Hi folks! Look who’s finally come up for air!!! Yes, believe it or not, I’m still alive and kicking. It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted, and there’s a pretty good reason why. Initially, I wasn’t planning to tell it (because quite frankly, I wasn’t exactly sure when, or how, it would end), but after a fair bit of soul-searching, and a few well-placed comments from some really important people in my life, I’ve changed my mind. So without further ado, here’s what’s been going on.
(Warning: this is a bit of a lengthy post.)
For the past five years (give or take), I’ve been battling cancer – and I didn’t know it until mid-November.
It started with a little lump on my arm that I didn’t worry about because a) it didn’t get in my way or cause me any pain, and b) I thought it was a fat deposit. Over the years I thought it might have been getting a little bigger, but my family doc said that it was nothing to be worried about unless it started to get a) a fair bit bigger fairly quickly, or b) started to cause me pain and/or get firmer. Actually, two doctors told me that – my family doc and the general surgeon that I was referred to about a year ago when it had gotten a bit bigger in size (and firmer).
It kept getting bigger over the summer and finally it seemed like it was a rock, and it started to hurt if I bumped it (or leaned in a doorway or something where indirect pressure would be applied). I went back to that surgeon this past October, and we agreed that it needed to come out (still thinking it was a fat deposit). On November 6, they did an in-office procedure and while they didn’t tell me this at the time…they got more than they bargained for. They removed a full-fledged tumor that was just about the same size as a baseball (maybe a bit bigger). They didn’t lead me to believe that it was anything to be worried about, but said that they were sending it to the lab to have it analyzed – per routine procedure. Two weeks later, and after the local pathology lab had analyzed it and then sent it to the Mayo Clinic to confirm, they informed me that it a) wasn’t a fat deposit, and b) it was cancer.
The surgeon told me that it wasn’t a killer-type cancer; it wouldn’t spread, it wouldn’t kill me or decrease my life expectancy (and this is all true), but that there was a slim chance that it could re-grow in the same place. He told me to do monthly arm exams, sort of like how women are supposed to be doing self exams for breast cancer (not to get personal, but if you’re of the fairer sex…you’d better be doing them!), and if I felt anything, to call him back and we’d start talking options.
This didn’t sit well. At age 30, hearing a doc tell you that you have cancer…well, how would you react?
One of my cousins is a nurse here in town, and when she found out, she came to my rescue and pulled some strings (probably more like big ropes – I don’t know how kosher it is to slot relatives into the fast-track for consultation with a surgical oncologist, but she did it anyway, bless her heart) and got me in to see the best surgical oncologist in the city (perhaps the state) just before Thanksgiving.
He respectfully disagreed with the “wait and see” attitude. “Cancer like this is aggressive,” he said, “and with a 15-20% chance of re-occurrence (in my mind, this is not a “slim chance”), we need to fight back pretty aggressively to try and keep those odds stacked in your favor as much as we can. We gotta do surgery again and clean up what might have been left behind.” And thus…surgery was scheduled for his soonest opening (Dec. 15).
When it was all said and done, the surgery went pretty well, but while I was in recovery, the doctor pulled my wife aside and said, “I hate to say this, but I don’t think we got it all; we’ll let the lab do the testing to make sure, but we pulled out a LOT of infected tissue before we got to clean stuff – and I don’t think that we got it all. I think we’re looking at another surgery to go in and finish the job. Not right away, but as soon as the incision has healed up, we’re probably going to have to go in again on the perpendicular axis to get into the corners that we think we left, and probably follow it with a pretty amped-up dose of radiation afterwards to make sure that everything is dead.”
Great…a bad situation gets worse.
The holidays, and my recovery, went okay (pretty well, actually, all things considered), but obviously I was pretty stressed about the whole thing (as was my loving wife and my extended family). I have to confess that I spent most of December doped up on pain meds; suffice it to say that I would have sounded like a blithering idiot if I’d tried to post anything of value here on Brassing. Pain meds aside, though, my mental outlook was a bit “pressured.” No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t focus for more than about 39 seconds. I was, and still am, very thankful that this isn’t one of those “big-time” life-threatening cancers, but I was pretty uneasy when I walked into the doc’s office for the followup on December 31. I knew that one thing was certain; the stitches were being taken out (hallelujah for that!). Aside from that, though, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
But…the doc walked in with a big toothy grin (he’s a little guy from New York with a small frame and a pretty dry sense of humor – but a big smile…extra big at that moment) and says to me, “Well, whaddya know? The margins tested clear! I don’t know how we did it, but we got it all! For now, my friend, you’re cancer-free!”
I nearly fell off the exam table. 🙂
Furthermore, he told me that he didn’t think that radiation was necessary right now because he didn’t think that the benefits outweighed the risks if the tumor did come back. He said that radiation would probably only cut the odds by (best-case) 50%, which would still leave me with double-digit odds, and it would make future surgeries tougher to do and would make healing not go as well as it has this time around. Still, he wanted me to see a radiologist so I could hear their side of the story and make my own decision on the matter.
I had a consult with the head of Mercy Medical’s radiology department here in Des Moines yesterday and got a different story. He’s recommending the treatment and says that it’ll really be the best thing I can do to stack the odds in my favor. With tumors the size of the one I had, and narrow margins of clear tissue, I’m apparently closer to the 20% end of the re-occurence scale (maybe even higher, given the size of the tumor), and he thinks that by nuking ground zero right now, we’ll be able to cut the odds by 60 – 70%. He left the decision up to me, though. So…while I’m free and clear of cancer (for now)…it sounds like the final chapters of this story have yet to be written. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I’m sort of leaning towards going through with it as I bang away on this keyboard. Time will tell…stay tuned. I can’t guarantee that my posts will be super-regular in the foreseeable future, but if I’m able (and I feel like I’ve got some value to share), I will. In advance, I appreciate your patience as I get things sorted out.
So…I guess I spent a couple of months beating cancer…sorta.
(And if this story sounds a little re-hearsed…well, I’ve had to tell it quite a few times; I’m getting pretty good at it.) 🙂
Additionally, I’d like to add one more thing to this (already) very long post, and it’s truly from the heart. There are a number of you readers out there that I know on a personal level, and many more who I frequently exchange emails and letters with. There were a number of emails, notes, letters, and phone calls from those of you who just wanted to make sure I was okay during this little life-imposed sabbatical; whether I responded or not (and if I did respond and I appeared to have lost my mind – thank you Vicodin!)…none of you will ever understand how much that meant to me. You (my beloved wife of almost 7 years, my friends, family, loved ones here and elsewhere, and acquaintances who I barely know, co-workers, and all of the medical staff who took such good care of me) were, and still are, the Earthly support staff that I’ve come to rely on to keep me pointed in the right direction (mostly mentally, but sometimes physically too!). 🙂
On the surface, this kind of cancer is a relative light-weight (dermato-fibro-sarcoma protuberans – DFSP for short). It’s not life-threatening, and it absolutely pales in comparison to some of the cancers that you folks have experienced (either personally or through those around you); frankly, I feel really sheepish by putting myself in the same category as those who’ve beaten lung, breast, prostate, liver, and other cancers that are the really big-hitters. I don’t say this to make light of what may/may not be in my life now and in the future…it’s more to say thank you for doing what you do. Being strong and supportive of those who have suffered or continue to do so, or living your life to the fullest despite battling cancer yourself. Whether you wear the yellow wristband or not…living strong is a demonstration of the utmost character.
You’re making it count, and you’re teaching me while you’re doing it.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Ryan @ Brassing Adds Character