Cell Out

Looking for dignity in the fight against cancer.

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 44 | Posted Mar. 31, 2009

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First, Sylvie.

An hour ago my cat Sylvie was yowling in discomfort and confusion, but now she looks positively regal. She crosses her paws—one shaved to accommodate the IV through which the vet will inject a lethal overdose of anesthetic—and stares serenely into the middle distance.

Meanwhile, I’m a blubbering wreck. I’m sobbing my way through an entire box of tissues. I totally lose it. “What’s your date of birth?” asks a nurse who’s filling out forms.

I freeze. What do they want to know that for? Has my wife—cursed with a cancered cat and a cancered husband—secretly arranged a two-for-one deal?

Now, Me.

This is a story about dignity. I used to think I knew exactly how I’d respond in moments like these. I’d be like Cary Grant in His Girl Friday: Pithy, sophisticated, dryly witty and unflappably handsome. But, in fact, every time I’ve faced real-life drama I’ve been more like Ben Stiller at the end of There’s Something About Mary: running down the road screaming, flapping my arms, blubbing like a baby. Which is what I’m doing now.

Regal Sylvie is disgusted—even as the drugs take her down, she refuses to make eye contact. I think, “When I go, I’m going out like Sylvie.” But the truth is you don’t get to decide. Death isn’t like that. Most of us die lying in our own shit and crying for our mommies.

“Anyhoo, it’s malignant,” says the doctor to the cancer patient in the cartoon on the wall of the cancer doctor’s office. The horribly informal word strips away the patient’s last shred of dignity.

Ordinarily that’s funny, unless you’ve just been told—for the second time in less than three years—that you have cancer. Then it’s fucking hilarious.

This particular cancer doctor has festooned his walls with framed magazine covers that roar AMERICA’S TOP 100 DOCTORS. In England such a display would be considered frightfully immodest. In Philly it’d be considered a tad gauche. But in look-at-me-everybody New York it kinda looks cool. Dignity is a moveable feast.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. I did chemo and suffered an allergic reaction that nearly killed me. I wrote a story for PW about it. Shortly afterward a neighbor in my Mount Airy apartment block accosted me in the laundry room.

“I was really amazed you could write a story like that,” she said. “I mean, you English—you’re so aloof ... ”

I went into remission—and then spent ages with various straight-outta-Alien super-long-necked, hi-tech mini- plumbing-robots probing my drugged-to-fuck innards trying to find the cause of an entirely new set of nasty symptoms (including, but not limited to, puking, shitting through a needle and stomach pain).

In June 2008 I was diagnosed with celiac disease—a wheat allergy gig. I cut flour and cake and croissants and (sob) the crusty baguettes from La Colombe on Manayunk High Street from my diet and spent hours interrogating waiters and shop staff about their food preparation procedures.

I became one of those insufferable, sniffy, subhuman asswipes who pisses everybody off by asking the deli counter guy to please change his gloves. I’m now a member of that species of prissy, nit- picking, ingredients-reading, self-obsessed bastards who always got on my nerves. I’m a cousin to the loathsome vegan, the tedious vegetarian and the religious nut job.

In short, I’m a full-blown fussy eater.

On this new diet the vomiting and the shitting through the needle ceased, but the stomach pain just grew. More sexy, sinuous, stainless steel snakebots were sent slithering down my throat and up my anus; snipping chunks out of my slimy guts.

Then on Thurs., Jan. 29, 2009, I got a phone call from my gastroenterologist. He told me I’ve got a cancer called enteropathy-associated T-cell lymphoma— which only afflicts a small percentage of the small percentage of people who develop celiac disease. And as cancers go, it’s a bastard.

Anyhoo. I put the phone down and let out a huge, self-pitying “Why me?” The answer, of course, is the same as the answer to Travis’ shit-awful 1999 international breakthrough hit, “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” Because you’re a fucking dick. Now shut the fuck up and grow a pair.

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Comments 1 - 44 of 44
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1. andrew said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 01:10AM

“Sorry about your relapse, but you already wrote about this. Write about something besides yourself.”

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2. grm1 said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 06:05AM

“Its an on going story that can't be told in one issue, it also is a no BS piece that let's us all know exactly what its like to be treated for cancer. Hang in there man I'm pulling for you!”

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3. Terry Brown said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 08:06AM

“Keep on writing!! (about the truth)”

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4. One of those Ameritards said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 08:22AM

“So, let's sum up. You've spent the last 4 years of your life taking a job from an American while relentlessly shitting on the country that welcomed you in. And now you want sympathy?”

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5. joeldermole said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 10:21AM

“Ameritard: I think you just proved Steven quite right about a lot of things. You don't like his politics, so you mock his cancer? Awesome.”

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6. One of those Ameritards said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 10:45AM

“I wasn't mocking his cancer. I was mocking his pitiful and groveling bid for sympathy. I thought the English were above that sort of thing. Guess not.”

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7. Tim said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 10:54AM

“Keep your head up buddy!
And thanks for all your help and advice (no matter how surly) a few years back.

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8. ritabootoo said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 12:39PM

“I suppose "andrew" and "Ameritard" graduated from the same sensitivity training course...
Steven, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. C'mon - Kick that fucked-up little mutant's ass!”

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9. jesselun said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 01:16PM

“Keep the chin up, man. You can beat it.
Fuck that guy Andrew”

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10. jonathan vital said... on Apr 1, 2009 at 10:05PM

“I admire your brave and ballsy writing. My partner went through 2 years of hell with leukemia. Keep saying fuck you!!!!!!!

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11. sally said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 04:39AM

“shut up andrew go read something else if you are not interested.....fool.”

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12. sally said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 05:23AM

“hi one of those ameritards! anglo american special relationships alive and well then? glad you are not representative of the comments, i might think all Americans were fools......keep writing and keep fighting steven......sally IN ENGLAND!”

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13. One of those Ameritards said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 06:59AM

“Well, Sally has demonstrated why the English are the most hated people around the planet.”

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14. ...also sick said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 01:42PM

“This piece is fabulous, and honestly the most accurate depiction of what it's like to really be sick and in the hospital for an extended amount of time.

I don't have cancer but I was recently diagnosed with and treated for a chronic disease of the digestive system that took two years of tests, months of torturous hospital "treatment," scary drugs and their scarier side effects, and ineffective pain management, all of which left me a shell of a person. After several operations, I've been left with only parts of my digestive system and mere shreds of my dignity intact. It will take me years to recover, physically and emotionally.

I don't think Steven Wells is looking for sympathy here, and neither am I. It was just damn refreshing to read about someone's experience similar to my own who isn't into the "spiritual sewage" that tends to get dumped on the sick.

When things are bad, people say "well, at least you have your health." When you don't even have that, the world can seem a pretty unforgiving place, and we all deserve to complain now and then, don't we?

Thank you for writing this - I wish you good health in the future.”

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15. Julie said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 03:06PM

“Brilliant writing Steven. Such honest writing about what sounds like hell on earth at tmes. I dont get the negative comments! I will however join others in wishing you all the best in your fight back to good health. American, English............ who cares, from one human being to another; Get Well Soon.”

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16. exiled from glasgow said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 04:19PM

“Andrew; what kind of a fucked up sick individual are you that gets offended by someone who has the courage to open up his heart and soul to you more than once. Feel honored and show some respect .
Keep fightin Steven”

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17. dd said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 07:07PM

“andrew: you're a dick.”

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18. gillian said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 07:36PM

“I have to say....good for you man! You keep fighting and trust me, you have more dignity and more insight to life than most! And even though you are a non-save me Jesus...blah blah blah.... and all that bullshit believing person you have someone one special looking over you......your Wife...!

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19. Margaret said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 08:02PM

“I love you, Steve!”

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20. Adrienne said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 08:04PM

“I truely sympathize with your situation, but do we really need to see your hairy ass on the cover page?”

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21. Javier said... on Apr 2, 2009 at 08:32PM

You probably don't remember me but we met briefly when you were doing your article about the Philadelphia area atheist groups. Get well and keep writing!

ps--And don't worry too much about the "chocolate Krakatoas". That's how you know you're still alive. ;-)”

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22. phillygrrl said... on Apr 3, 2009 at 08:47AM

“Ignore Andrew.

Great writing. Thanks for sharing your story.”

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23. Tsee Yuan Lee said... on Apr 3, 2009 at 09:07AM

“I'll pray for you.

Just kidding!”

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24. rachel said... on Apr 3, 2009 at 03:12PM

“yeah! keep on writing and best wishes with everything. and andrew - you went out of your way to be a dick. way to go!”

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25. Felicia said... on Apr 3, 2009 at 05:35PM

“Dear Steven, I hope you win over your mutant cells and continue to write such honest and funny stuff about something so terrifying. Fuck Cancer.”

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26. Joe said... on Apr 3, 2009 at 11:10PM

“I love your writing! Makes me laugh out loud. I miss your soccer writing (90:00 magazine?). Hang in there and get better!”

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27. The Wild West Connection said... on Apr 4, 2009 at 02:52AM


Your Spokane family is rooting for you and thinking good thoughts for your support team, too. Keep writing, man.

J, A, S, and I”

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28. Johners said... on Apr 4, 2009 at 02:59AM

“"Andrew" and "One of those Ameritards said" must be afraid to even go outside, they are so interminably fragile. I read their posts here and just sigh. What is it like to be so small, so inconsequential, so desperate for attention?

To kick a man while he is down, and to do it from the Internet? Is that really the best you can do with your time? Can't you please go crawl back into your ass holes? Please? Thank you, sweeties.

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29. scotty fun knee said... on Apr 5, 2009 at 12:59PM

“Be strong my friend! Make the climb! Be your own GOD! God damn It! God Damn It! Treat God as an open position! Put in your application today, for the Great God of the living heartsss! And, watch "The Climb" video by Miley Cyrus! video, the link follows ---> http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNkrzRLJeU8&feature=related . Make that climb!!!!!!!!!!and put in your application now! Before it is tooo late! Best wishes and efforts! Scottyyy!

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30. Robbie said... on Apr 7, 2009 at 09:55AM

“I actually know a lot of people who crapped in their pants and kept their dignity. Keep fighting the fight you old coot.”

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31. Attila the Stockbroker said... on Apr 10, 2009 at 09:20AM

“Keep battling, mate, and keep writing about it, it's very good stuff. Your old punk rock ranting poet buddy is rooting for you!!!


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32. Aaron said... on Apr 10, 2009 at 01:57PM

“Great writers are those who write what they know, and this article, it must be said, falls into that category. Anything else is just not worth the effort!

.......you've served yourself up on a platter to give us all an insight into your world and you truly deserve praise indeed. Keep fighting, keep writing....we are all with you!”

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33. Joel McIver said... on Apr 18, 2009 at 04:47AM

“We could all learn from you, Steven. Hang in there1”

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34. Joel McIver said... on Apr 18, 2009 at 04:47AM

“We could all learn from you, Steven. Hang in there1”

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35. Keith Cameron said... on Apr 18, 2009 at 05:10AM

“Hey Swells, your attitude is incredible. Keep on keeping on! (By the way, you still owe me money... ;)”

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36. Johnny Cigs said... on Apr 19, 2009 at 07:09AM

“I've got a bit of a hangover this morning and I just told someone 'I feel like death cooled down'. This puts that into perspective. Too much fucking perspective, in fact.
You are an example to us all Swells. Keep on shitting in the free world.”

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37. Philthegeordie said... on Apr 20, 2009 at 04:03PM

“I'm hoping that this is some sort of scam by you to avoid becoming poet-laueate. If not ,good luck and my prayers are with you and Mrs Swells.”

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38. Philthegeordie said... on Apr 20, 2009 at 04:03PM

“I'm hoping that this is some sort of scam by you to avoid becoming poet-laueate. If not ,good luck and my prayers are with you and Mrs Swells.”

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39. Simon Smith said... on May 3, 2009 at 05:24PM

“Hey there Mister Swells, I used to go straight for your articles in the NME years ago and have come across the present acount of your struggle quite by chance - hang on in there mate and keep winding as many people up as you can!”

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40. GobTV said... on May 8, 2009 at 02:27PM

“Are you still alive? I hope so, our young American intern (from Pig), Walker, just got in touch. He'll be well pissed off if he's too late.
I have a 20cm gash where my vagina should be, and I'm having to get it packed with Sorbsol everyday, and my bollocks have been sewn into the shape of a pyramid tea bag....but having read this, it no longer pisses me off.
Me, Candice and the kids are rooting for you. Nickx”

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41. Walker - the not-so-young-anymore American intern said... on May 9, 2009 at 03:02AM

“Steve - man, reading this I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Sorry to hear you are in such bad shape. Was blissfully happy to stumble across a contact to Nick yesterday and hear back from him and then got to read about your recent experiences. I sincerely hope everything return to "punk rock, puppy dogs, ice cream and sunshine" for you again soon. Drop me a line if you are able - hope you can see the hidden e-mail otherwise Nick has it.

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42. Gillian said... on Jun 26, 2009 at 03:46PM

“I'm so sorry Swells.. Exactly the same agonising illness my boyfriend's Dad recently died from. Both part of "a small percentage of the small percentage of those that develop celiac disease" that go on to get T-cell lymphoma. I met Steven in the early 90's whilst at Digital Hardcore Recordings and I was terrified - I'd read his rants avidly in the NME for years and was a massive fan then as I remain now.. he was actually just really lovely to me that day. Much, much respect for Steven and great sympathy to his family.”

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43. mick p said... on Oct 8, 2009 at 07:21AM

“oh dear swells...
still winding as many people up as you can!.. even from the grave !

mick pledge...”

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44. Jason Burke Murphy said... on Apr 22, 2015 at 12:47PM

“I just wanted to thank Philadelphia Weekly for keeping this piece and "The English Patient" on their site.

I have assigned both texts in a class I teach on end-of-life ethical issues. It has proven very helpful. I also ended up reading everything else I could find by Wells on sport and music. I benefited greatly from it.

He was truly great.”


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