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Monday, September 21, 2009

Yes, it's been two years

In the past two years, I have:

  • Met wonderful people
  • Lost my mother
  • Found a brother, two sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews and an aunt
  • Rekindled old friendships, built new ones and discovered still others
  • Found inner strengths
  • Found inner weaknesses
  • Presumably overcame cancer
  • Found out my heart is healthy
  • Found out my resectioned stomach still has some issues
  • Discovered low-fiber diets are less than adequate and not very tasty
  • Lost much of my sense of fear
  • Began to have heart attack-like jolts of pain nightly that the docs still can't quite control
  • Found a new resolve
  • Wished for, rather than rued, the day that I'd actually turn 50
I'm sure there have been more discoveries these past two years since I was diagnosed with cancer, and that more are yet to come.

I can hardly believe it has been two years. Not that this time flew by because I was having fun, because much was not very fun, but it has flown by. Much of that was spent in a chemically induced haze, for sure. But most of the time was spent at home or in work while I was wide awake.

Still, two years ago, my difficulties swallowing during the summer and fall prompted me listen to my wife and see a doctor.

Dr. John Pfeiffer thought I might have a minor problem with my esophagus but doubted it was cancer. He referred me to Dr. Philip Styne, an amazing gastroenterologist. He conducted an endoscopy after which he told me, "There was some swelling. You may need surgery. We took biopsies."

Now, as you might expect, hearing the words We Took Biopsies isn't a good thing. It really freaked me out.

Next on my all-time hit parade was the introduction, very quickly, I might add, to CT scans and PET scans and iodine cocktails for contrast in the images, and then Dr. David Diamond, a radio oncologist and Dr. Lee Zehngebot, the premire oncologist in Central Florida, surgeon Joseph Boyer and a cast of thousands among Florida Hospital's cancer-fighting team.

In a whirlwind of events from the day I was told that the biopsies pulled by Dr. Styne were, in fact, cancerous to the start of my concurrent chemo and radiation therapies about a week later, my life was a haze.

I remember basically being fitted for my radiation therapies by having a CT scan so the doctors and nuclear physicists could determine exactly where to bombard my body with intense X-rays, having a medical "port" inserted into my chest in a minor surgical procedure that linked the outside world to my jugular vein, having my head shaved the morning of my first chemo treatment and many other milestones.

Good times.

Since then, the tumor in my esophagus was killed by the radiation, chemo kept cancer from traveling throughout my body, subsequent surgery the Friday before Christmas 2007 removed the by-then dead tumor from my entrails and my stomach was downsized by two thirds so part of it could become a faux esophagus.

And I launched this blog to help educate anyone who would read or listen about cancer of the esophagus.

Because my cancer was not genetic (to the best of my knowledge) and it was not sudden. Rather, it came about through a course of behavior conducted during much of my adulthood. Since my 20s, I'd had heartburn, sometimes severe heartburn, probably caused by poor eating habits. The state-of-the-art treatment of the time was Tums or Rolaids, or their generic clones, which I gobbled down regularly.

Only after I changed jobs and moved to Orlando did the acid reflux subside. I thought the new surroundings eased by stress, thus reducing my dependence on Tums.

Boy was I wrong.

Rather, my lower esophagus was being bombarded with so much acid that it tried to defend itself by developing cells similar to the lining of the stomach. The pre-cancer condition known as Barrett's Esophagus combined with my hiatial hernia was the perfect storm that led to my tumor.

Cancer of the esophagus in recent years has become one of the fastest-growing forms of the scourge. Partly, that's because the disease often is detected in its later stages, when eating becomes difficult. Remember, that's how come I went to the doctor.

Esophageal cancer is one of the most lethal. In Florida, according to the American Cancer Society's most recent statistics, 1,010 people died out of 1,170 people diagnosed with the condition. In the U.S., there were 16,470 new cases last year and of those 14,280 ended up six feet under. Not good at all.

There are some bright spots. The five-year survivability rate is 34 percent. That's more than double what it was before a new protocol was developed soon before I was diagnosed. Esophageal cancer remains the seventh-leading form of cancer among men It accounts for 11,250 lives, 4 percent of all male cancer deaths.

All of this leads to this:

Get help. If you have difficulties swallowing, get help right away. Do not wait. See your doctor, tell him or her your symptoms. Encourage an aggressive diagnosis and treatment. Insist upon it.

I'm now two years out. I plan to be around through years three, four and five.

I've helped several people through this blog and in person. So the effort has not been for naught.

And, to beat all that I'm about to turn 50. A couple of years ago, that was something I didn't think would happen.

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