Paul Bergrin, a former federal prosecutor who went rogue and was dubbed by New York Magazine as the “baddest lawyer in the history of Jersey,” got a life sentence, when in a full-throated delivery on a federal wiretap, he offered the following nutso advice to a Newark drug kingpin who was willing to shell out in order to snuff out someone who had ratted on an associate: “No Kemo. No case.”
The attorney ordered up a hit on Kemo Deshawn McCray, a federal informant, like others order up pizzas.
McCray was shot in the head three times in Newark on March 2, 2004, according to New York Magazine.
His death became the cornerstone of the massive murder-racketeering case against Bergrin, the likes of which gripped the ever-notorious Garden State, even with all the low-slung garden-variety dipshittery that goes on here. (Yes, I’m talking about the First Amendment case.)
I remember uttering similar words as Bergrin while I was in the hospital, although in a different context and not on federal wiretap: “No chemo. No case.”
Of course, I wasn’t talking about snuffing out a federal informant, but chemotherapy.
This week, I started my second round of chemotherapy to treat stage III testicular cancer. Even after spending two weeks in the hospital, and getting some of the worse news of my life, I still felt an air of invincibility.
The handout of my prognosis gives a curt assessment of my prospects: “Even for patients with a poor prognosis, approximately one-half are cured with aggressive treatment.”
It’s a baseline assessment but doesn’t take into consideration the “it” factor people possess – that ability to overcome long odds, longer than the ones I face.
Plus, the stats buoyed me: More than 95 percent of men who are diagnosed with testicular cancer survive. It’s one of the most curable cancers, usually afflicting those in their late teens to 30s.
And I’m a gambler. I’ll take a 50 percent chance over the grim hope they gave me at Robert Wood Johnson last month.
The oncologist there, a woman who had never dealt with a testicular cancer patient in her career, advised me I had stage IV testicular cancer, that it was only “treatable” and I had one to two years to live.
Luckily, I already knew from having done prior research that testicular cancer isn’t even staged like that – it’s stages I through IIIC.
That’s the moment I knew I had to get the fuck out of RWJ. They were trying to kill me.
Everything about leaving that place has paid off.
The first week of chemotherapy at Thomas Jefferson Hospital went so well that I convinced myself that I was going to be an anomaly and the treatment wouldn’t knock me on my ass like it does everyone.
Or that my hair follicles were superhuman and my hair wouldn’t fall out.
I pointed to little things around me to justify this position.
One of my doctors, Dr. Nihal Patel (one of the nurses looked it up and found he was one of 37 Dr. Patels listed in Jefferson’s directory), said he hadn’t come across any patients drinking Starbucks and doing chemo at the same time.
I just chuckled. I’m different, I told him.
Some of that First Amendment bluster was shining through.
But Dr. Patel, an avid Michael Jackson fan, was the man in the mirror and could see right through me. He was introspective, funny with an acute sense of dress.
That night, he walked in near the end of his shift, dark slacks and a pea coat. He channeled some of his nervous energy into these weird chortles.
He got his undergraduate degree from University of Southern California (USC), went to medical school at The Ohio State University and did his residency at the University of Maryland.
I made him emphasize the The in The Ohio State University because, as humble as he is, I needed him to be elite for me.
I know I have the best cancer team in Philadelphia. I need them.
The cancer is advanced, having spread to my lungs, kidneys, lymph nodes and brain. I have two small lesions in my brain. They’re about 4 and 7 millimeters, or smaller than the size of a baby pea. For reference, a dime is about 18 mm.
I feel fortunate the lesions were found while they are still small.
I remember, prior to being transferred, asking the oncologist at Robert Wood Johnson to run a brain scan. She initially didn’t think it was necessary because I was, in her estimation, “asymptomatic,” or not showing any signs of impairment.
I didn’t have debilitating headaches, blurred vision, loss of balance or memory loss. I told her to do the scan anyway, having been advised about how far my cancer had already spread.
It was reasonable to assume that I had one of the more aggressive forms of testicular cancer, similar to the one that afflicted famed and disgraced former Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong.
His cancer had also spread to the brain, requiring doctors to perform neurosurgery to remove the lesions in 1996.
My doctors at Jefferson plan to knock out the lesions out with targeted radiation to the brain. The modern marvels of medicine continue to amaze me, how we have taken such quantum leaps from two decades ago and how the treatment is less intrusive.
I’m glad. As a writer, my brain is the great equalizer in this life of brutes and automatons.
Otherwise, when I’m not on this diabolical mix of steroids that fueled my ravenous appetite and ballooned me at one point to 165 pounds, I’m feeble and about 140 pounds soaking wet.
The pen is my only weapon.
And my thoughts, despite the fog from the chemo, feel clear as I sit here today at the outpatient facility getting my daily dose of these dreadful toxins they pump in my body.
Whatever it takes to save me, I’ll do. I don’t care.
I used to view life nihilistically and fatalistically, thinking I’d get no enjoyment out of my exploits.
And most days, I didn’t.
Journalism allows you to interact with so many people, and affect so many lives. But it requires you to maintain a sense of distance with people, sometimes leaving you feeling detached.
I have had a hard time making friends in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and many days would come to my lonely abode.
I’d run and make a meal, maybe crack open a book or watch some television. But it wasn’t always fulfilling, and I craved human interaction outside of my professional adventures.
But I’m not a social butterfly or a bar fly. I’ve never been one to venture out, or strike up casual conversations. So the adjustment was difficult, even for someone who is used to talking to people every day.
Over the last three or four weeks, since my second cancer diagnosis, I’ve experienced so much joy and friendship and love.
My parents have been with me every night, some of them long – like when I suffered through 12 hours of the worst bone pain and muscles spasms in my life.
It was a serious, albeit normal, reaction to an immune-boosting shot called Neulasta, a drug that re-builds white blood cells and boosts bone marrow lowered by the chemo.
My dad rubbed my head in the bathtub, reminding me how my grandmother, Maggie, at 60 years old, battled through colon and breast cancer at the same time and survived.
She eventually succumbed years later to Parkinson’s disease.
But the point is my family is full of fighters. My aunt Norma, without any kidneys and on the donor list, goes in for dialysis three days a week. She’s been doing it for at least a decade, just to live.
I talked to her on the phone the other day. She still has so much life in her voice.
I can’t complain.
I’ve received so much support, far and wide, from people I never expected to come to my aid and people I didn’t even know. My friends have been great, too.
The other day, I watched the movie “Arrival” with my best friend, Esteban. The movie was about a linguistics professor who helped decipher alien messages to save the world following a terrestrial invasion.
In the process, she is given the gift of foresight.
The movie plays out in reverse, with the early scenes showing her young daughter going to the hospital for a routine check-up, only to learn she is dying from a rare disease.
At the end of the movie, the professor relays this heart-tugging line: “Despite knowing the outcome, I embrace the journey.”
I don’t know the outcome of my fight. I know I’m going to do everything in my power to overcome this, like so many have before me.
Testicular cancer isn’t unprecedented. And I have so many people around me who won’t let me fail, those ride-or-die types. You know who you are. I know who you are.
And we know that we need each other.
No chemo, I’d have no case for life. But without love, I’d have nothing to live for.