|My 10-year anniversary...
||[Jan. 27th, 2008|07:38 pm]
Next Sunday, February 3rd, will mark 10 years since I finished chemotherapy and have been cancer-free.|
In early 1997, while in Advanced Individual Training for the Army, I noticed a small lump in my left testicle. Being the stoic that I am, I ignored it, figuring it was something minor, but still fearing the worst. I also knew that if it was cancer, the Army would likely treat me and immediately discharge me. Having worked for 5 years to get back into the Army, I didn't want to be gone that quickly. After graduation from AIT, I went to Airborne School, where the problem became worse. It got to where it was painful to run, and that combined with the fact that I still hadn't seen my new born son, caused me to drop out of Jump School - a fact I regret to this day.
Eventually, I found myself stationed at Fort Campbell, with the famed 101st Airborne Division. Almost immediately, I found myself in Air Assault School. Then, one day, my left testicle swelled up to the size of a baseball. I went on sick call, and the PA declared it was epididymitis, which is an inflammation of the epididymis. He prescribed some anti-inflammatories and Motrin for the discomfort. The swelling went down a little, just enough for me to return to work. Having messed up at Air Assault School on an unrelated event, I found myself waiting to go back in order to finish the last event, a 12-mile road march with M-16, full battle-rattle, and 35 pound rucksack.
During my wait to return to Air Assault School, my unit went to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, for a week of training. While there, my testicle swole up to the size of a softball, and in order to walk, I had to grab the front of my pants and hold my testicle and penis away from my leg, to avoid them hitting it, as that caused a searing pain to course through me. I went to the small clinic there on the base, and a Reserve doctor (who looked to have been old enough to have served alongside Patton in WW2), looked me over. He gave me a "no running, no jumping, no marching for three days" profile, and told me to go back to the clinic as soon as I got back to Ft. Campbell. He also recommended that I get an ultrasound, and depending on those results, I should consult with a urologist.
Upon returning home, I went on sick call, and had the ultrasound done. The PA also renewed my profile for another three days, starting on Monday, meaning I could resume normal activity on Thursday. Thursday just happened to be the next day when an Air-Assault School road march and graduation was scheduled, and I was determined to be there.
The ultrasound showed a lump, but they weren't sure what it was, so I went back for another on Wednesday. After that ultrasound, an appointment was made for me to see the urologist, Dr. (CPT) Charles Payne, of Blanchfield Army Community Hospital on Friday morning.
On Thursday, I went to the Air Assault School and began my road march. In order to graduate, you have to complete the 12 miles in less than 3 hours. I ran most of the way, as most people do, trying to motivate a Michigan State ROTC cadet who was getting his behind kicked by the humidity. He and I crossed the finish line at 2 hours, 59 minutes, 50 seconds - just 10 seconds to spare. But, we did it! We passed Air Assault School! I was very proud to stand there that morning and have those silver wings pinned on my chest. The week prior, I literally couldn't walk because of a swollen testicle, but here I was, graduating a very physically demanding school.
On Friday, I went to see the urologist. He had me drop trou and took a look at my cajones for about 30 seconds before asking me "What do you have planned this afternoon?" I told him that my wife was at work, my son was at day-care, and I had the only car. "Why?" "Because I'm 98% certain that you have testicular cancer, and I want to operate to remove it and do a biopsy TODAY!"
Luckily, I had more or less resolved myself to this being the case, so it didn't floor me. I took it in stride. He and I discussed it, and he decided it could wait until Monday morning, so that I could make arrangements with my wife for her to get out of work and take care of our son. Then, I had to tell her and my parents.
Telling my then-wife wasn't difficult, as she had been there for the whole process. She was up-to-date, and she took it quite well. Or, if it did bother her, she didn't let it show. Calling my folks was much more difficult.
My dad had lost his mother to a stroke not long before, so it was rough on him. Plus, if someone had told him, when he was 26 that he had cancer, it would have been equal to a death sentence. But, my parents turned towards their faith, and found the courage to be strong for me. My dad and I did share a few tough phone calls over the next few months, but I always tried to reassure him that I was tough, that modern medicine was far better than it was in his day, and that surely there was a reason for this, and I'd be fine.
During the surgery on Monday morning, my left testicle was removed, and was sent to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology for a biopsy. Other tests were conducted, as well, and it was discovered that there were tumors in my abdominal lymph nodes. The doctors needed me to recover from the first surgery before they could operate again, so they scheduled me for the next operation six weeks later.
During the second surgery, I had three doctors working on me, Dr. Payne and another urologist from BACH, and Dr. Smith, the Chief of Urology at Vanderbilt Medical Center. Dr. Smith drove up to Ft. Campbell in order to assist in the six-hour operation to remove my cancerous lymph nodes. The operation consisted of cutting me open from 3" below my navel to 3" below my sternum, and placing my guts on top of my chest for SIX HOURS! When the doctors were done, I had more staples in me than an office supply store. I then spent a week in the hospital, recovering. My abdomen was black, blue, yellow, and purple. It looked like Mike Tyson used me for a punching bag, and that's about how I felt, too!
When the doctors finally released me, I was told to stay off my feet, and the heaviest thing I was allowed to pick up was the TV remote - doctor's orders. He did say I could pick up my 6-month old son, but not for long periods of time, and I couldn't do anything strenuous.
After the surgery, the doctors discovered that the cancer had already begun to spread. This time, they found evidence of tumor nodules in my liver. This meant four rounds of chemo. Since Ft. Campbell doesn't have an oncologist, this meant going elsewhere for treatment. In my case, it meant Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton, Ohio.
I didn't know just how bad the chemo was going to affect me, and didn't want my wife to witness it, so she and our son went home to stay with her mom for the next few months.
My chemo was set up in four three-week cycles. On every Monday, I recieved a dose of Bleomycin. Bleomycin is so toxic, that if it gets on your skin, it'll eat a hole right through it. The oncology nurses had to wear masks, gloves, and heavy plastic smocks whenever they handled it. Yet, they were injecting it into my veins! In addition to my Monday morning Bleomycin, I recieved doses of cisplatin and etopiside every day of the first week of each cycle. Basically, I recieved the same drug therapy that Lance Armstrong underwent a year earlier.
When I began chemo, I went ahead and shaved my head as short as possible, so I didn't have to deal with hairs all over the place. I still had it fall out, in little patches all over my head. I looked like an alien from the old '80's TV show Alien Nation. I only got sick four days in the entire 81, and always at the same time in the cycles. After the third week of each cycle, I'd get sick that Tuesday, and be fine on Wednesday. I surprised everyone, epecially my oncologist and the nurses, because I actually put on 15 pounds during chemo. I was eating like a horse. If you put food in front of me, it disappeared quick, fast, and in a hurry.
While I was at WPAFB, I got to stay in the nicest place, staffed by the most caring people in the world, and provided by a true American hero. I had the privilege of staying at the Fisher House, a home built by the Fisher House Foundation to provide a place for sick and injured servicemembers and their families to stay while undergoing medical treatment. If you aren't familiar with the Fisher House, please, visit their website: http://www.fisherhouse.org/. The Fisher House was started by Zach Fisher, a self-made multi-millionaire who knew who made it possible for him to be so successful. He had tried to join the Army as a young man, but was physically disqualified. His wife, Elizabeth, worked as a Red Cross nurse (IIRC), treating wounded servicemembers during WW2, and the images stuck in their minds of those young men, far from home, going through their most trying moments without the support of family nearby. When Zach Fisher became successful, he vowed to make the situation better, and he did it. He will always remain one of my biggest heroes, and the Fisher House Foundation will always remain one of my favorite charitable causes.
On February 3rd, 1998, I finished my final round of chemo, and boarded a plane back to Ft. Campbell. I was greeted at the airport by my Sergeant and our new Lieutenant, whom I hadn't met before, LT Casey Randall. The next day, I had to fill out travel vouchers, take care of convelescant leave paperwork, and go to the close-of-business formation that afternoon. As I was heading to formation, in uniform, I heard my former platoon sergeant yell out "Soldier, who the f$&k cut your hair?" I turned around, and as soon as he saw it was me, his jaw dropped to the ground and he began apologizing like their was no tomorrow. (If you had seen me that day, you'd think I was a wlking corpse; I was pale, my face was sunken, and my hair had fallen out in patches all over my head.) I told him not to apologize, my barber was really bad, but that I didn't have to pay for it. Everyone started laughing, and he felt like a jerk (he often was a jerk, so the moment was kind of sweet). As we were waiting for the First Sergeant to arrive, my section sergeant was chewing out the rest of the guys for some minor infraction, and dropped the section for push-ups. Well, being part of the section, I dropped too. He told me I didn't have to drop, but if my section is doing push-ups, I do them too. (I think that's why he only made them do 10, instead of more.)
When the First Sergeant arrived, the Battery was called to Attention, and the Battery Commander took over the formation. The Executive Officer called me forward, and the Battery Commander promoted me, from Private First Class, to Specialist. Then, he allowed me to make a speech, as was his tradition. I kept it short and sweet, unlike this post. lol
The next day, the First Sergeant drove me to the Housing Office on post, spoke to a friend of his, explained the situation, and got my name moved up to the front of the housing list. Instead of waiting several more months, I had a place to live that afternoon. My wife and son flew back a few days later, and I spent the next 2 months getting reacquainted with them before returning to work.
I know this has been a tad long-winded, but I wanted you to know full well why this Sunday will be so special to me. And, guys, don't take your health for granted. Do a testicular self-exam while you're in the shower, they aren't difficult. You knwo your body better than anyone else, you'll know if something isn't right. If their is something wrong, don't try to be tough - get it looked at before it worsens. Had I gone to the doctors right away, I probably wouldn't have this nice zipper down my abdomen, nor would I have had to go through 81 days of chemo. Please, do it for yourselves, and for those who care about you. Had I waited much longer, I could have died. The next step after my liver would have been my lungs and then my brain.