Manhood, Marriage, and
The Tumor that Tried to Kill Me
(Thomas Dunne Books)
Bryan Bishop is thirty years old, and is about to hit his stride in his chosen profession, podcast radio (he worked with someone quite famous named Adam Corona). At one point, though, he found he was getting weary easily, was having trouble staying on his feet at the gym and, even worse for a radio person, his words would get tangled up when he talked, as if he was schnockered ... without actually being so. When he did booze it up, he'd get falling-down drunk after a couple of short beers which is not de rigueur when it's party time in Hollywood.
He googled his symptoms, was pretty sure he had MS or ALS.
His first MRI ruled out multiple sclerosis, but it did reveal a scary lesion, "Low-Grade Glioma," a cancerous growth on the brain-stem that is possibly fatal and definitely dangerous. When Bryan checked in for his medical appointment with his specialist, he found himself in the world of cancer:
Women without hair. Old men in wheelchairs. Middle-aged people walking around, wheeling along their IV drips of chemotherapy. Kids with surgical masks on, so they wouldn't spread (or catch) disease.
Bishop is a radio comedian, so the first part of the book is dedicated to his funny life before the tumor looms. As a child he was fat, forgetful, and faithful at driving his teachers and parents mad, the usual too-smart kid who is a crummy student. He was not very good at sports but loved writing about it. He started his own neighborhood newspaper when he was in high school.
The Adam Carolla Show was internationally famous. Bishop did sound effects for it. He also invented "bits" for the show, "What Can't Adam Complain About," "The Bitch Bag," and "Totally Topical TiVo Trivia."
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There are problems early on for readers of Shrinkage, especially those of who live out here in the boonies. College football is big with Bishop and his friends, made it possible for him to meet his soon-to-be wife in Scottsdale. The sport has crucial dynamics including something known as tailgating. "It was a day game, so the tailgating started early. Fortunately for Arizona State students, the tailgating technically never stops." This statement involves a footnote (footnotes are sprinkled throughout Shrinking every few pages; there are 156 in all.) As we are introduced to the secrets of tailgating, the footnote asks us,
If you're a "student," shouldn't you technically be "studying" something at least part of the time? What then do we call ASU students? Enrollees? Partners? Revelers? Pukers?
The courting of Christie takes up a fair number of pages (and even more footnotes). They meet at a wedding in Scottsdale and go back to his hotel room, "but Christie kept her virtue." (No footnote to tell us where she kept it. Purse? Glove compartment? Foot locker? Self storage?) Bishop quickly starts in planning his attack on its hiding place: "I did what any eager guy would do who's trying to get into a hot girl's pants," he reveals. No footnote to explain that one either.
Shrinkage is billed as the story of one man's "battle with cancer," but we have to say that after several dozen footnotes, along with "tips for dating" and interior monologues during movie dates ("Hey, wanna watch half of this movie before I try to reach up your blouse?") --- including an aside in a "bald celebrity" gym ("I saw more old-man junk there than a urologist in Boca Raton,") --- we almost dumped it, were just barely able to soldier on until we made it through our first diagnosis. You might want to start on page seventy; you'll lose very little, outside of your patience. If I were Bishop's editor, god forbid, I'd try to convince him that the drama of glioma is powerful enough --- and sad enough --- for him to tell it straight, without all this up-your-blouse collegiate by-play.
After we get to the heart of the book, the author introduces some set-off quote-boxes called Tumor Tips, that are worth your study, coming from one who has gone through it all and survived. Outside of that, and the overall horror that comes with any life-threatening illness, one of the best chapters in Shrinkage has to do with constipation. No shit. (With the laissez faire set of the author, I was almost expecting running into that old wheeze about the constipated Chinaman, Hung Chow.)
It's very rare for a book on illness, pain, hospital lore, doctors, cancer, chemotherapy (or on any medical problem for that matter) to find one that gives over as many pages to The Big Cork: "Your pooper is a machine that requires daily maintenance," Bishop writes. His suggestions for avoiding this are straightforward and sensible:
This last one threw me. With my life-long pooper stupor, I figured I definitely should give this one a whirl, and sure enough, I found a five-pound jar at Costco which only cost me an arm and a leg. However, the texture was almost too gummy, and the taste was vile. The kids discovered it at the back of my closet, however, thought it was a new chewy candy, and now they turn out to be as regular as clockwork. Thanks, Bryan.
- Water. "Seems dumb and obvious, I know. But staying hydrated is the easiest natural way to stay 'regular';"
- Eat foods that are high in fiber like "Granolas. Cereals. Whole-grain milk. Energy bars. Beans. Nuts. Seeds;"
- Buy and eat lots of probiotic yogurt; and
- Try fiber gummies, like Vitafusion (his preference).
Besides the general sexism, ageism, and obscure references to people we geezers have not and never will know or meet (John Fogarty, Hall & Oates, Mumford & Sons, OCMS, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, "Baby Doll" Dixon) --- there are a couple of other infelicities that shrink Shrinkage down to the oh-stop-it level.
One is the constant put-down of Bryan Bishop by Bryan Bishop. My mum always said, "If you can't say something good about someone, don't say anything at all." This applies in spades to oneself.
When Bishop was young, his schtick was being fat and generally unlovable. When he got cancer, it was how ungainly he looked, the unseemly shoes with braces for his foot, the swellings on his face that created a lopsided smile in his photographs, how weird it looked for him to be walking with someone helping him just to stay upright, and how embarrassed he was to fall --- which he did, as most of the disabled do often.
After awhile we just wanted to call him up and point out that this stuff goes with the territory, and you either brush it off or shoot yourself. People staring at him? Why he --- and his wife --- should be so needled by that is beyond me. It was my brother's experience when he traveled into a third world country --- he's an ambulatory paraplegic --- that not only did people stare at him, they would often follow him down the street, pointing, bringing their friends to watch, wanting, apparently, to come right home with him, to see how he ate, how he got in bed, how he got on or off the toilet ... anything to do with his day-to-day.
But that's life, you live with it, accept it --- as you accept your disability --- and you just get on with it. You get undercover stares of England, America, Australia --- or the full monte in third world countries. You're interesting, different, an object of fascination.
Big deal. Anger is the wrong reaction. The curiosity is at least honest, direct, and mostly not malicious.
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Finally, there is, in these Thank-God-I-Survived books, the inevitable war talk, e.g., "the battle with cancer." I thought that Christopher Hitchens had finally managed to lay that hoary old trope to rest in Mortality. "I love the imagery of struggle," he wrote,
but when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring in a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don't read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into you system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.
Thus, when Bishop writes, "Keep in mind, we were unemployed, without health insurance, and battling cancer," we briefly picture him in armor, taking off after the dragons and the windmills. We suggest that he bone up on some of the writings of other survivors --- or, in Hitchen's case, non-survivors --- to see what they had to say about this going-off-to-war business. Especially if he wants to discover others who, like him, have tried to be a bit merry about it ... and who actually brought it off.
It's hard not to fall madly in love with Norton. Lopsided is funny, like John Callahan's tale of being a paraplegic, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. This is, for example, Meredith Norton on her doctor: "I couldn't do this particular job for myself. I'd chosen to herd pygmy goats in Minorca while she went to medical school ... She did the training, passed the exams, got the degrees, and had the authority to pump me full of toxins and chop off my breasts. I had no choice but to lie still and trust she wasn't too distracted by her house's termite problem to confuse me with the lobotomy patient at 9:30."
As I say, it is hard not to fall in love with Norton, especially with the way she finally twists the whole medical/patient concept around: "All doctors are people, even though we wish they were something better."--- Lolita Lark