Archive for November, 2007

It ain’t over til it’s over

Posted in Cancer Life on November 26, 2007 by lawler

One of the ways that oncologists keep track of cancer in the bodies of their patients is with tumor markers. In my case, there are two types of tumor markers that have been used to watch the progress of chemotherapy — Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), and Human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG).

Before I had surgery, blood was drawn to test for these two markers, and both were extremely elevated. Following surgery, I have been tested several times, and each successive test showed a marked decrease in levels. But when Dawn and I sat down with Dr. Arbaje today, one of the first things he said in his Dominican Republic accent was, “Well, I am concerned.” The cause of his concern was the marker AFP, which had apparently plateaued at a level still above the normal amount found in healthy people without cancer in their bodies. Though it had decreased through chemotherapy significantly, the last two times it was checked, it remained at the same number, and no one is quite sure why.

So, what does this mean? Well, for me it means more tests, and lots of unanswered (for now unanswerable) questions. Next up: another PET scan (remember the radioactive sugar routine?), more blood work, and in a few weeks another consultation with Dr. Arbaje. There is a possibility of further chemotherapy treatments — using different drugs that may be able to rid my body of potentially resistant cancer cells. There are lots of other possibilities too ranging from doing nothing and monitoring me closely to a bone marrow transplant, but for now it is another waiting game.

I’ll keep you posted.


Thanks be to… (a Thanksgiving post)

Posted in Cancer Life on November 24, 2007 by lawler

This post was written (mostly) on Thanksgiving day. Really.

I can’t help but think what an appropriate time in life it is for Thanksgiving to be here. It’s been a scary time for Dawn and I, and I think that we are both still reeling a bit from this cancer thing. But one thing is for sure: we feel fortunate, and know that we have much to be grateful for. There is nothing like swimming through a cancer diagnosis, surgery, and (yes, yes, worst of all!) chemotherapy to remind you of both the fragility and miracle of life. Recently, there have been a couple of incidents close to us that have further reminded us of how fortunate we are, and how frightening and disheartening life can be.

First, a member of the cast of the show I am currently working on with Children’s Theatre of Madison (remember, my new job?) lived through a house fire in which his brother died. The last I heard he is still in the hospital recovering from severe burns, and mourning the sudden loss of his brother, who was just in town for a visit. While the director of the show is scrambling to replace him, our concerns for the show are dwarfed by this young man’s tragedy.

Second, a close family friend of Dawn’s family died Tuesday night after a long battle with cancer. These harsh realities remind me how lucky I have really been through all of this. Through all of my life, really.

Today, Dawn and I are in rural Wisconsin, spending the holiday with Georgia and Andrew (Dawn’s brother). The old farm house that is Dawn’s childhood home is always a comforting and safe place to spend time — and I’m thankful to have such a place to come to for Thanksgiving.

So, what else am I thankful for? For my family, my close friends, for those of you out there whom I don’t know well at all but that have shared so much with me in the past couple of months; I’m grateful for all of the little things in life that I took for granted for so long, like the sound of Dawn’s voice, or the taste of a good cup of coffee or a tall glass of good beer; I’m thankful for the crispness of autumn, and the way our cats purr when they’re happy; but, mostly I’m grateful for life, and all of its ups and downs — all of its nuance and signs of hope between the sometimes dark layers of despair and gloom.

I’m also thankful that you are here reading this. I’m sorry that I haven’t been writing much lately. I’m not sure if it has been laziness (probably), or avoidance (less likely, but still possible) that has kept this blog so thin for the past month. So, thanks for coming around and looking still.

On Monday, Dawn and I will have a visit with Dr. Arbaje, my oncologist, and we will go over my most recent test results to see where the cancer stands. We aren’t expecting any surprises, since the ongoing monitoring of both the tumors in my lung and cancer levels in my blood have been consistently indicating the eradication of the cancer from my body. Dr. Arbaje has always said that we are aiming for a full and total cure, and I am not being cautious about this outcome. I fully believe that is what I have reached. But, whatever the outcome on Monday, I will be sure to post here on my blog to let you all know what went down.

Thanks again to all of you for helping show me the power of friendship and love. Each of you has made this journey something not quite as painful and dark as it could have been.


Posted in Cancer Life on November 13, 2007 by lawler

It’s over. My nine week chemo sentence came to a somewhat uneventful end yesterday morning when my last chemo IV was removed. But guess what? Just like my first day in the chemo chair, it took the nurses four attempts to land a successful IV in my left (non-phlebitis) arm. Yikes.

Dawn and I spent a couple of hours on Sunday baking lots of good cookies to give to the nurses yesterday. (Come to think of it, I should have taken a photo of the home decorated tin we put the cookies in for them — it was kinda cool) They seemed to like the cookies, and it seemed the least I could do for all of these people who have devoted their working lives to helping cancer patients through some of the most brutal treatments imaginable. They are living saints.

I’m also sad that I didn’t bring my camera to the treatment, because four or so of the nurses showed up at the end to sing me the “last treatment” song, sung to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” As in, “Happy last treatment to you…” It was festive and touching all at the same time. I said some very brief goodbyes before saying to Dawn, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Nurse Nettie said, “You know, I’m actually gonna miss you guys.” And I told her I’d miss them too — a little bit — as I held my thumb and index finger a millimeter apart from one another. Nurse Marion told me I shouldn’t lie. I didn’t mean it as a lie. I will miss them in a way. It’s just too bad that I had to meet them all in a place I hope to never see again.

Oh, and they gave me a latex chemo glove balloon too:

happy chemo glove head

mike with chemo head

I came home after the treatment and fell right to sleep. I slept all day, and didn’t wake up until almost 5pm. That is how tiring the treatment can be.

It’s still hard to believe that it’s over. Going there, getting poked and feeling like shit has become such a part of my day to day routine. Of course, it’s still hard to believe that I ever was diagnosed with cancer or had my right testicle removed either. It’s all so hard to believe. Maybe some day I’ll actually believe it at all.

When I asked a nurse how long it would take for my hair to grow back — something I’m very much looking forward to — she said, ahem, “two to six…” and when I heard this first part it sounded great, because I thought she was going to say “weeks.” But she didn’t. She said “months.” Yikes.

Thanks to everyone who has called or emailed or sent a card congratulating me on the end of chemo in my life. I’m sorry I haven’t been overjoyed at the notion myself — I suppose my body and mind are still in a sort of slothful way, and I haven’t been able to process all of this yet.

tree cancer (a walk down a cancerous memory lane)

Posted in Cancer Life on November 10, 2007 by lawler

I think it is fair to say that cancer is not something that I’ve been oblivious about all of my life. It isn’t a word, or a condition, that just popped up a couple of months ago after having my testicle examined. For those of you who don’t already know this, my mother died of cancer too — she had a malignant brain tumor that killed her about six months after they discovered it. My siblings and I were young when this happened. She was admitted to the hospital, never to leave it, on my first birthday in 1974.

When I was a teenager I have a fairly vivid memory of going to the school library and checking out two books about cancer. I can still see one of the books, a slim volume with a jet black cover and a title (which I do not recall) in blood red letters. I think I remember the look of that particular book so well precisely because it was so ominous. The book itself seemed deadly. I took those books home and I read about cancer — most especially I read about brain tumors and what the word malignant meant. When I returned the books I knew something, not much, about the science of why my mom was dead. And that’s really all I was looking for. I had no notion then, nor do I have one now, about the deeper meaning of why my mom died when she did or how she did. It didn’t really matter because she was gone and I had no idea as a child what I’d really missed out on — even now, as an adult, I marvel about the relationships people have with their mothers. For me, my mother is an image in a photograph mostly, for I have no tactile memory of her.

The thing that I did gain from reading those books (or scanning them rather), and knowing how my mother died, was a sense of dread. Not a necessarily nagging, ever-present dread, but I knew that I did not want cancer. At times I even thought I was destined to get it. Don’t ask me why, I just did (I know that I am not alone in this sort of fear, because at least one of my siblings has told me about his own, similar fear of cancer, born of my mother’s death).

In the mid-1990’s I worked with a woman named Charlene. My dad would have described her as a tough broad. She was in her forties, smoked like a chimney, and drove a brand new Thunderbird. At some point, Charlene — a woman not always easy to get along with, but extremely competent at her job — began to make silly mistakes at work, and became a bit loopy. It turned out, weeks later, that she had a brain tumor, that is was malignant, and that she didn’t have long to live. She was dead six months later. My brother Steve would tell me soon after her death: “that sounds just like what happened to mom.” Suddenly I had an unwanted reference point for my mother’s illness and death. Having seen Charlene at various stages of the disease, I could now imagine what it must’ve been like for my mother — and my father — as she slipped away.

I’m not sure if that experience lessened or worsened my sense of dread, but it was one that I was grateful for having. It helped me understand something that I had no real way of understanding on my own, for the memory simply did not exist. It was a blessing in a way, and I’m forever indebted to Charlene for allowing me to have it.

When my brother Jeff was young, he did a class report on tree disease. It was an all-out oral presentation, replete with homemade visual aides, culled mostly from our set of encyclopedias I presume (how kids used to do research before the Internet). It’s funny the things you recall from childhood, but this one is an easy target in my mind, because what I remember are the pictures of diseased trees, looking as though they had giant tumors growing within them, and Jeff telling me that they had cancer. A tree with cancer, I thought, isn’t that sad? To this day, whenever I see a tree with a bulbous growth, I think of that day in the family dining room looking at Jeff’s visual aides — and I think to myself, “do you have cancer, tree?”

So, now that I’ve had it I wonder what will happen to my lifelong sense of dread. At times I hear a voice in my head telling me that this one doesn’t count: “You have cancer-lite, Lawler, and never had to face the truly grim diagnosis of a terminal cancer.” But, really, I think I’ll let myself off the hook. Life is short enough as it is, and I hope to let go of this fear that I’ve held for so long. As for the trees, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to not feel a bit sorry for them when I see them.

can phlebitis cause depression?

Posted in Cancer Life on November 9, 2007 by lawler

Most of this post was written on Tuesday, November 6 — I just couldn’t decide whether to post it or not.

Yesterday, soon after nurse Cindy diagnosed my tender wrist as IV-induced phlebitis (another old person’s calamity I can now claim), nurse Pam said something to me that surprised me: “You know, you’ve done extremely well during this treatment.” I’m not sure what facial expression I answered with, but she followed by saying, “really, there are people who undergo this treatment that can’t even walk in here from day to day.” And here I thought I was having a rough time of it.

And that brings me to discussions that Dawn and I have been having lately about my state of mind. It’s not easy for me to be here writing this afternoon — not nearly so easy as it should be, or as it was earlier in this cursed process called chemo. Last night Dawn said I needed to write a blog post. I told her I had nothing left to say, except that I’m struggling with some sort of chemo depression. She told me to write about that, and I said something along the lines of “No way.” But here I am.

The thing is I’m a bit weary of divulging every bit of my life on the Internet. Don’t enough people do that already? I know that there are people who have read and will probably continue to read this blog who do not know me from Adam — even though the intended readership has always been those of you out there, scattered about the world, who are my friends and family. Sharing too much also goes against my nature. I’m a private guy, believe it or not, raised in a private family. But again, here I am.

So, that’s what it has come to: one treatment left, yet I’m feeling more broken than ever. My energy levels — even on a “good” day like today — are lower than my mind seems to think they should be. My outlook — even as all the numbers continue to point not to “remission” but to “cure” — has become low too, as I struggle with lonely days and an ever-present desire to be somewhere in the future. Someplace where I can’t remember this disease and its unpleasantries. In short, I have moved from battling a physical disease to grappling with an emotional one. Sort of. That is, I know that the cumulative physical effects of all this chemotherapy are still wreaking havoc on my body — I mean, I can feel it — but, now it is as though the toxins have begun to creep into my very being too.

Shouldn’t I be jumping for joy? Shouldn’t I be pleased that they’re curing my cancer, that soon my life will begin to take on a degree of normalcy once more? Part of me keeps saying to myself, “Don’t be such a baby, Lawler, you’re getting off easy.” But there is still a part of me that doesn’t listen to reason, and I’m curious to know if this depression and unease will simply fade away as the toxic chemo effects disappear over time once the treatments stop. I don’t know.