Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Phase Two in a Nutshell

A lot has changed since the last time I sat in front of this computer composing a blog entry. In my writing absence, I have completed the second phase of treatment which consisted of twice daily chemotherapy pills and one 35 minute radiation session per day. I have to admit that I went into this phase with the wrong expectations. I definitely talked myself into believing that it wouldn’t be that bad and that the worst was behind me. Sure, Phase One and the way the chemo was administered over a 48-hour period was tough to handle because the concentration of poison going into my body was so high, but the two week cycles allowed me to have a few days at the end of each period to feel better and function on some level. Even though the doctors warned me not to take the chemo pills lightly, I questioned how bad it could really be. Daily treatments had to mean much lower doses which my body could handle, right? Not so much. Maybe the doses were lower, but the cumulative effect starting setting in after about 3 days and I quickly started to take a turn for the worse. The overall crappiness I felt after chemo in Phase One had returned, only this time I had no breaks. Every day was a struggle and my body was deteriorating fast. I had hopes that I could spend time playing with my son and still have enough energy for my wife in the evening to maybe watch a television program or a movie. I even convinced myself that I would begin exercising again and start putting a little bit of meat back on my bones. Wow, wishful thinking! I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings and couldn’t wait until 8pm each night so that I could slither back into the sack. I was pretty much living each day one hour at a time on the couch watching reruns. All those hopes of physical activity were quickly shut down when I realized the chest pains would return anytime I decided to move around for more than 3 or 4 minutes. These episodes were slightly less intense, but severe enough to know that I better lay down immediately before an ambulance would be needed.

As previously mentioned, Phase Two consisted not only of daily chemotherapy, but also daily radiation. Through conversations with my radiation oncologist, I somehow concluded that I really shouldn’t expect a lot of side effects from this component of care. She mentioned that I may develop some skin irritations that would resemble a really bad sunburn and some serious fatigue. Well, I am a Florida boy, so what is a little sunburn? And, I was already spending 95% of my day lying in the bed or on the couch, so how much more fatigue could I really experience? It looked as if chemo was going to be my only problem for the first three weeks… until the skin irritations began. Let me just refresh your memory, I have rectal cancer, so you can imagine where the burns were located. A bad sunburn on your tushy is one thing, but this wasn’t just any sunburn. The burns were so bad and so deep that the skin would blister and bleed. Any movement whatsoever was a nightmare. When the blistered skin would shift during simple actions like walking, it would rub until layers of skin would rip off and expose rare tissue. I don’t know if all Northern states have the same problem, but the roads in Michigan are so beat up and bumpy from the weather conditions that my 25-minute drive to and from radiation everyday was very much dreaded, to say the least. The creams that I could use were helpful, but the skin just wasn’t healing fast enough each night before getting fried again the very next morning, making it progressively worse with each passing day. I was walking around like a newborn giraffe and struggling to find relief. I have never actually tried ripping off a big scab and pouring salty lemon juice over the open wound, but I think I now know exactly how it would feel. These burns also made me fear putting food in my mouth because I knew it had to come out the other end at some point. Trying to use the bathroom was such a painful experience. I found myself wondering what forms of torture could be worse. I imagine I could have tolerated the burns if they were on my arm or something, but the inconvenient location made for very trying times.

It makes sense to me that microwaving part of my digestive system and taking handfuls of poisonous pills on a daily basis may cause a few additional problems. Right around the end of week three of six, I started having tremendous stomach pains. I was experiencing bowel ischemia, which means the vasospasms that were occurring in my heart during Phase One had traveled south and started to cause spasming of my intestines instead. I was initially put on medication, but that didn’t work and the cramping and pain just kept getting worse. Doctors feared the cramping was so severe that my organs may have, in a sense, knotted up and started strangling themselves, so an abdominal CT scan was immediately ordered. Thankfully the scan didn’t show anything too major, just a really bad case of yet another rare side effect, so I was ordered to lay off the chemo pills for a few days. At first, the layoff was only to last 2 or 3 days; however, it took an entire week before the pain subsided. The big hoo-rah of this experience was that the CT scan not only showed no major damage to my organs, but the test actually showed a continued shrinkage of the tumor and liver lesion. I needed to hear something positive and those reassuring words made it a little bit easier to deal with all the other side effects. I know The Lord is with me and that he will never give me more that I can handle, but for awhile there I thought he was testing me, trying to figure out just how much I could take.

October 25th was the final day of both chemotherapy and radiation. As bad as I wanted to feel better immediately, it took just over a week to flush enough of the chemo out so that I wouldn’t feel its fury and also for the skin on my bottom to heal to a point of acceptable relief. Just knowing that I didn’t have to go to treatment the next day and knowing that things weren’t going to get any worse was a huge psychological victory. Each day since then has been noticeably better than the previous. Minor discomforts and pains still remain, but when you have been through the wringer, there are some things you can learn to deal with. I am so blessed to be feeling better, or dare I say almost normal? I get to spend time playing with Hudson, I have been able to get back in the gym for some light workouts, and I even have some energy left to stay up after Hudson goes down to hang out with my wife. Other than the fact that I have developed some sort of sleeping disorder or anxiety issue that has kept me from getting more than an hour or two of sleep each night for the past month, everything is great. It truly is!

The next couple of weeks will be packed with doctor visits and even a family trip to Florida. I have until December 10th to enjoy my family, feel normal, and get myself into the best shape that I can. Why December 10th? On that day I will be at the University of Michigan getting sliced up like a Christmas ham, undergoing one major surgery after another. First, the colo-rectal surgeon will cut me from sternum to pubic bone to remove Trudy and all the effected lymph nodes, muscle, and tissue in my pelvis, as well install my new colostomy bag. Second up is the liver specialist who will do a resection of the liver to remove the lesion. And finally, the plastic surgeon will come in and remove one half of my abdominal wall to use it as a patch to close up the voids in my pelvis which should not only keep my remaining organs in place, but also allow for much better wound healing. For you visual people, the docs describe this as turning a six-pack into a three-pack.

I know the surgery will bring about new challenges, but it will take me one step closer to completing this battle with cancer. I am so grateful to be moving forward with my treatments. Moving forward means that I have successfully completed the phase before, which is never a guarantee. I know God has granted me this opportunity for a very special reason, and as I move forward it continues to become clearer. The timing of this process is also proving to be much more than just a coincidence. Because I have been fortunate enough to stay on track with my treatments, my surgery will be completed in enough time to have me home with my family for Christmas. Wow, just the thought of being home with my family and not in a hospital bed has brought me to tears. I would be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t scared of what is yet to come, and now that a surgery date is set, things are becoming far too real. I have felt The Lord’s hand on my back this entire time and believe he will continue to lift me up, but some funny jokes or words of encouragement are always welcomed. Humor has always been a coping mechanism for me and has allowed me to stay upbeat and positive throughout this journey. I know the next couple of weeks will fly by and the surgery date will be upon me, but without December 10th there would be no chance at another 50 years.

don’t give up…DON’T EVER GIVE UP

1 Corinthians 10:13 (The Message)
13No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he'll never let you be pushed past your limit; he'll always be there to help you come through it.