Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Journey. . .

Many of you may have wondered, last year, why the "Occasionally Annual Salmon Beach Bulletin" ended with my return home from Arizona, at the end of April, so I guess that it's time to let you in on something that I've been playing fairly close to the vest.  I really had no intention of writing this, but I've been chastised pretty severely by a couple of friends who I recently told.  The only people I told ahead of time were my students, because I had to quit teaching for about 3 months, and the neighbors, upon whom fell the responsibility of taking care of my "grrrrrrls" for me.  I'll make it as concise as I can for you, so buckle up!

A year ago today (8/30/'15), I awoke at the University of Washington Medical Center, after spending 9 hours on an operating table, and another 11 hours in an "induced coma".  During the first week of May, I lay down to take a nap before heading off to work, and when I went in to shave, there was a lump, about 1 1/2" long, by 3/4" wide, and about 1/4" tall, just under my ear, by the angle of my jawbone.  My reaction was, "How odd. . .", but I didn't think too much about it; I mean, c'mon, nothing serious happens in an hour, right?  I did, however, try to make an appointment with my doctor at Multicare, but was informed by his receptionist, that since I hadn't seen him in about 4 years, the insurance company insisted classing me as a new patient, and that the soonest they could schedule me was September 9th, so I made an appointment, and. . . off to work.

 A month later, I was supposed to go to a wedding, and on the day of the wedding, again, I went to shave, only to discover that "My Rider" (yeah, I had named it! :)  ) had grown, and I dropped my friend an email, saying that rather than attending the wedding, I was going to spend the afternoon at the "doc in a box".  The doc took a look at me, excused herself, and returned a few minutes later to tell me that I had an appointment the following Monday with an ear, eyes and nose specialist in Gig Harbor.

The "ENT" guy put a scope up my nose, and said that he wanted to aspirate the lump the next day, which we did, and the results were "inconclusive", so he did a biopsy that Friday, and it too came back the next week,  inconclusive.  On the day that they did the biopsy, they also did either a PET scan or a CAT scan (don't ask the difference, because I don't know!)  When I went to get the results, he told me that while he was scoping me, that he had found a small lesion under my tongue that he was more concerned with than "My Rider", and that I had some decisions to make.  He said there were 3 options available to me:
      1.  I could do nothing, but he said that he could almost guarantee that that would lead to some                          
           serious consequences that I would regret.
       2.  I could have the lump removed under a local anesthetic and take my chances with the lesion;    
            again, not an option that he would  recommend.  And, since he had not done that operation for
            over 10 years, he was going to send me to a guy here in Tacoma.  Or. . .
        3.  I could elect to undergo an operation that would take care of both.

I came home and called a friend of mine who's a surgeon, to bounce the whole situation off of him, and he told me to hang on, that he'd call me back.  A half hour later, he called me back and said that I was to call the UW Med Center, to make an appointment with the leading research surgeon in their oncology department, which I did, and in July I met with the team of doctors and nurses who would be taking over the reins of my Life, for the remainder of the year.

I was diagnosed with a "squamish cell carcinoma" (yeah, the "Big C") underneath my tongue, which had spread to a lymph node on the right side, which was "contained", and another, on the left hand side , which was "not contained",  and on the 29th of August, I went under the knife at 10 a.m., and woke up on the 30th at about 11 a.m.  I guess that was the 2nd time I woke, but I don't remember the first time, when they removed the breathing tube. . . Thank God!

Four days later, they kicked me out of the hospital, and gave me 6 weeks to recuperate and decide on the course of treatments that we'd pursue.  They told me that if I had to have cancer, I was lucky, because the "cure" rate of this strain is about 80%, with a combination of chemo and radiation.  I debated until the day before treatment was to start, whether to go for the chemo, because one of the possible side effects of the chemo is deafness, and another is loss of feeling in the hands, and being both a guitar player and photographer, they were talking about 90% of my Life!

Coming to this decision was tough, because up to now, I felt as good as I had ever felt in my life and was in better shape, and I knew that somewhere in the near future, that would more than likely change drastically.  I finally decided to toss the dice and live with the consequences, since either treatment without the other is less effective.

Over the next 7 weeks, I had radiation treatments every morning, 5 days a week, and 3 different chemo treatments.  For the first chemo treatment, and the first 3 weeks of radiation, I felt fine, and the recuperation each day was made easier by the friendship and sanctuary in Seattle, provided to me by my long time friend, Michelline, in her home and beautiful yard:

After that, I felt compelled to move back to The Beach, and the second chemo treatment kicked my legs out from under me, and although I never felt "sick", my energy level dropped to the point where I had to stop several times to rest, climbing the 200 stairs each day, between The Beach and the parking lot.

I think that the worst part of this whole trip was that my taste buds went "MIA" about the 4th week of treatments, and anything I put in my mouth felt like cardboard, and had absolutely no taste!  The doctors had wanted to insert a "feeding tube" directly into my stomach, and I had vetoed that, because, with a dog and 3 cats, I saw that as simply another possible source of infection.  The doctors told me that I wouldn't be able to eat, and I told them that I would force myself, but I had no idea what was coming, and the only thing that saved me from suffering the installation of the tube, was my nutritionist telling me that a liquid diet of Boost VHC (YUK; it's the consistency of thick oil or paint!) would sustain me, and what a blessing that was.  I had dropped from 150 lbs. to 138 lbs. in 5 days, because of a case of "thrush", due to the antibiotics that they gave me for the operation.  From the middle of November until the second week in January, Boost and 10-15 glasses of water were all that I "ate", and I considered myself lucky, because just before I started in on the liquid diet, it took me an hour to get through just a small apple!

For an idea of what it's like to not be able to taste anything, dissolve a couple of tablespoons of salt in a glass of water and take a sip; it tasted like plain water to me; I couldn't taste the salt for a couple of months after the cessation of the treatments!  When I could, it was a beautiful bright spot in my existence, because I knew that the loss of taste wasn't going to be permanent.  Now, 10 months later, most of the taste buds are functioning, although not 100%, because anything with tomato sauce doesn't taste right, and neither do sweets, which eliminates 2 of my major food groups: pizza and ice cream.  That's OK, because the reason for watching my weight has flipped 180•; I used to have to watch my caloric intake because I have a tendency toward putting on weight, and now I have to watch it to make sure that I'm not losing weight.  Eating is not as enjoyable as it used to be, but, week by week, it seems to be improving, and I'm definitely looking forward to the holiday season, this year!

As of now, I've been declared a "Cancer Free Zone" twice, with 2 more follow ups still left this year.  I do realize that I'm on a "5 Year Clock" before I can consider myself cured, but with my energy back to it's usual "over the top" level, and no fluctuating mood swings that I suffered for a couple of months, I don't think much about it, except to appreciate every single day more than I used to.

A couple of years ago, I posted that you all should stop, every once and awhile, and count your blessings, and take the time to appreciate all that you've been granted in this Life, because things can change in an instant.  That was right after my 6 year old cat, Kassie, died unexpectedly, and I had no reason to believe that the lesson would be reinforced, a couple of years later!  This is the second time that I've had a close up look at my own mortality, and I can tell you that the whole world takes on a little different complexion when it happens; colors are a little more vibrant, and it seems as though everything is in just a bit sharper focus.

I apologize to those of you who might feel. . . "shorted"(?), because I didn't share this before, but, as you know, I'm one of those kind of private individuals, and I didn't want to worry my friends with something that I was pretty darned sure was going to have a positive ending (no pun intended!).  I also didn't want to spend a lot of time talking about it, and even with the relatively few people that knew, it got to be a boring subject, very quickly, so. . .

'Nuff said; onward & upward!