It’s been a crazy six months. In January, I was skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho, thinking I was at the luckiest guy on Planet Earth. The following week, I was the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, where the incredible doctors there diagnosed what appeared to be neck strain as an especially bizarre and virulent strain of squamous carcinoma. When the experts at Mayo tell you that your condition is really rare, that can catch you flatfooted. Being an overly optimistic guy, I assumed that a few weeks of radiation on my neck and some chemo and all would be well. Alas, there is more to the story.
Cancer survivors tend to minimize their individual cancer, because they survived. It’s hard to complain too much if you get to talk about it. So it was with me as I entered into treatment. The first two weeks were easy enough. Daily radiation and weekly chemo at Mayo. I’d see others who were using walkers and wheelchairs, and I’d count my blessings. I’d pray for those other folks because they were having a tough time. Me? This isn’t so bad. But then the dreaded third week hit. Although I was warned, I had no idea of the strain on my body from daily radiation and chemo. I began to feel listless, fatigued and even somewhat confused. Fortunately I had my incredible wife, Mary Ann, who was there every single minute to care for me.
As treatment continued, I ended up with a walker. And then a feeding tube when I couldn’t even swallow. Stubbornness pushed me as best as it could, but I couldn’t even write my column any more. Chemo essentially kills you, and then the doctors bring you back to life so that the dead cancer cells can do no more damage. The radiation is specifically aimed at the cancerous cells, but it creates a devastating “collateral damage” zone around it. My throat was awful and I could barely speak. Yet we pushed on, but now I was the one being pushed in a wheelchair.
Then came the (hopefully temporary) demise of my pancreas. I was admitted to Mayo’s ICU with a blood sugar level that is often fatal. I wish I could tell you what happened, but I have no independent recollection. All my wife will say is that it was really bad. I do recall waking up, hallucinating, and thinking that they were preparing me for my death. I couldn’t see much, but I could hear. It sounded like I was done. I was absolutely confident in my relationship with the Lord, although there was some praying. But I was praying for my loved ones, not me. Then I thought of a few things that I had meant to get done, before this bizarre thought came to me: “I can’t believe Keith Richards outlived me!” I don’t normally get too worried about Keith, so that was sorta bizarre. When Mary Ann lifted the towel covering my eyes, I grabbed her arms and told her she had to “Let me go! It’s okay, let me go!” She explained that while it was touch and go earlier, I was in no danger now. Ohhh. Never mind.
The road to recovery has been a process. Building my strength, learning to eat again (thank you Mayo!) and learning to live as a cancer survivor are all important goals. My first post-treatment PETSCAN was clear of any cancer! Yay! Doctors warn that it takes five years to declare the cancer defeated. There are still some complications, like my pancreas that doesn’t work, but I’m alive and kicking. And now I’m back to thinking that I am the luckiest guy alive.
Before this week, I didn’t publicize my cancer plight. Some of that is because I still consider myself lucky, when so many others battle so hard yet lose their fight. Some of my reluctance was that I wasn’t seeking a lot of sympathy. But word of my illness got out and people I didn’t even know made incredibly wonderful gifts of their time, prayers and money. People I knew were so supportive, with offers of free lodging, meals, cutting my yard or doing anything they could to help us. I’m not sure I can ever thank everyone, so many people did so much.
I know there is more to come. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Live life like today is your last day. Be kind to everyone. Love your family. Support your church and community. And, most importantly, live by living!
Mary Ann, I love you. Kids, I love you. My loving family, I love you all. And to my dear sister, Sharon, who died from melanoma just last year, I will see you again one day.