The California Cure Unsure Cure: Seth Greenland

My friend Nicky and I are seated in the Broadway Deli in the early afternoon. Nicky is drinking coffee. I am drinking herbal tea since I no longer allow myself caffeine. I am a man with a shaved head sipping herbal tea because coffee is part of a conspiracy to kill me.

“I had a growth on my neck, and I went to see a doctor,” Nicky is saying. “The doctor told me it was cancer. But I didn’t want chemotherapy, okay? So I went to see this man in Chinatown, and he cured me. The tumor shrunk, and then it went away. This guy can cure your lymphoma.”

This guy can cure my lymphoma? My stage-four lymphoma? The one my doctor told me would probably go into remission only to eventually return and kill me? Could it be possible? Was there some obscure Asian healer ignored by the mainstream medical profession, practicing his craft in obscurity and poverty, who could cure me?

Nicky is unusual among my crowd in that he is a genuine tough guy. Most my friends grew up in the suburbs and are of the fancy-schmancy school: college-educated, with enviable careers, men and women who don’t get into bar fights. Nicky, on the other hand, is from Newark, and if there is a place less fancy-schmancy than that, I have yet to hear about it. He is a boxer, and has the nose to prove it. Nicky is coy about details but alludes to crime both petty and not so petty and a serious relationship with a porn actress. He is a lot like Jean Genet, but without the gay sex. I am a little surprised he is telling me that Chinese herbs cured him. He seems like the kind of guy who would simply take a hard look at whatever disease had the temerity to set up shop in his body and then beat it into submission with his fists.

I am happy to take him up on his offer.

The next day we head off to Chinatown and find the herbal shop of Dr. Shen nestled between two Chinese restaurants with glazed ducks hanging in the windows. Long, narrow and dark, it looks as if it has been moved piece by piece from the Forbidden City and reconstructed for gwailos like myself. Dr. Shen looks ancient and gaunt; his thick glasses magnify tired, rheumy eyes. I have no idea whether he is a doctor, a folk healer or a sprite that extracts remedies from roots and berries. I really don’t care. It wouldn’t matter to me if he had a bone through his nose.

Dr. Shen takes us to a small room in the back of the shop, and I remove my shirt. “You look pale,” he says. I wonder if this is because he is accustomed to seeing Chinese people.

Nicky speaks bluntly to Dr. Shen: “My friend has lymphoma. Can you cure that?”

Dr. Shen leans in and examines me more closely. My heart leaps. Is he going to say, “Yes, no problem, of course”?

What he says is this: “I no can cure lymphoma.”

I no can cure lymphoma?

What kind of shit is that?

The exalted Dr. Shen, the Wizard of Chinatown, has failed to live up to his billing, and for a moment, Nicky, ever voluble, is stupefied.

Frankly, I want to smack Dr. Shen in the face. But the rising bile passes momentarily, and I regain my emotional equilibrium, which basically means I can control the impulse to run down the sidewalk waving my arms and screaming.

Dr. Shen says he will prescribe a tea to boost my immune system. Anger and fear rear up again. I wrestle with the snarky voice in my head, the one saying: You come to this neighborhood when you want an egg roll, you fool, not a cure for a disease.

Then the anger at Dr. Shen shifts again, and I realize I’m angry at myself. For grasping at straws, for being ill. Perhaps he can’t cure me, but neither can the doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. My immune system, however, will get a boost. The day will not be wasted. I have a new straw to grasp.

At home, I boil Dr. Shen’s formula down to its essence, and an acrid, swampish scent filled the apartment. I think about the witches in Macbeth hovering over the bubbling cauldron. The brew looks like something you’d use to clean an axle. But I need to boost my immune system, so it’s bottoms up! I managed to choke it down, fight the gag reflex and drain the entire contents of the cup. I follow this procedure for the next nine nights, and it does not get easier. I have no idea whether it actually does anything, but I am acting on the notion that anything that’s supposed to help will have some positive effect, even if that effect is only psychological. And even if the effect is primarily psychological, that’s no small thing to a sick person.

Was Dr. Shen a shaman or a charlatan? I’ll never know for sure.

But I now write this sixteen years later—cancer free.

I’ve learned that a big part of battling illness is maintaining a positive state of mind, believing you are doing whatever is within your power to get better, no matter what other people think. First, I embraced traditional chemotherapy, but I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance, particularly because of my oncologist’s dire prediction. So when I finished the chemotherapy I learned nei gong so my chi (I wasn’t even certain this actually existed, but why take chances?) would unblock, consumed shark cartilage (which I’d heard was an anticancer agent), drank so much carrot juice I literally turned orange and through the tender mercies of my wife, found my way to a scourge of the medical establishment named Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, who took me on as a patient. He held up an enema bag at our first meeting and told me this was how people on his regimen ingested their coffee.

“And how do they take their sugar?” I asked.

The point is I did everything I could—and still am. But that’s another story.