Cult classic writer of The Dice Man Luke Rhinehart counts down the days to death, and finds that there are plenty of advantages to dying…
In March 2015 we were diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of prostate cancer. We were told we were too old at that age to have an operation to remove the prostate but should undergo radiation and hormonal therapy. We vaguely knew what radiation therapy was but not hormonal therapy. We soon learned that it is the equivalent of having your balls cut off. Prostate cancers apparently feed on testosterone, so if you eliminate testosterone the cancers theoretically starve to death. Of course, the man’s sexual desires also starve to death.
…the oncologist, a nice cheery man who seemed to be trying to make cancer seem the most entertaining thing since Barnum and Bailey
We told the oncologist that almost all of us preferred to keep our balls, but we’d do the radiation. He assured us that the radiation would kill all the cancer in the prostate but the cancer had probably already spread elsewhere. The oncologist used the word “metastasized” but that sounded too scary so we use “spread.” The meanings are the same.
But the oncologist, a nice cheery man who seemed to be trying to make cancer seem the most entertaining thing since Barnum and Bailey, then said that if he gave me a three-month shot of hormonal therapy it would help the radiation treatment kill or slow the cancer. When he assured me that there was a good chance that we would regain our manhood a few months after the hormonal therapy wore off, we reluctantly agreed to give it a go.
We underwent the painful radiation therapy and hormonal therapy and it all ended in early October 2015. Over the next four or five months we slowly returned to normal life. Our balls were resurrected.
After another few months the oncologist had us take a Cat Scan of our abdomen and a bone scan of our pelvic bones. He assured me happily that the cancer had probably already spread and seemed disappointed when the scans showed no signs of it spreading. He assured me it was there but we just couldn’t see it yet. A year later he did two more scans and still no signs of its spreading.
Parts of me felt guilty continually disappointing my oncologist, but other mes began to feel immortal. When I’d originally been diagnosed with the virulent cancer two years earlier I’d thought if I could just get two more good years of life I’d be quite satisfied. And I’d gotten those two years.
…prostate cancer spreading to the lymph nodes and bones does ultimately kill you, unless you manage to die of something else first
Those mes who felt immortal experienced a jolt when our PSA, the measure of whether the prostate cancer is spreading, went from 0.35 to 4.65 and then soared to 88. The cancer was apparently roaring ahead some place at full gallop. We had the two scans done again and, with a sigh of relief, the oncologist was able to report that the cancer had spread to both our lymph nodes and our bones and there were even some specks in our lungs. We were going to die.
The oncologist didn’t say “You’re going to die,” but rather it was those of us who’d begun to think we were immortal who said it.
Now most of my mes are pretty even keel sort of beings and none of us were particularly distressed at this prospect. Our father died of cancer at the age of 41. For us, all the years after that age seemed an undeserved bonus. And here it was fall of 2017 and we still felt fine, scan results or no scan results.
Now prostate cancer spreading to the lymph nodes and bones does ultimately kill you, unless you manage to die of something else first. So we could say with some truthfulness that we had a fatal disease, that we were dying.
It took us only a day or two to realize that this state of dying had a lot of possible hidden benefits. In fact most of us began grinning in anticipation of taking advantage of these benefits.
For one thing, if you’re dying of ‘x’, then there’s no longer any reason to be taking preventative measures hoping to avoid dying of ‘y.’ Who cares about a few more pounds that theoretically endanger your heart when that danger will probably have no effect for more years than you’re going to live. Brownies, ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, red meat: they’re not going to kill us; we’ll already be dead! Ha!
And all the chores we’d been doing for years… can a dying man really be expected to continue to do these things? Thinking of all this had me grinning.
And if we’re dying, people have to do for us things that normally they might expect us to do. Now we’d already been milking our old age for all it was worth, but if we could now add on having a fatal disease we could probably get our wife and sons and friends to do just about anything. If we just sort of struggle to get up out of a chair then “Go get George that thing he needs” will soon be heard from all corners of the room or at least from any person seeing the poor dying George trying to get out of a chair.
And all the chores we’d been doing for years—washing dishes, emptying garbage and trash, weeding gardens, feeding the giant boiler in the basement its wood meals four times a day: can a dying man really be expected to continue to do these things? Thinking of all this had me grinning.
And spending money. All our lives we’d hated spending money on material things, part of our long battle against our happiness-killing consumer culture. Even after we became somewhat rich we hated spending money. But now we were dying. Now it wasn’t my money we were spending it was our sons’ and grandsons’! So if such-and-such of something is way overpriced and even though we want it we don’t want to pay that much, now that we’re dying, who cares!? It’s son Corby’s inheritance that will be reduced $13.76, and Pow’s and Chris’s and Tyler’s, and Kanaan’s, and all the beloved family members. And they’ll never notice!
An old man is boring, but a dying man is interesting
And then there was email: we get more email then we feel like dealing with. We get people continually recommending books for us to read. We get manuscripts sent to us that someone is begging us to critique. Now we can’t tell people ‘We’re old and tired and decrepit and just can’t get around to it.” But if we could announce that we’re dying: who can object to our saying we’re sorry, but we can’t do it?
And this made us realize what a huge gap there is between society’s image of an old man and a dying man. An old man is someone undoubtedly stuck in all sorts of uninteresting ruts. And usually struggling to get out of low chairs and couches and how pathetic.
But a dying man! There was drama. An old man is boring, but a dying man is interesting. How is the dying man taking it? How is his family taking it? When will he finally kick the bucket?
Yes, being a dying man was clearly a major step up from our pathetic level of being an old man. It has huge advantages.
We plan to use every one of them.