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Friday, July 31, 2015

Cancer - A Personal Story

Millions of people have gone through what I have just dealt with. And each of us has a story. Here's mine. Maybe it can help someone you love.

The Bad News

On the afternoon of April 28th, I received a call from my primary care physician.  I had seen him earlier that day for a pre-surgery physical for cataract surgery and in response to very gentle and open ended question, I told him about a minor pain in my left side.  He was confident in his diagnosis of diverticulitis, but decided to order a CT scan just to be safe. That was how the "mass" was discovered in my right kidney.

Telling My Wife and Getting Ready for Surgery

It was actually easier hearing the news from my doctor than relaying it to my wife.  She reacted as I knew she would, with tears and incredible worry.  For the next few days we were busy setting up doctor appointments, arranging for more tests and because we assumed I would need surgery, we spent a fair amount of time figuring out what we needed to get done around the house before I would be physically limited during my recuperation.

Fortunately the finances, legal documents and insurance policies were all organized and accessible. So we were able to concentrate on tasks that involved physical labor, like gardening, window cleaning and organizing the garage.  All the while I was able to go to work and felt very fortunate I didn't have any pain.

My urologist, after reviewing his and my primary care physician's CT scans, confirmed that the "mass" had to come out soon, though not necessarily immediately, and we had enough time to schedule the surgery around my own schedule for the summer.  He said there was an 85% chance it was malignant, but that the cure rate was 97%.  And by cure, he meant no radiation and no chemo.

The Good News

On July 13th I had the surgery.  The tumor was the size of a golf ball.  My doctors and a robot took it out. The pathology report confirmed the malignancy, but also showed that all the surrounding tissue was cancer-free. And to make it even more 21st century, I didn't have stitches, but was glued back together. (I also got a video of the surgery and not only did it confirm the tremendous knowledge and skill of the surgeons and the brilliance of the team that designed the robot, but that the inside of the human body is very icky.)

Reflecting on the Emotions

It is interesting how powerful the words, "cancer" and "tumor" are. Everyone, including the doctors and me, felt reluctant to even say those words.  So for a while, we stuck with "mass."  But we knew what we meant and I felt like I was walking around with a little time bomb inside of me. Would it metastasize?  If I had a tumor in my right kidney, could I have tumors in other areas of my body?

A cancer diagnosis changes your outlook on life.  For me, my priorities shifted.  I rushed getting some contracts moving along for SafelyFiled.  Some little things that bothered me, like the need to paint the hallway in the house, moved way down on the list.  Spending time with friends became more important and I talked with my children more frequently.

Because it shifts priorities, facing mortality can be a gift.  But it is a difficult gift to accept and is a lot to mentally and emotionally process.  And, though I have a loving wife and wonderful children, great friends and a supportive extended family, and even though more people have been praying for me than at any other time in my life, I had to process this fresh realization of mortality alone, by myself. I'm still processing it.  It invades random thoughts, when I'm up alone at night, when I'm watching TV, or even when I'm having a good time with friends.  And I'm still mostly doing it alone.  It can destroy the mood of sharing a pizza with friends if you suddenly say, "Hey, I've just been thinking about dying."  Sometimes silence is the best option.

Will this feeling last?  I don't know, but part of me hopes that it won't go away completely.  I like having the touchstone of mortality to guide my decisions. They have become more loving, more focused on the "now" rather than some time in the future.

I went through a bit emotionally.  However, aside from changing my priorities, I don't feel the cancer or contemplating my mortality gave me any great insight or wisdom.

But it did give me a better understanding of what some people with serious illnesses go through.  Not empathy for the pain, because I was lucky and didn't have any.  But for that little tinge of fear, that uncertainty, that concern for those we might be leaving behind.

No matter what brave face is presented to the world, for someone with a serious illness, these issues are just under the surface.  If you or a loved one are going through something like what I just went through, I hope this blog provides you some small measure of insight and comfort.

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