Friday, April 15, 2011

# 318: My First Year as a Cancer Fighter

Dr Wayne Colin,
ENT surgeon.
April 16, 2010. That was the day they told me I had cancer. I opened my eyes after six hours of surgery. Dr Colin was standing there in the fog. "Was it cancer?" I asked. "Yes," he said, "but we knew that."

Well, he knew that. I had been waiting for the final results to come in. There they were. And a year later, here I am. Not dead. Happy Anniversary.

It started a few weeks before, actually. I was trimming my beard and noticed the lump on the right side of my neck. I thought it was one of those "swollen glands" that my Mum was always feeling around for whenever I claimed I was too sick to go to school. I figured it would go away. It didn't. After a few days, I asked Mrs P to feel it. She insisted I call Dr Hall the next morning.

Dr Madonna Hall,
Family Medicine
 They got me in quickly, and Dr Hall peeked and poked and furrowed her brow a lot. "I want you to get a CT scan and to see the Ear Nose and Throat specialist. And we should get a biopsy."

I made the appointments and called Mrs P. That was the last time I saw a doctor without her for the next eight months. It was also the last time I was Dr Hall until November. I was moving into a whole new medical world.

We did the CT scan and met with Dr Colin. He poked and prodded and furrowed his brow. He used the flashlight AND a camera that went up my nose and down my throat. He looked at the CT scan, and decided we better not do the biopsy. There might not be time. We scheduled a PET scan. It looked bad. That was April 14th. Two days later, I had surgery.

Afterwards, I met a doctor whose name I don't remember to talk about Radiation and Chemo. I really don't remember much of the conversation. They told me I was too heavy for their equipment, so I'd have to drive an hour to Richmond and back every day for treatments. A few hours later, they called and told me that my insurance company had declared my cancer to be a pre-existing condition that would not be covered. That's when I learned that it's easier to fight tumors than insurance companies.

There is hope for all who enter here.

Lexington Clinic set me up with an appointment at the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky. They said it was because UK had more financial assistance available. What they meant was that Lexington Clinic was a for profit hospital and it didn't make sense for them to treat people who couldn't pay. I would still end up bankrupt, but at least Markey would treat me.

By this time, Mum had driven down. She stayed with us through the summer. She fed me, cried with me, prayed for me. and helped Mrs P to get through the hardest year of our lives. I owe my health to the folks in the white lab coats. I owe my life to my mother and my wife. We drove together past the gate house to meet with the radiation doctor at Markey

Dr. Mahesh Kudrimoti,
Radiation Oncology

The receptionist told me it was OK to just call him "Dr K." Most people couldn't remember or pronounce his name anyway. We waited quite a while to see him. I watched the first of what would come to seem like a million hours of FOX news. I think that's what kept my sustaining sense of angry sarcasm alive during my treatments. Mocking them gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. A nurse called my name and took us into an exam room. She weighed me, Took my pressure and my temperature, and drew some blood. They draw a lot of blood when you have cancer. You have a lot more than you think you do. Trust me. Then she led us to another room where we waited for Dr K to arrive.

Dr Kudrimoti laid it on the line. I was still in grave danger. Even after surgery, my cancer had about a 50% survival rate. The treatment was going to be very long and very hard. I would need to have my teeth pulled because an infection from my periodontal disease would kill me during chemo. I had to have a tube put through my abdomen and into my stomach so I could eat, because I would not be able to swallow once the radiation had burned my saliva glands away and roasted the inside of my throat. I might not lose my hair, but I would probably lose my beard and could lose much of my hearing. Dr K was a no bullshit kind of guy. I appreciated that. Mum decided she didn't want to accompany us on those particular visits anymore. It wasn't always easy for me either. Toward the end of my treatment, my blood pressure would soar and I wold break out in a sweat every time we met with him. He was all business, but went about his work with a compassionate confidence that made the anxiety seem a little more bearable. But, there was one more doc to meet.

Dr. Suzanne Arnold,
Medical Oncology
Dr Arnold was my Medical Oncologist - the Chemo doctor. She lead a team of specialists who all met with Mrs P and Mum and me on our first visit. We saw nurses, nutritionists, pharmacists, residents, medical students, I don't know how many people were in and out of that little room. Dr Arnold poked and prodded, but did not furrow her brow. She smiled and encouraged us. It was going to be hard, but it was going to be alright. We would see her or Dr. K nearly every day for the next few months. Dr. Arnold would manage the Chemo side of my treatment, including weird side effects like yeast infections in my mouth and the disappearance of my white blood cells. This whole gang of experts coordinated to kill the cancer that was killing me. And they got the little bastard.

There is one professional whose picture I don't have, which is a damn shame because as far as I'm concerned, somebody ought to build a statue of her. Her name is Dee Holly and she is one of the angels put on this earth to be an oncology nurse. Dee was the person I saw every day. She smiled and patted my hand. She gave me the daily shots that kept me alive when my treatment resulted in a blood clot that hung up thiscloseto my heart. Dee coordinates the Head and Neck cancer support group who welcomed me and kept me hoping. She was also the one who flew into the room and gave me a big hug when my first scan after treatment showed no more signs of cancer. Her face may not be on this page, but it will be printed on my heart forever.

There were others. The psychologist and psychiatrist who helped me keep sane. The dentist who pulled my teeth and exchanged Shakespeare quotes with me as I lay stoned and bleeding in his chair. The surgeon who put my feeding tube in while quietly fighting his own battle with cancer, (which he is winning, by the way.) All told, I can think of about fifty nurses, doctors, technicians and volunteers who were in my corner as I fought this disease. Every one of them was an expert, and every one of them treated me with kindness and dignity. God bless them all.

And God. Yes, what about God? There were many times I asked myself where God was during all this. Why was my family having to go through this? I had already lost my career, my sanity, my financial security and my house was in danger of foreclosure. What more did God want from us? I prayed into the silence until I couldn't bear it any longer. Eventually I stopped praying altogether. I was too angry to face Him. The only time I could speak his name was when I was puking. I would lean over the toilet and shout, "God damn you, get out of me," as I imagined my body rejecting the cancer and spewing it out of my mouth. Turns out, that was the prayer God answered.

Of course, I had some help. People prayed everywhere. Friends I knew in grade school, high school, and college. Friends I had only met on the Internet and friends I have acted with for decades. Friends of Mum's whom I have never met and parishioners in my brother-in-law's church who had no idea who I was. Friends from my old job. Friends from my old church. One had a yard sale and sent us the proceeds. One sent us a notebook computer when my laptop died. Another sent me an iPad so I could keep writing when I couldn't hold the notebook up anymore. People sent music to listen to, books to read, soup to eat, and news of the universe outside my bedroom and the radiation clinic that were my world for the summer. My neighbor mowed the law for us without saying a word. Friends I have loved for years, and a couple I barely knew stopped by to talk and laugh and visit. When I told a friend that my hospital roomate had a voice like Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade, he broght me a bag of Taters so we could make French Fries.
And the theatre. My God, the theate. My first, best love, the one who lifted me to the heights and broke my heart: the theatre reached out to me with such love that I am crying as I type this. Companies all over the Bluegrass held fundraisers for us. They donated benefit performances. The passed the hat. My beloved Actors' Guild was the first. Someone brought me a DVD of the cast of RENT interrupting their curtain call to remember me. They started a fund for people to send support and dozens of folks, many of whom I'd never met wrote to say that they appreciated my
work over the years and wanted to help. Newspapers printed stories about us. People shared links to my blog. More than once, Mum would sit weeping in the living room. "I'm just overwhelmed by how kind people are. I had no idea how many people loved you." I felt the same way. I still do.

Where was God? God was busy as hell. God was sending hundreds of ministers to do the work of healing my soul, even as dozens of doctors were curing my body. I wish I could post pictures of all of them. All I can do is offer grateful prayers and live the rest of my life with the joyful knowledge that love really is more powerful than fear. Blessings are more powerful than curses. And kindness, no matter how small, make all the difference in the world. Even if the cancer had killed me, my heart would still have been made whole by God and the people who did God's work in my life.

Easter is in a week: the feast of the Resurrection. I know a lot more about resurrection than I did a year ago. During the time I was sick, Death was my constant companion. I used to wake up and see him standing in the hall outside my room. "Not yet, you son of a bitch," I would say, and he would stand silently waiting. Well, let him wait. My tomb is still empty, too. God rolled away the stone and gave me back my life, but the man who walked out of the cave was not the same as the one who went in. This life is not mine. It is God's gift to me.

And so, here I am - a living miracle. I can say with Scrooge, "I am not the man I was." I have so much to do. There are miles to be run. Theatre to be made. Stories to be heard. Hands to be held. Tears to be shared. I have a lot of prayers to pay back, and a lot of love to pass on. It's going to be a busy rest of my life. I'm determined to love every minute of it.




  1. I wanted you to know that my dear, darling husband (John) went to be with the Lord on April 7th so he is spending Easter in great company!


  2. Oh, Robyn. I am so sorry. You and Paul are in my heart and prayers. I know what a difficult battle it was for you both. John was blessed to have you. I pray that you will find peace, as I know he has.


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