People are reluctant to inquire as to certain subject matter such as, “Where are you with your illness, how do you feel?, how is your journey progressing, and what is your prognosis today”? Not only that, but the impacting and scary term “cancer” is seldom spoken when in these situations. Patients, loved ones, and adjacent caretakers are all included in this roster.
So, there it began with me, simply shaving in the early morning on a baseball road trip to Minneapolis that I discovered a small lymph node distended in my right neck area. Four months later I decided to be a bit more aggressive, a rather ridiculous period of medical denial, and received the news very quickly, Squamous Cell Carcinoma.
Upon the diagnosis at New York Presbyterian Hospital through my astute team physician internal medicine specialist, Dr. Paul Lee, I immediately pursued an immediate plan of treatment with a doctor who literally saved my life with his expertise, formula, and dexterity. Dr. Dennis Kraus, then affiliated with Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Medical Center mapped out a plan of surgery and radiation with words that I shall never forget when I inquired about my chances of surviving. He simply said, time and time again whenever I was apprehensive, “We play to win”.
Then it was time for education, preparation, and anxiety, associated with the inherent surgery, recovery, and all that will follow. People from across the country reached out in hopes of assuring and preparing me for what was approaching. Friends, colleagues, strangers, all who had lived this experience were nothing short of amazing in their honest and forthright approach. I was told frankly that this was to become the most miserable time of my life, ever. No punches were pulled, no sugar-coating, I was prepared. Or……was I?
There was little fear of the surgery. That was described in detail and proceeded very well. Immediate recovery was tough, both tonsils were removed, a genius move via Dr. Kraus, as I had cancer in both tonsils, a rarity. The weakness and lack of appetite and ability to eat was overwhelming, and through my insistence emotionally to resist the notion, I did not experience the feeding tube. Thus began the weeks and weeks of power shakes and supplementing as best as I could manage, it was miserable. There were six weeks to wait and recover until the radiation was to commence.
“Orientation” and the ensuing thirty treatments in six weeks teach you much about yourself. There is a will-power we all have that I know is basically untouched. It takes times such as these to truly tap into what we truly are all about! For whatever reasons, I strongly desired and saw it through to travel to my treatments essentially by myself with my own thoughts. The mask, the treatment sessions, the crossing off of the days on the calendar, and my fellow “patients” all served me well. There was a unique peace during the actual sessions with the machine rattling, not sure what that was about, but I know the joy of the session being complete and hearing the feet of the “team” re-entering the room, was always a joyous event and made my drive home rewarding. I could go home and cross off another day. That 30th day seemed years away.
The course of radiation left me very weak and without an appetite at all, and as predicted, the REAL tough effects of radiation set in approximately two weeks after completion. One of the best medicines during this time was my desire and fulfillment in returning to some work, albeit for only three or four hours per day, while my Yankee team was at home. When I did begin to travel, I know it was too early, but the work and having my friends/associates back was great medicine. I struggled with nutrition very much, especially on the road.
I am presently two years and four months removed from my radiation and I continue to struggle somewhat with my appetite and my food, but patience and common sense help. The follow-up visits with my doctor and oncologist physician still are a bit scary, I’m definitely not a fan of the endoscope, but I shall always remember, “We play to win”. Constant sinus drainage, chest congestion, dry mouth, and an occasional sore throat concern me at times, but I manage these things and continue my life in retirement. I learned early on, as my illness sealed my intention to retire soon anyway, that I needed a bit of an obligation, a place to go to work for a bit, and I was able to fulfill that with a bit of a part-time obligation, inherent with my previous career. For this I am most grateful, as I was lingering with apparent sadness and depression with my plight.
Paying strict attention to the educational process of this cancer journey helped me immensely. The throat rinses, the burn creams, nutrition guidelines, rest protocols, exercise regiments, physical therapy, and emotional open-door policies, were of tremendous help in retrospect. Anyone in this cancer journey benefits so much for permitting friends, family, loved ones from all over, into their lives, not as anything less than an intricate aspect of their own special “team”.
Am I a fighter? I don’t honestly think so. I feel you need to be really mad to be a good fighter and I was not so mad as I was disappointed, deeply concerned, and just simply “out there” by myself. There really isn’t time to be truly scared and to worry excessively. The time during this journey of overcoming and healing needs to be spent on positive and enriching thoughts of what tomorrow may bring.
My answer is to become involved, with what I have, and that is my life, my relationships, my work, some fun, my new pickup truck that my team gave me, and my dog Brady. I have Liz and Brady, and my kids, and this brings me peace and the will to improve and help the other folks in their journey.