- Symptoms including abdominal discomfort and weight loss send me to the doctor
- Choosing a larger cancer center
- Chemotherapy and radiation, followed by surgery
Towards the end of March 2020, I began to experience nearly constant abdominal discomfort.
This was accompanied by a change in color of what was coming out of me (I know it’s gross, but you have to pay attention to those things). In addition, I was losing weight—about a pound a day—for a total loss of 15 pounds.
I went to the doctor, who sent me for an ultrasound and MRI on April 9th. The tests confirmed that I had a tumor in the head of my pancreas around 4 cm long. After hearing my diagnosis, I thought the worst, and began to get some of my personal affairs in order. I remember hearing that pancreatic cancer was one of the worst cancers you could get because it is painful and has a high mortality rate.
A few days later I began to turn yellow. I had an ERCP done at Hawthorn Medical and a stent was placed in my bile duct. This allowed the color of my skin to return to normal.
After listening to recommendations by others, I decided on treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, almost an hour and a half from my home. Besides the main tumor, Dr. Brian Wolpin (my oncologist) and Dr. Thomas Clancy (my surgeon) found other tiny lesions in my pancreas, but no metastatic spread or involvement of veins or arteries. They recommended a plan of four months of chemotherapy with oxaliplatin and leucovorin calcium, once every other week, followed by one week of radiation, and then surgery.
Getting Treatment During COVID-19
Because of COVID-19, traffic was light coming into Boston, and parking at Dana-Farber was free, but that didn’t really matter because the only people allowed inside were patients. I was fortunate enough to have one person drop off and another pick up for my all-day treatments. I was fortunate enough to be able to get rides to and from the facility, thanks to all my friends and family. And at least the price of gas was down.
Once I arrived, I had to pass through three COVID screening checkpoints. Only then could I go to the lab where blood was drawn through the port in my chest. Accessing the port was a lot easier than starting an IV each time but it was still slightly uncomfortable.
The chemo run lasted for 3.5 hours. When it finished, I went home with a pump that delivered another 46 hours of chemo. The pump was a pain to carry around all day and I couldn’t wait until I could remove it two days later. After I shut off the pump I had to flush out and remove the line leading into the port. My wife then had to give me an injection with a medication to help increase my white blood cell count. This process went on every other week for four months.
The days following chemo were the worst for side effects. The steroids I was given along with the chemo made me shaky and tired. I was not nauseated and had no headache or fever, I just felt lousy. I developed neuropathy—pins and needles in my fingertips, especially when I touched something cold. At times I had the same sensations in my throat and tongue. And I was very fatigued. Those were my main side effects. I found that it took almost a week before those side effects went away. However, the pain and abdominal discomfort that brought me to the doctor diminished significantly and I felt much better.
I spent most of the days following chemo just resting but once the worst side effects wore off, I began exercising to regain my strength. I was told by my nurse that exercise helps to diminish the effects of chemo. After my third round of chemo, I walked a total of seven miles and cycled 41. During the summer I opened my pool and cut nearly the acre of lawn that my house sits on. I regained weight, and never felt nauseated or otherwise sick, never lost my appetite or hair, and my skin color was good. I was able to cycle 72 miles after my last round of chemo.
When I completed chemo, I had another CT scan. Since everything looked okay, I had radiation treatments every day for a week. After I recovered from the radiation, I had Whipple surgery. I was in the hospital for a week and am now spending the next couple of months recovering at home.
A Bump in the Road
Because of Dana-Farber’s proficiency at testing, the doctors also found a nodule in the right lobe of my thyroid. I had a scan and multiple biopsies of the nodule, and the results have been inconclusive—we don’t know whether or not this is cancer. I am scheduled to have half of the thyroid removed in November.
The Importance of Family and Friends
Cancer treatment is a very tedious process. If not for the tremendous amount of support I have received from family and friends, it would have been nearly impossible to do; I cannot thank them enough. In particular, I would not have been able to get through this without my wife. She has been with me 24/7, advocating for me and making sure all of my needs have been met. She has provided me with guidance and encouragement, comforted me when I was feeling down. She has protected me from becoming ill, especially during these times, by disinfecting every item that comes into our home. She has managed our daily affairs and the upkeep of our home both inside and out, as well as making killa soups that taste so good, especially following chemo.
I have been taking everything one day at a time, step by step. When I say step by step, I actually mean just that. From the moment I was dropped off at Dana-Farber, I focused on one foot moving in front of the other as I forced myself to walk down a path not of my choosing. So for anyone who drove me there, I hope you forgave me for not waving or watching you drive away after you dropped me off; I was looking down at my feet compelling them to move forward.
I hope to be cancer free by Thanksgiving. After that I plan to get back into the world and begin to cause trouble again and harass as many of my friends as possible—always in a respectful, caring, and loving way.
So why did this all have to happen to me? I don’t know, it just did. My focus is not on why, it is just on what I need to do to defeat this. And with the support of my family and friends, we are going to kick cancer’s butt.