You won’t find this syndrome in any oncology textbook. I just made it up. But I only made up its name. The Rip Van Winkle Effect is very real.
Rip Van Winkle, you may recall, is a story by Washington Irving. It was published in 1819, but takes place much earlier. It’s about a guy living in colonial America who’s out in the woods one day squirrel hunting and meets some mysterious men wearing outdated clothing and bowling in the woods. Although this might have made him suspicious, he accepts their friendly offer and drinks deeply from their jug of liquor. He immediately falls into a deep sleep.
When he awakens 20 years later his beard is long and gray, his musket is rusted, and his faithful dog is nowhere to be seen. When he gets back to his village, everything seems different. Initially, he recognizes no one and no one recognizes him. He’s missed the American Revolution, his wife has been dead for years, and his children are grown. He meets two people who share his name. They’re his son and grandson.
When you have cancer, you may at times feel like Rip Van Winkle. You’ll spend most of your time sleeping, wishing you were sleeping, and going to doctor appointments. Meanwhile, life goes on around you. It may seem like everyone else is going places and doing things while you are… not. It may seem that time is strangely different for you. It is.
Although I’m no astrophysicist, I’m pretty sure all this is explained by the space-time continuum being distorted slightly as an observer passes too near the black hole of cancer—which of course has a rather strong gravitational pull. Or, maybe it’s simply explained by the general theory of cancer relativity. You’re traveling rapidly on a different journey than everyone around you.
Or maybe it’s just the Rip Van Winkle Effect. Fortunately, it’s only temporary.
Below: A YouTube clip that’s totally irrelevant. Except for the beards.
For over three years, my oncology appointments were quite frequent. During one stretch of targeted radiation treatments, they were daily. The longest gap was about three weeks, between routine infusion appointments that involved getting my blood drawn for tests (this bloodletting is known euphemistically known as “labs”), seeing my oncologist for a brief appointment, and then getting an IV inserted and sitting in the infusion chair for a while.
Right now, however, I’m partway into a three-month gap. My next appointment will mean a return for “routine scans,” which are of course never routine. Things look promising, but I’m not out of the woods yet. (And why do we always say that like it’s a bad thing? I live out in the woods here in northwest Wisconsin, and the woods are good.)
For a while, especially back in the covid times, altogether too many of my social interactions were in a medical setting. But it was OK. The oncologists and nurses were all very positive and encouraging, and it was a wonderfully supportive environment. Plus, I always looked forward to the diet ginger ale and cookies I was offered while in the infusion chair. I called them my “chemo cookies.”
All this may help explain why my welcome break from the oncology department initially felt less delightful than I’d expected. At first it actually felt uncomfortable. I was feeling some real anxiety, and after a time I realized it was oncology separation anxiety. Eventually, when your cancer fades, you may experience it too.
If you do, remember this: You’ll get over it. Just enjoy the memories.
One of my few bad habits is that sometimes, even if I haven’t had a glass of wine before dinner, I tend to yell at the TV during the evening news. Especially when the pharmaceutical ads come on.
Many of these ads, of course, are for cancer medications. Not to brag or anything, but … During my brief cancer journey, I’m afraid I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy several of these fine products. So for me, the nightly news is always a fun trip down memory lane.
Here are just a few of the things I may or may not have yelled at the TV:
“Damn right those are not all the possible side effects!”
“Hey, you forgot to mention the liver damage!”
“May live longer? Yeah, well, how much longer?”
“What do you mean, up to? What the hell does that mean?”
“So instead, maybe ask your doctor about eating more fruits and vegetables.”
Those are just a few of the things I yell at the TV during these ads.
One thing that never fails to impress: the number of highly technical oncology terms I hear in these ads aimed at a popular audience. Apparently, members of these advertisers’ narrowly defined target market will already know what they need to know.
So please… ask your doctor about eating more fruits and vegetables.