I recently found myself in the Carbone cancer center at the University of Wisconsin once again. It had been six months since I was last there. Six months since my last CT scan. Six months since I sat in the small examining room awaiting the arrival of my oncologist to review my scan with me and talk about where I’ve been and where I’m at and most importantly, where I am going. I was truly nervous. This is my first six-month review. Prior to this I was being seen every three months before that every month and prior to that every day.
Six months does not seem like a long time if it is put into the perspective of a normal lifetime. If you happen to be me, a current lung cancer survivor, six months represents the longest time you’ve gone without medical supervision for the past three years.
When I was first told that I did not have to return for six months, I was very excited. The things I could do in six uninterrupted months would be wonderful. I must tell you that the first three months were just that, I was at the peak of my limited energy. I was writing and speaking with potential sponsors and donors. I met with and spoke with company executives regarding cancer products and research. I spoke with cancer patients and gave support. For three months I was on top of my game. Then somewhere in that stretch it dawned on me that three months had passed and my internal cancer clock went off. I started thinking about things far too much. I started to question the six months I was given and began to worry about the additional three-month grace period.
As soon as concerns and doubts began to creep into my thoughts, my mood began to change, my productivity dropped and I started to withdraw from things, I was not a pleasant person to be around and I didn’t see it at all. My family did, what was invisible to me was crystal clear to them. Our non-profit organization (GFLCCO) also suffered as I withdrew from writing for a while and stopped aggressively trying to get our message out. For the next couple of months, I was a mess.
It was soon May and my pre-exam paranoia was at full height. My wife and son had sat down with me and pointed out my personality change and although I couldn’t understand it at first the more I thought about it the more I realized I had traveled this path before.
My wife and I soon found ourselves on a plane and in Chicago. A few days later I found myself sitting in the all too familiar waiting room at the UW and then waiting in the examining room once more.
I had written about similar things many months earlier and finally refined and published it as an article in December of last year. The article is entitled, “Living Life Three Months At A Time.” I re read it, which by the way if you haven’t read it I suggest you do because this is obviously the second in the series and I wouldn’t want you to fall behind the other people who have done their homework.
Although I went through treatment over three years ago, I still consider myself as a current small cell lung cancer survivor. I am ever mindful that cancer is a tricky thing and sometimes like a bad horror movie sequel, it comes back to stalk the survivor of the original film. I think that fact is still the haunting factor of the follow up visit whether it be three or six months. It’s the thought that someone is going to have to look you in the eyes and tell you that you are going to go through it all over again. That thought lurks in the back of my mind more then I care to admit. I feel good for the most part. I still can only walk so far, talk so long, and I still can lose my breath from something as simple as putting on a pair of socks. Walking up a flight of stairs can sometimes take my breath away faster then loves first kiss, but I certainly don’t feel like the cancer is flaring up. Of course, three years ago, the news that I had cancer to begin with floored me because what I thought was my yearly bout of bronchitis or possible pneumonia turned out to be lung cancer. After that shock, I came to the UW where they went in through my nose to take a sample from my lung and came back with the verdict of “small cell” lung cancer. I was pretty excited, I remember saying with complete sincerity, “Small cell, that’s good isn’t it?” “I mean it could be ‘ Large cell’ that would be bad, right?” The room went silent. The difference between large and small cell cancer was explained to me along with the knowledge that operating would not be an option.
I rarely replay the series of events that led to the discovery, diagnosis and treatment of “my” cancer.
As I looked around the waiting room I saw an older gentleman sitting alone and a memory of three years prior flooded in.
I was speaking with a gentleman I met in the same waiting room that I was currently seated in the spring of 2007, shortly after I began treatment. He was older then I but because we were going through something similar, we had common ground to have a comfortable conversation regarding cancer. He referred to his cancer as “my” cancer. I asked why he would make it that personal? His reply is timeless. He said, “Son, it don’t get more personal then cancer.” It was his second go round with cancer so he had wisdom to share, he told me,” You’re cancer is a new part of your life. You’ve got to get to know it, get personal with it, find it’s weakness, then fight it to the death.” I was brought back to the present as an elderly woman wearing a breathing apparatus made her way past where I was seated and gently nudged my chair as she passed.
I thought about these things I learned from my friend three years ago and many other things that I have learned along the way, and for the first time in a month began to feel at ease, I found peace of mind.
I watched the people come and go, studying their faces as they spoke to one another. I tried to read their eyes to look into their soles and offer some type of reassurance that I have no right to offer. I kept waiting for the little plastic messenger that the clinic uses which, by the way, is the same one that you would be handed while your waiting for your table at a restaurant. You know the one I mean, the round one that vibrates and then the little red lights light up. I remember thinking once that maybe when this thing lit up, someone would come out of the back with a pizza and I would pay him or her and go home. It never happened. So many people coming and going, so many lives altered by cancer.
I waited as long as I could, but I needed my blood work done before I went for my scan. So as much as I didn’t want too, I rose to my feet and walked into the lab to have blood drawn.
As much as I have already twisted and turned in this article, I must once again head into another direction for a moment, please bare with me.
I have both written and spoken about this before, including the “Three Months” article. More then almost anything else in the world, more then clowns, more then spiders. More then clowns posing as spiders or visa/versa. I hate the thought of someone trying to draw blood from me. Let me make sure you understand me here. I do not have a fear of needles. I do not have any reaction to seeing or the thought of blood. My cancer treatment consisted of radiation twice a day combined with three consecutive days of chemotherapy every three weeks and constant blood work. By the end, and to this day, I have very few options to offer as far as veins in my arms, which makes for an interesting and sometimes painful trip to the lab. I am what is referred to as a ‘hard stick’. All right, put all the schoolboy jokes aside because it’s not funny, and I will tell on you. The one saving grace is that the lab staff at the UW is top notch and even when my veins do not want to cooperate, they make it all bearable. Still the thought of blood being drawn keeps me up at night. What someone who has not been through something like this must be thinking. I mean it really is comical if you think about it. To go through all of this and the biggest concern is that someone is going to struggle a little putting a needle in your arm.
With the blood being drawn and on its way to be analyzed, it was time to move upstairs to the CT area.
The CT waiting room, not the main one you start out in with pizza messenger in hand waiting for the little red lights to signal your acceptance into the inner sanctum. The second one. It’s a small quaint waiting room that you wait in with others just before your scan. The nurse asks things about your allergies, if you’ve had another scan recently and if you have a port left in your arm from your earlier trip to the lab. This is the second hurdle I must clear to vanquish my anxiety. The nurse will test the port to make sure that it is suitable for the contrast that is injected into you during the scan. If the port is no good, then it must be removed and the vein hunt begins again. My port was good this time around, I’ve not always been this fortunate.
Anyway, the CT waiting room can be a social gathering as we share “why were here today stories” over cups of barium and outdated magazines. I always meet the most wonderful people and sometimes have heard the most heartbreaking stories in this tiny waiting room on the third floor. I have never shared any of these CT waiting room stories with anyone, I think it would be a violation of trust somehow. I will tell you that I have learned, drawn strength from and always taken away something from my years of visiting the third floor. The scan itself is a breeze.
Back we go to the second floor waiting room to see my oncologist, the man who along with the efforts of my radiologist and first and foremost my wife, are responsible for me still hanging around. We met as we always do, exchanged pleasantries, caught up with what we each had been doing over the past six months, a brief check of thing to make sure my basic parts were still functioning. Then the moment we have all been waiting for, the review of my scan.
There I am up on the screen, the Dr. points out where the 10cm tumor started in my right lung, how it had attached itself to my esophagus. He shows where it currently lies much smaller and lying inactive at the moment. The unknown being if it’s dead or simply sleeping as a small survivor in its own right. We look at the deterioration at the top of the lung then move to the left lung. He points out the line across the scan which signifies the place where a fine surgeon in Mauston, WI. removed a large portion of my ‘good’ lung and glued and stapled the remainder together after both lungs collapsed at the same time landing me in the hospital for a month in 2008. We talk about the fact that there has been no significant change in my condition for the past six months and he tells me that my next appointment will also be six months from now. Time freezes for a moment…..It restarts after I have reset my life clock for another six months. It starts after I do the math to see where that puts me in time. Another six months. Set and mark, and once again time begins to move forward with a fresh set of months in front of me like a fresh set of downs must look to the football quarterback of a struggling team. I thank him for all he’s done for my wife and I, we shake hands and Lindsy and I leave the small room and schedule our next appearance.
Just like that, it’s over. I’m on my own for another six months barring anything unforeseen. I feel great, once again revitalized by the gift of another six months. I want to write, to get back to seeking sponsors and rooting out donations for the GFLCCO. My time in the waiting rooms reminded me that there are many people out there who are at the beginning of treatments or are watching someone they love go through treatments and that they are the people that my wife and I set out to help when we formed our non-profit. So many people coming and going, so many lives altered by cancer.
I am once again an active participant in the world around me, I remember when I was going through treatment and I began thinking and looking at things differently then I once had. I remember again why I started viewing things in a new light. I am ready to once again continue traveling down my new path.
The transition from three-month visits to six-month visits had by far a greater effect on me then I anticipated. As things go, I spend my life now learning new things not only about myself but about the world around me. Hopefully I learned enough to deal a little better with the next six months and hopefully the six after that.
The lesson learned here is one that was simply forgotten. Life in itself is too easily taken for granite and one needs to be reminded of that fact from time to time or you can easily step off your path and get lost in the woods around you. Make the most of the life you have.
Never spend more time focusing on the inevitable destination then you do enjoying the journey.
I would hate to think that I or anyone else for that matter would fight that hard to live and be fortunate enough to survive only to spend their remaining time worrying about a reoccurence. Besides, this set of articles is a trilogy and I would be remiss if I left the earth prior to writing part three, “Living Life One Year At A Time.”
Until then, I’m still basically the same as every other person on the face of the planet, trying to stumble their way through life.
I just now do it six months at a time.