Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.
— Tim McGraw
It’s coming up on nine years since I was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. There are things about that part of my life I’ve tried to push from my mind, but some endure just as clearly as if those nine years were nine minutes. Those are the things that will never go away in 99 years.
Radiation Oncologist Chuck Mendenhall: Georgia governor out of touch CLICK HERE.
Survivor Pat Tricquet: Cancer's given more than it's taken CLICK HERE.
Diane Fletcher, the primary catalyst behind this newspaper’s multipart “Cancer Chronicles” series that ends today, asked me a few weeks ago, “What do you remember most about your cancer?”
It was fear, pure and simple.
Not the kind of goosebump chills you get when you read a Stephen King novel or hear Ylvis’s “What Does the Fox Say” for the first time. It’s a numbing fear that all but shuts down your system. It’s the fear that comes with staring right into the ugly mug of your own mortality.
Fletcher made me promise to tell my cancer story as part of this series, and I’m acquiescing to a degree. Mine’s probably not as compelling as those of the amazing survivors — Dennis Vann, Lane Rosen, Patsy Martin and Pat Tricquet — featured in this series. And many of my memories from that time have been placed in one of those internal storage boxes we set aside for private things.
But, like all of the people I talked with in an effort to chronicle the impact cancer has on our community, if sharing can convince one other person to go through needed tests that can detect cancer early and thus improve survival chances dramatically or even to try and give up some of the bad habits that lead to cancer (say, smoking, Brad?), then it will be worth it.
In a nutshell: I was told, following a colonoscopy, that I had cancer. Had it bad. Stage 4 bad. Prognosis was not good. Surgeon Dr. Doug Calhoun (one of my many cancer heroes) put it bluntly: “You have a good-sized tumor. Because of its location, we’re going to try and shrink it with radiation and chemotherapy. If we’re able to shrink it, we’ll remove it surgically. If we’re not able to shrink it sufficiently, you’ll have a colostomy the rest of your life.”
How’s that for a dose of reality?
A kind of numbness set in as treatment started immediately. Radiation five days a week. Chemotherapy around the clock: an all-day round on Mondays and a pump-driven bag connected to a life port surgically inserted in my chest the rest of the week. Food quit tasting good, and my weight dropped dangerously low. I remember thinking on so many occasions: “Why am I here? I’m not supposed to be here.”
The tumor shrank. The surgery went well. The chemotherapy continued for months, and finally — Glory, hallelujah! — the temporary colostomy was removed and my innards reconnected. And they worked.
Fletcher and others have asked me how I got through the months of treatment. It was simple.
I had a wife who sacrificed pretty much all of her time and everything we owned to personally take care of me. Without her, no way would I be here.
I had the greatest medical team I could have hoped for: Calhoun, oncologist Dr. Phillip Roberts — a man who I believe is a worthy candidate for sainthood, and I am not exaggerating — and Dr. Chuck Mendenhall. Plus the oncology nurses in the Phoebe “chemo room,” who are deserving of the title “angels of mercy.”
Plus, there is a God who obviously had more for me to do in this life.
Those are the tangibles that brought me to this place nine years after hearing the most horrifying news I could ever hear. The intangibles? There were some very important people in my life — Tammy, Steve, Jordon, Hannah and probably too many others to mention — that I wanted to spend more time with. It was their faces that I focused on when I was overwhelmed and the tears came.
It’s those same faces that I see at night and in the morning now when I thank God for another day.