Cancer: The word you never expect
I've done stories about people battling cancer before.
They've been all ages, all types of cancers, and all stages of the cancer battle.
I never thought I'd be the subject of the story.
Life as I knew it changed a few years back by, of all things, a kidney stone.
That experience was torture enough, but it opened a window to the biggest challenge I've ever faced. An alert lab technician at Westfields Hospital noticed something wasn't normal in one of my blood tests and brought it to the attention of the doctors.
More blood tests followed. They brought the diagnosis I'd never imagined: Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.
CLL is a cancer of the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes. It involves lymphocytes, the white blood cells that battle infections.
Perhaps the most fortunate part of this is that it can be a slower moving cancer, so I've had some time to come to grips with it. I've had the luxury of having time to digest the thought that I had cancer. Many cancer patients don't get that opportunity. They are scheduled for treatment or surgery immediately upon diagnosis.
I was able to avoid treatment for the CLL until last fall, when my white blood cell counts began to elevate quite rapidly. I did a course of chemotherapy, with one treatment a week for five weeks, which brought my WBC counts back to within the normal range.
The bad part of CLL is that it rarely goes into full remission. The doctors had hoped the first round of chemo would keep my counts down for an extended period of time. It didn't quite work that way. By February my counts were again climbing at a concerning rate.
I was put on a more extensive type of chemotherapy, involving three different drugs, instead of the single-drug treatment that I received last fall. The treatment is done over three consecutive days, once every four weeks. On the day following the treatments, I receive a drug injection that stimulates white blood cell production in my bone marrow.
One of the three drugs involves a much larger dose and thankfully, I only receive it during one of the three days of infusion. Because I've had some bad reactions to this medication, they inject it at a slow pace. I'm hooked to an IV for six hours for that medication, plus another two hours for the other two.
One of the dangers with CLL is it leaves patients susceptible to other cancers. I have developed a second cancer, Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma. This is a lymphoma that involves the skin. Because it looks like rashes and other skin conditions, CTCL is difficult to diagnose. After seeing numerous dermatologists and allergists, I was finally sent to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where this even rarer form of cancer was diagnosed.
When one of the University of Minnesota teaching fellows introduced herself to me last year, she followed with "So you're the gentleman who has been struck by lightning twice."
CTCL produces itchy bumps on a patient's skin. They have to be treated carefully so they don't develop infections. It also leaves the skin extremely sensitive to sunburn. That's why you'll likely see me in wide-brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts, even on the warmest days of the summer.
I'd imagine I've dealt with the original diagnosis like most cancer patients, with a combination of anger, denial and confusion. It took some time to believe it was true. Then came the stage when it hung over me like a cloud, creeping into my thoughts, darkening the days when I didn't need or want to think about it.
It might sound odd, but one of the things that helped snap my mind back into a good place was seeing other people dealing with all of the different forms of cancer. I am being treated at the University of Minnesota Hospital, where I've received absolutely wonderful care. But it was the other patients who reminded me what was important, and how strong people can be.
I've seen people of every age deal with cancer and I quickly realized I could have it much worse. These people were fighting their battles with their heads held high. They weren't letting it stop them from living.
It reminded me of an analogy related to cancer and I've tried to adopt it. Cancer means war. I view my fight as a war with cancer and every day is a battle. There are days cancer wins. At first I didn't want to give in to that thought. I wanted to fight and stay active in the days after treatment. In the first month of this treatment cycle, on the day of after I finished chemo, I went to cover a youth hockey state tournament in Somerset. New Richmond and Somerset both had teams playing and I guess I wanted to be there because those kids deserved to have someone there. I got the pictures, but I also learned a lesson. I found that I'd pushed myself way too hard and the next few days I could barely get out of my chair.
So I learned that cancer might win those days during and after the chemo when I need to recover. But by conceding those days and resting, I have more strength to fight and function normally the rest of the month. Those are days I can win, and I plan on winning. When people say they can't tell that I'm sick, that's about the best motivation I have. It might not mean I'm winning, but it reminds me that I'm putting up a helluva fight.
The decision to write this story was not easy. But as people began to notice that I could not attend certain events because of my health, I thought an explanation was necessary. Missing the first New Richmond Athletic Hall of Fame induction because I was in the emergency room with an infusion reaction hurt me deeply. Missing my first New Richmond Relays in 25 years, other than the rainouts, stung too.
I've been fortunate to have many people who have helped me through this. Everyone at our office has been great, especially editor Jeff Holmquist and publisher Steve Dzubay. They've been very flexible in dealing with all the uncertainties of my schedule.
So have the coaches I deal with every week. The coaches have worked to fit me into their schedules when I am able to do interviews, which has taken a great deal of pressure off me.
My family and friends have been great. My wife, Deb, has been incredible. She has stayed so focused. There are so many things that can get rattling around your brain when doctors are discussing all the information involved in battling cancer. She has kept me sane, and she's always asking the right questions -- of me and the doctors. Caregivers are the greatest asset a cancer patient can have. I have one of the best.
Relay For Life
I have walked in the New Richmond Relay For Life for many years. This year's Relay will be held on June 14-15 at the New Richmond Middle School track. I will be part of the "Jet'n All Night" team. The website for the local relay event is:http://relay.acsevents.org/site/TR?fr_id=51867&pg=entry