This Monday, I finished my cancer treatments at Kaiser Sunset here in Los Angeles. Using social media, Sharon and I have been keeping our friends posted on my progress over the seven weeks of treatment, which entailed daily Monday through Friday doses of radiation and weekly chemotherapy doses on Mondays. Below, I've copied some of these Facebook updates.
Prospects for my recovery are strong. The doctor who examined me after my last radiation treatment Monday said, caught and treated this early, they never see my kind of tonsil cancer return. "Never," he said.
Prospects for my recovery are strong. The doctor who examined me after my last radiation treatment Monday said, when caught and treated early as mine was, they never see my kind of tonsil cancer return. "Never," he said. Really! I'll have a PET scan in a couple of months and then regular follow-up exams over the next five years to make sure that's true. You understand that Sharon and I hope and pray it is. It's more than a sobering experience.
This all started at USC Dental School, where I was having extensive work done to get implants for some missing teeth. A sharp-eyed hygienist—and not the first to work on me—spotted something odd on my tonsils. She insisted on calling over a doctor, who agreed that something didn't look right. The doctor urged me to get a referral, which I did, at Kaiser where I have my Medicare-paid treatment.
In short order, I had a visual exam, which led to CAT and PET scans, which put Sharon and me in a room with what they call their tumor board—8 or 10 doctors with various specialties, who by turns scanned through the test results on the computer, felt my neck, pushed their fingers down my throat, and asked a battery of questions. After that, the doctor assigned to my case relayed the board's diagnosis, laid out a treatment plan, and explained in detail what was going on with my cancer and what I might expect.
And what I could expect, at worst case, sounded pretty dire: nausea, diarrhea, throat sores so severe I'd need a feeding tube, disabling fatigue. Jeez, it promised to be a rough ride.
But actually, I tolerated the treatments pretty well: No problem swallowing, no great debilitation. I did lose my sense of taste, so eating has been no fun. Everything tastes like different consistencies of cardboard. So, I've lost 35 pounds, down to 230—which is the long dreamed of target weight I never thought I'd reach.
Until my sense of taste returns, or mostly so, in the next year, I'm going to have to work at eating. We plan to resume our five-mile walks in our hilly Mt. Washington neighborhood three or four times a week and get back to the gym as soon as we can to build myself back up from my current wizened state.
Let me stop here to thank every person at Kaiser who assisted me in on this sometimes worrisome and uncomfortable journey, from the doctors handling my case, to the nurses at the chemo lab, to the nurses and technicians at the radiation lab, and to the receptionists. Right down the line, they were kind, supportive, and professional. That's what Medicare as administered at Kaiser brought me.
As I thanked the last crew who had just administered my last radiation treatment, I teared up—and I'm tearing up now. As I do, I had been putting on a brave face, soldiering through, but the emotions would catch up to me now and then. (At Columbia, when I pledged a fraternity as a kid, I was given the nickname of "Misty," I guess because I would cry at movies. A couple years later in Vietnam, I got the nickname "Hardcore," which comes with a funny story, but I still tear up at odd moments—always more Misty than Hardcore.)
Because of our Facebook updates, Sharon and I have received a ton of heartwarming support—all very much appreciated. With the treatment, we dropped out of a lot of regular social justice activities, as I wasn't supposed to be around too many people with my possibly compromised immune system—and, really, we just needed a break. So social media was really good for us during this sometimes trying time.
Beyond measure, my deepest gratitude goes to Sharon—my rock, my guide, my love—whose steadfast support has made all the difference in the world. She kept driving me to treatment dates, pushing food in front of me she knew I needed and didn't want, joining me in prayer and reflection, just keeping after me to follow my home care instructions. Without her, this journey would have been much more of an ordeal.
You may have noticed that I've peppered this report with the word "Medicare." Coming off Tuesday night's debate where "oh, we can't go there" also-ran centrist Democratic presidential candidates tried to lambast Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for their bold support of Medicare-For-All, I think I can share just how good Medicare has been to me in this journey—and how much better it could be if Bernie's plan got added to expand it to include vision, hearing and dental care and reduced copays.
The self-satisfied naysaying talking heads at CNN and MSNBC are ever quick to point to polls showing that many Americans just love their employer-paid healthcare plan, some 160 million is the number they like to trumpet.
For much of my work life, 35 years of it anyway, I got Kaiser coverage through my employers.
For a couple years in the mid-80s when I stepped aside from a corporate job to run a halfway house, I lost that coverage, of course, but knew or thought I knew that I could get medical help at the VA, thanks to wounds I suffered fighting that long-ago, misbegotten war in Vietnam. Same story when I retired a couple years short of 65 and actually did get surprisingly good VA care for a couple years before I could apply for Medicare.
Of course, people who have employer-paid coverage that works for them don't want to change, no matter how much is getting deducted from their paychecks. People instinctively don't want to change.
But let's dig a little into those oft-trumpeted stats. Of course, people who have employer-paid coverage that works for them don't want to change, no matter how much is getting deducted from their paychecks. People instinctively don't want to change. Change is uncertain, scary, requires work.
So we float along, not thinking what will happen should we lose that job, as I did when the branch of my company shut down and moved part of its operations to Canada, forcing me to take a new, modestly paying job quickly, perhaps rather than smartly, to get much-needed coverage for my family.
And, as people without many options do, we can blind ourselves to family and friends who aren't as lucky as we are, who work as contractors, who've had to make do in the gig economy, who are just plain out of work—all of them out of luck, delaying doctor visits until the wheels are falling off and their health is in deep jeopardy. And dying early.
But the blindness of already covered Americans doesn't stop with their less fortunate neighbors. Even with coverage, copays can mount with serious illnesses—sometimes driving costs beyond their insurance coverage limits. Every year, an estimated 550,000 families fall into bankruptcy because of healthcare costs.
And, of course, the Republicans currently so much in control in Washington are doing their level best to gut even more of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, denying pre-existing conditions and throwing even more people out in the cold: "About 44 million people in this country have no health insurance, and another 38 million have inadequate health insurance."
In my case, what if this cancer issue had arisen in one of those gaps in my employer-paid coverage? I spent most of my 20s uncovered, bouncing around the country as I worked Vietnam out of my system, comforted only by the guess that I could show up at the nearest VA hospital—and I know two of my younger brothers who have passed away spent large parts of their lives uncovered.
Maybe, when I got the request to have a doctor look at my tonsils, maybe I would have passed. I felt no pain, there was little or no swelling. Sharon thought my voice had softened, but I hadn't acted on that.
Maybe I would have waited a year or two, blown it off to save a few precious dollars, waited until the disease had spread, an undeniable irritation in my throat appearing and growing, the cancer becoming untreatable. No doubt, I would not be tapping out this jaunty prose.
If only Democrats would get behind the bold Sanders-Warren plans to expand Medicare—a program that works wonderfully well for seniors like me. Explain it to voters. Inform them, rather than paint the devil on the wall. Knock down the corporate distortions. Stop with the craven Republican talking points.
Bernie's plan to reduce the eligibility floor by 10 years each year over the next four years, allowing people to keep the same doctors and hospitals they profess to love as they make the switch, is a winning strategy if only Democrats would get behind it.
But the Corporate Centrist Democrats and their blow-dried cable news talking heads and roundtable guests won't hear of it. Why? Because, one way or another, they're on the take—their campaign coffers and advertising budgets and fat paychecks overflowing with the filthiest lucre from Big Pharma, the Healthcare Industrial Complex, Big Energy, the Military-Industrial Complex—all the "Bigs" that feed the one-percenters among us, sucking the life blood from workaday Americans like you and me.
And if they win, if they manage to make one of these little-bit-of this, little-bit-of-that center-right candidates like Joe "No Fundamental Change" Biden at the top of the ticket, we'll have Hillary 2.0—a dispiriting campaign that will drive today's progressive juggernaut back into the wilderness.
Trump's racist army is already on the march, their torches lighting the night sky, their manic voices bellowing hate. Can you imagine what would happen if Trump and his sycophants in Congress get another four years?
Let's not go there.
Here we are on Venice Beach celebrating my completion of radiation treatment 23 (out of 35).