Sometime after my surgery in December of 2016– either right before Christmas Day or maybe right after– my brother Joe called and told me about a Christian faith healer with a reputation for being able to work miracles, quite literally. He was based in Arizona– Joe had been given his contact information by a friend here in L.A.. This guy was supposed to be the real deal, and was apparently quite famous and well known, as far as faith healers go.
One thing I am not is closed-minded– at least, not when it comes to God, Jesus, miracles, the supernatural, or realities that may be true but cannot be explained by science or by our current level of human knowledge, understanding, or technology. The world is more than we know.
And yet, it does take a leap of faith to put your hope and trust in a healer who says he can cure you through Jesus. Was it a fool’s hope? Maybe. One has to be a bit of a fool to embark on a new journey down a road never before traveled. Ask the researchers whose discoveries led to the immunotherapy drugs that have themselves produced miracles. As recently as the 1990’s, many of these people were labeled fools and were despised and rejected within their own academic and medical communities.
My own cancer voyage continues to be a fool’s journey, to be sure. And, throughout my odyssey, I’ve met quite a number of archetypes, whenever circumstances forced them into consciousness. And when things get desperate, when you’re at the end of your rope, sometimes the only choice you have is to walk off a cliff.
I was in a state of high anxiety, worrying about my health and the possibility that I would not be alive much longer. My apartment was very messy on that day, with lots of Christmas wrapping paper and other holiday flotsam and jetsam scattered about. The clutter only made it that much more difficult for me to concentrate. I can’t think when there’s a mess around, although for the next several months, the physical state of my apartment would more and more reflect my own physical and psychological condition.
So, I’m standing in my apartment in my underwear. Joe calls and gives me the Magician’s number. I could have waited a half-hour to organize my thoughts, sat down with a pen and paper, and tried to focus. Or, maybe I could have called him the next day. But I decided I would call the Magician right then and there. After all, the sooner the better. Maybe if he cured me fast enough, I wouldn’t have to go back to UCLA for more chemo or radiation.
“Jesus said: He who drinks from my mouth will become like me, and I will become like him, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.” — The Gospel of Thomas
The problem was that in order for the Magician to work his magic, I would have to become a Magician myself, acting as a fine tuned receiver to download and decode his message– in this case, Jesus’ spirit– and turn it into something tangible– the destruction of my cancer.
I’d been a Magician many times before in my life, as when something or someone extraordinary inspired me to write a song, play the guitar, or sing. Sometimes the motivating force was a woman, other times it was a peak experience. Like electricity, that energy needed to be discharged.
Cancer cells are Magicians. They work their evil magic by tricking our killer T-cells into thinking they aren’t threats to our body. The T-cells leave them alone. And then, like little serial killers, they go on to murder their hosts. Ruthless bastards. Someone was going to have to come up with their own kind of magic to defeat them, magic that was much more powerful.
I dialed the Magician’s number, got his voice mail, and left a message. He called me back 10 minutes later. I told him the story of my recurrent cancer, my treatment history, and I asked him what he would charge me– he said nothing, he did this for free.
“Okay,” I said. “Should I come to Arizona and meet with you there?”
“No, that’s not necessary,” he replied. “We can do this right over the phone. Right now.”
Right now? How is that possible? Doesn’t he have to put his hands on my head?
“Oh, fantastic,” I said. “That would be great.”
“I do want to ask you something, though. Are you familiar with Jesus? Do you have a relationship with him?”
“Well, I do think about him,” I said, “although, probably in a different way than you, do, though.”
“I mean, uh, I think about Jesus in one way and Yahweh in another,” I continued. “You know, kind of like as metaphors. Jesus is the ego and Yahweh is the unconscious. The Holy Spirit brings the unconscious to the ego.” A classic Jungian interpretation on my part, but that was my paradigm.
“The reason I ask is that some people are uncomfortable with the concept of Christ, and I just wanted you to know what I do.”
“Oh, of course. I’m completely comfortable,” I assured him, somewhat tentatively.
“Okay. Just wanted to make sure. Well, shall we begin?”
I’m still standing in my underwear, and the Magician proceeds to tell me that I’m being healed through the power of Jesus Christ. He’s talking, but I’m distracted. My mind is wandering, just like it does when Chalon is trying to explain something to me and I’m traveling to another world like some Indian shaman. You see, I’m thinking about dying. And about how messy my apartment is. About having to go back to UCLA. About my treatment options. And whether I should be buried or cremated. And before I know it, he’s done talking, and I’ve missed most of it.
“Oh, fuck,” I said to myself. “That was really poor judgment, calling him when I did. I may have just screwed up my chance to be cured. How engaged did I have to be? I wasn’t really listening. I was too distracted. Was it essential that I hear everything he said? Or did his incantation work independently by sympathetic magic based on his connection with Jesus? Should I ask if he could do this again at a later time?”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your generosity. Do you have a website I can go to?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t have a website. It’s just me.”
“Oh, okay. Well thank you again. God bless you.”
And thus ended my conversation with the Magician.
You see, unconsciously or otherwise, I wasn’t ready to listen to him. Did I fail at my moment of truth? No. My moment had not yet arrived. I would need to face many more archetypes before I was ready for the Magician to work his magic.
But I thought about this faith healer. People swore by his results, but he didn’t charge for his services. He didn’t accept donations or have a website. Did he travel the highways of America doing good deeds and healing people along the way in order to do Jesus’ work? Maybe he had taken a vow of poverty and is our century’s John the Baptist– or perhaps he had a paying job which was his main gig, but was a do-gooder on the side. I knew I had been disengaged during our conversation, but I still wanted to believe that he healed me, or that I was at least in the process of being healed. Did I need to be convinced that Jesus was destroying the cancer, or did I require a completely new and different psychological attitude toward Jesus in order to receive his miracle? Or, would Jesus heal me no matter what my beliefs were? Many months would go by before I was able to answer that question.
Prior to heading back to UCLA to talk to the radiation oncologist about a new treatment plan, I read quite a bit about the use of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol — the primary psychoactive cannabinioid in cannabis) as a possible cancer cure, and emailed some articles to my radiation oncologist brother-in-law Paul for his review and comment. Traditional medicine, faith healing, cannabis– the Fool explores every hill and valley.
Sometime in early January, I met with Joe and Paul at their house in Nichols Canyon to commiserate on my situation and talk about treatment options. These recurring pow-wows would be held in times of crisis or whenever a discussion was necessary. Others, usually relatives, could join in by cell phone or Skype. I mentioned immunotherapy to Paul, having recalled the New York Times article I had read the previous summer. I didn’t know it at the time, but in August of 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved Keytruda (pembrolizumab) for the treatment of patients with recurrent or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) with disease progression on or after platinum-containing chemotherapy. I fell into that category. I had been given Cisplatin the previous year, but the cancer had returned.
When I met with the radiation oncologist at UCLA, there was no talk about immunotherapy. I’m not sure why. I think it’s very important for all the oncology specialists– radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, and surgical oncologists– to be up on the latest developments in cancer treatment. The doctor wanted to radiate. He explained the possible side effects of the treatment, which included a likelihood that at least one of my vocal cords would become “paralyzed”. Why didn’t he say anything about discussing the Keytruda option with a medical oncologist? If Keytruda was successful, I could still survive and avoid all the side effects of additional radiation.
In any case, I decided that no matter what treatment I had, it would take place at City of Hope, and not at UCLA. My decision was not based on the quality of medical care I had received at the latter institution the previous year. The reason was because City of Hope was closer to where I lived– much closer. I was not going to endure those twice-daily 2 to 3 hour trips to Westwood again. Not a chance.
So, I met with the radiation oncologist at City of Hope. I could tell by his expression that he was extremely concerned about my medical situation. He didn’t say anything outright, but his demeanor spoke volumes– I could see it in his eyes. He didn’t mention immunotherapy either, which I cannot understand to this day, since it was already the hottest topic in oncology. At the very least, I was sure that it merited a discussion– or even a mention. Like the doctor at UCLA, he simply recommended that we radiate, and forwarded me along to the medical oncologist to discuss chemical options.
It was actually Paul who referred me to Dr. Erminia Massarelli. Dr. Massarelli is an associate clinical professor in the department of medical oncology and therapeutics research at City of Hope, specializing in head and neck cancers. The first time I met her, I was convinced I was in good hands. She has an exceptional bedside manner, and I felt like she genuinely cared about my welfare. Joe, Paul, and Chalon were with me for that initial consultation. I believe that was the first time that immunotherapy was ever mentioned– Paul or I brought it up, or maybe both of us.
The problem with Keytruda, from Dr. Massarelli’s point of view, was that it could have some undesirable side effects. Based on my medical history, she believed that there was a chance that my immune system would attack and destroy my colon if I were given the drug. Was it a 100% certainty? No. But she believed there was a risk, and that it was better to stick with traditional chemo for the time being. Yes, hindsight is 20/20. But as we will learn, if we would have started Keytruda at this point and skipped the radiation, my life would be very different right now.
So, Dr. Massarelli recommended 6 weekly courses of a “targeted” cancer therapy drug called Erbitux (also known as Cetuximab). Erbitux is an EGFR inhibitor which is neither chemotherapy nor immunotherapy. My basic understanding is that it is a monoclonal antibody which is supposed to bind with an antigen on the cancer cell for the purpose of stopping cell division.
It was January of 2017, and there was a wonderful new found freedom in being able to drive to City of Hope for my radiation and chemo treatments by myself without having to rely on Chalon. The drives each way were relatively quick, and there wasn’t much traffic. After my daily radiation treatments I would drive back home. I simply cannot remember what I would do for the remainder of the day (I was on a leave of absence from work at the time), but as I went into week three of my treatment regimen, I grew increasingly tired and fatigued. I don’t remember getting that nauseous following the infusions, so I must have been taking the CBD oil again. (The problem with recording the events of 2017 is that the quality and quantity of chemicals and pain killers that I took into my body on a regular basis had a serious impact on my memory.)
In late January, my folks came to L.A. to visit me, Chalon, Joe, and Paul, and, to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. We had a nice celebration at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. They have a patio near the bar where they serve drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and sliders and buffalo wings and things like that. Normally, that would have been my speed. But it was growing increasingly difficult for me to eat due to the effects of the chemo and radiation treatments, so I did not partake. There was also a concierge floor where they served all kinds of wonderful food and pastries throughout the day. Most people have to pay a premium to enjoy it, but the hotel graciously allowed me to join my folks there as a guest, on the house, due to my medical condition. That was particularly frustrating, because I could not eat most of the food. But I did have some of the tea, which was very good.
During that time, I met with a nutritionist at City of Hope. They wanted to make sure that I was getting enough quality calories. She took out a rubber chicken breast to show me the size of a proper portion of chicken. You should have seen my facial expression.
They would also weigh me once a week, to make sure that I wasn’t losing too much weight. If I got too thin, they were going to put in a G-tube, which I did not want at that point. So, I tried to eat as much as I could, but my diet consisted mostly of nutrition shakes, which I made using my Ninja blender, mixing plant-based protein powder and almond or soy milk.
I asked to meet with a psychiatrist at City of Hope. I’d been taking Zoloft for years, but wanted to switch to something else, because I didn’t think the Zoloft was working. I had been looking forward to meeting with this doctor because I assumed she had a great deal of experience dealing with cancer patients and, being familiar with what someone in my position was going through, might know me better than I did myself. That was an incorrect assumption. She had no bedside manner whatsoever, no empathy, no compassion. Of all the psychiatrists in the United States, this was the best that City of Hope could do? I convinced her to prescribe me Effexor, and asked her if she could refer me to a therapist (she only prescribed medication). She said there was a therapist at City of Hope I could talk with.
After my chemo and radiation treatments ended in February, all I could do was hope that it had killed off the cancer, and wait.
In the meantime, I decided to take a trip to the east coast to visit my folks. A few days before my departure, Chalon announced that she was leaving me– again. The first time this happened I had been genuinely understanding. This time, I was genuinely pissed– especially about her timing. In my mind, she had effectively ruined my upcoming trip.
So, I went to visit my folks, knowing that when I returned to California I’d have to deal with life without Chalon– again.
I hopped on a plane and headed east. Actually “hop” is not the right word. When I was growing up, air travel was like going to an elegant cocktail party. These days it’s more like a trip to the DMV, only without the memorable customer service experience.
It was great to see mom and dad, though. I’d missed them. I’m a very low maintenance guest, and just hanging out with them for coffee in the breakfast room or having drinks by the pool (sans alcohol, in my case) made me very happy. We went to some consignment shops (I was looking for a table lamp), watched some episodes of The People v OJ Simpson, and shopped at Costco. For me, that was heaven.
I prefer simplicity whenever possible. Chalon once asked me what happened to my last two girlfriends.
“They left me,” I said.
“Well, I think they said I led too dull a life.”
It wasn’t my original line. Cary Grant said it to Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, but it seemed appropriate. I do that quite often– spontaneously quote dialogue I’ve heard in movies if I think it pertinent to the communication.
One morning while I was at mom and dad’s, I looked in the mirror and noticed that I was breaking out all over my face. I thought this may have been a delayed reaction to the Cetuximab. If that were the case, it could be a good thing– it may have meant that it was working.
On Saint Patrick’s Day, while Chalon was back in L.A. tripping the light fantastic or whatever, I was having dinner with my cousin Rich, who is the Director of Medical Affairs for a company that develops monoclonal antibody drugs for the treatment of cancer. Throughout our conversation I expressed my enthusiasm for immunotherapy, and noted the possibility that it could be used as a “back-up” in case the Erbitux and radiation treatments I had in January and February turned out to be ineffective. Rich also noted that there were so many immunotherapy drugs in the pipeline and in clinical trials that it was a genuine reason for me to remain optimistic no matter what.
But as I spoke to him, I was paying a great deal of attention to what I was feeling, and it was this: “I won’t need immunotherapy. I won’t need Keytruda. I know that the radiation treatments and Erbitux have been effective and have eradicated the cancer.” I was confident of that and convinced that cancer wasn’t coming back.
Still, I was very melancholy at the end of my trip. I said goodbye to the folks and headed back to Los Angeles.