Archive for September, 2015
August 12, 1993. This was the date that changed my life forever. In hindsight – for the better. I was 19 years old; one year removed from high school; and starting to live out a childhood dream of being a firefighter. Four days prior, I had played in an all day softball and volleyball game with the neighboring department, so I knew I’d be sore and a bit dehydrated. What I didn’t expect was urinating blood the next day, while at work! The ER pumped me full of NaCl (Normal saline IV) and referred me to a urologist. The appointment was set for 8/12/93. After peeing in a cup, having x-rays, and my “boys fondled” – for what seemed to be an eternity – the Dr. walked into the exam room and told me “Everything is normal with your kidneys…but have you ever noticed that knot on the side of your left testicle?”. (22 years later and I can recall the exact phrasing; even the monotone sound in his voice) Being 19 and embarrassed at the question – or to admit that I HAD in fact noticed – I did what any 19y/o would do…I lied. He told me it might be “nothing more than a cyst” but he would like to schedule me for a Contrast IV and Ultrasound the following week “just to check it out”. The following Friday, 8/20, I had the tests (including a surprise blood draw) and didn’t think much about it for the next 7 days. No one seemed concerned – not the doc; not the nurses. If they weren’t showing concern, then why should I? (Isn’t 19 year old logic great?!)
That all changed on 8/26.
August 26, 1993 was a Thursday. It was overcast, hot, and just enough rain to make it miserable to be outside. I arrived for my 1pm appointment – expecting nothing more than to be told “You’re fine” – to be lead, not into an exam room, but into the doctor’s private office! Thinking that this seemed “odd”, I still wasn’t concerned. The doctor walked in, sat at his desk, and said, “The mass on your testicle is a tumor. You have testicular cancer. The tumor is the size of a walnut…” For the next few minutes I remember watching his lips moving, but didn’t hear a single word that was spoken. I knew what cancer was. Cancer occurred in the brain, mouth, lungs, breasts, etc. Cancer doesn’t…no, CAN’T happen in your balls! My mother and paternal grandmother had breast cancer just 5 years prior, but cancer of the balls is impossible! This is what was running through my mind while watching his lips form words. Once his voice came back into tune, I heard these words: “This is very curable – if we start right away”. He gave me 3 treatment options and told me it was my choice as to which I could choose.
Option 1: Remove the testicle. Once pathology was done, a course of treatment – if any was needed – would be mapped out. He also was quick to inform me that if I was self-confident, a prosthetic testicle could be inserted later. (Now my shattered world was complete. I just got the worst news I had ever received in my short life, and this guy is talking to me about FAKE NUTS! Did he not remember mentioning the word “CANCER” to me just 2 minutes ago?!?)
Option 2: Needle biopsy. After pathology, a treatment course would be mapped out. (I quickly eliminated this option, in my mind. You know how sensitive our “boys” are… You know what a biopsy needle looks like… The later coming within 20 yards of the former can cause a man to commit murder! You all just crossed you legs and grimaced in sympathy.)
Option 3: Do nothing. He then regaled me with the story of a patient that chose this option. The patient was diagnosed at 22…died at 23!
I was 3-1/2 weeks from my 20th birthday…9/23.
Seeing as I had become very attached to living by this point in my life, another option was eliminated and my mind was made up…”Good-bye left nut!”. He told me to go home and talk it over with my parents, but I had already decided. I still took him up on the offer to process everything and told him I’d call the next day with my decision.
I left the office and stopped at the McDonald’s next door and used the pay phone to call my mom, and break the news to her. (Cell phones were around, but not as prolific as today, and cost a couple hundred dollars per month to own – nearly $1 per minute, per call!) Mom took like a mother should – hard. My next stop was work. They took it slightly better than mom; but, it was here that I unconsciously made the decision on how I would handle my illness. After being barraged with tears, hugs, and other sympathies, delivered with the same solemn tone that is normally reserved for funerals, I quipped, “It’s just cancer. What’s the worst it can do…kill me?”. Yes, humor. As morbid as I sounded, I needed to make a joke. My parents were beyond upset. My friends and co-workers were sullen. Someone had to be upbeat for me; and if they couldn’t do it, I had to! A girl I dated in high school played along and gave me this: “You know, cancer sucks! But, you gain a pick-up line…Want to see my scar?”!
Surgery was scheduled for 9/6 at 7am. I was told to rest for the next week, while my incision healed. Some of my friends stayed with me during the day, while my parents were at work. This is where I had a “setback”, of sorts. 2 days, post-op, I asked my friend that was with me if he would go down to the video store and rent a couple movies. He agreed – since it was a block from the house – and was given strict instructions: No Comedies! 15 minutes later he returned with a couple tapes (remember, it was 19930, telling me he got “drama and horror flicks”. The first tape starts to play and it’s my favorite movie…’Blazing Saddles’! As a captive audience, I could not avoid the comedy styling of Mel Brooks…and neither could the fresh, 5-6 inch incision that graced the lower left abdominal/groin region! The “side-splitting” comedy di just that, as I laughed so hard I tore the sutures! Back to the hospital for a fresh set of cat gut! By the way, that guy is still my best friend.
During my follow-up, I was told that the cancer had not spread, but – out an abundance of caution, due to my strong family history – I was going to have 1 round of radiation to my inguinal lymph nodes. The first therapy coincided with the first day of my Firefighter certification training class. I would go to recruit training during the day, and get treatments in the late afternoon/early evening…for 12 weeks. Around week 3, my instructors became concerned with how “sick” is was looking (and just physically sick) and tried taking me to the urgent care. I finally “spilled the beans” and let them know what was going on. To say they were pissed-off would be an understatement! They were, however, overly impressed with my stubbornness and promised not to treat me any different; but, they did keep an extra close eye on me, and when they saw that I was physically “worn down” they would let up on the whole class, just not me. I appreciated that they never let on to the rest of the class on how sick I was. It wasn’t until about 10 years later that I broke it to my “Fire Buddy” (the partner that I had for the 3 months of training) as to what was up! She said that took balls…to which I corrected her, “No…that’s B-A-L-L. Singular, not plural!”
The last 22 years has been non-eventful. Although there has been 2 scares (1 small cyst on the right testicle; and 1 really bad hernia that mimicked the original pain symptoms), I’ve had no recurrences. Thanks to the radiation, I’m sterile, so no kids. But, given the choice between reproductive sterility or a potential re-occurrence, sterility isn’t a bad trade off! (The world is better off without a “Mini-Me”, according to my close friends) I never got the prosthetic testicle – I feared that ladies would be staring at my crotch and saying, “I bet they’re fake”. Frankly, you can’t even tell unless you physically grab my scrotum. For the first 4 or 5 years, I used to “omit” the orchiectomy from my medical history, on annual employment physicals -and watch the reaction of the P.A. or Nurse Practitioner when they would perform the hernia check! I can still get a reaction from those who medical professionals who don’t take the time to read my medical history, even though I’m open about it.
For those who are reading this, and are going through this yourself, or are supporting someone who is battling it, this is my advice: First, Don’t Stop! Whatever you were doing the day before your diagnosis, do that the day after! You are battling it…it is not battling you. It has moved into your house, sleeping on your couch, eating your food, and using all the toilet paper and leaving the empty tube on the holder! By stopping your life, you are condoning it’s actions and giving it permission to stay forever. Your house. Your rules.
Second, Humor. As I stated, everyone that you share your diagnosis with is going to “boo-hoo” you. This depression thick air is worse than the cancer itself. It’s a natural human reaction. We all do it. Let peole “grieve” for you, but let them know, also, that after this initial reaction, there will be “no more” and that you only want those around you that can be strong for you! Also, do something I never did: take a moment and grieve for yourself – albeit, a brief one. I did not, nor have I ever, taken a moment to completely process what was happening to me. I immediately went into “survival mode” and started finding ways to distract myself. Cry. Say, “Why me?”. Then get back to your life. In 2008, I discovered the book “Cancer on Five Dollars a Day* (*chemo not included): How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life” by Robert Schimmel. It chronicles the late comedian’s battle with cancer and is a great blueprint for anybody battling it.
Third, Confront it. For years, I never mentioned that I had cancer. I was embarrassed that I had a cancer that was so common, I had never heard of it at the time of my diagnosis. Then Lance started riding his bike through France and suddenly, testicular cancer had a face…had a name. Still didn’t have the respect of other cancers, but it was being talked about. I attribute this to being a strictly “guy” disease…and guys don’t talk about this stuff. Then I had an epiphany: My diagnosis pre-dates that I Lance and John Kruk (Former MLB Player and current ESPN Baseball Analyst, who was diagnosed in 1994). I made getting your balls cut-off trendy! Today, I mention it whenever someone says, “Tell me about yourself”. Remember that pick-up line I was given? It has actually worked on a couple women; although, when I mention it to males, I usually get, “Do it and I’ll take the other one off!”. Such violence for offering medical advice that could, potentially, save their life.
Lastly, Never use the term “Survivor” when referring to your successful battle with cancer. I use “Conqueror”! Survivor, to me, gives the impression that it won, on some level. It didn’t win. I WON! It tried to play in my sandbox, with my toys, and I shot it; stabbed it; hanged it; draw and quartered it; placed it’s head on a stick at the city limits; ate it’s lunch; then – for good measure – peed on it! Survivors don’t do those things…Vikings and Attila the Hun did such things. You know…Conquerors!