After 2nd Bout With Cancer, Seeking to Heal His Body and Mind
Because he was in such a hurry to get to his granddaughter’s high school graduation, James Riddick did not realize he had forgotten his cane until he reached the bus.
“Certain things you get so dependent on, it becomes like part of you,” said Mr. Riddick, 80.
On that day, more than a year and a half ago, he stepped up into the bus, slowly and shakily but without incident. He has not used his cane since.
Mr. Riddick was left hobbled and his body severely transformed after a battle with bladder cancer in 2015, 14 years after he overcame prostate cancer. This time drastic action was required to save his life.
“When you start being in pain, you’re thinking of relief,” he said in December at his home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Doctors performed an invasive surgery to remove Mr. Riddick’s bladder, as well as his prostate and genitals, where the cancer and infection had spread. He was then fitted with an ostomy pouching system, a prosthetic medical device that collects waste from his surgically rerouted biological systems.
Mr. Riddick must change out the bags almost every hour. He has two he wears during the day, and larger ones he must connect before bed. It is unpleasant work. Often they overflow or come close to it.
“I’ve felt so alienated with these bags,” Mr. Riddick said. “How are people going to perceive of me?”
On buses and subways, he turns heads. Not only have passengers stared at the lumps under his clothing, but they have also reacted to the loud belching noises emanating from them. They are a source of great embarrassment, Mr. Riddick said.
He feels as though he is being regarded as an oddity and has become self-conscious.
“I’m dealing with it best I can,” he said. “It’s been very trying.”
Physical recovery after the surgery was grueling. At first, he could not even lift his feet off the floor, and home health aides were constantly present. Mr. Riddick felt he was imposing every time he sent loved ones on errands.
After about a year, he regained his mobility and did not require any in-home help. The day that he headed to his granddaughter’s graduation served as a dramatic demonstration of his restored autonomy.
Although grateful to be cancer-free, Mr. Riddick has additional health problems, including arthritis and Paget’s disease, which causes bone and joint pain.
The many medications he takes tax his limited budget. Mr. Riddick receives $1,338 a month in Social Security after deductions from Medicare and a monthly pension of $130 from his decades working in the garment industry. He retired at 63.
Last summer, Mr. Riddick, who also has asthma, sought relief from the heat and a way to improve the airflow in his apartment, which is on the top floor of his building and becomes stuffy.
“I had fans, but fans only spread hot air,” Mr. Riddick said.
He spoke with a case manager at Heights and Hills, which offers support to older adults in Brooklyn and is a member agency of FPWA, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. A grant of $349 from FPWA was used for Mr. Riddick to buy an air-conditioner.
It had a positive impact, he said, and is a crucial part of his efforts to stay active and maintain his physical well-being.
“I just keep walking, to maintain my balance,” Mr. Riddick said. “Sometimes I wobble a bit; I get lightheaded.” During a recent interview, he got up several times to pace his apartment, not once using a cane.
Overcoming some of the dark, wayward thoughts that can rush to fill the lulls has also proved difficult. Mr. Riddick’s faith has been tested by loss. In 1992, his common-law wife died of a brain aneurysm. In 1999, his son, Tysheem Riddick, 23, was killed over a drug debt in Pennsylvania.
“You try not to sit and concentrate on it,” Mr. Riddick said. “You just box yourself in. All these things really start getting down on you.”
Mr. Riddick knows that with age and increasing weakness it becomes easier to feel isolated. He strives to stay social, venturing a few times a week to stores to buy a newspaper, a ritual intended primarily to keep him fit. He regularly reaches out to loved ones, counselors and ministers for company or advice. Even doctor visits, though undesirable, are seen as social calls.
“Keeping in solitude, you can kind of go batty,” Mr. Riddick said. “It helps me to be able to get out of this place. It takes me a little longer, but I manage it so far.”
One great joy, he said, is spending time with his three children and 15 grandchildren. He also visits with other retirees in his building. They swap stories, and Mr. Riddick remembers that others are also struggling.
Things may not get better, he said, but accepting reality has been the surest way to keep his vibrancy from eroding.
“There is no reversal,” Mr. Riddick said. “So you’ve got to deal with it.”
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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.