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The Killer Inside Me

Five years ago, I became one of the thousands of men diagnosed every year in the U.S. with HPV-related throat cancer.


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My arrival time was set for 8:45 a.m. I had been asked to come 15 minutes early in order to fill out paperwork, but when I arrived the parking lot was empty and the office was shuttered. I sat on a wooden bench and softly fumed. An hour later I was led into an exam room and 45 minutes after that I was introduced to a retired vascular surgeon. He had the appearance of a balding, Bond villain. I laid out my case with care and tender persuasion. With a smile, he told me that there was not enough substantial data to justify HBO for my predicament. I redoubled my efforts and patiently explained that two other doctors had offered to provide me with a referral. Finally, he went slack, shook his head, and relented with a mild tut.

On the first day of treatment I was given a single hospital gown and a pillow. This was all that was allowed in the chamber. It was explained that it would take about half an hour to pressurize, I would breathe pure oxygen for 90 minutes, plus another half-hour to depressurize. The experience of being in the chamber was claustrophobic. As it begins to pressurize, you hear pops and cracks in the acrylic, which awakened many a paranoid fantasy: ruptured eardrums, blown lungs, explosions, fiery death. There was a two-way intercom inside and a flat-screen TV mounted outside at the foot of the hull. The only options were daytime television, which I hadn't seen in years and only added to my distress. Caffeinated talk-show hosts and garbage game shows. Judge Judy! This I couldn't bear. I was granted permission to hook up a DVD player and decided to revisit the French New Wave. Godard, Demy, Melville. They would be my bedfellows. If my ears bled or flames consumed me, at least I would be in fine company. And so, for the next ten weeks, Monday through Friday, I began a new regimen in an effort to save my jaw.

The space held two chambers and they were always filled. The routine began as such: You arrived, slipped into your gown, and took a seat in a kind of on-deck circle. In the beginning, my cohort was a cancer survivor whose teeth had begun to crumble and fall out due to radiation. She always covered her mouth when she spoke and laughed. She was soon replaced by a prickly older woman who elicited much tittering and eye-rolling from the staff. Part of her tongue had been removed and her time there was in preparation for some future ghastly operation. Legions of wounded were admitted to these chambers daily and each of us held onto a shared longing.

After the treatment, I would have to wait four more months before I would receive another panoramic x-ray of my jaw.

It was a long four months and I spent the time moving anonymously through the city. As I began to get more interested in food, I made a ritual of going to the farmers' market in Old Oakland. At first I would walk along the sidewalk scanning the stalls. It's always flowing and peopled and committing is kind of like stepping into a hurried stream. I made a mental list (avocados, radishes, beets) and always started by the blueberry samples. They were warm and sweet and I would linger for a bit next to a flower stall where fresh lavender stood in bunches and flavored the air.

I had grown pretty isolated by this point and rarely spoke to anyone who wasn't requesting blood or urine. I felt ruined. It's difficult to think about making new friends when you know your face is about to be rearranged. Not a day passed when I did not consider something else that could be lost.

Would I ever be able have children?

What would I have after they took away my jaw? My eyesight, a full head of hair, my memories. Who can relate to this kind of thinking? Who could I talk to about what was happening to me? I could barely relate myself. It never fully hit me. It just kept dawning on me over and over again.

I walked around Lake Merritt. I took myself to the cinema and cried in the dark. I felt totally invisible. (It was nice to feel invisible.) I was an outlier in a man suit.

During this time, I also began having nightmares again. Most of what I remembered involved part of my face coming off. It would break away like a scab and what was left was scarred and misshapen. It was a warped and distant image of myself that came with a specific feeling: "This is what you look like, get used to it." I began to wake up in the early morning hours and would sometimes hear a voice crying out. I began to suspect that it was me who was screaming into the night and I downloaded an app called Sleep Talk. It's designed to record sleep talkers, snorers, bad dreamers. It would reveal some of the most primal and terrified sounds a body can make. It was a version of me. It was the sound of my fear.