Category: Cancer

Celebrating my 1-year Cancerversary… with a Colonoscopy!

Cristian escobar abkEAOjnY0s unsplash 776x517

Today was a wonderful day. It was the one-year anniversary of the surgery (28 Aug 2018) that removed the sigmoid section of my colon, taking with it any potential cancer (there wasn’t any!).

By virtue of the joys of trying to align various schedules, it was also the day for a follow-up colonoscopy to see if there were any more polyps or signs of cancer. After the rather horrid preparation process, I went to the hospital this morning, had the test, and received the news that there were NO further signs of cancer!

Between this colonoscopy today, a CT scan earlier this month, and some recent blood tests, it does seem that the cancer is all gone. The other excellent piece of news is that I don’t need to do a colonoscopy for 3 years!

Many thanks to Dr. Peter Cataldo’s team - and to all the nurses and others at the UVM Medical Center here in Burlington. They were all excellent and very helpful and supportive.

All in all, a great day.

P.S. As a bonus for me as a geek and engineer… when they were taking me into the room for the procedure, the doctor asked if I wanted to be asleep or awake. I had been planning for sedation (and NOT looking forward to it) and wasn’t aware that there was even an option for being conscious.

Of course I had to stay awake and watch! So I got to see the video as they moved the scope up through my colon. I saw where they did the surgery (and was reminded that I actually have tiny titanium staples inside of me). And I got to see where my appendix is. All very cool to see!

Previous entries in my cancer stories:


Image credit: Cristian Escobar on Unsplash

The biopsy results are back… no more cancer!

Burlington waterfront

The call came this morning, right as my regular weekly Strategic Communications team meeting was starting up. Once I saw the call was the Burlington hospital, I muted my connection, shut off the video ... and waited breathlessly for the news...

The surgeon was delighted to call and say... no more cancer was found in the colon walls or lymph nodes!

It's done. Finished. Fertig.

I'm as close to "cancer-free" as anyone with colon cancer can be.

No further tests needed. No chemo. No other treatments. I'll go back in about three months for a "flexible sigmoidoscopy" where they'll use a probe to check how my reconnected colon looks. And they'll monitor my colon more often (which presumably will mean colonoscopies at more frequent intervals). But that's it. (Yes, I still have further recovery from surgery ahead of me, but that's moving ahead well right now.)

Done.

There are no words to truly express the relief washing over me and my family right now.

As I said in my original post, if a colonoscopy is recommended for you, don't delay, just do it!

The test caught my cancer early. Had I waited and delayed the test months or years... the cancer could have spread so much farther... and this would have been a much different post to write.

There are no words to capture the relief, joy and happiness of right now.


Image: a photo I took of part of the Burlington harbor from the patio of the restaurant where we had a celebration dinner tonight. Yes, the Burlington area is a gorgeous area in which to live!

Post-surgery recovery: Every day brings a series of small victories

Church street september 2018

I put on pants today.

Shorts, even.

With a belt!

This was a BIG deal.

It's not that I haven't been wearing pants 😉 ... but that I've only been able to wear running pants with an elastic waste since leaving the hospital on Thursady. My stomach was too bloated from the surgery and it hurt too much to wear anything else.

Until today.

Another small victory!

Never having had surgery before, I'm learning what countless others have learned before me - that each day brings a series of small victories, without hopefully any major defeats along the way.

To follow on my previous post, I did go in for surgery for colon cancer last Tuesday, August 28th. Technically, I guess it was a "Sigmoid Colon Resection" because I was diagnosed with "Malignant Neoplasm Of Sigmoid Colon", but let's put that in plain language...

"They found a small bit of cancer in my colon and so they went in and cut out about 12 inches of my colon and re-attached the other sections to each other."

A high-tech fix of my internal plumbing. Slice out a bad section and re-connect the other open ends.

I went in at 11am and woke up several hours later in a hospital bed feeling like someone had stabbed me and cut me in the stomach! I also apparently had a rather pleasant conversation with my family... of which I remember absolutely nothing! Some time later when the anesthesia fully wore off, I was able to see them all and remember.

I was in the hospital all day on Wednesday but then by Thursday morning I was able to go home!

All along the way it was this series of small but ever-so-important victories! Passing gas and pooping turned out to be the first critical steps... which makes sense given that you want to be sure the pipes got all reconnected.

Then it was walking around the hospital floor, eating solid food, drinking lots of water, etc.

After coming home it was climbing the steps... taking a long, slow, slow, slow walk around the neighborhood. Trying to find some comfortable way to sleep. And so on.

Then it moved on to walking at a more normal pace and moving around more regularly. Saturday we walked around Church Street (photo above) and the Burlington Farmers Market. Sunday I drove the minivan and we took the ferry across Lake Champlain to visit Essex, NY. Today I put on pants. 😊

It's not all normal, of course. I tire easily and have needed afternoon naps. I'm still not sleeping through the night. And I have metal staples protruding from my stomach that I have to be very careful about! While I can eat almost everything, a big restriction is on raw fruits and vegetables, which is something I enjoy eating. (Raw fruits and vegetables (except bananas) turn out to be harder to digest, particularly the skins, and the doctors want only soft things passing through my newly-reconnected colon. (Cooked and mushy vegetables are fine.))

I'm very amazed and obviously pleased at how the recovery is going. The doctors had said that patients were generally in the hospital for 1-5 days, with most people being in 2-3 days... I'm glad I wound up on the low end of that. I'm also pleased that so far I've been able to manage the pain using only the Tylenol and have not had to use any narcotics/opiods.

Thank you to the many who have held me in their thoughts and prayers, or sent positive thoughts, or who just sent me nice messages. All seems good so far.

Tomorrow I'll try being back at work for a bit. Somewhere in here I'll get the staples out (10 days-ish).

Each day a few more victories!

Now, we just wait for the biopsies, which should come "in a week or so". Sigh...

The Big C Returns As Colon Cancer… and with me this time

BTV harbor

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"I'm sorry, but unfortunately one of your polyps tested positive for colon cancer."

Not the phone call you want to receive at 4:00pm on a Friday afternoon. Especially one week before you are about to buy a house in Vermont and start the process of relocating your family - and leaving behind your friends, other family members, and your whole "support system"! 

In truth, not a phone call you EVER want to receive.

But I did get that call on June 29, 2018. And after many more tests, discussions and agonizing analysis, I'll be entering the hospital in a week, on August 28, to have my "sigmoid" removed - something I honestly didn't even know I had until about three weeks ago!

So a key message to all my friends and readers (and the "TL;DR" summary for this very long post):

Get your colonoscopy when you turn 50!

Don't delay. Don't wait. Just do it.

Here in the USA when we hit the magical age of 50[1], the healthcare system strongly recommends that we get a whole suite of various tests done. Perhaps the least favorite of those is the "screening colonoscopy", largely because the preparation is a huge, uncomfortable process. And, let's be honest, who really wants to have a metal probe stuck up their bottom?

But do it.

I almost didn't. As it was, I delayed doing it for 8 months. And with our decision to uproot our lives and move to Vermont, it was EXTREMELY tempting to push it off and "just wait until we are settled" ... which probably would have been next year... or the year after... or who knows when.

Had I delayed, the one very small cancerous "polyp" might have spread to much more of my colon. Or it might have spread ("metastasized" in cancer-speak) into other parts of my body and re-appeared as lung cancer or liver cancer or brain cancer or something else. (Or, in the annoying ways of cancer, it might not have done anything and just still been there alone - but do you want to take that chance?)

I was lucky. The test worked. The cancer was found very early. By all signs after the surgery next week I should be good to go for a long time ahead.

So don't wait. Just do it.


The longer story...

When the doctor at the Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, NH, did my colonoscopy, he found three small "polyps". Think of a polyp as a tiny growth shaped kind of like a lollipop. And by "tiny", all of these were 2-5 millimeters in width - not much more than a couple of hairs!

This was on Wednesday, June 27. The doctor thought they all looked small and, while we had to wait for the tests ("biopsies"), his initial reaction was that they did NOT look like they were cancerous. (They looked "benign" in medical lingo.)

So I went home with the attitude "Okay... done the colonoscopy thing. I can now forget about this until the next one in 10 years and focus on packing more boxes."

After all, other than needing to lose maybe 30 pounds, I'm in good physical condition. I have no medical issues. I'm not on any medications. I run a good bit - and past tests have shown my heart in good shape. All my routine physical tests and blood work at 50 show me to be in good health.

Except, it turns out, for that one damn polyp.

That call on Friday (two days later) led to a rush of tests the following week - a MRI, more blood tests, and a "flexible sigmoidoscopy" (a mini-colonoscopy where they just go in a little ways... and you can be conscious and watch it on the computer monitor!). Lori and I had all the agony of the question - "shall we pull the plug on this whole Vermont move?" It was INSANELY stressful.

The good news was - everything came back negative. No markers in my blood for cancer. No cancer found in any of the biopsies of the additional samples they took in the colon wall around where the polyp was found.

In theory, the one polyp they found might have been ALL the cancer in my body!

Now that they removed it, I might be "cancer free".

However... the cancer was unfortunately not just in the main "head" part of the polyp, it was also all the way down the "stem" (think of a lollipop). 

It could have gone into the wall of the colon, somewhere beyond where they were able to sample. It could have gone out into the lymph nodes surrounding the colon - and could hang out there for a while before it goes somewhere else in my body. There were no signs of it anywhere, but the current state of our technology is such that we can't really know.

And... apparently the precise kind of cancer they found was a more aggressive one that could "metastasize" into other forms of cancer elsewhere in my body.

So, after being reviewed by my new set of doctors at the UVM Medical Center in Burlington, VT, and after more tests (including another video tour of my lower colon), the surgeon presented a rather binary choice:

  • DO NOTHING and just keep monitoring it. There is a small 2-5% chance that the cancer could come back. Or, to flip that around, there is a 95 - 98% chance that I have no more cancer and could live the rest of my life without ever being affected by this particular cancer.
     
  • HAVE SURGERY to remove the "sigmoid" (lower part of what I thought was all the "colon") and reconnect the other parts of the colon. This will allow them to completely test the colon walls and surrounding lymph nodes in the removed section to see if there is any more cancer. BUT... it comes with it's own 2-3% chance that there could be complications with the surgery - and some of those could be nasty.

He said he's had patients make either choice - and it really comes down to my own personal comfort level with either the surgery or living with the risk.

Ugh. Did I mention that I'm in otherwise good health? And so do I really want to mess that up by having people go in, cut me up, and re-arrange my plumbing?

But the choice is clear to me. Lori and I have been down this road before. We both learned far more than we ever imagined about cancer after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 - and after she had surgery and subsequent rounds of chemotherapy and more.

We live every day with the specter of her cancer looming in the background. Unlike what they tell me about my colon cancer after surgery, her cancer could come back at any time. And in some other form. You're never really "cured" of breast cancer. Even after all she has done - and the absolute hell she has put her body through, it could still be there lurking. So you learn to be grateful for every day you have.

So, hell yeah, I want to know, even with all my many concerns about the surgery (and never having had surgery before). I don't want a second specter lurking around.

From what I've now learned, colon cancer is much more localized than breast cancer or other forms. If they go in, take out the sigmoid and the surrounding lymph nodes, they can test it all and give me fairly solid results.

In the best case, they find nothing and I can be reasonably sure they got it all. I'll be as close to "cancer free" as someone with colon cancer can be. (There are NO guarantees.)

In the worst case, they find more cancer cells and then we will have to talk chemotherapy or something else.

Either way, we'll know more.

So one week from today I'll be entering the UVM Medical Center. They say I will need to stay there for typically 2-3 days to recover. (Visitors will be welcome!) In theory I'll be able to resume everything I've been doing - and by 3-4 weeks out I should be more or less back to usual activities. I'll now be getting more monitoring and more frequent colonoscopies (oh, joy!), but the theory goes that, in the best case, this should be the end of it.

The good news out of this (as I have to keep reminding myself!) is that the screening colonoscopy WORKED!

The test found the cancer early. Because of that, there is a very strong chance that after this surgery I'll be all set and won't have to worry about this again. I'll be alive and able to live for as many decades (or days) as I have ahead of me. I'll be able to watch my daughters grow up and to live long with Lori.

I'm so grateful to the doctors and technicians - and for the fact that I have access to tests like this (and insurance that covers it). And perhaps most of all... for the fact that I didn't delay having the test even more than I already had.

 

I write all of this story because, as a writer, this is HOW I process things. The act of putting words down on a screen... the act of naming in words those fears... those actions are how my brain makes things real.

I share this publicly in the hopes that perhaps MY story will help someone else take actions that may help them live a longer life. (Even if you make a different choice than I did.)

So, again, I will say to anyone reading - if you are recommended to get a colonoscopy, DO IT!


[1] The American Cancer Society is now (May 2018) recommending that colon cancer screening start at age 45 versus 50, but I don't know that that recommendation has yet made its way out to healthcare providers and insurance companies.

Image: a photo I took of the Burlington harbor. I just thought I'd use it as a reminder of the beauty of life around me.

The Scourge of Cancer Strikes More People I Know

Arlington National Cemetery

I haven't written about our journey with cancer for a while because my wife's own journey has been one of the ongoing tedium of Tamoxifen ... another day, another pill... and more fatigue, joint pain and so many more issues. It is, though, unfortunately our "new normal" ... and will be for at least two more years of Tamoxifen. We just try to keep on going through it...

But in truth, it's been a rough period of time for us since I last wrote in July 2014 in regard to cancer around us.

  • A brother-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and fought it extremely hard but in the end the cancer won.
  • A woman in my wife's breast cancer support group who received treatment at the same time as my wife had her cancer return... but in the terrible way of breast cancer the cancer came back as stage 4 lung cancer. It "metastasized", in medical speak. Things do not look good.
  • Most recently, the partner of a friend was diagnosed a few months back with renal cancer (kidneys) and after fighting it with chemo, radiation and more... he is now being moved into hospice care as there is nothing more that can be done. It is now only a matter of time before he passes on.

All of this happening around the time of the four-year anniversary of my wife's own diagnosis.

This last one in particular struck me hard because just back in November I had lunch with my friend and her partner... and he was so alive and seemingly healthy. He seemed like a great guy and they seemed great together. And now only a few months later their world is turned so incredibly upside-down.

So very hard to comprehend.

All "younger" people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

No easy answers.

All we can do is, as my friend wrote, "hug your families extra tight tonight".


An audio commentary is also available:


Image credit: a photo of Arlington National Cemetery by Todd Van Hoosear on Flickr

A Three Year Cancerversary

Dan lori london 2014 3Today an anniversary slipped up upon us without much thought. We just came back very late last night from our first family vacation in about eight years (to London, where the photo accompanying this post was taken) and this morning were dealing with all the fallout of that return in terms of unpacking, getting back into routines, caring for our house and animals, etc. July 1 is also Canada Day, a day we celebrate in honor of our oldest daughter's birth in that country, and so we were honoring that day.

And then somewhere in the midst of all that jetlagged weariness the dark side of the date infiltrated my wife's consciousness and she posted a simple message to Facebook:

Today I am a three year survivor! July 1 is the cancerversary of my surgery and the start of 18 months of breast cancer treatment....

It was indeed three years ago today that we spent the day at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center up in Lebanon, NH, as she underwent a dual mastectomy. It was, unbelievably to me, simply day surgery. She was back at home that night, albeit in severe pain and not up and around for quite some time.

It's been a long, strange road since then.

Some parts of that journey I've written about here in my many posts on the topic. Other parts I've not shared.

Mostly, we just go on.

I'm constantly amazed by the strength my wife shows through it all, and her willingness to be more open about it than many are. She is an inspiration to me - and I know to others.

Sadly, we've certainly come to know that she is not alone... and that even as we celebrate a three year anniversary, others are being diagnosed and treated now... while others are celebrating longer anniversaries... and others are passing away. Cancer is indeed the scourge that keeps on taking.

Hopefully some day we won't need to be marking anniversaries like this one.

Cancer – The Scourge That Keeps On Taking

Norriscotton keeneToday the terrible beast that is cancer once again rears its ugly head in our life. My sister-in-law begins her chemotherapy today at our local cancer center - and our thoughts are certainly with her and her family as they begin this unwelcome process. My wife's brother, Scott, has rather eloquently written his thoughts online in his own unique style: The Bad News; It’s Cancer. For me, I just remember the tedious and endless monotony of chemo - and then, of course, all of the effects on my wife... some of which she still suffers from two years after ending her chemo treatments in her own fight against breast cancer.

There is an anger and a frustration that is hard to put into words.

The optimist in me of course is thrilled that such treatments are available so that my sister-in-law might beat back the beast and live a longer life.

But that optimism is balanced by a frustration that battling cancer seems to be the story of one sledgehammer after another and another... for all the millions of dollars we're spending on cancer research, the weapons and treatment we have still seem so crude.

Yes, I know intellectually that the treatments have come so far from what they used to be. I know that such research takes time and trials and more time and more trials before the benefits can be widely seen.

But emotionally I want the scanner device out of some sci-fi show that can just scan down the body, find the cancer cells and destroy them.

We're not there yet. Maybe we'll never get there.

And so we fight the battle with the weapons we have, crude as they are.

And my sister-in-law sits there with an IV drip slowly bringing incredibly toxic chemicals into her body...

Meanwhile, another friend around my age from Burlington, VT, fights a liver cancer that is not responding to treatment... and at this point may give him less than a year to live...

Meanwhile, my wife learned through Facebook that a sister of a friend is apparently entering into her final days of life after an aggressive form of breast cancer...

Meanwhile, someone else we know just finished up her four months of chemo in dealing with breast cancer...

Meanwhile... ... meanwhile... ...

Yes, all we can do is keep going on... putting one foot in front of the other and living out each day...

But still, there are days when all you want to do is rage against the scourge that is ravishing so many wonderful people out there.

Cancer - the scourge that keeps on taking.


An audio version of this post is available as an episode in my "The Dan York Report" podcast:


Two Years Of Cancer – The Other Reason For The Trip To Ireland

Dunguaire caste - Dan and LoriBeyond the fact that I had a conference in Dublin, Ireland, there was a second and much more powerful reason why my wife accompanied me on this trip. You see, it was two years ago on May 16th when a doctor told us that Lori had cancer.

It was in July 2011 when she had her surgery and it was shortly after that when they told us she had invasive cancer and would need chemo and much more... but the date of May 16 will be forever remembered by us as the day that everything changed.

To say that it's been two years of hell would be a mild understatement - and I've written about much of the trials of the first year as well as the subsequent treatment with Herceptin.

At this stage, the treatment continues - she has four more years of daily Tamoxifen pills with all the glorious fun of chemically-induced menopause, joint pain, ongoing fatigue and all the other side effects.  As a spouse of someone going through it all, it's very tough to watch all that she is going through - all with the hope that it will be enough to keep her cancer away.

So on May 16th, we left my conference in Dublin behind and set out to explore Ireland and see what we could see... no plans, no schedules and not even any hotel rooms.  Just the two of us and a rental car.

Each day we continue to seek out "the new normal", whatever that is, and to learn to live with this very unwelcome guest in our lives.  This trip was our way to celebrate a dark anniversary and say in our own way that we will not let cancer win.  

The End Of Herception – And Of Living Life In 3-Week Increments

Norriscotton keeneToday marks a major milestone in my wife's treatment of her breast cancer. It will be the 18th - and final - time that a Monday morning starts with a treatment visit to "The Kingsbury Pavilion of the Dartmouth Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center"... a.k.a. the cancer treatment wing of our local hospital, the Cheshire Medical Center.

It's her final Herceptin infusion. And it marks the end of our living life in three-week increments.

For the past 12 months, our pattern has basically been this:

  • Week 1:
    • Monday - she goes in for the infusion. After a couple of hours we pick her up with her being tired and dizzy/woozy from the effects of the other medicine they give with it. In the evening she's pretty much just wiped out.
    • Tuesday - Fatigue, nausea, feeling horrible.
    • Wednesday - By the afternoon she's often back to being able to do things like drive a car... but still not feeling great.
    • The rest of the week - progressively feeling a bit better but still feeling rather sick/tired/fatigued.
  • Week 2: Gradually feeling a bit better
  • Week 3: Gradually feeling a bit better... almost back to where she was at the start of Week 1

And then... WHAM!... time to start it all over again.

This was how 2012 was... planning around "Herceptin weeks," knowing that they would effectively be written off in terms of my wife being able to do much at all.

And over the year it got worse, not better. We'd perhaps naively thought that after a few Herceptin treatments it might get more routine. But in fact there seemed to be cumulative effects... more fatigue... more pain...

Now, granted, not all of her condition can be attributed purely to the Herceptin. With each infusion they also give her "pre-meds" that are there to "help" her body tolerate the Herceptin. These include something like Benedryl and also a steroid.

Plus, around the same time that she started Herceptin she also started the joyous daily pill of Tamoxifen, which brings on chemically-induced menopause with all the hot flashes, joint pain, mood effects and a zillion other symptoms.

The combined effect of all the drugs, plus, I suspect, the lingering effects of chemo, hasn't made for a pleasant time.

As with many aspects of cancer treatment, too, it's not entirely clear that the treatment was necessary for so long. "The studies show" that 52 weeks of treatment with Herceptin lead to a decrease in recurrence of breast cancer of the type my wife has. But does it need to be for 52 weeks? Could it be equally effective in 26 weeks? Or 9 weeks?

The studies haven't yet been conclusive on that... and so we have to go with what is known. But my hope, certainly, for future women who need the treatment is that the researchers out there can zero in a bit more on what is really the optimal treatment time - and hopefully it can be less than a full year.

Today marks a milestone, though. We can stop thinking in 3-week intervals. She still has four more years of daily Tamoxifen pills, but at least these infusions will end. We're hoping that we can return to some degree of normal routines.

We're still "going on faith" that all this will help... hopefully it will.


UPDATE: A conversation with my wife on her way to treatment this morning reminded me that in fact the "3-week intervals" began even earlier, back in September 2011 when her chemo began. The chemo infusions, too, were every three weeks... so we are are SO ready for this all to end. :-)

One Year Ago Today, The Big C Changed Everything…

BigcToday is a somber anniversary in our household. One year ago today, we sat down with a doctor here in Keene to go over the results of some tests on my wife. He came into the room and went immediately to the point... hardly even saying hello. I don't remember his exact words, but they were basically:
"I have some bad news. You have cancer."

He may have said it differently... but that was the core message. Simple. Direct. To the point.

And everything changed for us.

The rest of that appointment and indeed the year has become a blur of learning more about cancer, medicine and the medical system than I ever expected to learn at this age.

My wife, who at the time was in the best physical shape she'd ever been in, proceeded down a path where she lost her breasts, lost her mane of hair, lost parts of her memory, lost her stamina, lost her ability to quickly process things in her mind, lost her physical health... and basically lost a year of her life.

The good news, of course, is that she didn't lose her life, and that as a result of the treatments she's undergoing and the fact that they caught the cancer early, she's got a very strong chance of being around for many more years. Her cancer was "only" Stage 1 Invasive Breast Cancer, and could have been so much worse had it not been detected.

Intellectually, that's easy to say. Emotionally, it's a lot harder. It's been a hell of a year.

And the journey is not over. She's still got another 7 months of Herceptin treatments... and another 4 years after that of daily Tamoxifen pills (that she is also taking now), both of which have their own troubling side effects. And as we've learned, you're never really "cured" of cancer. You win battles, but the war inside your body continues.

A year ago, the big C invaded our life and became a thoroughly unwelcome houseguest. Now we just have to continue learning to live with it...


Some of the articles I've written about our journey with cancer, in chronological order: