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Wednesday, October 26,2011

The sum of his parts

City Pulse editor scores with cancer memoir

by Lawrence Cosentino
If the prospect of one journalist interviewing another
makes you queasy, you’re not alone, but James Sanford wasn’t going to
tell you this story himself.

That’s why the arts and culture editor at City Pulse, now
a best-selling Kindle Singles author, sat at my kitchen table last week
to talk about “The Sum of My Parts,” a frank and funny memoir of his
battle with testicular cancer.


No — not “battle.” That noun isn’t Sanford’s style, nor adjectives like “heroic” or “triumphant.”  If
you read Sanford’s sardonic City Pulse film reviews, you know his
melodrama-whacking machete has been tempered by decades of
disease-of-the-day dreck from Hollywood.


A lot of the fun — that’s right, fun — of “The Sum of My
Parts” comes from the 48-year-old Sanford’s get-real,
this-is-not-a-movie approach.


“There was never a terrifying turning point at which I
woke up in a pool of my own blood, or collapsed in the middle of a busy
street, or found myself immobilized by paralyzing pain,” he writes. “I
just kept going, wishing all the time that I would wake up one morning
to find my body had returned to normal.”


Maybe that’s why “The Sum of My Parts” has been
downloaded by thousands of grateful readers around the world. Sanford,
who is in complete remission, doesn’t try to push a “personal journey”
on the reader, much less a “spiritual triumph.” He simply lays himself
bare, literally and figuratively. He gives the precise physical and
psychological details he tried to find, but couldn’t, when he was
diagnosed.


What is surgery and recovery like? Is there a scar? How
did the experience make him feel about his body? Why did the hospital
charge him $40 for a post-operation cookie? (Only the last question is
never answered.)


Last month, Sanford got a one-word e-mail from a reader: “Life-changing.”


Not bad for a veteran journalist who studiously avoided writing a word about himself for decades.


“I never thought it would leave my computer, much less go worldwide,” he said.


Although Sanford has written hundreds of stories,
profiles and reviews, he never considered diving into autobiography
until he interviewed Wade Rouse, a bestselling quirky-funny memoirist
in the David Sedaris vein, for City Pulse in August 2011.During a
conversation at Rouse’s home in Saugatuck, Rouse suggested that Sanford
write down some of his own experiences in journalism. At about the same
time, Sanford was enjoying Roseanne Cash’s autobiography, “Composed.”


During the grim, long winter of 2011-2012, he brushed aside his movie-addict stack of DVDs and started work.


Hired at 16 to work for the Grand Rapids Press, Sanford
has interviewed a lot of famous and/or interesting people and seen a
lot of changes in journalism. To his surprise, the memoir was “cranking
along,” heading for book length at 50,000 words plus, until he reached
2002 — the year he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.


It was like driving into a tunnel. “Up until then, the
book was lighthearted, quirky fun, and now it’s going into swelling
groins, radiation treatments and all that,” he said.


At first, Sanford decided to limit himself to a “cancer
chapter,” but the subject was too big. He decided to describe the whole
experience in gory detail and worry about what to do with the
manuscript later.


“I was pretty sure nobody would want to read about my crotch,” he cracked.


There’s a lot of graphic crotch regarding in the book, to
be sure. When Sanford finds a lump in his scrotum, he deludes himself
that it’s a spider bite or some other passing problem. He tries hot
baths, ice packs and old-fashioned denial.


His conclusion regarding “magical thinking:” “If it ever works, you certainly can’t prove it by me.”


Sanford not only has to deal with his cancer, but with
other people who are dealing with his cancer. Ignorance is a constant
theme. When Sanford first tells friends and colleagues about his
diagnosis, some of them ask if he would ever be able to have sex or go
to the bathroom again, or if he would need a colostomy bag. Other
friends asked him in all innocence whether the cancer was caused by
diet or sexual promiscuity.


“What did you do wrong, so I can avoid it?” was his acerbic paraphrase.


Many assumed it’s a death sentence: “Looking at them, I
could tell they were already mentally shopping for the perfect black
suit or tasteful black dress to wear to the funeral.”


The book’s most horrifying moment comes when Sanford gets
into the tub for a nice post-surgery soak and suddenly glimpses his
scar.


“It looked like I’d been chewed up by a wolf and sewn
hastily together,” he said. “Nobody told me it would take a few months
for the scar to heal. I thought I was permanently disfigured.”


But the body part Sanford most thoroughly scrutinizes in
“The Sum of My Parts” is his head. Tapping into the fear and worry over
his cancer led him to into every other issue he had with his body over
many years, going back to junior high school.


“That was completely unexpected,” he said. “I was glad I
didn’t write about it when I went through it or immediately afterward.
It wouldn’t have had the same perspective.”


The larger theme of liberation — coming to terms with
your own body, whatever its condition — emerges naturally from the
cancer story.


With Sanford’s skeptical wit to leaven the load, the
“cancer chapter” turned out to be lighthearted and quirky anyway.
Right, James?


“People seem to agree with you,” he said, cautiously. “I
don’t know. It was funnier to experience it through writing than to
live through it.” 




An excerpt from ’The Sum of My Parts’


Shortly before I was scheduled to be taken into the
operating room, I was dressed in a thin, white cloth gown and placed
onto a gurney. A nurse handed me a blue Magic Marker. For a second, I
wondered if she wanted an autograph, or something.


"Could you draw an arrow pointing to the place where
we’re going to be operating?" she asked. It was a good thing I was flat
on my back because otherwise I think I would have rolled on the floor,
laughing hysterically.


"Are you kidding?" I asked.


"No, this is our policy," she said. "Just draw an arrow to indicate which side we should be operating on."


She left the room. I was alone. Completely puzzled, I
hiked up my gown, uncapped the marker and drew a large, hollow blue
arrow on my left thigh, pointing toward my left testicle, which was
visibly larger than the right. Inside the arrow I wrote the words "this
side, please!" and colored in the space around it. My instructions were
as explicit as possible. A neon sign could hardly have done a better
job.


A few minutes later, I was wheeled down a hall and
into an operating room. My first impression as I passed through the
swinging doors was that it was far colder than I would have guessed.
Even more surprising were the sounds that greeted me: some sort of
buoyant calypso music, complete with shimmering steel drums. I almost
expected to smell jerk chicken cooking.


The surgeon, an anesthesiologist and two nurses were
waiting for me with carefree smiles on their faces, as if Happy Hour
had started and the banana daiquiris were half-off. Granted, I had not
spent much time contemplating what my first visit to an operating room
would look and sound like, but even if I had, I would never have
imagined this.


"Hello!" the surgeon said. "How are you feeling?"


I mumbled something about feeling fine and commented that the music had surprised me.


Everyone chuckled. "We like to keep things light
around here," someone said, which was another thing I guess I never
expected to hear in an operating room.


The anesthesiologist asked me if I had ever had anesthesia before. I had not.


"There’s nothing to worry about," I was told. "Just relax and breathe deeply and concentrate on counting backwards from 10."


"Sometimes, people like to picture themselves on a
beautiful beach," one of the nurses said. Well, the musical selection
certainly would help in painting that picture.


I closed my eyes and tried to envision a sun-drenched beach with swaying palm trees and welcoming waves.




‘The Sum of My Parts’


Available through Amazon’s Kindle Singles at tinyurl.com/3mp8xvc


The downloadable Kindle application is available on the same page.  

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