I was diagnosed with Stage 4 head-and-neck cancer three days before my wedding last July.

If you're wondering which emotion - dread or joy - wins out in a schizophrenic standoff like that, you've never planned a backyard reception with caterers, florists, and 30 guests all scheduled to swoop in before 6 p.m.

What happens is, you say, "I do," then kiss the bride. You lock yourself in the bathroom and scream on your own time.

With the discovery of a lump in my neck, I'd emigrated to a different country - Cancer-stan, crowded with around 20 million Americans.

Teeming as it is, that nation loses 1,630 people a day - nearly 600,000 a year - more than the populations of Miami, or Atlanta, or lots of places.

A 59-year-old newlywed with a 12-year-old daughter and a 29-year-old stepson, I desperately don't want to be one of them.

After a second opinion, I go to the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where a compassionate staff takes charge of my care.

At Abramson, part of the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, an endless flow of folks moves daily through a huge revolving door. Disease isn't necessarily written on their bodies; they carry it like secret couriers. The busy glass building takes on the look and feel of a giant cancer mall.

The everydayness of it all startles: life-and-death struggles rendered mundane by the sheer number of patients.

Up in the chemotherapy suites, people are shot full of crazy-potent chemicals while sipping water and reading InStyle magazine.

Down in radiation, patients close their eyes and listen to Pandora as giant machines that look like they could launch rockets shoot invisible photon beams into sickened cells.

With diligent staff members herding us, there is a factorylike automation to it all, made necessary by a malady as pervasive as it is indiscriminate.

Diagnosed people amaze me with their grace and humor, especially the smiling 8-year-olds with no hair. Several breast-cancer survivors wear a shirt on sale at the center that reads, "Of course these aren't real. My real ones tried to kill me."

Nothing seems funny to my daughter, who cries, "Why do you have to have cancer?", and pushes me to play with her like I used to. I try to kick a soccer ball one day but the effort sinks me. She stares, scared and confused, and I don't know what to do with my exploding fear that I'll die and hobble her before high school.

I am told the cancer grew deep in my throat and migrated to my neck, a process that may have taken 30 years, without producing even a millisecond of pain. Two biopsies cannot find my original tumor, meaning that it's either microscopic or that my body killed it.

Nonetheless, doctors prescribe 35 sessions of radiation of my throat and neck and around 28 hours of chemotherapy over seven weeks - among the tougher regimens a cancer patient could face, I'm told.

For radiation, I wear a mesh-like hard plastic mask whose edges are fastened to a table for each 20-minute treatment. Claustrophobic patients are urged to take antianxiety meds to cope with being bolted down. I swallow many pills.

I ask a Penn tech what people do with their masks when treatment is over. "Run them over with their cars," he says without hesitating.

Treatment brings changes. My scorched throat wakes me at all hours. I get pneumonia. Pain pills play havoc with my gut. For a week, I can't stop vomiting.

Soon enough, I dislike eating. Taste buds get zapped, and most meals taste like either metal or cardboard. Eating anything made with sugar is akin to chewing trash.

And because salivary glands were also hit with radiation, swallowing any kind of food is difficult, because it's too dry.

If you live long enough, it can take two years for things to improve, but taste will never return to 100 percent normal.

I lose 30 pounds quickly and the nurses threaten me with a feeding tube. Andrea, my bride, cannot abide this and takes over my nutrition needs with a fervor, creating high-calorie shakes for me, vowing to keep me fed and alive.

I'm one of the lucky ones. If I'd been a smoker or a drinker, my prognosis would be much worse. And I don't lose my hair.

I'd be lying if I said cancer doesn't bring gifts, one of which is how it bestows a keen, animal sense of awareness.

On my wedding day, I hear the silk-on-silk slide of my tie with crisp clarity as I knot it. I smell barbecue two blocks from the Quaker meeting house where we marry. I see a depth of love and intelligence in Andrea's brown eyes that humbles me.

Also a blessing, friends and family rally with startling alacrity, flocking from all over to drive me from our home in Salem County, N.J., to Penn for treatments. My father and brother offer endless support; Andrea's coworkers fill our fridge with food.

Seven months after my diagnosis, the doctors tell me the cancer is gone, and has not spread.

I admonish myself to live each day as a present from the universe, though, selfishly, that's sometimes tough to maintain, especially without penne arrabbiata or apple pie. I'm puzzled that I don't exult at every sunrise, but smart pals say it'll take some time to find normalcy.

I can wait, now that the sickness is burned out of me. And if tough times somehow return, I'll take a lesson from my wedding. And remember that in the end, joy wins out.

alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969

@AlfredLubrano