It was five years ago today that, coming out of a haze of anesthesia and propped up in a chair in front of an ENT surgeon that I had met only a week earlier, I listened to him say, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you have cancer.”

I paused momentarily and then, without blinking, answered back in characteristic fashion, “Okay, can I go home now?”

I didn’t know then that he had already discussed the diagnosis with my family, had called my primary physician to make sure referrals were immediately processed and faxed, called my insurance company directly on my wife’s cell phone since the the recovery area’s phones weren’t working, and also set up an early appointment the very next morning with an oncologist at a nearby hospital that he felt had the most experience with the type of cancer I was facing .

It was erev Rosh Hashanah – the beginning of the first day of the Jewish new year.

The next morning, having processed all the images of cancer that I had buried following my mother’s bout with the disease and the loss of a childhood friend to the same, sat with a slight-of-build oncologist, medical students standing behind him, and my wife sitting by my side, who said to me very directly with hands folded in front of him, “We know what you have and this is what we’re going to do to treat it.”

And in a similar direct response, I answered, “When do we start?”

Jason Shinder, a poet and author whom I had a brief encounter with back in the 1970’s, had just recently died of cancer in 2008. In an obituary following his death, he was quoted:

“Cancer is a tremendous opportunity to have your face pressed right up against the glass of your mortality.”

I think that is a mighty appropriate assessment.

But why the five year mark? According to the physicians experienced as attendants to this diagnosis, if you haven’t had a recurrence of the disease in five years, the odds of it returning are about the same as the general population. In other words, I’m just an average guy with an adventurous past.

But there are several landmarks yet to get thru. And I’m staring at them thru this foggy window glass…

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Julie Duell