I am coming up on an anniversary. It is one that I celebrate for a couple of reasons. One, is that the experience changed my life and gave me a completely different outlook on life than I had previously. Second, I am extremely glad to be alive, living in Denton and having the family and friends that I do. Life is good. I’m going to blog on this not to be a showboat or to draw attention to myself. I had nothing to do with the final outcome. I have found through the years though that sharing my experience has been helpful to others either going through what I did or to those taking care of someone who is. I know that talking to someone at the time sure helped me with questions and expectations. People DO survive even nasty forms of cancer…..
Thirty-two years ago, on December 12, 1980, I had surgery to remove a small knot under my right arm. When Dr. Croissant recommended having Dr. Adami remove it, I had no thoughts of cancer……….I mean, I was 23 years old, people that age don’t get cancer. Well, I was wrong. When I woke up in the hospital room after the surgery, I was surprised to see the room filled with family and friends. In a post-anesthesia haze, I didn’t really think this to be unusual, despite the fact that all I had done was a knotectomy. It turns out that I wasn’t getting all the information that they were. I went home to my duplex on Carroll after a day or so and waited. I could tell people were acting a little strange around me, including my girlfriend at the time, Mindy Rue. Mindy was in nursing school and she knew “they” were thinking I could have cancer, but not what kind. I began to suspect, but said nothing, probably in hopes that it would just to go away.
The pathology tests took about 3 days to come back, as I remember, and I called Dr. Adami’s office and asked them to let ME know first when the results came back. On the morning of the 3rd or 4th day, I was sitting in my living room, watching the news. John Lennon had been murdered just a few days before, and there was still a lot about his death on TV. As I was watching, I heard two car doors slam shut outside. I went to the window, pulled back the drapes and looked outside. What I saw sucked the soul out of my body for a few seconds. Walking up to my front door were my parents, arms around each other and both crying. That was when I KNEW. Having sons of my own now, I can’t imagine the anguish they were feeling. I let them in and they told me that they had just gotten a call from Dr. Adami (pre-HIPPA times) and that the tests showed that I had a malignancy. We talked, cried and planned. I told them that I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want to be treated differently. They told me that they had requested prayers from friends at church and that my situation was already well known.
I remember feeling numb…..literally numb. It took another day or so to get the final pathology tests back which would determine the type of malignancy I had. When the tests were in, Dr. Adami himself called and asked me to come to his office. Dr. Adami was/is a good friend. He and his family had lived down the street as I was growing up (?) and I was great friends with his kids. Dr. Adami’s personal call gave me the first gut-punch that this was not a run of the mill cancer. (If I do something, I do it right!). Mindy went with me to Dr. Adami’s office and there I saw for the first time a certain look in the faces of his office staff, a look that I would be seeing for the next several years. It was a look of hesitancy, of pity and of the fear of what to say. I got used to it. Dr. Adami guided Mindy and I to his office and thoughtfully, but without delay, told us that I had a malignancy that was probably related to a mole I had removed three years before. Mindy asked if it was melanoma, the good doctor said “yes” and Mindy began to cry. With Mindy having a medical background, I realized that this was REALLY not a “good” type of cancer to have. Dr. Adami went on to explain that what I had was metastatic malignant melanoma. “Metastatic”, for those of you lucky enough not to know, means that the cancer had spread from a primary site to an outlying part of the body. With most metastisis, the odds of survival go way down. I was soon told that I had 15% chance of living another 2 years.
After leaving the office, Mindy and I drove quietly to my folks house. We arrived to a house full of mainly family and we all had a good cry after Mindy explained the diagnosis and prognosis. Dr. Adami is not an oncologist and had told us what he had read about my cancer and what his colleagues had told him. He said that basically, chemotherapy was not effective with this stage of melanoma and nor were any other forms of treatment. Thankfully, I soon found that Dr. Adami was misinformed. By this time, I was really feeling numb……….out of fear, the unknown, the shock, the “why me” and from the looks on the faces of my loved ones. After we had been sitting there for a while, the doorbell rang. I answered the door and there stood Father Joseph Schumacher, the priest from the Emaculate Conception Catholic Church in Denton. I had grown up Baptist, yet the first person to come visit me after the news was a Catholic priest. I always had great admiration for “Papa Joe”, and his being there really meant a lot to me. (I had been the president of the Catholic youth group, “Shalom Sharers”, in high school, and thus my connection with Father Schumacher)..
The next few days are a blur. Many people came to visit and Dr. Croissant and Dr. Adami contacted a mutual oncologist friend, Dr. Merrick Reese, to decide on the best options for my treatment. They eventually agreed that my best option was to go to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. It was several days before I could get an appointment in Houston, so I stayed at the folk’s house and waited. Many of my friends came to visit and some really good ones did not. I’ve heard of the same thing happening from other cancer survivors, especially those who were young at the time. My friends and I were in our very early 20s and some were just not prepared to face mortality in the form of a friend having cancer……they just could not face me. I wasn’t, and I’m not, bitter about this. I completely understand. It is what it is……..
We had a great Christmas with a sad, underlying feel of foreboding. For the 2-3 weeks between the surgery and my first appointment in Houston, I think most people thought I was going to die…….including me. My folks, Mindy and I drove to Houston a couple of days after Christmas. I remember as I walked in the front door of M.D. Anderson for the first time, a very young girl in a wheelchair coming out. She was bald, had a leg missing and had tubes running in and out. I immediately wondered if that was my future. After hours of paper work that first day, I met the man who was to be my doctor for the next 25 years, Dr. Carl Plager. Dr. Plager had looked at slides from a mole I had removed 3 years before and told us that I had melanoma back then. This news hacked me off of course, but my new outlook on life was beginning to take form and I decided again….. it was that it was……The next several days were FULL of every bodily diagnostic test you have ever heard of and several you haven’t. Once all the tests were in, Dr. Plager told us that the information would be taken before a board of physicians (Tumor Board) who would analyze the info and decide what actions to take. It is a form of triage. He told us that one possible option was to do nothing. We waited for their recommendation at the home of my dear great aunt and uncle, Joyce and Bill. It was very nice to have a place to stay other than a hotel during those first weeks in Houston.
During the first couple of days of January 1981, we met with Dr. Plager and he gave us the decision of the Tumor Board. They had decided that even though the statistics were against it, they were going to have me do chemotherapy and immuno-therapy for two years and 10 days of radiation. At the time, the French were using extremely heavy doses of radiation in cases like mine, and the Tumor Board thought that since I was young and strong, that they would try it on me. On Jan. 5, 1981, I began a 5 consecutive day a month regimen of chemo and 10 days of twice a day radiation treatments. I think it was on that day I relaxed, the fear left me and I decided that I was doing everything I could and that fear and worry would be a waste of time. It was that it was….. My outlook on life had changed. I did the first round of chemo in Houston, but was able to do the rest of it at Baylor Hospital in Dallas in order to avoid monthly trips to M.D. Anderson.
As it turned out, I completed 18 months of chemo and immunotherapy. One of the drugs I took was cardio-toxic and the people at Baylor said after 18 months that they would not give me any more for fear of damaging my heart. Dr. Plager agreed. The months of chemo were hellacious. I was sicker than I’d ever been before or since for three weeks out of every month. Thankfully for those facing cancer now, things have improved and chemo is much easier to handle. The only long term side effects I had were 32 additional years of life (so far) and both my sons were born naked.
The surgery performed on Dec. 12,1980 was the last sign of cancer in my body. It’s a somewhat arbitrary anniversary, but it’s as good as any to celebrate survival. I am thankful for each and every day of life. Since that day, through good times and bad, I have realized that life is a blessing no matter what. No matter what……….