Thru the kindness of friends and coworkers Stephen and Mark, I'd like you to join me on a difficult journey I am taking. I hope that together we may be able to learn about cancer, cancer treatment, and make an overall effort to approach this disease with a positive attitude.
Fear, of course, is the greatest enemy we face in most rough spots in our lives. And with cancer I have found fear of the unknown is the most prevalent, but has proven to be the easiest to deal with.
I really hate sterotypes. But then again there would be no stereotypes without stereotypical behavior, so I guess I am guilty as charged. In regards to my health and Doctors, I have proven to be the very stereotypical male. Doctors were for broken bones or sucking chest wounds. Well, earlier this year I was proven wrong in this regard.
So it's late February here in Western PA and typically gray and blustery. I am on my way home on about an hour commute. I notice that I am feeling a dull but constant pain in the back of my left shoulder and a little numbness in my left forearm. With the exception of some infrequent sinus congestions/head colds, I tend to have been pretty healthy over my fifty two years. Last summer I had thought that I could lose some weight as 226 was a little soft and flabby for my 5 foot 11 frame.
That turned out to be a pretty easy task and I was pleasantly surprised. It was all about my diet and just a slight adjustment at that. My job as a field service technician for a photofinishing equipment manufacturer has me in my car 10-12 hours. I did not know how to eat if it wasn't out of styrofoam from the dollar menu, steering with my knees, talking on my cellphone, on the way to the next call. (Actually that behavior would be strictly against Company policy, but I have seen it on the highway)
I made the simple lifestyle change of avoiding the fast food drive in window at all costs. Double cheeseburgers from Mickey D's were replaced with turkey wraps with all the veggies and none of the dressings. No salt, thank you very much. Deep Fried anything? I'll pass. Coke? How about a water or some OJ.
I never got on a scale over the next few months but that 38" waistband was showing the changes pretty well. About two months into my little effort I finally check my weight. I had gone from 226 down to just about 200 even. Wow! That WAS pretty easy....
But something about this pain in my shoulder was different. Wasn't this the classic sign of a heart attack? But this has been going on for an hour or more...should I not have gotten worse, or WORSE???
I had to get a new Primary Care Physician as my previous three over the past five years or so had either moved, retired, or quit medicine completely. I found a good ole fashion family doctor in a nearby town that was the fourth generation in his "Family" practice. I was able to get in to see him on his "Wild, Wacky, Walk in Wednesdays".
Called into his office, he looked up from behind his desk as I walked in and said, "I want you to take a low dose aspirin everyday...it'll keep you from having a stroke or heart attack."
I replied "Hi Doctor, my name is Mark.....do I look that bad?"
He laughed and said "No, but you are a married, working white male over the age of 50...you haven't got a chance..."
He took my BP and it was about 150/95, about 30 pts higher than normal... He checked my shoulder and said that it felt like I may have some arthritis in my shoulder and it felt somewhat loose. As far as the potential heart issue he said that he would take some blood and check the numbers but he wanted me to cut back on coffee and try to lessen the cigarettes. He prescribed an anti-inflammatory and asked me to come back in two weeks.
My return found my BP back down to around 125/78. All of my bloodwork was good with low cholesterol, no bad prostate numbers, no diabetes threat....all those delightful things men over 50 should watch.
Relieved that my BP was normal and cardiac arrest wasn't necessarily around the corner, a month or so had gone by and the pills did little for my shoulder pain. I decided to stop by and see a high school buddy, a chiropractor just around the corner from me.
He first took some xrays of my neck and shoulder. Checking them out he noticed that some congenital issues with some vertebrate in my neck (badly formed as I was about a two months premmie)and it looked like I had a bone spur that may be contacting the nerve (Ulnar????)passing through my left shoulder and down my left arm...which was having numbness off and on.
His manipulations and electrical stimulations helped a bit but only lasted about an hour. But now I was armed with xrays, so back I went to my family doctor. By now it's the first week in June.
Dr. W looked the xrays over and asked me if I had insurance, (he is known to take eggs as payment---a practice not really offered by my local hospital---Refreshingly, he gets it....), and I said yes. He told me he was going to schedule an MRI to "see what's going on in there."
About a week or so later I went into my local hospital for an MRI. Not knowing what to expect I was a little nervous as I had heard that claustraphobia could be an issue. It turned out to not be an issue as I just laid there, listened to some music on headphones and it was done in 20 minutes. That wasn't all that bad. So off to work I go.
Around 3:30pm I got a call on my cell phone from Dr. W's office. His nurse wanted to know if I could stop in today to talk over the MRI result. I told her that I was about a hundred miles away and could not make it. She said that Dr. W was leaving the next day for about a week, so I should hold on.
Dr. W got on the phone. "Mark? I really don't like talking about these things over the phone, but I'll be leaving for a week. It looks like you have a tumor in the top of your left lung. Where the tumor is located it looks like it may be pressing on the nerve. I want to schedule you for a CT scan that will show more detail."
My ability to comprehend anything he was saying ended at the word tumor.
This was one of those lfe moments when you know that everything has changed in a blink of an eye. The 3am phone call from the Minnessota Police to tell my wife her 32 yr old brother was killed in a car accident. The Saturday night that the nusre called me on the cellphone to tell me that she had just checked in on my 83 year old Alzheimer inflicted mother in her assisted living room to find that she had died.
Time just stops. I could not believe that I was actually hearing these words being spoken to ME. The hundreds and thousands of times I was warned about smoking.....my having to pick up my dead Fathers body from his bedroom floor at 3am some 12 years ago after he finally lost his battle with skin/stomach cancer...my first wife's father dying in 1979 of liver cancer right before my eyes in an Albany hospital...my wife OH MY GOD, my wife Kim!!!
Dr. W went on about how there is a chance that it doesn't have to be malignant and how the CT scan and a biopsy will tell the tale...He said that his nurse would schedule the CT scan for next week...that way "we could get together and review the results when I get back in two weeks."
"Two weeks!!!!!" was the first thing I could get out of my mouth. "Easy Mark, we have time here, this is very early on..."
I hung up and just stood outside the Giant Eagle supermarket that was my call that day. I had forgoten what was wrong with their photo lab that I was there to fix. I even forgot where I was for a moment. All I really knew is I had to call my wife Kim. "She can make this better somehow...I just have to be gentle in telling her....God how I love her....."
My hands were trembling as I fumbled with my phone to find my home number. Jesus Mark--settle down!!!!
Her cell was ringing, then it answered.
"Hi Kimmy, where are you?" I asked. Can she hear something in my voice I wondered? "I'm home, I just got back from Ohio....what's wrong?"
Welp, that answered that question...
"Dr. W called me with the MRI results from this morning and he says I have a lung tumor" Don't pussy foot around with something this serious I figured...
About a ten second pause then she came back with "Is it cancer?" I told her that they did not know and the Dr. wanted to do a CT scan and a biopsy. "When will they do that?" she asked. I said that the Dr. said he wanted me to go to Butler's hospital the next week. Kim said "No way you are going to Butler hospital, I'm gonna find the best cancer people at UPMC (Universty of Pittsburgh Medical Center). Can you come home now?" she asked with just a tremble in her voice. I said yes, I just had to call my boss.
"Mark", Kim said, "we're gonna get through this."
I kinda chuckled inside as I realized that Kim had just did indeed "make it better".
I laughed and said, "Hey Kim....." "What?" she responded.
"What goes easy for us?" I asked.
"Nothing" she responded instantly...."Please come home, I love you so much..." "I love you too, Kim. I'll be home in about two hours". She had just recounted our pat response we had for each other when faced with adversity. Everything from the builder of our first home running away with our life's savings downpayment down to the KFC Drive Thru "Suggestion Board" was again exerting it's influnce to make an 8 pc. meal a 7 pc. meal for the 1.213th time....Our entire life together over thse past 19 years had been spent witnessing everyone around us pass hurdles and bumps in the road with amazing ease and convenience. With us it was always going to be extra effort, scarifice, and a good dose of general pain in the ass.
I could breathe a little better now. My hands were not trembling. thank God I had Kim.
Kim had her mind made up that we were going to look into the Hillmon Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh. She had taken on the internet with a vengence. It turns out that the Hillmon Cancer Center was in the top 5 in the USA and had satelitte centers in suburban UPMC hospitals. Passavant Hospital was in the North Hills of Pittsburgh only about 25 miles from home. It was also the hospital that host many of the main characters of Hillmon...surgeons, radiologists, oncologists...just on and on.
Kim had managed to make me an appointment with the Cancer Center at Passavant for mid July. Mid July????
Everything about this cancer deal is turning out to be a bit different than I thought. No one had yet determined that I even had cancer, but what happened to the old "Early detection" slogan? Oh well...
The last week of June had me going to my little Ellwood City Hospital one last time for the CT scan. This was another step into medical science I had no experience with. I arrived early and was number two in line for my "upper chest/neck with contrast" scan, whatever that meant.
What that meant was I was going to have to be hooked up to an electronically operated IV machine that looked ever so suspiciously similar the set up used in death chambers at your favorite local Federal Penitentary. Did I mention that I absolutely despised injections and needles in general and although I realized it to be an unreasonable and irrational fear, it was MY fear and I had every intention of keeping it that way! My nurse was very good at putting in the th IV needle, as those things go, but I was still scared and it still pinched and I still did not like it.
The "contrast" they had mentioned was some kind of iodine/shellfish mixture that would render the images of the CT Scan easier to read by adding dark/light areas(?) by nature of the contrast mixture. As you lay on the table just prior to your insertion into the 8 foot tall doughnut of the CT Scanner, they come over the speaker (Oh that's right, CT Scans are radioactive so the crew is behind glass in a very NASA like environment while you lay there with the full and complete protection of those beautiful and stylish blue and white hospital gowns) and tell you "Mr Campbell, we are going to start your IV now. You are going to feel warm and will have a sensation like you may have just peed your pants"
Peed your pa......Whoaaaaaaa!!!! I'll say there's a sensation! It just started in my upper chest and neck and went right down my spine in seconds, and yep, it feels like you peed your pants! Just as soon as it rushed over me, it was gone.
Hmmmmmm. MRI's weren't all that bad. CT Scans, at least without IVs, weren't all that bad. I guess I'm doing alright so far...