Why You Never Feel Cured of Cancer

It's been nearly four years since the nice sonogram technician waved her magic wand over my left testicle and said: "Uh-oh." At least I think that's what she said. Your brain tends to blank out when you're in full-on flop-sweat panic. She immediately left the room to get her boss, and when he came back he glanced up at the image on the screen, looked me in the eye, and said very matter-of-factly: "You have to schedule surgery as soon as possible."

I went into my best aw-shucksy Andy Griffith routine, overthanking everyone for their time, and then stumbled out into the parking lot singing the "Lu, lu, lu" song from South Park all the way to my car, where I promptly sat down and cried. Then I went straight to a McDonald's drive-thru and ordered a Double Quarter Pounder With Cheese, something I had always wanted to try, but never had. Then I shed a few more tears, because why did I wait so long in my life to eat this delicious burger? Not really. I cried because I had ball cancer.

I did have the surgery to remove the testicle right away, and it turned out the tumor was malignant, so I went through about five weeks of daily prophylactic radiation on my abdomen, the cancer's most likely path on its way to my lungs. That had the dual effect of making me ravenously hungry and kind of nauseated. So after every treatment, I drove to get fast food or piled my hospital cafeteria tray high with pizza and " 'nana puddin'." Surprisingly, sitting around crying and eating Quarter Pounders is not a good diet plan. I gained 20 pounds.

For the next few months I existed in a world of anxiously waiting for test results, and I heard good words like "got it all," and "got it early." I also heard a few times that I had the "good kind," which is the granddaddy of things you want to hear. It was malignant, but it was also good because it's considered one of the most curable of cancers, and it hadn't spread yet.

After a few years of CT scans, X-rays, and blood tests, the doctors never quite used the word "cured." They tended to give happy percentages, making sure to put the word "practically" in front of the good news. No matter how they put it, feeling cured is another story. I don't feel that way now, and I doubt that I ever will. I realize I am the luckiest bastard on the planet, but I often think of it as just a lease on life, and I don't know the expiration date.

I've spent a lot of time in the intervening years wondering why I got it. Was it because I always drove with my cell phone sitting between my legs on the car seat, or could it have been those thousands upon thousands of cans of diet soda I've downed over the years? More likely it was just my turn in the bad-luck lottery.

I remember making a deal with God in those dark days—whom I had suddenly started really, really believing in—that I'd never down a diet drink again if he got me through this. As I sit here sipping a Coke Zero and writing this column, I wonder what sort of lightning bolt he's preparing to fling my way.

Speaking of which, if you're a guy reading this—or a woman who loves a guy, or a guy who loves a guy, for that matter—you really should check yourself or tell your man to check himself out every now and then. (Insert your own joke here.) Though testicular cancer usually strikes younger men, I was in my mid-40s when I got hit. Ironically, it had always been one of my greatest fears in my 20s and 30s. I went to the doctor several times during those years convinced that I had it, only to discover that I had a recurring hydrocele, which is a buildup of accumulated fluid. It's an ailment that sometimes can strike runners.

My colleague here at NEWSWEEK, Sharon Begley, wrote this week that "it's cruelly insensitive to tell anyone how fortunate they are to have a particular cancer." Well, as far as I'm concerned, she's dead wrong. It's not insensitive at all. Even though it was unbelievably scary for a while, and I had to come to terms with a lot of dramatic am-I-less-of-a-man ruminating, I think of it now as one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me.

Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't want to do it over again, but I understand now the wisdom of the great singer and songwriter Warren Zevon. In 2002, he was diagnosed with deadly mesothelioma, an inoperable form of lung cancer, but kept his sense of humor to the end. When David Letterman asked him in the fall of that year what lessons he'd learned from his ordeal, he replied: "Enjoy every sandwich."

For me, that happens to be a Double Quarter Pounder With Cheese.