(In 2011, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 colon cancer. Shortly after, I decided to memorialize the event, capturing as much of the events and feelings as I could. Here’s the story.)
My wife told me in 2012 that the two toughest sentences to say are:
- I have cancer.
- My spouse has cancer.
Each of us gets to carry one of those sentences with us now.
Cancer was never a word that I thought I’d have to personally deal with. My self-image has been the seventeen-year-old lanky kid that I was once was, with mild disappointment to follow whenever I’d look in the mirror.
My father fought cancer, twice. The first time, he fought throat cancer, brought on from decades of smoking. The second and final time, he fought lung cancer, eventually succumbing to it just days before his 62nd birthday.
I’ve always distanced myself from smoking, and despite carrying excess weight, I thought that I was healthy enough to minimize the specter of cancer in my life as I journeyed through my forties.
There was no way for me to realize just how wrong I was.
I first had some signs that I didn’t like — some bleeding — in November. I carried this with me for a while. Being a guy, I tried to rationalize it as being caused by spicy food, or some other thing that I could control. After a few weeks, I mentioned it to my wife, who set me up with an appointment to meet with my primary physician the Monday after Thanksgiving (11/28/11). He didn’t like what he saw, and walked me over to a gastroenterologist who scheduled me on the spot for a colonoscopy for the following Monday. For those of you who’ve had a colonoscopy, you know the fun that comes the day before the test. For those of you who haven’t… well, let’s just say that I’m pretty sure I saw some of the meals eaten by my ancestors. It wasn’t the most horrible thing in the world, but it was pretty dang demanding of my energy.
So Monday (12/05/11), I had the scope done. I was terrified about the anesthesia — I haven’t really had any kind of real anesthesia since I was about four years old, and had all kinds of misconceptions about what that might be like. The nurse anesthetist told me what she would do, and assured me that I wouldn’t know that anything had happened. As it ends up (HA!), it was really no big deal, and by the time I was awakening in the recovery room, it was obvious that I was way concerned about the procedure for no reason.
After the procedure, the gastro doctor came to talk with us. He had found a tumor in the lower part of my colon, less than 2″ in size. They’d also done a little additional “spring cleaning” while in there, but the tumor was the thing to focus on. The doctor called it a “Good News Day.” Even though the news wasn’t the news he’d prefer to give me, the good part was that this was found so early, and that I had paid attention to the symptoms, reported them, and starting looking into what was going on. He said if I’d waited another six months or a year, we might be having a very different conversation. He believed that the surgeon would remove a small part of my colon via a laparoscopic procedure, likely before the end of the year. Five days in the hospital, a little pain management, and that would be that. No colostomy bags, no chemotherapy, and no long-term effects. And, the doctor said that he didn’t think this looked like it had leached out of the area it was in. Frankly, I didn’t really hear much of this conversation. My head was focused on the one word I didn’t want to hear: tumor. I simply couldn’t get past that possibility of it being cancer.
We came home, and I surfed all over the NIH and ACS sites, looking for facts — survival rates, diet, and any other details that might help me put this event into a little box in my head. I didn’t do too well with that exercise, but it was something to do aside from brooding over the hand I’d possibly just been dealt.
Tuesday (12/06/11) brought the biopsy results, and they were positive. The tumor was cancerous. As devastated as I was Monday night, I was crushed on Tuesday. The doctor’s office scheduled me for a CT scan the following Monday to take a look at my abdomen and pelvis to make sure there was nothing else going on.
So, for the early part of that first week after my diagnosis, I was in a haze, trying to figure out how to talk about this, how to manage and compartmentalize this diagnosis — and I was failing miserably. I asked my wife to call the doctor’s office and ask why we didn’t have an oncologist overseeing all this work. I mean I had cancer, so wasn’t an oncologist part and parcel of that diagnosis? After her conversation, I began to get a very different picture in my head.
This is how I rationalized it — no doctor confirmed my view of this, but here’s how I coped. If someone is discovered with early skin cancer, you might have a dermatologist remove the diseased cells, do a CT scan to make sure nothing else is going on, and if everything’s clean, you just go on. There’s no “cancer team” assigned to you. You just stop, chop and move on. Between the conversation with the gastro doctor, Becky’s conversation with his staff, and my coming to understand that maybe this wasn’t as petrifyingly big as I thought, I had an okay end to my first week with cancer.
Later in the week, there were some really great days — my appetite returning Wednesday after either the shock of the news or the anesthesia wore off, for example — and bad days where I simply couldn’t get past the words in the diagnosis. That was gonna happen, and I knew that. But I was buoyed, knowing that I had assembled a great team, cheering me on, praying, and doing herculean things to keep my spirits up.
And this is where a little hint of the divine came in. (Bear with me.) I had been thinking about a new amplifier for my guitars, and had talked with my brother about the Carvin amp line, asking about pricing and capabilities. The next time I talked with him, he told me one was on the way, courtesy of him and the folks at Carvin. I was floored. I was more floored when it came in on Monday night! I was struggling, wondering what the news would be from the CT scan, and I was in desperate need of a distraction. The arrival of the new amp and cabinet was just what I needed to keep my mind away from the “what if” questions that permeated my thoughts.
On Monday (12/12/11), I had the CT scan done. Once again, there were eating restrictions prior to the test — although no cleansing, thank goodness! — but gone are the days of the awful tasting contrast solution. Mine was mixed into a couple of bottles of Crystal Light, consumed across an hour’s time. And frankly, the procedure was pretty easy. You just lay there, with a gigantic spinning toroid encircling you, along with the machine telling you when to breathe or hold your breath.
And then finally, there was good news on Wednesday (12/14/11). There was nothing unusual found on the CT scan! And with that, everything was in place for my surgery — a laparoscopic sigmoid colectomy.
My wife and I met the surgeon on Friday (12/15/11), and were very impressed. He had a terrific demeanor, and made both of us feel comfortable with what was coming next. Unfortunately, that meant another Sunday “cleansing”, but it was necessary, so I walked that nasty road one more time.
I entered the hospital for my surgery on Monday (12/19/11). I was scared, but was feeling the presence of God, calming me. I wasn’t nearly as concerned about the anesthesia this time, and when it came time for my “happy hour cocktail”, I was content to drift away, knowing I was in good hands.
I woke up in recovery, and was wheeled to my room. Frankly, I don’t remember much about that little ride, except that I was thirsty. Of course, given that part of my bowel had just been removed, they didn’t want much in me, so for that Monday, it was ice chips for a while. I had great nurses throughout this first day in the hospital, and it just seemed like they were all picked specifically for me.
When Tuesday morning came, it was time for the removal of my catheter. I had a long-time nurse doing the removal, and I was thankful it wasn’t some young nurse. Somehow, it just made me feel more comfortable knowing that my nurse had done more than a few of these. And while the removal didn’t hurt, it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever felt in my life. And my reward at the end of that? A cup of Sierra Mist soda! It was wonderful to actually drink something, and be out of the ice chips. Meals were soft foods — soups and Jell-O — on Tuesday, but I was happy to gobble up whatever they put in front of me.
Wednesday, we got to meet with the surgeon to hear the details of what was found. The tumor was a “T1 M0 N0″. Definitely cancer, but no spreading to other organs or to the lymph nodes, which was the best news we could possibly get. I had dodged a big, big bullet, through reporting my symptoms, early and rapid diagnosis, and an aggressive approach to eliminating my tumor. I figured I would be back frequently for follow-up scopings, but the surgeon’s comment was stunning. He said that he didn’t expect that I would ever see this again, and that for purposes of this cancerous event, I was cured. Wow.
And that’s the point of this story: you see something, you say something. When you’re supposed to get “routine” tests, you get them done. I was too young to be getting colonoscopies, and was fortunate enough to have a symptom that let us know something was up. I have a “happy ending” to my cancer story as a result of that.
Christmas came, and went, and my three incisions were healing well. Or so we thought.
A couple of days after Christmas, I began running a crazy fever, riding the roller coaster of “too hot” and “too cold”. Dr. Pastrana wanted me to visit the ER, in case it was pneumonia. On Tuesday (12/27/11), we hit the ER, and after another CT scan, an EKG, a chest x-ray, and an afternoon of sitting around, they didn’t really find anything definitive, but sent me home with some antibiotics.
Friday (12/30/11), we had a follow-up appointment with my surgeon, and as soon as he looked at my large incision, he knew I had a problem. It was infected, badly, and would require surgery the next morning to drain it. He took a sample in the office, which we later learned contained both staph and e.coli — I had hit the infection lottery.
I was rolled in a wheelchair from the surgeon’s office to my hospital room, which was right next door to the room I was in for my previous surgery. My first night in the hospital was a horrible one. The small hole created by the surgeon’s tools to pull the fluid sample from the infection wouldn’t really close up, and caused me to leak fluids — a lot of fluids — all night. I had folks changing bandages all night, changing my bedding and trying to keep me calm through the whole thing. It was just awful.
Finally, around 5am on Saturday (New Year’s Eve 2011), I was rolled to surgery. I was scared, not knowing what would be discovered in surgery. I lay in my surgical bed, awaiting the surgical staff’s arrival, and began praying. I was amazed to get this almost visual sensation of a bright green net descending upon me, protecting me and soothing my nerves. I was ready for what lay ahead. The surgeon came in the room (it was his day off), and performed the rather quick surgery to drain the abscess. I awoke in recovery again, and was eventually rolled back to my room. The surgeon came by to tell me what he’d done and found. The large incision is the one through which some nasty stuff was pulled out during my first surgery, and it apparently grabbed hold of something ugly during that procedure. The infection started deep, and worked its way to the surface, which is why it took so long for anyone to figure it out. And because it started deep, I had a deep “crater” in me. The good news was that the infection was limited by my abdominal wall, and hadn’t spread to anything in my abdominal cavity. Once again, I had dodged a really big bullet.
For the next few days in the hospital, I had twice daily dressing changes. The staff was putting six feet of gauze inside me. Yeah, I said feet. I felt like I was part of one of those magicians’ tricks, where the magician pulls a seemingly never-ended line of scarves from his pocket! I had two cavities, approximately 3-4 inches deep, into which the staff threaded six feet of gauze to force the wound to stay open, while healing it from the bottom. The first day my dressing was changed, I was given morphine to help with the pain. While the deep interior wasn’t hurting, the surface was excruciating at times. It was as though someone was plucking at me with tweezers — intense pain, but short duration.
On Wednesday (01/04/12), we began working toward my release from the hospital again. We met the “wound nurse” who set us up with a wound treatment machine to carry home with us. This machine would remain on me for three weeks, 24×7, with twice weekly gauze changes, similar to those in the hospital. The home health care folks that took care of me did a wonderful job, making me as comfortable as you can be with someone removing and inserting so much gauze twice a week. This ensured that my wound healed quickly, healing from the bottom as it should. And between the nurses and the little machine, I was blessed with quick healing.
In three weeks time, my cavities went from four inches deep to ¼” deep, at which point I was able to return the machine, and just use regular bandages to keep my wound covered. And by the end of February, I no longer needed bandages. I’m still amazed at just how quickly a wound of that size and depth could heal.
I went back to work after two months of sick leave, and a winter that I’ll never forget.
What everyone reading this should know, though, is that fighting cancer is a team sport. And my team reached out their hands to help me up out of the muck. And that is the single simple truth about fighting this. I know now that no matter what the road looks like ahead of me, I am supported by the shoulders of some of the strongest people I’ve ever known, and with that kind of support beneath me, and God’s support from on high, how can I possibly fall to something like cancer.
So why would I write about this? Well, I really believe that I was brought through all these events for a reason. If I can encourage someone to be checked out, or have hope in their battle, then my fight and story has some value.
But also, today is an anniversary… every day is an anniversary now. As of today – whenever you’re reading this – I am cancer-free!