Yesterday I celebrated my one year cancer anniversary. A somewhat strange event to memorialize, but it’s been a somewhat strange year.
History and Hypochondria
While I was diagnosed a year ago, the story starts a few years earlier. My dad died after a six year battle with cancer in early 1999. His father died from cancer six years before that. Somewhere along the line I started worrying about getting cancer myself, to the point of turning into a hypochondriac – in late 2000 I was convinced I had melanoma (skin cancer) – to the point that I could literally feel my enlarged lymph nodes… it also had the very real effect of causing a flare-up of tinnnitus (chronic ringing in the ears), which can happen during times of stress.
Anyway, after a series of doctor’s appointments, I was assured that there was nothing wrong with me (except for the tinnitus). Knowing my worry about cancer, our family doctor said that the only thing I really needed to worry about at my age was testicular cancer. He checked me for that, said I had nothing to worry about, and sent me on my way with a prescription for an anti-depressant.
Over the next couple of years, I would occasionally have those irrational fears come to the surface, usually during times of stress or depression. But they would go away after a week or two.
In early 2003, an online acquaintance was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Hearing about his experience once again caused me to worry, so I checked myself for any lumps on a regular basis, but never found anything. So again, the worries passed.
About that same time I started a pretty serious workout/diet program to lose the pounds I put on over the winter. Things were going well, and I was feeling good. Losing weight at a fairly regular pace, then near the end it really dropped off rapidly, despite the fact that my diet had reverted back to fast food twice a day… I thought I was doing well with my workouts!
In retrospect, it was probably a sign of impending doom (cue ominous music). On Saturday, May 3rd I was having a nice, long workout… tried some decline dumbbell presses, which can strain your abdomen if you’re not careful. I went home and took a shower, and just didn’t feel well at all – I had a dull ache located in my lower abdomen, and felt queasy – as if I had just gotten off a roller coaster. While I was trying to locate the center of the ache, my hand brushed against my right testicle. Something didn’t feel right, but I quickly pushed it out of my mind… I had a Def Leppard concert to go to!
While the ache went away, my mind started bringing the possibility of testicular cancer to the forefront. As always, I told myself that this was just an irrational fear, and I needed to push it aside. But every time I would be in the shower and do a partial check (being sure to stay away from whatever I felt earlier), it was obvious something was wrong. The fear and stress continued to mount for a couple of weeks – I told a friend of mine that I was afraid I might have cancer, but I knew it was probably just those old worries coming back.
The next day at church, the theme of the message was prophetic in a sense – I don’t remember the specifics, but the gist of it was that during times of suffering, we do not see the bigger picture… God’s plans, while always serving the greater good, sometimes involves personal pain. Given my anxious state of mind, this was the last thing I wanted to hear… I left halfway through because I couldn’t take it anymore.
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance
The following week I hardly slept – spent most of the nights watching movies… Ocean’s 11 was a popular one 🙂 I cried more than once, asking God to take away the fear. I was sick and tired of being scared, and I didn’t want to be scared anymore. That Thursday I finally mustered up the courage to thoroughly check myself, knowing that what I would probably find wouldn’t be good. Sure enough, there was a fairly large lump on my right side. I called my mom, but she wasn’t home – I left a message, then started to pray.
I occasionally read of people being so into their prayer that they would end up face down on the floor – well, that’s what happened to me. I finally accepted the fact that yes, the chance of have testicular cancer was significant. And I gave it to God – I remember praying that it was totally out of my control. What lay ahead wasn’t going to be pleasant, but I had no options. Ignoring it wasn’t going to make it go away, and I wasn’t ready to die. But as I was lying there, I felt God’s presence – I knew that He was in charge, and knew that He wasn’t going to leave me alone. Even though I was scared to death, this was the first time I had any sense of peace since the beginning of this ordeal.
Actually, death doesn’t frighten me. If I could be assured it would be quick and painless, I wouldn’t mind if I go tomorrow. But seeing my dad go through years of treatments and eventually wasting away – I didn’t want any part of that. I remember when I would be at home, Dad often couldn’t sleep due to the chemo – I would see him downstairs in the middle of the night, head in hands. He never complained, but it was obvious he was struggling. I don’t want to go out that way.
On top of that, I have had a deep-seated fear of needles for my entire life. When I was 7 or 8, I had strep-throat several times in a two year period – and every time I ended up getting jabbed with a shot of penicillin. After that I went out of my way to avoid shots. Other than a booster before I went to college and four shots when having an ingrown toenail removed (which was one of the most painful experiences EVER), I never would let a doctor stick me for anything. The mere possibility of having blood drawn or getting a shot made me break out in a cold sweat. Having to go through that on a regular basis, as is common during chemotherapy, was my idea of hell on earth.
Things moved pretty quickly over the next 24 hours – Mom eventually called back, and I told her what was going on. She called Dr. Simmons, who agreed to see me that night. So at 10:30PM, I was in his office, showing him where I had felt the lump. He felt around for a bit (always an unpleasant experience), and said it was probably epididymitis, an infection of the testicle. It’s generally caused by sexually transmitted diseases (which obviously wasn’t my case), and isn’t uncommon among weightlifters. Considering I had been pushing myself so hard at the gym, I was relieved to hear that, and went home, assuming that was that. I just had a urologist appointment the next morning to make sure.
So I drove to the urologist’s office, who again felt around, and he too said it was probably epididymitis, but he wanted to get an ultrasound just to make sure. Fine – another annoyance, but my day was already shot and I had nothing better to do.
After a long wait at the outpatient center, I was finally taken back to the ultrasound room. As the scan seemed to go on forever, and the technician made some pretty un-encouraging noises – heavy sighing and the like – my heart dropped. I knew it wasn’t good news. Finally I got out of there and sat by the phone at the hospital, waiting for the urologist to call back with the results. When he did call, he did not have good news. He said there was a solid mass, and that it looked cancerous. He wanted me to come back to his office to discuss the situation further.
At some point my mom came into the picture – I don’t remember if she came to the hospital with me or met me there. At any rate, we left the hospital to go back to Dr. Khim’s office. He sat down to speak with us, and explained the situation. My right testicle would need to be removed, and the mass examined to determine the makeup of the tumor. The good news was that testicular cancer has a 90% (or better) cure rate. That really didn’t matter to me – I didn’t want to have to deal with the cure! At that point I wasn’t interested in what lay ahead though – i just wanted to take care of the situation at hand. Being Memorial Day Weekend, he could do the orchiectomy (removal of the testicle) the following Tuesday, or work me in late that afternoon. I was fine with waiting until Tuesday, but Mom wanted to take care of it as soon as possible. Which was probably the best thing to do, so at 3:00 I was checked into the hospital, in my lovely gown.
They rolled me into pre-op, where a very nice nurse put in the IV – either due to adrenaline or her skill, I barely felt it – a good sign! I couldn’t stop shaking due to nerves, so another nice nurse pushed some drug which calmed me down with a quickness. I was taken into the operating room, moved myself onto the table, and started to look around. I wanted to be alert for as long as possible and remember as much as I could. I looked over at the clock, saw Dr. Khim enter the room, and I was out like a light.
Big Bucks, Big Bucks – No Whammies!
I woke up in the recovery room, and thankfully I wasn’t crying, as I did when I had my tonsils removed in the second grade. The first thing the nurse said to me was “Looks like you’ve had a double whammy!” In my half-conscious state, I had a horrifying thought: “Oh no! They found cancer on both sides.” Before I could consider the possibility of being a eunuch, I passed out again. As I faded in and out of consciousness, the nurse drew some blood – I had asked them to do it while I was under anesthesia, but apparently they needed to take it again. But I was so out of it I didn’t notice at all.
Eventually I was taken to my room – the doctor had said beforehand that I would be able to leave that night, but I found out what exactly “double whammy” meant – turns out that while they were rooting around in my abdomen, they found a pretty large hernia… more than likely, that is what I felt three weeks prior after my workout. While a hernia is never fun, I’m thankful that it happened, because otherwise it might have been months before I discovered the lump on my testicle.
Anyway, when they discovered the hernia, a surgeon who just happens to deal with them was nearby, so they brought her in to fix things on that end. But the dual-nature of my surgery meant I wasn’t going anywhere that night. After a night of some painful trips to the restroom and nurses coming in at 4AM to inform me of the checkout procedure, I left for home. Mom was supposed to have a baby shower for my cousin Leigh Ann that day, but it was called off despite my protests. I felt relatively well, just weak and sore from the surgery.
The doctor told me to take it easy for the next couple of weeks, which I was more than happy to do. The stress of the previous month left me in need of some R&R, and while this wasn’t the ideal situation, I wasn’t going to complain. So I spent the next two weeks in Mom’s bed while she slept in Molly’s room. I would come to loathe that bedroom.
After a week of resting at Mom’s, I went back to the urologist for my follow-up. Dr. Khim mentioned that the tumor was indeed cancerous, but that we caught it early. There were a number of possible treatment options – chemotherapy, radiation, further surgery, or simply surveillance – the last option was definitely what I was hoping for. But more tests were necessary… i.e. more needles. Some blood was drawn, and i was sent on my way, to wait for a few days until the results came back from the lab. I also had a CT scan which thankfully came back negative…. the first good news in a while.
The next week, Dr. Khim’s office called and said my Alpha-Fetoprotein (AFP) tumor marker was elevated – it had actually gone up from 100 to 180 in the week since the operation (“normal” is 8.5 or below). Basically this meant that there was still cancer in my system, but since the CT scan was negative, it wasn’t localized in my lymph nodes yet. So I made an appointment with an oncologist.
While this wasn’t the greatest news, in a strange sort of way I wanted to do it. I didn’t like the thought of surveillance – though it’s by far the most desirable option, knowing that I would need to be constantly aware of what was going on physically, and knowing me, I would always be worrying about every slight health irregularity. Also, It seemed kind of anti-climactic to just be done with the whole situation so quickly. Cancer is supposed to be dramatic and life-altering. A quick surgery and a week of bed rest hardly seemed appropriate. What was I THINKING?????
The oncologist was Dr. Jameson, who treated my dad while he was going through chemotherapy. I didn’t know him from Adam, but Mom thought highly of him. He told me that I would need chemotherapy, and explained what was involved. I was somewhat familiar with the regimen, as I had been reading through the TCRC website, which has been an invaluable resource throughout the course of my treatment. I would take three cycles of chemotherapy, each cycle lasting four weeks. More than likely, this would wipe out the cancer completely.
So on June 16, at 8:30 AM, I stepped into Columbia Oncology to begin chemotherapy.
I’m wiped out – I’ll have to finish the story later.