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The Fight of My Life

This Business of Farming

Cancer takes no holidays, the author discovers

Published on: November 12, 2013
"How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?" – Fight Club, 1999

It was just a bump. No larger than my thumbnail, really. But the bump was round and hard and located in an odd place on my body, at the top of the back of my thigh.

My doctor didn't think it was anything. A half year later the bump started to grow. My doctor still insisted it was nothing, but he suggested we have a surgeon remove it. When I woke up from anesthesia my wife met me with a look I'll never forget.

That was October, 2003. Ten years later I'm still coming to grips with what happened next – and the lessons I can pass on to others.

I had never been sick, really. I was the nerd who got perfect attendance awards in grade school. Here I was at age 44 and never spent a night in a hospital. Now I was in for the fight of my life.

The bump was stage three epithelioid sarcoma, a soft tissue cancer. My wife Molly bravely began researching best treatment facilities, until we realized no one does much research on this type of cancer, it's so rare.

My head was spinning. I went through those emotional stages Kubler-Ross describes in On Death and Dying: denial, anger, depression…but mostly fear and panic. In my teens I had watched my mother die from cancer; I didn't want my then 7-year-old daughter to watch me wither away.

We now had to meet with oncologists. The very word makes most of us uncomfortable, until we need one – then an oncologist is your lifeline. We set up appointments and decided on surgery with an oncology surgeon at University of Chicago.

No Holidays

One of the first things we discovered is that cancer takes no holidays. My wife and I dropped our daughter at the home farm in northern Illinois and spent Thanksgiving at the hospital. After surgery a month later I began my first chemotherapy treatment at our local Cancer Care Clinic - on Christmas Day.

Every chemo experience is different, depending on the type of cancer and stage of disease. In my case my oncologist was going to throw the book at me. I had mentally prepped for this and the first week left me nauseous, but otherwise okay. Then the nurses added a second drug – doxorubicin, or "red devil," as it's known in the medical field. I watched that red liquid slowly creep up the intravenous tube and into the port installed in my chest. The effect was immediate – my insides began to convulse. It knocked me off the bed as I grabbed for the waste basket.  "This must be what it's like to swallow rat poison," I thought.

In fact, chemo is designed to kill cancer cells, but it destroys good cells too. Lots of them. These sessions lasted six hours each day all week, with three weeks off to recover. I repeated that process for seven months.

Going through chemo is a lesson in humility. You discover just how vain you really are. For a while I looked like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. When I looked in a mirror, I didn't recognize the ghostly figure staring back at me. Now I could empathize with others undergoing this treatment.

Tacked on to chemo was 16 weeks of radiation. I was tattooed and each day had doses of radiation shot into the area where the tumor had been removed. Routine bodily functions became torturous.

These treatments were physically tough, but nothing compared to the mental stress. I fixated on my mortality. It's key to stay positive throughout ths experience, but as any survivor will tell you, it's extremely difficult. "You will beat this," I would tell myself over and over, and I tried to focus on life beyond chemo. Yet, I became an absolute beast to live with. My wife had a full-time job and was put into the unenviable position of caregiver and positive-reinforcer. That's not an easy job for anyone, especially someone also juggling motherhood. As all cancer patients know, like it or not, your family ends up going on this bumpy ride with you.

Once a cancer patient ends treatment they focus on surviving – and worrying. In my case I was feeling fine when four years later, after a routine cat scan, the oncologist called me in to say the tumor had returned –right next to my heart.

When cancer metastasizes, odds of survival fall dramatically – welcome to stage four. The panic returned. On one particularly tearful day my wife and I planned my funeral. I was put through a special cat scan to see if the tumor was inoperable. Another specialist at the University of Chicago was called in.

After weeks of wondering if this time I had really used up all my lives, the surgeon called to say he would take a crack at my case.

Close to the heart

Now, Doctor Mark Ferguson was not big on bedside manners. I tried to get him to laugh a couple times, to no avail. But people from all over the world want Ferguson's hands in their chest because he has a great track record at removing malignant tumors. In my case he cracked open my ribs, reached in and took out the lemon-sized tumor along with parts of my diaphragm, a lobe of my left lung and pericardium, the protective sack around my heart.

In recovery doctors told me there was a 75% chance the tumor would return within two years. I began looking at life through a different lens. I shortened my expectations. I hoped to see my daughter graduate eighth grade.

What I wasn't counting on was Doctor Ed Elliott. He specialized in radiation oncology and had given me my first round of radiation back in 2003. This time he mapped out a plan that would actually pinpoint spots around my heart where the tumor had been, and zap them in a controlled regimen over the course of 12 weeks.

These sessions left me weak and tired, but there were no other bullets in the treatment gun. I was no longer eligible for chemo as the first routine had failed.

For me, this was it.

The days following turned into weeks. Every three months I returned for a cat scan and sweated bullets while Doc Elliott got results. You really think about life when you're in that waiting room, wondering what the doc had to say.

Drowning from the inside

Going through cancer treatments, you rarely think about potential complications until something weird happens. One evening a few months after surgery I suddenly found it nearly impossible to breathe. Local doctors didn't know what to make of it, so in the dead of night I was whisked off on a three-hour ambulance ride at 85 mph with my wife and best friend Jeff following in a car. At University of Chicago the docs determined my lung – the one that had been partially removed - was filling with liquid. I felt like I was drowning from the inside. Interventional radiologists inserted a needle in my back and drained off two liters of fluid. This happened twice more that year before my lung finally healed.

A few months later, I was unable to hold down food. I lost a fourth of my body weight and eventually found myself in septic shock headed for the Intensive Care Unit. A catscan revealed that my stomach had shifted out of place and attached itself to my heartsack, the result of the surgery over a year earlier. A surgeon had to cut me open and put everything back in place.

The months turned to years. The cat scans kept coming back all clear. I could start planning ahead. This is the definition of cancer survival: living your life waiting on cat scan results and hoping to make the magical five year mark.

For me that day came and went like any other, last spring.

Fighting cancer puts you on an emotional rollercoaster, rushing from the depths of depression to the heights of euphoria and back. I've learned some lessons. Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small. Love your family and friends; at your darkest moments they all become lifeboats. Take nothing for granted. Cherish every day. Even if it's something small, pop the cork and celebrate. Why not?

Above all, don't take anything to chance when it comes to your body. There's a reason why you hear doctors talk about the importance of early detection. I might have avoided a lot of medical hell had I done something sooner.

From fear to faith

Fear is the black hole of cancer. It can swallow your life and paralyze your soul. Fear took away my sense of humor, my positive outlook. I had to fight hard to get that back. I found peace, eventually, in faith. There really is no other answer when it comes down to it. You have to believe God has a plan, even if we can't understand it.

Somehow I got through this meat grinder. I lived to coach my daughter's basketball team, watch her fall in love, win horse riding ribbons and become a top student in her class. I'm even optimistic I'll be there next spring for her high school graduation. And yes, we had a pretty nice party when I turned 50 a few years ago.

I owe a lot to modern medicine, faith, friends and family. Everything tastes a little sweeter now.

As Thanksgiving approaches, life goes on. It's become my favorite holiday.