Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Karma Kar

Big news! An abbreviated version of this blog post ran on the popular automotive site "The Truth About Cars" on October 23, 2010. Not so big news! A poster to that forum correctly pointed out Mazda never offered a six-speed manual with the V6 engine - it was a five-speed I almost bought. Those who know me well know how much that relatively minor oversight bugs the heck out of me... RF

I fully intended to buy a new car on August 26, 2006. A loaded Mazda 6S Grand Touring with the 6-speed manual, Dark Cherry Red over beige leather, with in-dash CD changer and moonroof. I justified the extravagance as a reward to myself for getting through the last seven months following a health scare. Diagnosed with testicular cancer that January, I had been extremely fortunate in the time since the initial surgery. Monthly observation scans had shown no additional tumors, which meant no radiation or chemo.

The deal wasn't done that Saturday, though. The dealer's numbers were still a bit too high for my tastes, so I left that day in my Grand Am. I wasn't too worried, as I expected the dealer to come around in a day or two. The plan changed two days later, during the monthly consult with my oncologist.

I was still a nervous patient, and I sweated each CT, X-ray, blood test, and follow-up. Dr. Bhogaraju was extremely understanding of that fear, and it was his custom to greet me with the reassuring statement "you're OK." He didn't say it that day.

Instead, my latest CT had revealed an 8 mm growth on my left lung, and inflamed lymph nodes nearby. "We need to run some more tests," said Dr. B. "It's rare for TC to spread to the lungs, but it's possible. I'm recommending a PET scan, which will show us how 'hot' the inflammations are. We'll take it from there."

In the middle of all this was that red Mazda. Sure enough, the dealer did call that afternoon to say essentially, "you win." But now I was in no condition at all to buy a new car. In a daze, I told the salesman it looked like my cancer had come back, and I was not willing to sign my life away to anything for another five years.

Days without action turned into weeks, as my insurance company was reluctant to approve the expensive PET scan. I was a nervous wreck. A second CT was approved, and it showed the lung nodule had grown to 10 mm. My oncologist pushed for a surgical biopsy, and starting talking about the possibility of going on chemotherapy.

"But this could still be nothing," he told me more than once. The one positive was, my blood work showed no tumor markers... but that wasn't a guarantee it wasn't cancer. I didn't believe him. I felt I had already used up my positive karma for the year.

I come from an extremely close family. My mother planned to come to Dallas to stay with me during the surgery, and for however long after. This posed a problem; she couldn't drive my 5-speed Pontiac, and I certainly didn't want her renting a car for what could be a months-long stay. There was probably a better, cheaper solution to that quandary, but my addled mind couldn't grasp it... so, in mid-September I called the Mazda dealership again and asked about an automatic-equipped 6.

As it happened, there were several loaded models available with automatics. The dealer was even willing to 'split the difference' for the additional cost of the auto. Fear about my medical situation, however, instilled a newfound frugality. I told my salesman I wanted only a base V6 with an automatic. No sunroof, cloth seats.

I drove off the dealership the evening of September 16 with a Pebble Ash Metallic 6S, and a sense of resignation. I looked back sadly at my still-pristine Grand Am as I left. It had been the first car I'd purchased with the exact equipment I wanted -- the only Navy Blue 5-speed SE1 to be found in the entire DFW metroplex -- versus the compromise I now owned.

But the funny thing is... this story isn't really about that.


My new license plates arrived at the dealership on September 28. The dealer still owed me the delivery prep car wash -- it had been too late for the detail area to clean the car when I bought it -- so I made an afternoon of it. By that time, Blue Cross had finally approved the PET scan, for the first week in October. I was existing in a dream-like state, detached from my surroundings.

As I waited on the showroom floor for my car to come out of the service lane, one of the sales managers walked up to me. "Hey, got a second?"

We chatted a bit about the new showroom fixtures being installed at the dealership, as per Mazda dictate ("I think it's all just a way for Mazda to sell furniture," he quipped.) After a moment, he lowered his voice.

"Just so you know... I went through what you're now going through about 10 years ago," he said. It took me a second to understand what he was talking about. "TC. I had it, and had my last round of chemo right before my 35th birthday."

He told me about his experience. How he discovered he had it, and how it affected him. He told me about the "fucking asshole" urologist who had told him "he had good news and bad news"... where the good news was it was treatable. And he answered my questions... all of which were much more personal than the typical "car salesman/customer" relationship normally allows. 

He told me about his experience being on chemo... the hair loss ("I looked like Grasshopper from the Kung Fu movies"), the sickness, the smell. "And here it is 10 years later -- I got testicular cancer before it was 'cool' -- and I'm doing fine. It's never come back."

I was dazed. He didn't have to say anything; it's not a story a lot of men feel comfortable sharing with a stranger. Instead he chose to share his story, because he felt it would help me. And it did. I drove off the dealership lot that day more confident -- more heartened -- than I had felt since August 28.

Describing the experience to my friends and family later, I could only think of one phrase to capture that feeling. Though I am not particularly religious -- that was especially true at that time -- I felt that God spoke in that moment.

All because I bought a car... three weeks later than I'd planned to.


By divine intervention or just sheer luck, from that day onward... things started looking up. The PET was encouraging; the lung nodule had not increased further in size, and two of the three lymph nodes had actually shrunk. A surgical biopsy October 11 confirmed it wasn't cancer; this was all due to a comparatively minor respiratory infection. Antibiotics cleared it up.

It wasn't cancer. "I told you it was probably nothing," Dr. B said, grinning, at my next consultation. "By the way, did you ever get that car?"

My 'Karma Kar' just turned 40,000 miles last week, eight days shy of four years under my care. I don't plan on getting rid of it any time soon. And, so far, I'm still cancer-free today.

As you might be able to tell, I'm reluctant to say that's purely a coincidence.

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