer.  I’ve been a writer my entire life.  But, I was in denial most of that time, refusing to believe anyone would be interested in what I had to say or that I had enough talent.  It wasn’t until 2006 that I finally got serious about it and started writing my memoir.  That’s when I accepted that I could do this and that maybe, just maybe, people would be interested in what I wrote.  I’ll share excerpts from the book now and then.  I’m looking for a publisher and this blog is a way of putting myself out there.  I also write humor set in the Ozarks and you’ll get a sampling of that, too.

Legally blind people with a certain amount of usable vision can often “pass” for sighted.  This has led to quite a few funny situations, which I will share with you here.  How well I can see depends on several variables—contrast, time of day, how tired my eyes are, and the quality of light.   Artificial and natural light are different.  The angle and direction of light makes a difference as well as if it’s at eye level, above, or below me.  Reflected light usually works best.

The transplanted pancreas, which I received in 1998 at the same time I got a new kidney, makes insulin.  For 21 years I had to inject myself with the stuff, now I eat whatever I want and don’t take any shots.  I don’t have to think about what my blood sugar is doing.  Life as an ex-diabetic is, at varying times, miraculous and surreal.  This really was an unexpected turn in a life brimming with surprises.  Five years later, the kidney failed and I got another surprise.  Someone not related to me gave me a kidney.  It’s lasted longer and works better than the other one ever did.  Taking care of two transplanted organs is a challenge, but well worth the effort.

As you can see, my situation is unique.  There are so many aspects of my life that most people just can’t imagine experiencing.  Not long ago, I was complaining to a friend about all these things which make me different.
     “People just don’t know what to make of me, so it makes them nervous.”
     A few days later, I realized it’s up to me to explain what life is like for me.  Because all of these things make me so different from most others, I have the responsibility—and the freedom—to define myself to a greater degree than the average “normal” person.  Limited vision means having to grope around to find or identify things.  In this case, I’m groping for focus, in more ways than one.  Magnifying devices—some fairly high tech—help me get some focus.  I’m also on the lookout for medical breakthroughs that could improve my vision.  Then there’s focus in the more esoteric sense of the word.  With so many surprises and unique situations in my life, I often have to step back and take a look at the bigger picture.  By taking you through that process with me, I hope to find a deeper level of understanding—your understanding of me, and my own understanding of the world around me.