My First (and Perhaps Last) Battle with Cancer

Updated: Jan 24

By David Van Etten:


What follows are some public posts I made over the past year, related to my fight against colorectal cancer. My mom beat colon cancer when she was a little older than me. She taught me that cheeriness is strength, and that you can’t do it alone.


These posts offer a timeline of things that happened to my body. On October 17, I underwent a twelve-hour surgery to remove my colon and rectum, along with surrounding lymph nodes that confirmed my Stage 3 cancer. On December 10, I began a schedule of chemo treatments in an enthusiastic fighting spirit. On April 28, I gave up on chemo several sessions earlier than planned, after dropping 70 pounds and approaching nearer to the god who loves sufferers than I imagined possible.


These posts also include survival tricks and weapons I stumbled upon, including my San Benito’s medal and my “Cry Havoc” ring. I attempt to express my unspeakable appreciation for the funds and food and flowers and cards and posts and hugs and hands that my loved ones gave to me.


As poetry teaches us—by failing best at the impossible task—the soul’s vault of thoughts and feelings and gratitude and despair can never find its unfaltering expression. All I can do is pat the flesh on my chest in a primate gesture of thanks.


These posts leave so much unsaid. There are the silences when suffering was too much. There were intimacies that found words privately but weren’t apt for the social media loudspeaker (not many of those, but some). There were weeks that disappeared into chemo, entirely; I am still stumbling into patchy parts of my life that were lost to a combination of weakness and poison and medication and fatigue and fear. I will continue to wonder around that brief island of my life, after time does its magical thing, and when my psyche allows.


My first battle against cancer is nearly over. I hope I don’t lose the existential coin toss and require additional battles. But if required, I will tear them with my teeth, to echo the Duke of Norfolk.


I hope you find that these posts give you an opening to an experience that is strange and painful and beautiful, something that I hope with over-filled heart none of you ever needs to experience. What I hope you do experience, with the same over-filled heart, is the palpable and widespread experience of connection to those who love you. All my love to those who cast attention on these words.


October 31, 2018


Ordering Your FCFC Jersey

I've fielded a few questions from friends about how to join the match-day squad of my Fuck Cancer Football Club. If you'd like to purchase an FCFC jersey with "Van Etten" on the back, I am gathering orders. Just direct message me your size and shipping address before November 7. I’m wearing a size L for my 5’11” and 175 lb frame, for context. The jersey will cost around $25–$45, depending on the volume of order requests. Below is the original letter from my grad school buddy Mitchum, when he delivered the jersey just before my colorectal cancer surgery. Please pardon the transactional spirit of this post, I’m having a lot of fun with this.


Your brother, Dave


Original Letter:


10-11-18


Dave,

Welcome to FCFC. Some teams don't put their players' names on the back of the jersey to designate team unity. Other teams allow players to put their names on the back of the jersey to allow individual player buy-in (how else could 'Fred' have ever happened?). At FCFC, we all have your name on the back of our jerseys because we're all playing, fighting, and scrapping for you. The upside down dude on the shield is a Greek sculpture with an 'onkos' on his head. In Greek theater, some characters' masks had these onkos on top to indicate that they were carrying a heavy burden. Then people started calling tumors onkos—heavy loads. Our little dude's onkos is upside down; we’re hoping it will fall off his head and go fuck itself. We'll wear these on Wednesday for your surgery, and many days thereafter, until FCFC prevails.


Love you, man,

Mitchum


December 10, 2018

First day of chemo. 11 more visits to the drip, every other week through to summer. Thanks again for all your love and support. Ready to march this pink monster to the sea, General Sherman style, no quarter, no peace. 🔥🥊🔥 #cyborgchic #scorchedearth

January 17, 2019

The ancient ritual. Nearly 20 years since I last asked my dad for a buzz cut. The doc says I probably won’t lose all my hair, but it’s thinning and shedding like crazy. I have sufficient cause to dry heave uncontrollably without stray long hairs finding their way to my tonsils. Damn, it felt good today! One of our old sacraments. ☘️



February 13, 2019

Widespread thanks for all the birthday love. Day started with my gift of love-letter box decorated by Daisy and holding your get-well cards. Very special to me. I proceeded to have a dream day with Susy, to the hipster barber shop for shave and fade, Champions League soccer at Commonwealth Cafe, just ordered favorite Thai food takeout for early dinner. I felt active but not exhausted. I am ready to continue battle against cancer. Just completing Round 5 of my 12 rounds of chemo, almost halfway through (knock on wood). Twists and turns each round! But I learn and solve the next puzzle each time, so they can keep zapping me with the good poison on schedule. My love to you all. ❤️🤓

March 6, 2019

Cancer Update

I’m halfway through chemo treatments! 6 rounds down and 6 rounds to go. We’re celebrating the halfway mark with our FCFC jerseys and getting ashed around town. I used to love to show up to the bar with telltale ashes, was always so rhizomatic conversationally. Today I celebrate my barstool Catholicism by going out and getting ashed repeatedly with family. Chemo is no fun, but your love and support is compelling me to completion. By summer, I’ll have a good part of this behind me, and anything left to beat will come what may, it’s not up to me but to keep fighting. ❤️🤓 #suscipe

May 17, 2019

Friends and neighbors,

My latest batch of poems is available for your enjoyment (is my fervent hope) by the link below. I'm really getting back into the swing of versifying, which wonderfully fills vacant space during my medical leave, and requires no huffing-and-puffing movement (although I'm getting more spry and food-ravenous each day).


Two fun updates. First, I've completed chemo (8 out of 12 rounds; knocked out in the 8th round) and anticipate reverse surgery (removing my temporary ostomy bag, as well as the chest port used for chemo IV drip) in the next several weeks. I am humble about my prospects, as I still have a near 45% chance of return of the cancer (12 rounds would've been 40% chance), and I might also have the return of the ostomy bag, permanently, if I can't struggle to get my newly fashioned "butt pouch" to work as a replacement of the tummy bag. Fingers crossed, butt exercised.


Second, I am publishing a book of my recently polished and spit-shined 12 best poems (culled from 50 poems written in the past two years), which will be called Twist the Blue Burlap Inside You, and which will be available for purchase on Flapper Press site sometime in the weeks ahead. I will keep you in the loop, in case you'd like a bound copy of the poems I've published on Flapper Press in past weeks. Otherwise, please enjoy them by link below.


All my love, your brother, Dave

Poetry by David Van Etten


March 24, 2019

I've known my wife for just over 4 years, enough time to have a healthy creative 3 year old daughter, honored among wagons, and princess of the apple towns. What I don't tend to share is how much Susy has taken on, thanklessly, since I was stricken with cancer. I get the kudos and accolades. Susy gets the hard work. The weekly ostomy bag change. The middle-of-the-night bag spills. The taxi'ing back and forth, the 6 hour drip sessions, the strains on her work schedule, the general taxing on her health and well-being.


I don't know who the linked Lilywhite is in this post. But I've been marinating on the song and spending a great deal of time thinking about the woman I wooed 4 years ago. I just wanted to thank the Lilywhite. And I wanted to share more broadly that, in full candor, the spouse's role during this cancer fight is so much more fraught and unmentionable and unmentioned than we suspect. I encourage you to reach out to Susy if you feel compelled. I wish she could experience the splash of support that I seem to find flooding at me regularly. I love you all, thanks for your ears and hearts.