Archive for December, 2011
“Looking Back on Testicular Cancer”
In the Spring of 2001 I was a healthy 44 year old racing to keep up with a 2 1/2 year old adopted daughter. When my right testicle became swollen — it happened very fast, in just a few days — I decided that my daughter Chloe must have kicked me in the groin when I was trying to strap her into her carseat.
When my testicle remained swollen after 2 weeks I went to see my doctor who immediately referred me for an ultrasound exam. I could tell by the serious attitude of the ultrasound technician that something was wrong. In a matter of days I was scheduled for an orchiectomy — surgery to remove a testicle — which was performed by a no-nonsense urologist named Dr. Purohit.
Just before I was wheeled into surgery, I was visited by an old friend who had a twisted sense of humor. I looked up from the gurney and said to him “Thanks so much for being here on the day that my right ball is being cut off.” His reply was “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
After surgery, I received a pathology report that told that my testicular tumor of pure seminoma had been removed, and that I had “possible vascular invasion.” In other words, there was a chance that cancer might have made its way through my bloodstream to other areas of my body. Because I am an eternal optimist, I went to my radiation consultation and told the radiologist that I wanted to pursue a path of “Surveillance” and skip radiation treatments. My hope was that cancer cells hadn’t invaded my system.
Choosing surveillance had 2 consequences later down the road. The first was that a cancerous tumor did indeed develop in a groinal lymph node. The second was that when I applied for life insurance some years later I had a black mark on my record. “Patient refused treatment,” is what the doctor had written. I was surprised by that, as surveillance is often a reasonable option after surgery, even though it didn’t work out in my case.
My back began to hurt in the Fall, I avoided seeing the doctor until December, hoping that a sore back was just a sore back. When I did visit the doctor, who really should have been asking me to come in every few months for surveillance exams, he ordered an immediate CT scan. The day after Christmas he called me on my cellphone and told me “You need chemotherapy.” When the call came my wife and I were on the road heading to see relatives in Seattle, but we made a quick return to Southern California.
I was very lucky to have a large bank of sick days available to me at the community college where I teach. When I called my Dean to tell him that I would miss a semester, he was very supportive. I was touched when the President of the college called me at home and told me “Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” I also had a good health plan that covered my treatment, and did not suffer financially. As I have learned what so many go through in financial terms when fighting cancer, I realize how tremendously fortunate I was in that respect.
Chemotherapy wasn’t as bad as I might have expected — at first — and I was given some help with nausea control. Still, as the cycles progressed I looked older and felt weaker. Unlike many patients who lose weight and appetite, I decided to go for “comfort eating” and actually put on weight. I had good days and bad days, and coped with the boredom and lack of energy by listening to a lot of music and reading every magazine in sight.
After the second cycle of chemotherapy, there were some very dramatic developments. The most shocking was that my wife of 9 years asked for a divorce. She had decided she needed to return to school and complete her degree, and having a very sick husband was not something she handled well. Here is my perspective looking back: cancer is an earthquake and if anything in your life is shaky, cancer will break it loose. It certainly shook loose a weak marriage.
To those of you who have supportive wives, girlfriends or partners helping you deal with cancer, tell them from me that they are extraordinary.
A few days after my wife left there were 2 more dramatic developments. My doctors told me that I had “remission” and that my cancer was responding beautifully to chemo and was almost entirely gone. On that same day my brother in law Gary was informed of the death of his sister who had been fighting a brain tumor. One of the things that I as a cancer survivor will always be haunted by is the randomness of mortality. Why was I going to live, when another had to die?
During my last 2 cycles of chemo friends and family really came through for me, and I marked off the days on my calendar. Sometimes I felt OK, other times I felt horrible. One day I decided to walk to Carl’s Jr, about 2 blocks from my house, for a milk shake. The walk there went OK, but I sat in the restaurant for 2 hours before attempting to walk home. I had completely exhausted myself just going there.
By my last treatment I was anemic, but cancer free. To celebrate the end of my last cycle my parents took me to Mimi’s Cafe for a nice dinner. I enjoyed the meal, and then raced to the restroom to have one more bout of chemo vomiting. It was so awful that it was actually funny.
Easter 2002: With my daughter Chloe a few weeks after finishing chemo
When my health began to return, I moved from the home I had shared with my wife to an apartment and contemplated my future. While my hair was still growing back in I took a photo of myself and put up a few internet personals. I don’t know why I was so confident or brave, but I did not want to raise Chloe alone, and was ready to move forward with my life.
Within 6 months after finishing chemo, I met Linda, a news editor, and we began to date seriously. Before we married I told her not to expect to have children with me as I was pretty sure that chemo had ruined my fertility. That turned out to be quite wrong. She became pregnant very easily, and we now have 2 wonderful daughters together.
It has been nearly 10 years since my cancer first appeared, and I can honestly tell people who ask that cancer had many positive aspects. “Even the bad days are good days” is a saying I use often, thinking back about the difficulty of chemo, and the fear of illness. I have more empathy for people who are dealing with illness, and am probably a bit more “real” as a person in general.
The message I want to give to those dealing with testicular cancer is this: deal with it, prepare to get through it, and plan on enjoying life tremendously when it is over. You can do it.