A lot can happen in ten years.
Cancer. It can change a lot. The entire world can change in ten years. In 1961, President Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon and, sure enough, less than a decade later we did exactly that.
Albert Einstein completed his theory of general relativity in under a decade. Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in eight years. Pioneering English rock band, The Beatles, were a raging success and active band for under a decade. Heck, it only took six years for the first trans-continental railroad, stretching 1,907 miles, to complete.
Ten years can change a lot.
Ten years ago today I was at my mom’s house, with my girlfriend, getting ready to go out on a date night, meet some friends, have fondue, and enjoy the evening. As I was getting ready to leave, having dropped the kids off to grandma, my girlfriend brushed my long hair back to fix my shirt collar, let out a small gasp, and said, “You have a lump on your neck.”
Enter Lenny the Cancer Lymph Node
I later named that lump “Lenny.” Lenny the Lymph Node. A new arrival on the scene – Lenny hadn’t been there a scant week before, as shown by photos when I bothered to go back and look.
Lenny the Lymph Node was an interloper. Lenny the Lymph Node was cancer.
So started one of the most frightening, and strangely, wonderful times of my life. I was caught in a whirlwind of doctors, surgeries, treatments, and life changes. For almost a year, I spent more time in doctors offices and hospitals than I did my own home.
Within a week of Lenny appearing, I knew I had Stage III squamous cell carcinoma. I almost misheard the diagnosis and thought the doctor said I had “John Stamos Cell carcinoma.” Stage III meant it had spread from somewhere else, and that it was in the lymphatic network was very troubling. The lymphatic system is the “superhighway” of the body and once a cancer gets into it, it has a literal free pass to the rest of the body.
We didn’t know where the origin was yet; doctors said it had an “occult origin.” I imagined Lenny standing in a pentagram chanting malevolent and preternatural magic spells with the intent of killing me.
Something Radical Dissects My Neck – and My Cancer
Less than a month later, I was lying in a hospital bed with a savage, 10-inch, scar running from left ear to the nape of my throat. Lenny had been excised. The source of the cancer had been found and cut out as well – my tonsils. The procedure was called a radical neck dissection.
I would later learn that, of the types of head and neck cancer to choose from, mine was from the Human papillomavirus. HPV. This was actually better than being smoking-related or caused by other factors. HPV cancers typically respond well to treatment if caught early enough.
But still – HPV. Public PSA if you’ve made it this far: this is a preventable cancer if you vaccinate your children, male and female. Get your kids vaccinated against HPV; it could save their lives.
I sat in the hospital, my girlfriend ever-present at my side. I was in more emotional agony than physical pain, although the physical discomfort was extreme. How could this woman I had barely been dating eight months be at my bedside every day? Taking care of me, the kids, and running the entire household? Who was this angel?
Chemotherapy, Radiation, and…
A few weeks after my radical neck dissection I started radiation therapy. A mask was for fitted to my head to hold me absolutely still while the radiation targeted my disease. Half an hour a day, for thirty-five sessions, I drove myself to the hospital and endured the radiation.
I also started chemotherapy at the same time. Before chemo I had always considered myself a strong man. Even during my treatments to this point I had been mostly stoic outwardly, even as I was gibbering in fear internally.
Chemotherapy changed all that. I learned the true meaning of despair after a week of vomiting, fevers, and adverse reactions so bad I thought I was going to die.
My body grew weaker. My throat formed open wounds inside from the radiation. It closed up. I was unable to eat, and I lost my sense of taste weeks before. My hair started falling out.
… Feeding Tubes
Finally, I had lost too much weight. My doctors recommended they insert a feeding tube into my belly. I have terrible reaction to narcotics, so I asked for no sedation or painkillers prior to getting the tube put in. The doctors reluctantly agreed because they said I would be on the “twilight drug,” Versed, and would not remember anyway.
They were wrong, I remember everything. The medical professionals fought past my gag reflex to insert an air tube into my stomach, inflated my stomach to monumental proportions to make it taut, and then shoved a spike into it. I heard a loud POP, felt excruciating pain – I imagine it felt like a bullet wound – and heard all the air in my stomach whoosh out and watched my belly deflate.
Then it was over, and for months thereafter I had to eat my food by pouring it into my belly. And my girlfriend stayed with me. Even when I bent over and the contents of my stomach poured out of my feeding tube. I learned early on that you don’t bend over with a feeding tube – you crouch.
My Florence Nightingale & Staying Strong for the Children
She helped feed me, bathe me when I was too weak, and dressed me. She never flinched from my wounded and emaciated body. Even as I looked at myself in the mirror with shame and disgust I only ever saw love and compassion in her eyes.
My children never saw my weakness as I went through all of this. I made sure they saw me weakened, but strong. A fighter. They were already traumatized enough by the entire ordeal – I would never burden them with my true weakness and fears.
The Christmas Miracle Fart
Shortly after the feeding tube insertion, my entire digestive system shut down. In shock from the tube insertion. I could not eat, take water, or sustain any nourishment at all. I immediately threw it up.
Hospitalized – just a couple of days before Christmas and subjected to all sorts of indignities as the doctors tried to kick-start my digestive system. I wasn’t allowed to leave until I could fart. Apparently a positive litmus test of my digestive system is the ability to fart.
I was embarrassed. An entire team of medical professionals, and my girlfriend, all looking me expectantly – waiting for me to fart in front of them. I was ashamed and refused to let anyone visit me in the hospital. Only my girlfriend. For four days until the magical fart finally appeared and we all cheered and I made it home for Christmas. I had a Christmas Fart Miracle.
While I was in the hospital, alone with my girlfriend, I looked into her eyes as she held my hand and said “If I make it five years I’m going to ride my motorcycle around the country.” With tears in her eyes, she nodded and said “Of course you are.”
The Danger, and Power, of Hope
Hope is a double-edged sword when you’re fighting cancer. I learned quickly that, as an anxious man, almost all of my anxiety went away when my future was uncertain and I was fighting, every day, just to live. I learned that anxiety is not real – it’s my mind trying to control future events that may or may not happen. When I didn’t think I had a future, the anxiety went away. And, strangely, I was happy. Because I learned to live in the moment and enjoy what I had right in front of me.
When I promised my girlfriend I would ride around the country in five years, it brought back my anxiety. Making plans for the future seemed worthless – the future unattainable. But I made myself that promise nevertheless. And that one promise led me to make a decision.
By New Years I was still incredibly weak, prone to infection because of my weakened immune system, and could barely walk. I still insisted that my girlfriend and I go to the local botanical gardens on New Years Day.
It took me half an hour, leaning on her the entire time, to walk/shuffle/gasp the quarter-mile to the Rose Garden. As she sat on a bench, under a trellis of roses, a cardinal flitted on the branch behind her and I fell on one knee, presented her with a ring and asked her to marry me.
She agreed, and I suddenly had another future to strive for. The walk back through the gardens to the car didn’t seem as onerous.
Life Gets Better – a New (scary) Normal
While life didn’t get easier, it got better. Mitigating the darkness of my disease were these new events – by the fact that I was loved, even in such a sorry state, enough for this amazing woman to agree to be my wife.
But my hair was still falling out at a prodigious rate. So rather than wait for it to come out in unsightly clumps, we all went to my mom’s house and had a “hair cutting party.” My three kids, and my brother’s five kids, took turns cutting off all that was left of my hair. We symbolically burned it afterwards – with instant regret because we had all forgotten how rotten burning hair smells.
And then, one day, it was over. In the space a literal day I had gone from daily doctor visits to “come back in six months.” I was afraid. Lost. I felt like a cancer rock star during treatments. I had a team of professionals looking after me every single day and now they were all gone.
Adjusting was hard – anxiety and fears were high. Did they get it all? How would I know if not? Was six months too long to wait? With trepidation I returned to work.
But we all endured. One day thereafter my feeding tube came out and I had to eat like everyone else again. But my taste buds hadn’t recovered and everything was ash in my mouth. So I ate listlessly, struggling to swallow.
Magically, I tasted a pickle one day. It was so good I cried; I hadn’t tasted anything for over half a year. But that was all I could taste. Nothing else. I started bingeing on sour pickles.
Then I was at Joe’s Crab Shack eating spicy étouffée and I could taste it as well! My fiancé and work friends quickly grew to hate Joe’s Crab Shack as I made them go every day for lunch so I could taste étouffée.
Promised Made. Promises Kept.
And so my healing continued. I was a changed man. I had scars, a weak immune system, swallowing issues, and more side effects that I still, to this day, suffer under. But I survived, healed, and thrived. A new routine of scans, checkups, and twice-yearly anxiety attacks became my new world.
I married my fiancé in the same botanical gardens in which I proposed to her.
My mother passed away.
I took my five-year cancer-free motorcycle trip around the country.
Google acquired our company and we moved to Pittsburgh.
Life goes on. And now, here I am, ten years to the day from when my wife found Lenny the Cancer Lymph Node in my neck. Typing on the computer even as I pack my bags for a trip to Norway.
Also, Life is funny. A lot can happen in ten years. My entire life changed and I am not the same man I was then – I am more, I am better, and I am still missing the innocence I lost from cancer. Cancer changed me, but did not beat me.
One thing is for sure though – I can’t say I would change it. For all the pain and heartbreak, these past ten years have deepened the relationships with the people who matter most, given me insight and perspective I never would have had otherwise, and taught me the value of living in the now.
Cancer is a terrible disease from which no one should suffer. I was lucky; science, doctors, and the fact that we caught it relatively early helped me fight and beat this disease. Not everyone is as lucky.
Thank you all, if you’ve made it this far in your reading. I appreciate you. I appreciate my wife, and my kids, more than words can express. If there is an X-factor in my survivorship it is them. Without them I am nothing. So, thank you all.
Here’s to another ten years, cancer free!