Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What should be my last post

Like most things, I've put off making a final post on this blog for far longer than I should have.

I received the all-clear from my doc about three-weeks ago after a minor scare. I was scheduled to receive my final CT scan on Dec. 23 - setting myself up for an awesome or glum Christmas - when my onc noticed something on the results...two spots on my pelvis. Looking at them carefully, he said it would be "weird" (I actually like it when docs divert from the standard of using confusing medical terminology. I would have understood him if he said "unlikely" or "uncharacteristic," but him using the word "weird" seemed like something further down on the unlikeliness scale. My odds of having something "unlikely" I would put at 1 in 5, but my odds of having something "weird" I would put at 1 in 200) if the cancer had metastasized in my pelvis during treatment. I took that as good news, but as I would if the situation was reversed, my wife was clearly not satisfied with that answer.

"What's the worst-case scenario if it has metastasized?" my wife asked.

Still staring at the computer, the intellectual side of my oncologist's brain kicked on, and he went off on a rant about further treatments, bone marrow transplants, more intense chemo, etc. By the time his common sense part of his brain caught up with the intellectual side of his brain and, while panting, screamed "What the hell are you doing?" my wife had turned pale from fright and had tears welling up in her eyes. After a swift ass-kicking from the common sense part of his brain, he assured her that was very, very, very unlikely and further emphasized the fact that it would be "weird" for that to happen.

In another God-like move, my oncologist scheduled a bone scan two days AFTER Christmas...he was gonig to be out of town (along with 3/4 of the hospital's docs and surgeons), but he knew I had reached my out-of-pocket deductible with my insurance and that everything I had done before Jan. 1 would be free. So, he squeezed me in a bone scan, a follow-up appointment one hour later with the only oncologist who got finagled into working two days after Christmas, and bid me adieu.

Christmas was somewhat subdued for my family. As usual, I never gave it a second thought...my philosophy has always been that there's no sense worrying about things you can't change, so I put it out of my head and just enjoyed my bald holidays.

I went back for my bone scan after Christmas, and the oncologist that was filling in was an obvious pro when it came to dealing with cancer patients. He walked in the room and merged the good news with his introduction - "Hi Greg, I'm doctor so-and-so and your bone scan is fine." He knew that since he wasn't running a television game show or a television cooking competition, there was no use dragging out the suspense...I thought that was awesome.

The ride home was joyful. My wife was, obviously, excited. I got to call my parents for the first time in four months with good news (Let's recap my phone calls to them up to this point..."It looks like I probably have cancer," "I'm having a testicle cut out of me," "Yeah, that testicle they removed was cancerous," "The cancer has spread to my lymph nodes, so I need chemo," and "my white blood cell count is low, so I may have to be careful around Thanksgiving. Don't get sick."). Everybody at work was super happy...it was much better than two days before Christmas when I returned and everyone was in the front office, hunched over and ready to explode with cheers of happiness for the good news...only for me to tell them, "Uh, it's not entirely over yet." Oddly enough, as everyone was understandably happy, I wasn't "jumping around excited," which is how I normally am for minor things such as finding out that the McRib is back or that a band I like is coming to town. I think this experience has made me realize that when I'm at my happiest, I'm actually a bit subdued and pretty quiet, although I'm not sure finding out I was cancer-free was me at my happiest. After the past five months, I think I could best describe the feeling as "cautiously pleased."

I think that's why it has taken me so long to make a final post on this blog...throughout the past four months, every time I get optimistic about something, I get bad news. Now, I'm not a superstitious person, but I'm also not one to boldly break a mirror while walking under a ladder and kicking a black cat.

My hair is starting to grow back, although it's super-thin and makes me look like a guy that just had cancer. All of my side effects from chemo (which ended in early December) have obviously all disappeared. My appetite is back, my heartburn is gone and I'm almost back at the point where I could probably, cautiously, try Burger King again...the first food I ate after my first chemo treatment which made me cringe to think about for the past three months. I've got a scar from my orchiectomy and from having my port removed, but on the plus side, I've got something to remind me of all of this for the future. (No, I'm not talking about my scar...I'm talking about my port. Fun fact...if you ask nicely and persistently several times, the surgeon removing your port will clean it off for you and let you keep it. "I guess you paid for it," the nurse said as she handed me a biohazard bag with the port in it).

This should all be over, and I hope it is, but I'm hesitant to make a declarative statement about being done with all of this. In all honesty, I'm really not done. I've got years ahead of me of returning to that oncology department, having blood tests to check my tumor markers and meetings with my oncologist and CT scans to make sure that the cancer doesn't return. Many people who have had cancer talk about how this prevents them from living a normal life, but I don't have that feeling...I can put it out of my head and be perfectly happy, but I'm still cautious about raising my hands up and celebrating a definitive victory over a disease that came out of nowhere and brought my life to a standstill in the first place.

So, that's where I am. Five months ago, I was told I have cancer and became initiated into this weird club of people who had gone through an equally weird ordeal. Now, I'm just a guy with baby-fine hair starting to come back in on the top of a head that's still spinning from the speed of my diagnosis, surgery and treatment. I'm fine medically, and my personality hasn't really changed (as my doctors and nurses could attest to), but I'm constantly analyzing every pain, soreness or bump I have and trying to figure out its odds of being cancer (Average of my guesses: about 50%). Life is back to about as normal as it could be, and I'm still the sarcastic, slightly odd person I was when this all started.

This will (hopefully...very hopefully) be my last post on here, but I wanted to thank everyone that's read this blog and e-mailed, called, commented to me on the street or mailed me kind words about this. This has been pretty therapeutic to have an outlet to joke around about this whole "cancer thing." I'll keep writing weird stuff, but I'll likely put it on one of my other sites (if you're interested, check http://www.staticthinking.com/ in the near future. I finally redesigned it and may end up doing some random writing on there again).

Thanks for the encouragement and kind words from friends, family, strangers and neighbors over the past four months...it's made this whole ordeal much easier (albeit somewhat embarassing, but I guess that's what you can expect when you start a blog about getting cancer).

Monday, January 2, 2012

All clear

I'm cancer-free.

Sorry about the short (and belated) post. More later.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A quick update

OK, here's where I'm at so far with my whole "cancer thing."

Went for my CT scan last Friday all ready to party after getting the results. It's sad that I wasn't nervous about any part of it, except for drinking the medicine they give me to have everything show up on the scan. I was not particularly happy that it was vanilla-flavored. This is just another example of how I'm a 90-year-old man that's trapped in a 29-year-old's body...I have cancer and go in for tests that could tell me I no longer have cancer, and I'm upset about the flavor of medicine they give me. One could probably describe me as "crotchety."

Waited 1-1/2 hours for the results, and when I saw my doctor, rather than the reaction I expected...pulling a handful of confetti out of his white coat and throwing it up in the air while saying in his trademarked, monotone voice "yeah, it's clear," he instead asked me to come over to his computer to look at my scan.

He informed me that my lymph nodes were clear...the chemo took care of the growth that was on them without a problem. This was great news. However, he also pointed out a couple of white spots on my pelvis that the scan produced. These, he said, were slightly worrisome. He spent 10 minutes on the phone trying to get my CT scan I had taken before I started treatment from another hospital with no luck, and so he finally shrugged and said that either way, I'd need a bone scan.

My wife asked him what would happen if the cancer metastasized and went into my bones, and the doctor part of him immediately kicked in...he began talking about more chemo, surgery, all the processes they'd need to do. Then, noticing the worried look on my wife's face, his brain must have screamed, "What the hell are you doing?" and he explained to us how unlikely it was that the cancer had spread to my bones. In medical terminology, he even said, and I quote, that would be "really weird." It was most nothing, but he scheduled my bone scan (which takes place today) to get it checked out to be sure. I thought about telling the doc that when I had my CT scan done, I had some Skittles in my pocket, but thought better of it.

So, that's where I'm at today. I'm going for a bone scan, which doesn't require me to drink anything, but does require me to get some more dye injected into my veins. After this, however, hopefully all of this will be done and I can quit writing these teenage-esque blog posts about how I'm feeling and what I'm thinking about and mix it all in with pop culture references.

I'll update when I find out more this afternoon. If it's good news, I'll likely high five everybody in the state of Iowa, so if you live here you'll likely see me running down the street with a megaphone.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chemotherapy is almost exactly like Gene Wilder

One week from this Friday, I'll take my CT scan. With good results, less than a week after that, the port that I've been receiving my chemo treatments through will be removed, my hair will grow back within six months and this whole "cancer thing" will be over. It's a weird, strange, synonym-describing feeling to nearly have all of this behind me, and that's mainly because it never really started.

Did you ever read a book when you were younger that A.) Hadn't been made into a movie, and B.) If it had been made into a movie, you hadn't yet seen it? If you haven't, I'm surprised you're reading this blog post right now and not arguing with somebody online about which Twilight character is cuter under the the moniker "MrsBieberLOLZ1995." If you have, however, and if that book was fiction, you've likely used your imagination to create something.

I remember reading "Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen when I was younger. I'd never seen a movie about the book (I really, really hope they didn't make one because it would undoubtedly be terrible and it wouldn't force kids that were given the book as an assignment to actually read an awesome book), and when it came to creating an image of what the character looked like and the L-shaped lake he was living on in my mind, I was forced to actually conjure up descriptions of each out of thin air. As the narrative went on, I had to add details to the images that I'd created of this story in my mind, ending with a character and location that likely in no way resembled what somebody else may have created while reading this story.

Now, when you read a book and then see a movie based on that book, everything is destroyed. You can't read "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and then watch the movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and see Willy Wonka in your mind as anybody but Gene Wilder. No matter what crazy person you've created in your mind, and no matter what physical attributes you've made them have that fit with Roahl Dahl's description, when you watch "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," Gene Wilder grabs a candy cane sucked down to a point and stabs your image of Willy Wonka right in the chest, making him evaporate and disappear from your mind forever. Then, if your mind works the way mine does, Gene Wilder looks you in the eye and says, "I'm Willy Wonka. Capiche?" (Why he's suddenly an Italian gangster and why Johnny Depp's character doesn't even play into this equation is completely unknown. This is how my brain works, and I tend not to question its eccentricities.)

This is how cancer and going through chemotherapy has been for me...like reading a book and then watching the movie. As a journalist, stories about people with cancer tend to be like catnip for readers, and so we write a lot of them. Although I'm only 29 and have been in journalism for about 3 years now, I've written probably a dozen stories about people with cancer...whether they're about benefits, a prelude to a cancer walk, etc. While writing all of these, I developed an idea of what having cancer, and going through chemotherapy, would be like. I had no idea what it was like myself, but through interviewing and talking with people that had gone through it, my imagination created this dark, abysmal picture. Then, by some crazy bit of chance, I rode a horse, exacerbated my left testicle and was diagnosed with cancer myself. Who'da thunkit. (Not sure why I correctly used the apostrophe there...that's making a goulash out of several words and a mockery of the English language)

Anyways, after being half-neutered and finding out that I needed chemo, I felt I had a pretty good idea of what to expect: hell. I'd metaphorically "read the book" and had created a nice description of what I was to expect in my head. It wasn't until I started going through it that I realized that everything I had thought about chemo was completely wrong. My idea of chemo had been "Gene Wilder-ed."

For each of my three rounds, the only thing that seemed like legitimate chemo was the first week of each...the week where I was in a chair for five straight hours. First week of round 1 was OK. First week of round 2 was tolerable. First week of round 3 was completely horrible. None of it was how I had imagined chemo to be like, however. Talking with others, I thought it was going to be like having the flu for two straight months. Sometimes I'd feel good, sometimes I'd be throwing up, but it would vary day-to-day. This wasn't the case at all...I was actually able to prepare myself for the worst, and it never got close to being as bad as the scenario I had built up in my head.

Now, being near the end, it feels like I never really even started this whole thing (other than being bald), and I'm really anxious to interview somebody with cancer at this point. I'm interested to see if they've had the same experience...if they went into it with a preconceived notion about what it would be like, and if their idea held any weight whatsoever.

So, now that I've seen the movie, my idea of what treatment would be like for all of this is completely shattered. I guess if I was interviewed about this process, my story would be pretty unremarkable and the journalist that was asking the questions would be sitting there thinking, "Come on, give me something to give this story some oomph" like I have so many times while sitting in that same seat. I supposed that's because there's a huge disconnect between people that have read the book and people that have seen the movie. Once you've seen the movie, your entire perspective on it changes, and there's really not any way to see it any differently, and at this point I'm pretty happy about that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Done with chemo.

It's over.

I'm actually hesitant to type that, so I'm going to clarify: I just finished my last chemotherapy session this morning. I now wait a month, take my CAT scan on Dec. 23 (it's actually a family holiday tradition to drink dye, hold our breath while passing through a large machine, and then have diarrhea, so that's actually pretty normal), and then if everything comes up clear, I have my port removed (deported) shortly after Christmas.

In the meantime, my white blood cell count, including my neutrophils, are way low again, so I'm trying to take it easy and not get sick when I'm this close to the finish line. Fortunately, I've got more antibiotics and I don't plan on hanging around any flu-ridden people anytime soon. Actually, that's not entirely true, as I have an ambulance shift for my EMT class this Saturday, but I plan on wearing a mask on the calls until I find out the person isn't some sort of disease carrier. Nothing inspires confidence when you call for an ambulance like a pale bald guy in a surgical mask, huh?

Now, we start the monitoring. Apparently this is far from over, what with tests every 4-6 months for the next five years or so. I've read a lot of personal experiences of other guys having a problem with this, but I'm actually a big fan of it. It's essentially buying insurance that says I will not have to worry about finding out I've had cancer blitz my body for the next five years. Sure, I could get the news that it's returned, but then i just start working on the cure for it again...a hell of a much better option than being told it's Stage IV and having the doctor have to psych himself up to give me updates.

With the chemo treatments behind me, it's nice, but it doesn't feel like the monumental moment I was thinking it might be. I'm still slightly tired, I still don't have the teenager-like-appetite I had before this all started, and I still go to work looking like the principal from Back to the Future that calls everyone "slackers." It feels like, with ongoing treatments and my hair slowly growing back...apparently not likely to return until next April or May...I'm going to be eased back into normal life. Hell, I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to return to life like it was before I started this entire process, and I'm not even entirely sure that I want to. It's not like I'm living carpe diem, running around barefoot and smelling roses and freaking everybody out (which would inevitably come from my barefoot-ness...I have strange feet), but I'm not like I was before, either. I think more about my future and my health, I think more about my life's "to-do list" and what I want to accomplish, and I'm a lot more reflective on what I've done so far in my 29 years of life. I'm not going to lie, initially hearing the words "cancer," even with a high rate of a cure, does make you think of death, and it made me realize how short life is and all that stuff. More than inspiring me to go do heroic deeds, however, this process has made me realize that I'm proud of the life I've lived so far and will hopefully keep me focused on not screwing up what I want to do with my future (items on my life to-do-list still include "Have an organized crime outfit owe me a favor (and use that favor on something meaningless...like the boxed DVD set of Dawson's Creek)," "Reach a point as a father where I realize I've created a sarcastic little monster," and "Write a book that includes a worthless, cleverly hidden message in the final paragraph."

This entire process has been beneficial for me...I just have to make sure that I keep in mind that I conquered testicular cancer when there are many people diagnosed too late to do that, and be grateful for that. Then I can use that thought to motivate me to save a mobster's life or teach my future son or daughter to say, "Well, that's....unique." Or, you know, good stuff.

Fortunately, that reminder won't be hard to keep in mind. I just turned 29 earlier this month, and in the true spirit of awesomeness in my family, my brother and sister-in-law found the perfect, sentimental gift that says more than words ever could. It's subtle, touching and will provide me with a constant reminder of getting past one of the most difficult parts of my life...and it's sure to make my wife feel awkward when she takes the car keys that this is on. That's the gift that keeps on giving.

For those of you keeping count at home...I'm up to three.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Long overdue update

I apologize for not updating my blog last week like I meant to...the truth is, I tried to write an update several times, but every time I'd try to describe the experience, I'd start feeling sick. Fortunately, I'm feeling much better now and can talk about my last marathon week of chemo without feeling like my stomach is going to revolt on me.

So, the nausea finally hit me last Thursday. I woke up, ate breakfast, threw on my "Chemoutfit" (I kind of hate myself for typing that a little bit), went to the hospital, was led to my little chemo suite, and as soon as the nurse left the room I made a beeline for the bathroom and got violently ill. As I wasn't expecting this to happen, I suspect I ruined Captain Crunch with Crunchberries for me for life. It was like what I imagined chemo might be...horrible and Exorcist-like.

That day, I went through treatment, dozing through quite a bit of it. I was able to keep my stomach under control once I put on my headphones and listened to my iPod, which did a decent job of drowning out the sound of my IV pump. I used to not mind the somewhat rhythmic noises it made, but now it just makes me feel sick (kind of like the band Offspring. How do you go from "Ixnay on the Hombre" to that Weird Al style on "Americana" in one year?). The tough part is, looking back on my early morning ruining of Captain Crunch with Crunchberries, I didn't know what music I could safely listen to without ruining for life by associating it with chemo sickness. I also didn't want music that was super slow or super hard, so I had to find kind of a middle ground...settling with a mix of The Shins, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and Jack's Mannequin. When I'm going through treatment, I guess I need the type of music that makes for awkward concerts...the music is too slow to rock out, but too fast to just sway, leaving the audience in a weird, bouncing motion.

After treatment Thursday, I was done. I went home, forced myself to eat some mac and cheese, sent off an e-mail to my EMT professor letting him know I'd be missing class that night, and went to sleep. I seemed to drift in and out of sleep all afternoon, evening and through the night. Although spending 18 hours in bed sounds appealing at some points during your day, it's really pretty horrible...especially when your mind is on a constant loop of "OK, think of something besides chemo and foods that make you feel sick. Nope, don't think of that. Nope, don't think of that. OK, think of anything...waves, the ocean...and you're just relaxing on a....where the hell did that Burker King sandwich come from? Stop thinking about that, you're going to make yourself sick!"

The next morning, it was more of the same, but in a different order. Wake up, get violently ill, go to treatment, listen to bop rock for five hours, go home, play "Chicken" with thoughts of foods that make me sick and doze. By Saturday, I was able to move around a bit more, but not much. I watched TV nearly all day and felt pretty successful when I was able to eat some chicken nuggets and tater tots. Sunday was a little better, but definitely not 100%.

Oddly enough, today is probably the first day I feel like I'm back close to normal (or the "new normal" I've been able to redefine through this experience). I had my onc appointment yesterday, and it was nothing but good news: my neutrophil count is back above 2,000, so I don't need to worry as much about getting sick, my white blood cell counts are good, and I'm on the downhill slide for my treatment. My onc even managed to schedule my CT scan and port removal before December ends so that it can all be counted under my "out-of-pocket expenses" on my 2011 insurance, which is huge for me since that'll probably hit my cap and save me some cash.

So, that's where I'm at. I'm nearly back to normal, and I've only got one chemo treatment left now...next Tuesday, and it's only Bleo, which takes me about an hour and the only side effect is jittery legs from putting Benadryl in my IV.

While the past five days have been horrible with nausea, it really hasn't been anything unbearable at all. I noticed that, whenever I worry about throwing up, that all disappears after it happens. I freak out, feeling like crap, not wanting to throw up, and then when it happens, I realize it wasn't that bad and I feel a whole lot better. The only downside is, after I'm done I look in the mirror and see this pale, bony, sweaty bald guy looking back at me and I think I've encountered one of the vampires from "I Am Legend," which is a bit unsettling. Fortunately, now I know that Captain Crunch and Burger King is like garlic for these beasts, so that should be able to keep them at bay.

I'll wait to get really introspective on this entire process until it's officially over, but looking at the point I'm at now and where I've come from, I've been pretty happy with all of it. Cancer is a bit of a roadbump, but it really hasn't been the "show-stopping event" that I thought it might be. Total tally, over the course of my diagnosis, surgery and treatments, I think I've missed four days of work. During that time, I also managed to get through my 135-hour EMT course (although it's not finished...my final test will be a couple weeks after treatment ends), launch a couple of new projects at work and continue the minimum amount of updates on my Civil War-era house that allow me to feel not completely worthless. Of course, nearly all of my productivity happened on weeks where I wasn't going through "marathon chemo," but I'm still happy with how it's been going.

So that's where I'm at right now. Nearly back to normal, excited to eat large amounts of food this Thursday, and counting down the days until my final treatment is over and I can get that last CT scan to see if my cancer is totally gone. If it's not, no biggie...I know now that I can handle chemo (even with some nausea) and if it requires surgery, so be it. It's not like there's anything more I can be doing, and if this experience has taught me anything, it's that you can only do so much with what life deals you. An obstacle isn't made any easier to overcome by worrying, crying, griping or getting angry. The only thing I've found that makes a tough situation easier is laughing about it and doing what you've got to do to put it behind you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Three down, two to go...

I got through Wednesday of my marathon chemo week just a few hours ago, and man...it's a journey.

Sitting in that chair for five hours each day is kind of rough. Yesterday, I brought along my iPod, hoping that three seasons of "Breaking Bad" would help me just space out and pretend like I wasn't having poison pumped through my veins. I totally forgot that the main character in the show is also being given chemotherapy, however, and seems to get sick every five minutes. That's like one of the Kardashians watching ESPN to try and forget about a failed relationship.

I've definitely been taking advantage of sleep this week, too. I got home from work yesterday at 5:30, napped on the couch until dinner was ready at 6:30, ate dinner and hung out with my wife until 8, and then slept until this morning. I woke up, went to chemo, did a bit of work on my laptop, and then napped for about 2 hours. That's a crazy amoung of sleep for me, considering I usually operate pretty well with only 6 hours of sleep per night.

Not only that, but apparently this low white blood cell count isn't a great deal for me either. I'm low on neutrophil, which although reminding me of Nutri-Grain bars, is apparently a type of white blood cell. According to some hard-core research I did on Wikipedia, normal people have about 2500-7000 units of these. People going through chemo tend to have levels around 1000. I apparently am sitting pretty with 360.

As a result, I've been forbidden to do much of anything where I have a chance of being exposed to illnesses. So, my normal weekday activities (giving zerberts to babies with runny noses, licking door handles of 24-hour convenient stores and hanging around local pharmacies just breathing in the air) are out. About all I'm risking is going to my EMT class tomorrow, and that's only because I have a test and there are hand sanitizer pumps every 15 feet.

Aside from living the rest of this week in seclusion, I'm constantly battling with my stomach, which is trying to decide whether it hates me and everything I put inside of it, or whether it just wants to chill and go to bed. I haven't thrown up since starting chemo (you can't see me right now, but I'm knocking on wood like crazy since typing that), but my body is definitely giving me some signs that it would very much enjoy doing so. That nasty chemo taste in my mouth, weakness and the fact that any food I think about makes me feel slightly nauseous isn't working in my favor, so I've just kind of got to force whatever food down my gullet that I can and then try to sleep for 12 hours straight.

So, that's where I'm at. I've only got two more freaking days left of this week. If experience is any indicator, once I hit this weekend, I'll still be weak, but I should be steadily improving. Then, it's just a 1-hour treatment on Nov. 22, Thanksgiving on Nov. 24 (which should be perfect timing for my appetite, granted my white blood cell counts rebound or I don't have sick family members at home), and my final chemo treatment on Nov. 29. Then, a mere 3 months after this whole "cancer thing" began, I should be somewhat done with it and can start concentrating on the fun stuff in life - waterfowl hunting in panhandle Nebraska this January, the Iowa Newspaper Association convention in February, and a trip to San Antonio, TX, in March.

Even more than that, however, I'm looking forward to ditching this "new normal" I've created and returning to my "old normal," although slightly tweaked. I can't wait to cook and eat food and actually appreciate the taste of it, I can't wait to hang out with friends without worrying about someone being sick or whether having one or two beers will make me nauseous, and I can't wait to get back to a life where, although appreciative to have beaten the "lowercase C" (I still consider early-stage testicular cancer to be 'bargain bin cancer' compared to others), I can actually base time in terms of doing stuff with my wife and friends, rather than what week in what round I have coming up for chemo.

The nice part is, all that separates me from that "old normal" is just two five-hour sessions this week, and two cakewalk treatments spread out over two weeks with some great family, food and fall weather in-between. If I can just keep myself from puking at the sight of an IV bag, I should be able to coast past this finish line after all.