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The Final Treatment

Actor/playwright/comedian David Lee Nelson shares his cancer experience.
Story Photo

David Lee Nelson and his girlfriend Jaimie Malphrus on the beach in Charleston, SC.

When actor/playwright/comedian David Lee Nelson started chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer back in April of 2017, he chronicled his experience by writing a witty and insightful blog. Below is an edited version of his blog from October 4, 2017, marking his final treatment.

OCTOBER 4, 2017

David in infusion center

On March 21, 2017, I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Four weeks later, I started chemotherapy. My treatment plan was 12 rounds, doled out over six months. From April to October, every other week I went to one of Winship's infusion centers and had two different types of chemo, oxaliplatin and fluorouracil, and bevacizumab (Avastin), a tumor-starving agent. The days were long and boring. On Wednesday, October 4th, 2017, I got my 12th treatment. I was technically "done" with chemo. It is the tradition that on your "last" treatment you ring the bell. I remember sitting there, at treatment five or six or seven, and being so excited to hear the bell ring. It let me know that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and if that person can get there...so can I.

So, in keeping with tradition, I rang the bell. And hit a gong. People cheered, people said congratulations. It felt good to be "done."

I know I keep using quotation marks. It's because I don't really feel "done." I still have to get MRIs and CT scans. I still have to get maintenance treatments. What "ended" was the oxaliplatin, which is the drug with the most side effects, and the 5-FU, which requires the use of the dreaded fanny pack. Being "done" with those two is a major relief, and I don't want to understate the significance. But I also don't want to tempt fate, you know? I don't want to rouse cancer and make it angry. I don't want to let it think I think I've beaten it. I just want to go about my business, quietly. Because having been through 12 rounds of oxaliplatin and the fanny pack, one thing I know for sure is that I don't want to do it again.

Those six months were a long process. I barely remember life before chemo. In my darker moments, I wondered why me? Why was I the one to go through this? I see my other friends headlining stand-up shows or making movies or having plays produced. They're going on vacations and booking TV shows and making their Broadway debuts. That could all be me. I traveled pretty high in a lot of those circles. Why are they there, and why am I here?

Then I remember that I am a human and humans get cancer. And I've been very fortunate. Cancer is something that people die from, and I'm still here. My tumor was not aggressive, the treatments have been working. I've grown closer to my family, my girlfriend, my friends. I've started a blog. People have read what I've written. These are not insignificant things, and I have no idea where they will lead.

David with girlfriend

"Cancer is not a part of your world until it is, and once it is...even if it's gone, it's there."

Why me? Why not me?

I often think back to that first day at the oncologist's office, to the beginning of my story, when they told me I'd be getting chemotherapy. They sent in the team: the pharmacist, the nutritionist, the therapist, all these people telling me things that, at the time, I wasn't capable of understanding.

Sometimes I think about the person sitting in that chair today, at the beginning of the story, getting the news, unsure of what is happening. I want to tell them that it will all be okay. I don't know that it will, but that's what I want to tell them. The one thing I do know is that the "end," whatever it is, won't be what they expect.

My friend who finished his treatment a year ago texted me, asking me how I felt. I said I wasn't sure. I was "done" but didn't feel like it. I asked him if that feeling goes away. He said it really doesn't. Cancer is not a part of your world until it is, and once it is...even if it's gone, it's there.

So I'm putting "last" in quotation marks because the truth is I have no idea.

I'm still not out of the woods. In fact, I live there.

That is my story.

But it's your story, too. It's all our stories. It's the one thing we have in common. None of us truly know what is coming next. Which is thrilling, and horrifying, and human.

So here's to my "last" treatment. Hopefully it will be. In the meantime, I'll try and make the most of the time I'm given. And enjoy these woods as long as I have the chance.

UPDATE FROM EDITOR: David reports that his latest scans were "outstanding" and that his cancer is currently stable. He has turned his experience into a book and a new one-person show called Stages, opening soon. To read more of his blog, go to davidleenelson.com/blog.

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