Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

Archive for the tag “Relay For Life”

Going Home

It is a homecoming of sorts for me tonight on many fronts.  I grew up in the Lehigh Valley and tonight I return to the Bethlehem area for a special occasion, one that affects me personally, the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life.

I have been doing a lot of public speaking appearances over the past few years, but on a different level, in a different arena all together, local government.  Tonight, I return to inspirational talk, cancer survival.

It will no doubt be an emotional evening not just for myself, but for everyone in attendance.  Everyone will have their own reason for being there.  Just a few miles away is the hospital where I was treated and cured of my Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  This will also be the first time that I have publicly spoken of my survival other than in written form since emergency surgery necessary for a late side effect.  I am giving a survival speech tonight that of all the people that I need to hear my speech this evening, will not be there to hear it, my Dad.  Just a few short weeks ago, he recieved news that he has lung cancer.

It was kind of a good news/bad news situation that should not really have come as a surprise to someone who has been smoking for over 57 years.  He had a cough that has been persistant since the Fall.  Annoyed with the fact that his doctor was ordering a CT scan, which of course costs money, just to check for a cough, seemed outrageous and unreasonable to my Dad.  But as obvious as the answer to my Dad’s first question, “so Doc, what do you think caused this?”, the results for a CT scan for a cold were also quite obvious.

Fortunately, further testing (called staging) would declare that my Dad has no signs of further disease elsewhere.  This is great news.  He will have a great chance at remission, something a lot of 50, 40, 30, and even 20 year smokers do not normally get.

This will not be the first time my father will hear the word “survival”.  He has been my stepmother’s caregiver since a tragic accident nearly decades ago.  His own health path had him face a major heart attack.  Now, he faces once more, one of the toughest fights he must take on for those that count on him.  Most of us would consider ourselves fortunate if we ever only faced one crisis in our lifetime.  Yet my father is now on his third crisis.  But of all things that I hope that he recalls of survivorship, I have his blood.  He has witnessed nearly every day of my twenty three years of survival.

The answer to my Dad’s question to the doctor, “smoking”.  With a positive outlook on his upcoming weeks, and not wanting to take advantage of the opportunity, I am proud of my dad, that he has finally quit smoking.

So when I speak tonight, it will be in honor of a man who has demonstrated endless courage and stamina, a true survivor who must take on yet, another fight.  You will get through this Dad.

My First Visit To Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Center

March 3, 1995 was a day that I had waited for five years to occur.  I was going to use the word “cured” with confidence that my Hodgkin’s Disease would be gone forever.  I had learned so much over those five years.  I had to watch if I got a high fever, keep an eye out for lumps and discolorations, all common sense stuff that I could do on my own without having to pay a co-pay for.  And in spite of statistics being based on five year survival rates, there was no evidence that I was going to comply with those odds.  Things were on my side for a long life.

I recently wrote a post on “big hospital vs. little hospital” so I won’t repeat my thoughts on that at this time.  As far as I was concerned, it was life as usual.  I would see my family doctor, whose practice is an hour away from my home, once a year, for a seasonal allergy shot.  I never thought about hospitalization, because prior to my Hodgkin’s Disease, I did not need to worry about hospitals.

But then I got the rude awakening when I dared to complain about a symtpom that I had ignored for nearly four months.  I was told that I needed open heart surgery at age 42, and it was due to radiation damage from my treatments eighteen years earlier.  I was at a hospital that I was more than familiar with for many reasons, of which is another post.  But the Lehigh Valley Hospital was one of the biggest networks in the area, so I felt in good hands.

One of the first things that I should have done when I got out of the hospital was head to Atlantic City or Las Vegas.  I was one of the luckiest people on the planet because I not only pre-empted my pending fatal heart attack, but I would come to find out, after getting my surgical report, that my surgery was based on the care for the average heart patient, not for someone exposed to four times the lifetime exposure of radiation and chemotheraputic drugs such as Bleomyacin,  Adriamyacin and other anthracycline drugs.  Decisions that were made then, could have had much different results.  Neither my doctors, nurses, or myself knew what was at risk.

In the past, I had been involved with an on-line support group for Long Term Survivors of cancer.  Up until now, I had never felt like I belonged there, because everyone that I had met on this list, were dealing with ailments blamed on their cancer treatments, cardiac, pulmonary, liver, secondary cancers, etc..  At worst, any issues that I had been dealing with from my cancer treatments were some hair that had not grown back, infertility issues, and thyroid issues.  Up until now.  So the first thing I did from the hospital was not visit a casino or play the lottery, I went back to those that I knew, would know best.

I am not qualified to define what exactly a “Long Term Cancer Survivor” is, or determine what criteria is to be met.  There is no committee collecting membership dues.  There is no ruler.  There are moderators, who are survivors themselves facing severe health issues related to their treatments, and they have the unpopular challenge of protecting each participant from common email attacks or personality clashes.  The fact is, we have enough to deal with.  And so it began, the journey to find doctors who specialize in long term cancer survivors.

Unfortunately, long term side effects are not widely studied by primary care physicians, specialists, and other caregivers.  Only in recent years does the discipline even have a recognizable heartbeat with an occasional article in the New England Journal or other publication.  Of course, the researchers and pharmacutical companies did not spend much time or money on late side effects, because we were not expected to survive a lifetime.  But we do.

Through the Childrens Oncology Group, I learned that there were two facilities that were within a decent day’s road trip, in Philadelphia at the University Of Pennsylvania and in Manhattan at Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Center.  From the internet support group, I knew a lot more about the program at MSKCC, but knew that both hospitals were some of the best in the country.

Scared, and running out of hope, I contacted the first name that I recognized from MSKCC, Dr. O.  In him, I struck gold.  He originally practiced in Texas.  For decades, this doctor studied Hodgkin’s Disease and survivorship of the late effects from treatments.  To get an appointment with him was the equivalent of winning the lottery.  I know of some other patients that see him, and knew that I was being cared for by the best, the leader, the example for survival care.  Through his leadership and mentorship, there are now many survivor clinics accross the United States, and the knowledge is now spreading across the world.  Survivors of cancer were not only being recognized, being represented, but being cared for.

Today, there are protocols for new patients when they reach the end of their treatments.  The medicines and procedures are less invasive, less toxic, and result in less severe side effects, but to be honest, the risks do still exist.  That is why there is the Relay For Life and Stand Up 2 Cancer.  Better ways of diagnosing and treating cancer need to, and can still be found.  With the follow-up protocol, the chances for picking up a late developing side effect, or secondary cancer, can now be found earlier and have the better success to survive, as if surviving cancer was not enough of a challenge.

My first trip to Manahattan since high school was overwhelming enough let alone to walk into one of the greatest medical facilities in the world.  I was greeted by Nick, also known as the “Ambassador” who gave me the instructions I needed to locate Dr. O’s office.  It was there that I met Beth, a nurse practitioner who had spent a long time with the cancer survivor program.  We spent close to an hour going over my health history.  She offered me compassion, empathy, and care as it was obvious, an entire new world was collapsing all around me.  I thought I was only going to be talking about cardiac issues.  But there was so much more.

Eventually, Dr. O came in and spent another hour with me, this time explaining all the things that had been discovered about cancer survivors like me, what had been done to me, and what would need to be done to care for me.  As he put it, “I want to make sure that your grandchildren get to know the great man you are and what you have been through.”  Okay, I was not really thinking about grandparenthood at 42, but I like his long term thinking.  Together we came up with a plan including retrieving my old records to find out exactly what I had been exposed to, and compare what they now know as far as what to look for in late developing side effects.  These are all things that are done now with current patients.

Nearly five years later, comparisons can now be made for me that show the progression of any of the side effects as there were no basline studies done on me 23 years ago.  I have a complete understanding of what my survival has meant to me, but also what it means to others, my family, my friends, and other survivors.  There are millions of us who have survived cancer.  Not all surivivors will develope side effects.  Not all survivors will know if what they may be dealing with may actually be attributed to their treatments.  That could be a good thing, take it from me.  It is a Pandora’s Box to know that more issues can occur, will occur, to know the increased risks at being proactive or letting things take their course.

This past week, it had been confirmed a symptom that I complained about two years ago, had returned, and why.  It is also suspected of causing a serious bout of “aspiration pneumonia” two months ago.  but this is just the beginning stages as further investigation will take place later this week to get an overall view from beginning to end, and then a new treatment plan will be determined as I continue to age towards grandparenthood.  Thankfully, because of Dr. O, and more than a dozen other caregivers that he has me deal with, I am going to get that chance.

Reality TV Bites! My Pitch To The Major Networks

Shows based on reality.  Oh, the humanity!
“You’re gonna lose your mind watchin’ TV” Oh, and “Fear Factor” I watched maybe a half hour after that, felt like I needed a long shower
Network execs with naked ambitions, “Next week on FOX, watch lions eat Christians”.  Leech-covered grub-eatin’ fools on “Survivor”
I love shows with or without a plot I’ll stare ’til my legs are numb, my eyes bloodshot
Because I only have got One brain to rot
I’m gonna spend my life watching television a lot

These lyrics are from Wierd Al Yankovic’s song parody “Couch Potato”.  I have intentionally only copied the references to reality television.  You can read the complete lyrics on any web page.  Late last year I attended a cancer survivor event.  One of the speakers was a head honcho at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.  When he finally began speaking he mentioned the uncomfortable feeling he got referring to former cancer patients as “survivors”.  Survivor is often a term we associate with war, accidents, natural disasters.  I am paraphrasing, but that is the gist of what he said.  I believe he was attributing it to the duration of the event and the effects following it.  I would go one step further as far as using the word survivor, not just for cancer patients, but those who have survived war, disasters, and other tragic events.  I believe the word “survivor” has been cheapened by “reality TV”.

I will admit that I do watch an occasional reality show, but it is very rare.  The whole concept of someone volunteering to be put in precarious positions, be paid for it, and referring to the victor as a survivor is insulting and demeaning to those who have had no choice, who are not given a financial opportunity to recover (or in the TV world, profit from their effort or gain their fifteen minutes of fame).

Seriously, take a look around your waiting room.  In walks your doctor with a TV producer, and about a dozen people whom you do not recognize.  Since you do not know any of the visitors it is up to the doctor to introduce to you, what is about to happen.

“I have been approached by this major network about a new reality show about getting through a battle with cancer.  These people have all volunteered to be given the same cancer, and the same treatments.  There will be challenges where they will be given the opportunity for extra treatments, or denied treatments.  Competitions will determine what order people would receive their treatments.  Losing challenges would also carry consequences.  Every week, one contestant will be sent home by vote from the real patients who are not here for the TV show, where they will then have to find their own treatment plan.  The last one standing, or surviving, will be the winner of a million dollars.  As participants as observers, we will make sure that you get a year’s supply of TV guides to make sure you know just when the show is airing.  Sound good?”

Of course this scenario is prerposterous, and offensive.  But many times, when I watch shows like Survivor, Big Brother, Fear Factor, and now all these sub-class shows like Redneck Vacations and a show mocking an overweight child because her parents are too stupid to realize the damage they are causing, I do not want to be held in the same descriptive sense of the word survivor.  I have been through too much for my journey to be so understated just because it did not appear on some remote island.  My psychological battles are far worse than a group of spoiled egotistical jerks who believe the only way to get by is by being deceiptful, and disloyal.

We cancer patients are kind of funny with the labels that healthy people, and sometimes other cancer patients like to place on us.  Survivor.  Warrior.  And I am not going to rip on people who watch the reality shows.  But just once, I would like to see a major network produce a series and stick with it, about true survivors, not volunteers, we were forced into our situations.  We were not made into millionaires because of it, but there are literally millions of us, over twelve million.  Many of us have additional issues, and most do not know why.  Stand Up 2 Cancer is doing great by drawing attention to supporting research to find new cures and support, but we need something to show that people do live long lives in spite of their greatest challenge in life.  A walk around a track at your local Relay For Life is lined with luminairies with the names of people who have faced cancer and beaten it.  I would like to see a Nationally televised Relay For Life with at least half of the program dedicated to survivors and perhaps expanding the Stand Up 2 Cancer to include the various issues that survivors face after treatments from psychological to medical.  Just once, I would like to see a real reality show that is not based on backstabbing, lying, and degrading.  I would like to see true success and show people how success is really celebrated and appreciated.

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