Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ramblings from the Cancer Desk

By Karl Bremer

The words still stare back at me from the yellow legal pad on my desk: pancreatic cancer. I scrawled them out as I was talking to my personal physician about the results of a CT scan earlier that day, December 1. You kind of know something is up when you go from a stomach scan to an ultrasound to a CT scan within the course of three days. Still, nothing ever quite prepares you for the actual diagnosis of cancer.

This is the second visit this pox has made on our household. My wife, Chris, took the first call six years ago and beat it.  But there are no family memberships in this club, so despite the seemingly long and cruel odds of it striking twice, it’s my turn now.

There’s a creature in my body

There’s a creature in my blood

Don’t know how long he’s been there

Or why he’s after us.

--Alejandro Escovedo, “Golden Bear”

Once you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, it’s like looking at life through a new camera lens. Some things come sharply into focus that were barely visible before, while others just as quickly dissolve into a blur in the background.

What mattered yesterday may mean little today and even less tomorrow. The daily sunrise gains relevance in the grand scheme of things as opposed to the small-minded political candidates flaming out like so many pieces of space junk re-entering the atmosphere. You begin to have a personal relationship with Orion every time he appears overhead in the night sky. A brand new Terrapin Station crescent moon melts away any remaining doubts about whether this is all worth it.

To be sure, you’ll get countless pieces of advice—all of it well-intentioned—about how to beat this creature. When it comes right down to it, though, you have to pick your own weapons of mass destruction and hope for the best.  For my severe condition—Stage 4 pancreatic cancer—nothing short of heavy guns will do. That means three different chemo drugs pumped into me over a three-day period every other week, and a battery of pills in between to counter the cancer pain and side effects of the chemo poison.

To try to bring some equilibrium to this cyborg-like life of getting hammered by cancer from one side and enough chemo drugs and pharmaceuticals to choke a horse from the other, I’ve added weekly acupuncture to the mix. I’m a firm believer in it now for both pain relief and just evening the keel of a listing ship. I don’t have to understand how it works any more than I have to understand how this other Western medicine stuff works. It just does.

A variety of herbal medications are in the bullet box as well—Chaga mushroom tea from Siberia, Humboldt County’s finest, and ginger is my new best friend.

Music is a healing salve on many levels, like the touch of a dog or cat.

The greatest cure of all, however, comes from the family and friends who walk this sometimes dark journey with you. That healing power is at least equal to the healing powers of modern medicine. I can’t imagine walking it alone, as some must.

One of these days, I hope to be able to scrawl “in remission” on that yellow legal pad. Meanwhile, I don’t plan to disappear. There are boondoggle bridges to monkeywrench and fraudsters to lock up. In between the sunrise and Orion, don’t count me out yet.


  1. Oh how my heart literally aches for you. Hold on, the world needs you.

  2. What a beautiful and touching piece, Karl. For those of us who want so desperately to ease your burden in any way that we can, it helps immensely to bring us into your wold so we can at least try to understand what you are feeling. Thanks for that... and love, love, love to you. I will view the sunrise a little differently tomorrow.

  3. Beautiful words. Ugly truth. I treasure your friendship and am offering relief any way I can. You are definitely one of the good guys in the dirty battle.

  4. Words from your heart offer me the chance to share your experience and perhaps even be blessed enough to see life from the lens you've been gifted. Thanks for sharing. I feel like I've blasted from the lake bottom for a gasp of air.

  5. Well said from a hard place to be. Glad you're strong and keep posting great music on FB. Music has amazing power.

  6. Well the damn disease certainly has not affected your clarity of thought! So glad to be able to walk the dark journey with you. Onward!

  7. Speaking of music, I see Etta James died this morning. Leukemia. She was 73.

  8. I have read almost everything you have written since 1973. This might be the best. As others have shared, the world is a better place with you stirring the pot and raking the muck. Love ya my friend. Sober in St. Paul

  9. Hi Karl,

    Very well spoken and touching my friend. Thank you for sharing that. You are in my thoughts. See you further on up the road.


  10. After 40 some years your friendship is more precious than ever!!

  11. I second the sentiment of your other friends. Thank you for posting this update, and your words, which transcend this transient time. My thoughts are with you and I'm hoping for the "in remission" to come your way.

  12. Like my dad liked to say about a good piece of writing, "Well put!" Like the logger said 'bout the lager, "Many t'anks!" I recall a headline that once read, "What a long, strange trip it's been..." I have and will always appreciate your friendship. TedF

  13. Karl, Thanks for the update. I've been thinking about you, and wondering how it is going with your struggle with cancer.

    Ever since I've known you, I have loved reading what you write. You have such a wonderful sense of humor.

  14. Sending love from CA Karl. Thanks for sharing with us

  15. Nice to hear your words on it. We're all pullin for ya. Charlie in hopkins

  16. I'll keep a fresh legal pad and a reporters notebook waiting for you.

    Scott in Oakland

  17. Hey, Karl. I'm another Twin-citian with the Dreaded Disease as well (Bladder cancer/TCC, Stage 4, first diagnosed mid-2010). A friend sent me the link to your blog. I'm in chemo now and facing some of the similar sh*t, especially dealing with the nausea. Strength to you, and hang in there. We're not alone.

    p.s. my own cancer blog is at:

  18. To my favorite Statewatch editor,
    Just heard about your illness. Thoughts and prayers to you tonight. Thanks for all your work. Hope to see you at the Valley Bookstore. And yes, as a former resident of both Arcata and Eureka, I can attest to what Humboldt County has to offer. Glad you have some.
    Dan B. MPIRG '82
    St. Paul

  19. From another MPIRG Alum, a la the early 1980s...I saw the article toady in the Star/Trib. A very moving portrait of someone I consider an old friend. It was always great to read your Statewatch articles back then and to have had the honor of writing a few myself, with your encouragement. I have much respect for your approach and commitment to the truth, Karl. I wish you the best in your journey on the healing path! It would be great to talk to you again or exchange emails. Thanks again for all your great work over the years!

  20. It's about staying brave despite the condition. You will be able to recover in time.