Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

Archive for the category “Family and Friends”

No Control

Great album, great singer, but has nothing to do with this post’s topic other than the title, “no control.” Continuing on with things related to my battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in recognition of Lymphoma Recognition Month (known as Blood Cancer Month also), the issue of “control” was not something I had thought about, until after my treatments were done, but affected me the entire way through my battle.

From the moment you meet with an oncologist, and they begin to pursue a diagnosis of cancer, whether you realize it or not, you have begun to have control of your life taken away from you. You do not see it happening, because you are focused on getting through this, more importantly, surviving. Your intent is to do whatever it takes.

A soon-to-be diagnosed cancer patient quickly discovers doctor appointments to keep, scans and bloodwork to be done, and then of course a treatment schedule with routine lab work to follow, all on a tight time schedule to keep you on track for the best shot at remission. You have no control over this. I mean sure, you could refuse, but then, that would result in the obvious.

The time period for me from beginning to end was November of 1988 to March of 1990, seventeen months, two Winter seasons (that meant no skiing), one Summer season (no trips to the beach and water park), including a honeymoon as I got married during that time. A cancer patient soon learns, your treatment team does not work around the patient (even for a wedding), the patient works around the treatment team. There are also certain foods that have to be avoided. And then finally, your body itself, will dictate what you can do, when you can do it, for how long. The point is, you are no longer in control. As I said, being so wrapped up with what needed to be done, dealing with the current side effects of what was happening, I never really gave any thought about what I wanted, so control, or lack of control was the last thing on my mind.

My wedding, though still occurring on the date as planned, was still impacted by the timing of my treatment schedule. And as the second set of Winter months came around, as an avid skier, I missed the prior season because of all of the testing and staging I was going through, I had no intention of missing the next season. Here is how that went.

“So doc, I was looking to hit the slopes in a couple of weeks in between my cycles of treatment. If I feel up to it, do you think I could handle it?” I was twenty-three years old, asking another adult, not even a parent, if I could do something I had done for many years.

He answered, “well Paul, I guess you could. But I would think about it, because, well, you will obviously be dressed warmly because of the cold.” I said, “of course.” He continued, “you probably sweat a lot from all of the physical exertion.” I chuckled, “yeah.” Where was he going with this? I was just asking if my body could physically handle skiing. “What would happen if you would catch cold or something because of that, or catch something from other skiers? If that impacted your blood counts, then your treatment could be delayed, and you are near the end as it is. Do you really want to delay it any further?”

There it was. I had my “final” treatment date on my calendar from the date of my first injection. I was going to have many more years of skiing, but I wanted to get my treatments over and done with. The funny thing is, during the entire time, I never realized how much control cancer had over my life, until…

Two weeks after my final injection, when I would have been preparing for my next cycle, had there been one, I just sat there. I had nothing to do now. I was free to get back to life. And I felt confused. Because for so long, I had been following everyone else’s directions, meeting the orders of doctors. Imagine emerging from your home following a hurricane. You exit your home slowly, not knowing what to expect as far as damage and destruction. You see the bright sunshine, but you also see what has been left behind in the storm’s aftermath. I personally know this feeling as well having survived a direct hit by hurricane Irma five years ago. I would have follow up appointments to keep, and likely blood work and scans, but there was no longer a timetable to keep. I realized I was back in control.

I had not social media or internet back in 1988, or else I might just have learned others had been experiencing this same feeling of lack of control. I frequently see posts from patients asking about getting a tattoo during treatments, or dying hair, going on vacations, and of course, getting married and pregnancies. These patients now experience the same loss of control without realizing that is what is happening. Because as they post their “can I” situation, I am right there with the same advice my doctor gave me about skiing. “Sure, you could probably do it, but would it be worth it, if it resulted in delaying your treatments?” In the game of “highest card wins,” you only get one card. You live with the card you draw. Sometimes it is best not to draw any card. But that means you have to give up control. That is what cancer does.

3 – 2 – 1 Fire Engines

***I am going to stress, this is not a political post, and any comments including political commentary will not be published and/or deleted.

It was a concept, called the “moonshot initiative” back in 2016, that President Obama announced during his State Of The Union speech. The push was inspired by the passing of the son of then Vice President Biden, Major Beau Biden, who died from brain cancer. The goal, to eliminate cancer once and for all.

Growing up in school, as early as my kindergarten years, I remember all the fundraising to research cures for cancer. Fifty years later, though many cancers can be put into remission, still too many die. We have seen so much progress in so many other areas of society, yet the number two killer, cancer, continues to not be stopped.

As a 32 year survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and as involved as I am with advocacy, I have no problem making the claim that we have just accepted that science has done enough, that survival rates of cancer are good enough, not everyone can be cured. Like bile stuck in the back of my throat, this thought makes me sick. But the fact is, over the recent decades, cancer research had actually been reduced, at least the funding for it. There is no reason, that the high remission rate for Hodgkin’s that existed in 1988, 85%, has not resulted in a 100% cure rate over thirty years later. I cannot speak for all cancers, but I am sure that the sentiments will be fairly similar.

So when I heard that President Biden was announcing his “reignition” of the Cancer Moonshot initiative, he had my attention. Because of my personal involvement with the world of cancer, I am able to put my political gripes aside. I wanted to hear what he said. I wanted to hear the goals hoped for by boosting this program. As an advocate for cancer patients and survivors, I am all too aware of what we lack and need to support each other through cancer. We just are not able to do it on our own. Representatives that we have meeting with members of Congress have not really produces anything tangible up to this point. Remember, in recent decades, funding for cancer research had been reduced, not increased.

The first and probably main point President Biden made, was that he wanted the cancer death rate, which has been climbing dramatically in recent years, “cut in half within 25 years.” Some would ask, “why not eliminated? Why settle?” It is like going to a smorgasboard, loading up your plate, perhaps getting a second plate to fill along with the first. You get to try everything on your plate, but very likely you do not finish even one item completely. Cancer has been around for hundreds of years. And there has never really been a 100% commitment to eliminating cancer. To make the claim to stopping all deaths from cancer has not happened in fifty years, and is not likely to happen at least in my time, hopefully my daughters will see this day. So for now, I feel a 50% reduction in a rate that is constantly increasing, is a good approach. Realistic.

There is another major goal with this “cancer moonshot,” that affects nearly every cancer patient and survivor, improving the quality of care for both, and not just in therapeutics, but in the actual care itself, from the knowledge and skills of the doctors themselves, to the mental health of the patient and survivor, and an improvement to the overall quality of life during and after cancer. Probably the biggest obstacle or challenge for a cancer survivor, is getting medical care for late developing side effects from the treatments that put their cancer in remission because too many doctors just have not been taught this important chapter in their medical books. It is not good enough just to get us to remission. I know it sounds like I am being ungrateful. F* off if you actually believe that.

One way to lower cancer deaths is to prevent cancer, or at the least, detect it early. Let me tell you, it is a hell of a lot cheaper to do a preventative screening, than it is to run a full course of treatment of chemotherapy. THEN WHY IS IT NOT BEING DONE!?!? Actor and advocate Ryan Reynolds recently made headlines, just as late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel years ago, by videoing their colonoscopies (well, at least the parts that could be shown, and honestly, the most important part was the “reveal”). You can hear the doctor explain what was found, polyps, and learn just what happens if a polyp does not get removed. And then you see the genuine gratitude of Reynolds, knowing that a possible cancer diagnosis, had just been avoided, by prevention. According to Roswell Park Cancer Center, 5-10% of polyps will turn cancerous, and depending on the size, increases the chances.

I myself, because of my cancer past, am already a risk for additional cancers, and undergo a colonoscopy every two years (most of you are only expected to go through one every ten years unless polyps are found). But guess what? Each colonoscopy, multiple polyps have been found, and while up there, removed before they had the chance to turn cancerous. Having been through cancer once before, and knowing the financial toll, prevention is definitely the better way to go.

The fact is, we have screenings for so many forms of cancer. But where is the big push to get them done. There is always reluctance to get a colonoscopy or prostate exam, pap smear, mammogram, and many more. For some, it is about stigma (like the stupid concept that getting a colonoscopy might make a person “gay” because of going up the rectum – not only is this ignorant, it is also stupid). For others, it is about fear, what if?

Another interesting factor, is the “age adjusted rate”, which is a fancy way of saying, people are surviving longer after they are treated for cancer. NO SHIT SHERLOCK! That means that research needs to be done on the issues faced by survivors from the late developing side effects from the radiation and chemotherapy exposures. Duh! Anyone following “Paul’s Heart” has heard about this issue many times. But it is not good enough to be able to treat these issues, too many, most survivors in fact, have no idea where to turn to. And if they are lucky enough to find someone, getting access to that care is another hurdle. One more issue to be dealt with, communication needs to be improved not just between doctor and patient/survivor, but between the doctors themselves when multiple practices are involved.

If you have paid attention, I have always spouted the success rates for Hodgkin’s. And several other cancers share those high numbers as well. Why are we not seeing 100% yet? Science knows what has worked for so many, why settle for “good enough?” On top of that, many treatments are so toxic and damaging, often times, permanently, worse, deadly. The “moonshot” hopes to continue to discover specifically targeted and new types of treatments from immunotherapies and mRNA therapies and such. Even some cancer now how vaccines. Why not more?

You can definitely count on more “awareness” when it comes to what individuals can do to help to prevent cancer from diet to exposure to such things as smoking and chemicals.

With the passage of the 21st Century Cares Act, an additional $1.8 billion was provided for new cancer research (per THIS IS NOT NEARLY ENOUGH! Not when you consider all the cuts over the years prior. If we were truly treating this like a “moonshot” (I am too young to remember JFK’s speech), then all the stops should be pulled out.

One new creation, and I do believe a step in the right direction, is the creation of the Oncology Center Of Excellence, so that cancer-related decisions such as therapies and information can be streamlined, as opposed to getting bogged down in the red tape the FDA, CDC, and NIH. Another department has been formed with “moonshot” called ARPA-H, the Advanced Research Projects Agency For Health. I don’t want to sound bitter, but while this department definitely will be focused on speeding up research on prevention, detection and treatments for cancer, ARPA-H will benefit many other serious illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and such.

There is more that “Cancer Moonshot” is going to tackle. The issues of inequity, whether racial, religious, sexual, all play an added role in hampering those diagnosed with cancer whether it be economical, geographical, or just plain bigoted. Science needs to find out why certain treatments work for some and not for other, why some relapse and some do not, and why some people have later health issues during survivorship. As the site points out, the rapid discovery of treatments and vaccines for Covid19 prove our ability to get the same results for cancer.

President Biden also recognizes the tolls taken on patients and their families, financially and emotionally and wants better support as the patient moves on through survivorship.

One of the best resources to help get this done, you are reading it right now. Well, I am just one of thousands, who are willing to share with science, and our government leaders, our experiences, our concerns, and our needs. Who better to inform or teach our government and research, than actual patients and survivors?

There are a few more details, more organizing, more departments joining together. I just hope that this is finally the push to make it happen. Politics aside, there is absolutely no excuse for one of the most advanced countries in the world, not to be further than where we are today.

So, “ground control to Major Tom, commence countdown. Engines on.”

This Was Us

Decades before Jack and Rebecca (in full disclosure, I had to look up their names as I have never seen the television show “This Is Us”), there was my fiance and I.

We had been dating for a couple of years, in actuality, most of it as “engaged”. We were social butterflies, looking for parties to attend, just wanting to have fun. She was slightly older than me, and she had an established career. At age 22, I was still barely “legal” drinking age (yes, having to stress the word “legal”). I still really had not figured out my life, and it did not matter. I found someone that I wanted to hang around with the rest of my life, which sounds different than “spending the rest of my life,” and perhaps it was. All I knew was that we were happy with each other. We had fun with each other.

In November of 1988, that all changed. I had just come from two other locations in this order, an oncologist (cancer doctor), and my employer, who would be the first person to find out, that I had just been told that I had cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It was an odd choice that he was told before my fiance, but it really just happened to be circumstance. My fiance lived forty-five minutes from where I was, and I was upset enough, I struggled driving and knew that I should pull my car over. My workplace was actually on the way to her house where I planned to tell her in person. But as I drove by my work, I saw a light on in my boss’s office, and I pulled into the parking lot, and went inside. This story is for another post, but long story short, we talked about what just happened to me in the last two hours.

While that detour actually ended up being unintentional, it ended up being a dry rehearsal, for gathering my thoughts, what and how, I would tell my fiance, that I had cancer.

When I got to her house, she was in the back room with her mother and father. I asked her to join me up front in the living room, that I had something I needed to talk to her about. She was expecting me that evening, as was usual, but did not expect what I was about to tell her. She got the cliche “you need to sit down for this.”

“The doctor thinks I have Hodgkin’s Disease (it was referred to as disease back then instead of lymphoma).” She looked confused, not sure what that meant. I had to clarify for her, “cancer.” A tear welled up in her eye, and she uttered out, “so what does that mean? Are you going to die?” More tears were coming out, a lot more. At that moment, I just hugged her.

She had a previous boyfriend that was killed in a motorcycle accident. I was certain that she did not want to face another tragedy of another significant other. But I had one conversation in my head up until that moment, some further testing that needed to be done, and likely treatments, to hopefully reach remission. That is not what came out.

“Listen, this is not what either of us had planned on. And while I do love you, I love you enough to understand, that this diagnosis is going to change everything that we had planned for our future, and what you may have dreamt of, quite possibly in a very bad way.” My mind had switched from caring about my needs, to thinking about my fiance. I knew her well enough, that she would not just bail on me because I had cancer. She had a great heart, and would never do that. Even if it meant exposing her to yet the possibility of another boyfriend dying. Call it arrogance, but I did not want that to happen to her.

“Listen, I am about to undergo a lot more tests, including a major surgery, all to determine how bad this is going to be. And I could have to go through chemotherapy and radiation therapy, all which have the potential to interfere with our wedding plans. We may have to postpone, or even if we go ahead, I have no idea what will happen to me. There is a chance that we could not have children. There is a chance I could die.”

She had been listening carefully to everything I was saying, yet she remained stoic. And then I said to her, “I would totally understand, and be okay with, if you wanted to call things off. We would part as friends, and I would completely understand, because I know what you have gone through before and do not want you going through it again. I would never hold this decision against you, because in the end, our lives will never be the way we had planned after this.”

As I now read what I said, and wrote here, what a stupid thing to say. But as I said, I was 22 years old, and clearly not ready to even make a decision on getting married, let alone, face the road that I was now on.

She made the decision to stay with me and we were married six months later, following six weeks of intense and extreme levels of radiation therapy. Our honeymoon was nowhere near what we had planned, as expected due to my recovery. When we returned, my follow up appointment revealed that I had new disease located, and this would mean highly toxic chemotherapy. This course would leave me unable to have biological children. It seemed, what I had warned her about ended up being correct. Our lives together would never be as we had imagined, and now, we were “stuck” with the decision of having gotten married.

There is a common expression amongst many cancer survivors. “Don’t let cancer ‘define’ you.” That is not to say that you cannot change, but perhaps even improve. You do not need to go through the rest of your life with a huge “C” on your chest. But there is nothing wrong, with seeing things in a different light, another perspective, a reorganization of priorities, or what might or should be important in life. When you have faced something life threatening, it is an understatement that there is a new lease on life.

One problem that can occur, while the survivor definitely knows what the experience has done to them, those around the survivor, caregivers such as spouses or other family members or friends, do not. They may have witnessed the struggles, and may have been able to empathize, but those closest to the survivors have no idea the changes that have taken place, and may continue for many years later.

That is what happened with my wife after my treatments ended. My wife was ready to move on with the lives that we were living prior to my diagnosis, which relied a lot on socialization and partying, fun. Again, while cancer has never defined my life, it did have an impact on it, and if there is anything good that did come of it, it was the change and awareness of what I felt was important in life, things that should matter, wanting to make a difference. The only problem is, my wife did not share that same direction. And though we gave the appearance of getting along as a married couple to those looking on, inside our house, we just co-existed. We both were going in our own directions. Until…

My wife was hit head on while driving home from her night class, a dark, two lane rode, with high embankments, nowhere to go. She was driving a Geo Storm. The other driver was driving a Ford Crown Victoria. The result was like an army tank running into a Mattel Big Wheel toy. My wife was flown by helicopter to the hospital with serious injuries. As I went to the junkyard the next morning to retrieve her belongings from the car (if I was able), the image of what was left of the car, left me with a sunken feeling of my skeleton having been removed from my body, total collapse. The front end of the car was completely crushed as easily as a soda can, and the top cut away to remove her from the car. The other person’s car, hardly any damage except noticeably broken headlights. How my wife ever survived this accident, I would never know how.

Now remember, cancer is a life threatening moment. And I was not going to let it define me. It could lead me to want to improve myself, appreciate things and life more, good things. I had been frustrated that my wife could not understand what I was going through. But as the weeks went on following her accident, I held out hopes, that now, having been put in her own life-threatening situation, she not only would understand how it felt for me, but that she too might see the difference her life could have, our lives, I felt, for the better.

As time went on, and her healing continued, change of perspective did not happen. And I did not fault her for that. Epiphanies do not happen to everyone. Her goal upon recovery, was to get right back to what she was doing and enjoying before the accident. She was not interested in anything different. From that point on, we continued in our separate directions, albeit civilly, until one fateful conversation, that resulted in not being able to turn back from, leading to our divorce. As I said, our situations affected each of us differently, and looking back on that fateful day, when I broke the news to her of my diagnosis, I wished either she had taken me up on my offer to walk away from me, or perhaps I should have just ended it myself.

While this was not a period in my life I am happy with, combined with my attitude of not letting cancer define me, the changes in my life that occurred because of my cancer, and the many challenges since, have made me the person that I am today, most importantly, an example for my daughters to look up to and respect. That when the time comes for them to get involved with someone, they expect someone who will share their similar values and dreams, not just be willing to support in difficult times.

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