Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cancer survivor

I am a cancer survivor.


But I feel like a cheater.

In November 2013, at age 56, my wife found a black spot on the back of my ear. I had it surgically removed. It was a malignant melanoma. Fortunately, they got it all. I will be going back for checkups, every six months for five years, to make sure it doesn't show up somewhere else.

In May 2017, at age 59, I went to the emergency room with the worst stomachache in the history of the universe. I was diagnosed with pancreatitis, given a miracle painkiller called Dilaudid, and admitted to the hospital for four days.

The doctors stuffed me in an MRI tube to take a closer look at my pancreas. They never did find the cause of the pancreatitis, but while I was in there, they found something on my kidney that didn't belong there. Suddenly they were a lot more concerned about my kidney than my pancreas. They did a CT scan and confirmed that I had a tumor on my right kidney.

So about six weeks later, after my pancreas was mostly back to normal, I went into surgery to have the tumor removed. A biopsy on the tumor showed, according to the doctor, that it was a "classic renal cell carcinoma" and that it had "negative margin." In plain English, "It was cancerous, but we got it all." I will go back for a CT scan 12 months from now, and if it shows no more cancer, then I'm free. (UPDATE, July 2018: The CT scan is clear. No more cancer. No more follow-ups.)

I was lucky—or blessed—both times. The first cancer, the melanoma, was caught by my alert and perceptive wife. The second cancer was only a Stage 1 carcinoma, only 2 centimeters long, and it was what the books call "incidental detection"—something you find while you're looking for something else. The first one was removed in the doctor's office, and all I had to do was wear a huge bandage behind my ear that made me look like Dumbo for three weeks. The second one was removed using video-game surgery, so they didn't have to slice my side wide open and stomp around inside.

That's why I feel like a cheater.

I didn't have to deal with chemo. Or radiation therapy. A suppressed immune system and the resulting opportunistic infections. Massive hair loss. Nausea. Sores that wouldn't heal in my mouth, my ears, or anywhere else. A feeding tube. Catheters and PICC lines. A portable oxygen system. Unending, unrelenting pain. Doctors who didn't comprehend the pain and wouldn't prescribe drugs simply to relieve the pain.

(Side note: I will always be grateful for that Dilaudid, and for the medical professionals who gave it to me. On a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being pain so bad that you would rather die than continue to suffer, the pain from pancreatitis is a 20 or a 30. My doctors and nurses understood that.)

I didn't have to sell everything I own, including my house, to pay thousands of dollars a week for drugs that might or might not keep me alive. My family didn't have to go through weeks and months of endless torment, watching me get alternately better, then worse, but always worse, wondering if and when the beast would finally kill me.

I got to live. Twice.

From the melanoma, I have a skin graft on the back of my ear. From the carcinoma, I have six small scars on my right side. Only nine days after the surgery I'm up and around. I'll be riding my bike in a couple of weeks.

I'm neither bragging nor complaining. I know how blessed I am. Four medical professionals—doctors and surgeons—independently acknowledged the hand of God in this latest episode, remarking on the fact that it hadn't been for my pancreatitis, ...

But I feel guilty. I feel like a cheater. I got out of the cancer class twice, without having to take the full exam.

Still, when all is said and done, there is this:

I am a cancer survivor. Twice.