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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Reflections on a year in crisis

A year ago I was nervous, exhausted and physically and mentally drained. I'd gone through chemo, radiation and was preparing for major surgery, all while my mom was either hospitalized or recuperating at a nursing center.

Amid my 48th birthday last year, I wasn't sure if I'd celebrate a 49th.

A year later, I did. It was Friday and up to the task that they are, the Ladies of Kohn -- and their men -- treated Catherine and I to a weekend out of town.

So here I am in Titusville with Catherine. We've gone out on the water -- on a casino boat -- and over to the Kennedy Space Center, where we plan to return on Sunday for the space shuttle's landing. We have to get up early to make it to the visitor complex and just the right spot early enough to have a good view. We'll have both cameras, the Canon and the Xacti -- for stills and video, I hope.

The weather's been great, and it seems as though the weather might hold up for the landing.

I can't help but think this year will be better than the last one.

Monday, November 24, 2008

16,000 ... that's a Thanksgiving

Sometime soon, like within hours, the 16,000th click to this blog will take place.

I know, I know. I keep joking about the same dozen people clicking a bunch of times. But apparently there are more of you. I've heard from folks across the country and a few places outside our borders.

I'm glad. I'm glad word is spreading that esophageal cancer is an unnoticed form of the disease in need of more notice.

I've heard comedians joke about acid reflux as a corporate-made-up illness and I've seen jokes about heartburn. I used to joke about it, as I ate my uber-hot wings and Cajun-spiced desserts.

I don't joke about it any longer. It's very serious stuff.

I was among 101,920 people in Florida to develop cancer, in the American Cancer Society's most recent statistical report. That's for all types of cancer, but only among Floridians. Of those, I was among 1,170 to develop cancer of the esophagus. And of those 1,170, 1,010 people died of the disease. Thankfully, I was not among them. Nationally, esophageal cancer is the seventh most fatal form of cancer among men, claiming 11,250 men's lives, or 4 percent of all male cancer deaths.

There is one area where I was a minority: deaths by esophageal cancer when comparing black men to white men. The Cancer Society's review found 10.2 black men per 100,000 died of esophageal cancer, compared with 7.7 white men per 100,000. So to my black friends, be warned and take precautions.

For 2008, the numbers are grim: 16,470 new cases nationwide and 14,280 deaths. There's a five-year survivability rate of 34 percent for those with the cancer contained to the esophagus, as mine was, so I'm not nearly out of the woods yet. For all stages of the cancer, the survivability rate plunges to 16 percent.

I'll conclude the boring portion of this post by saying that one of the reasons the survivability of this form of cancer is so low is because it often is diagnosed when it becomes a problem -- as mine was. By that point, the tumor already has formed and is in a somewhat advanced stage.

So prevention is the key. Eat healthy meals, lots of fruits and veggies. If you have heartburn, have it treated early, something I failed to do. Smoke? Quit. Drink? Moderate. And if you had heartburn and it went away, you may have Barrett's Esophagus, which is a form of pre-cancer as your body tries to defend itself from reflux. See a doctor.

Please remember I know from where I speak. Get help, and get it soon, if any of the above conditions remind you of yourself.

You can see more statistics about this and other forms of cancer at

Monday, November 17, 2008

Good news from the good doc

I had a good visit today with Dr. Sigfredo Aldarondo (pictured from the Florida Hospital Web site), my pulmonologist. He said everything is looking good even though I still cough up more than I'd like.

He said it's pretty normal considering the surgery I had nearly a year ago and considering all the crap that has happened before and since.

Though he sees many patients and really only saw me once in his office and a couple of times in the hospital, Dr. Aldarondo remembered me specifically. "You're the blogger, right?" he asked when we shook hands. That's me. The blogger. I told him, "This will be on the blog tonight." And imagine, here it is.

But during my check-up with him, Dr. Aldarondo said the reason for my coughing remains a small amount of very mild reflux during my nighttime sleeping, and a bit of aspiration into my lungs. When I awaken, I cough it back out. It's not a good situation, but it's better than, say, two years ago.

He also said my lungs were clear during the exam and everything sounded good. So I won't have to see him for about six months, another good sign of my continuing recovery.

Speaking of which, another milestone will be reached on Wednesday, Nov. 19. It was a year ago on Nov. 19 that I ended my chemotherapy for the cancer. Earlier last year, my radiation ended, so with the chemo's conclusion, the bulk of my treatments came to an end and all that remained -- not that I'm trivializing it -- was the surgery in late December.

Between the end of chemo and the surgery, I had a "cooling-off period" to kind of build myself back up strength and weight wise, clear my body of the toxins and be tested to make sure I'd go through the surgery well. Turns out I did "light up" during a subsequent PET scan and required two biopsies before I was cleared for surgery. A spot on my liver and a lymph node became internal Christmas lights and concerned the docs.

Turns out, after the biopsies, that the hot spots were caused by the radiation. They scared the crap out of me at the time, for sure. But all was well as things turned out.

And after Dr. Alderondo's clean bill of lung health, it looks like that is how things are going a year later, as well.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Oh, the Difference A Year Makes

I find that a year after the heart of my chemo and radiation I am feeling so much better.

It was a year ago that I was about halfway through my double-whammy of medicinal torture. Not that I am complaining now. Was it worth it? To quote a former vice-presidential nominee, "You Betcha!"

But at the time, I was undergoing an internal misery. Suffering from bronchitis, I had to be pulled off my chemo pump for a weekend. I actually reveled in the fact I could shower without a tether of the little clear-plastic tube that linked the 24/7/365 pump to my medical "port" mounted under the skin in my chest.

Ah, the small things.

There were bigger things going on as well. Mom was in the hospital, still gravely ill. I had just lost my Uncle Albert "Buddy" Zuckerbrow, who passed away after a few weeks of serious medical issues.

The bronchitis that prompted Dr. Z to briefly halt the chemo also threatened to send me to the hospital. My blood counts were very low and the doctor thought it could go either way, hospital or no. He actually asked me whether I wanted to go to the hospital and if I had said yes, that's where I would have landed. I preferred to "tough it out" and get back on the chemo at home as soon as possible.

Seems the choice worked. That week I learned a new respect for nausea and its aftermath. The porcelain throne and I became good friends. I went off chemo, then back on, and it struck me with a vengeance. But I soon regained my footing and began to improve, even as I faced several more radiation treatments.

Today, a year later -- I can hardly believe it's been that long -- I feel so much better that the blur of the past year feels as if it's in my distant past. I guess it is, yet I won't ever be able to let it go. Which is why I keep writing about the experience. I hope this helps others find their own footing and maybe avoid some of the pitfalls I experienced.

But those experiences led me to where I am now. I recently joined a fitness center to rebuild the muscles sliced and diced by Dr. Joseph Boyer during my esophagogastrectomy, and after the endoscopy of a few weeks ago, I find I am able to eat and digest food (imagine!) much easier. Hooray for Botox.

So of course I wish the experience had never happened, but it did and the past year led me here. Not a bad place to be.