Archive for Mike Lawler


Posted in Cancer Life with tags , , , , on October 7, 2012 by lawler

It has been just about four years since I checked into the Simon Cancer Center at Indiana University. I still remember sitting in my hotel room the night before checking in to the hospital with my old friend Tara watching the poll returns for the 2008 Presidential election (we didn’t have to stay up late for the results). The day before Dawn and my brother Jeff watched a machine harvest stem after my apheresis catheter was put in place, and then headed north (Jeff to a flight home to L.A. from Chicago, and Dawn home to Madison). Earlier that day I sat in my hotel room alone (probably writing on this blog about something), and looked down to see a giant blood stain on my chest. I tried to stay calm, disappointed that my Obama tshirt was probably forever ruined, but thinking that it was at least a meaningful stain. I called the hospital, and then called Tara (who was in route to Indianapolis from her then home in Cincinnati). Back to the hospital I went, where the nurse said something like, “Gosh, I thought your catheter was fine when you left.”

This is all to say that it’s been a while. And things have changed for the better. Except one: my hearing. The high dose chemotherapy I endured in November and December of 2008 permanently damaged my hearing, and I’ve spent the last four years coping. I guess the thing that has made it the hardest is Jack, the awesome two year old kid Dawn and I are lucky enough to call our son. I mis-hear him all the time, and I don’t want to miss any more of what he has to say. So, tomorrow I get hearing aids. I’m excited. It’s exciting, right?


Asbestos Meditation

Posted in cancer, Cancer Life, testicular cancer with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by lawler

On Friday I interviewed Meg Gaines for our third installment of the Wisconsin Storycast — yet another branch of Wisconsin Story Project. Gaines is the Director of the Center for Patient Partnerships here in Madison and a cancer survivor. Her story is amazing, especially considering how it led to her fervent patient advocacy and the founding of the Center.

At one point in the interview (which you will be able to hear on the Wisconsin Storycast next month — stay tuned) she began to talk about how she meditates on some of the things that scare her most, namely the death of her children and her own death. She spoke about how important it was for her to come to a resolution on those frightening events so that she can face them — or, at least, the idea of them.

So, what does this have to do with me or this blog, with cancer, with asbestos? Good question. Here’s how it fits together: a day after interviewing Gaines and — as happens with many of the cancer related interviews I’ve conducted for WSP — being faced with new ideas to think about on cancer, life, death, and everything between, Dawn and I walked down to our basement to begin the demolition of a decades old (and quite humorous in decor) room so that we could refinish it to better suit the expansion of our home and the child we hope to adopt. We were both very excited and began tearing walls out and then found ourselves looking at the ceiling. It was covered in this goofy thatch stuff, remiscent of the set from my high school production of South Pacific. We tore it down, and beneath it was a fiber board in sheets nailed to the floor joists. We began tearing that down, and it was old and crumbly. The basement started to look dusty. I told Dawn that we should stop and get dust masks and goggles. So, we did. Then we went at it with abandon and tore the stuff down.

Later that night, I went for a walk around the bay and started to realize that the stuff we had just torn down from the ceiling of the basement could have contained asbestos! We had worn nothing but basic dust masks and eye protection. Judging from the two Playboy issues we found in the ceiling and one wall, it appeared the room had been built sometime during or after 1976, right around the time asbestos was being seriously phased out of construction material like floor and ceiling tiles. There had been composite floor tile in the basement room too, but we had it professionally removed. It had contained asbestos. What, I thought on my walk, had I done? Had my absent-mindedness led me to allow Dawn and I to be exposed to airborne asbestos dust without proper protection? Shit.

On the walk, as I panicked over this realization, I remembered what Meg had said. I have faced cancer, faced my own mortality, my lack of invincibility — but still I remain terribly afraid. I tried to use this asbestos incident to face up to it all, to think about my death. How might it happen? What would happen to the people I love when I was gone? Could I face death in peace — with dignity? (here a classic George Costanza line springs to mind, of course: “I’ve lived my whole life in shame — why should I die with dignity!?!”)

When I came home from my walk, I didn’t know how to tell Dawn of my asbestos fear. I waited until the morning to do so. Then I went and bought a proper asbestos rated respirator, gloves, and a disposable coverall. I went back into the basement and cleaned most of the mess up. Then, I decided that I would hire professionals to evaluate the basement, test the ceiling material, and, if needed, finish the clean up.

I’m still worried, of course. If the stuff turns out to have contained asbestos, we were exposed beyond the level that I think is healthy; however, I also know that asbestos related cancers are very rare — they seem to be found mostly in folks with long term, high level exposure. And then I think, “Well, hell, 85% of lung cancers are thought to be caused by smoking, and look at all those fools that not only take in a known carginogen, but do it with pleasure, without the benefit of respirators!”

On Scars, Langer’s lines, and Deafness

Posted in cancer, Cancer Life, testicular cancer with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by lawler

I learned some new things today about the body, about my body. I visited a woman with a very cool name (Morel Stackhouse) who practices something called Ortho-Bionomy and spent an hour or so having my RPLND scar worked on to promote healing and reintegration of the scar tissue — or perhaps just integration.

When I stepped inside her home, just a few blocks from ours, she said “Blah blah leave blah blah blah here.” At least, that’s what I heard, my hearing still quite impaired. Nowadays, I’ve become half-way decent at deciphering what a person has said by hearing some of their words and applying context. I knew she had asked me to leave something by the door, and because my cell phone was in my hand I deduced that she had said “You can leave your cell phone here.” I took my bulky keys and my cell phone and set them on the counter and looked back to her silently.

“Your shoes,” she said, “I don’t care where you leave your phone and your keys,” and smiled.

As I kicked off my sneakers, I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t hear very well.”

“Too much loud music?”

“No,” I said, “too much chemotherapy.”

Dawn still marvels that I cannot hear the tea kettle whistling in the next room. It is too close in pitch, it seems, to the constant ringing in my ears, known as tinnitus. I’m still counting on recovering my hearing, and Dawn reminds me that it has not been that long. But not being able to hear people speaking to me — especially those who don’t already know about my condition — has grown tiresome.

On a brighter, more interesting note I also learned from Morel one of the reasons my first surgery was so simple and easy to recover from (in contrast with my RPLND) — and why the scar is so different, both in the way it looks, and in the way it feels. The reason is what are known as Langer’s lines and that surgeons take advantage of them. The lines represent the natural tension of skin, or how skin is held together on the human body.

My first surgery, an orchiectomy, was a small incision that followed the contour of the Langer’s line in that part of the body. My RPLND, on the other hand (as with most abdominal surgeries) slices right across several of the lines, as you can see in this diagram:


When I run my fingers down my scar, I can actually feel where these lines are because they have formed slight bumps in the scar tissue. I was quite happy to hear Morel say repeatedly, “Your surgeon was very, very good,” as she worked on the scar. At one point she said that one way to know this was by judging how well the Langer’s lines had been realigned when I was put back together. She said that sometimes they are not aligned properly and you end up with a scar that pulls against itself, causing even more discomfort and difficultly in healing.

She also got me thinking again about something that occurred to me a few weeks ago about my tattoos. In thinking about them in the context of this massive scar, I realized how forced they were — and how their meaning has diminished in my mind over the years, and especially now that I have been given (yes, it was a gift of sorts) this strange scar. Tattoos are artificial — albeit often beautiful — scars. Their meaning is frequently superficial, and is always imprinted with the owner’s subjective and sometimes misguided intent. They are, I must admit, affectations. They simply do not rise to the level of importance (or meaningfulness) of a scar of the sort that now runs down the middle of my gut. They were not really earned, and are merely art objects forever affixed to my skin. I never really understood that until now. The story that my surgical scars have to tell are so much more rich and inspiring than the tattoos on my body.


Before I forget…Dawn and I took the plunge this week. It’s one little step toward starting a family: a new, safer, more fuel efficient, environmentally friendly vehicle (isn’t it cute?):

The newest member of the Wisconsin branch of the Lawler family - a 2009 Toyota Yaris.

The newest member of the Wisconsin branch of the Lawler family - a 2009 Toyota Yaris

Looking for Easter

Posted in cancer, Cancer Life, testicular cancer with tags , , , on April 12, 2009 by lawler

Today was Easter. Dawn played a church gig in the morning and then we headed out to Bear Valley to spend the day with Dawn’s parents, her brother (up from Chicago) Andrew, and the Walton’s. As usual, Georgia made a wonderful meal, and then we all traipsed around the family acreage looking for twelve well-hidden Easter baskets that my father-in-law Hartmut placed carefully earlier in the day. All conversations about the Easter hunt that took place prior to the actual event were full of adolescent-like disdain. The fact is, it was fun. I trotted around documenting the event, but feeling as though I should try to find a basket too (it is a competition, right?). With some help from Hartmut (“You’re getting warmer…Andrew is very cold…Dawn is hot,” et cetera) I found one of the tiny baskets!

So, here is the most recent picture I have of myself (as promised yesterday)…still skinny, but not looking like a naked mole rat (aka cancer patient) anymore. That’s my Easter basket atop my head, by the way…

Proud of my easter basket. Easter, 2009.
Proud of my easter basket. Easter, 2009.

The legend of Graytooth (or Yellowtooth…or Browntooth)

Posted in cancer, Cancer Life, testicular cancer with tags , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2008 by lawler

I’m not one to shy away from honesty. I try, strange as it is sometimes when I meet readers of my blog that I don’t really know well (or at all), to be forthright and simply relate this surreal cancer journey. (When I wrote a few days ago about teratoma tumors and the often grotesque stuff held within them, Todd said, “I’m not sure everyone wants to read about that.”)

Honest as I try to be, one thing that is hard to own up to is the idea of my self-image as a cancer patient. It isn’t vanity, it’s just a lack of recognition. Who is that gaunt, hairless, rotten-toothed patient in the mirror?

That’s right, my teeth are a horrible swirl of yellow, brown, and gray these days. They look rotten.

This picture doesn't quite capture the rotten look of my teeth. Just ask Dawn.

This picture doesn't quite capture the rotten look of my teeth. Just ask Dawn.

The staining is the result of how I must care for my teeth during treatment: Peridex. I brush with a toothbrush soaked in it, and rinse with it three times a day. I’m sure my dentist will be appalled at my stained nashers when I am able to go in for a cleaning.

My self-image is directly tied to my discomfort with the notion of being a patient. I never envisioned myself playing this role — and certainly not at such a young age. My self-image is also inextricably linked with the image of my dying father. I see glimpses of him in the mirror sometimes, and feel that the physical traits I share with him have become pronounced in my illness. My father was a patient for many years before he died in 2006, and his experience is the model with which I am most familiar. As I lie in bed I frequently gently clasp my hands together and rest them just above my stomach. This is something that my dad did too, and because he spent all of his time in bed during the last weeks of his life, I saw this gesture of comfort and habit all the time. When I do it now (especially when I was in the hospital), my mind immediately flits to my dad.*

I don’t know what this means, or why I’m writing about it. I just know this: the psychological hardships are almost always harder to bear than the physical discomfort. It’s difficult to not wish away times like these, and live in the moment — the moment being so frequently uncomfortable, or unpleasant in some way. How do we truly take it one day at a time, and do the best to enjoy the next few months, months that will likely include more hospital time, surgery, continued blood draws (back to needles now that I have no catheter or PICC line!), and three more months of oral chemo? The easiest thing to do is say things like, “I can’t wait until the Spring! No more constant cancer care, living like a patient (read sick person) and the cold weather will be gone too!” But then you’re committing the sin of missing out on life for months at a time, aren’t you? That’s the trick. Being ill, looking ill, feeling ill and still living your life in the most fulfilling, meaningful way possible.

Maybe I should read The Last Lecture.

*Note: I’m going to find a good picture of my dad to post soon.


For those of you not in the Midwest (yes, even you Northwesterners alarmed with the snow you’ve received recently), here is a glimpse of the winter we’re having:

Winter Wonderland in Madison

Winter Wonderland in Madison

Note the height of the snow piles on our lawn and on the lawn of our neighbor, Adeline. Also note my truck, which has not yet been completely dug out. You should see the backyard!

The best part about having good neighbors in weather like this? Three doors down lives Larry the Snowblower Man. He has this huge snowblower, and blows most of the sidewalk on both sides of our entire dead end street. The other day, he was even snowblowing the street before the plow came!

Yesterday, Dawn and I went to pick out our first Xmas tree. We’ve never had our own, and we were both excited to have one in our new house. The plan was to buy a living a tree and plant it later on our property in the country. So, we trudged out in the -10° (that’s right: TEN BELOW ZERO) weather to find our tree. Unfortunately, the living trees that were still available were, well, puny, and buried in snow too. So, we opted for the next best thing: a tree farm cut tree that was selling for 55% off. On our way home we stopped off at the hardware store to get a tree stand and some new LED lights. This is where the day sort of went awry. I locked the keys in the car. I was not happy, but fortunately Todd was able to come out and help us by bringing our spare key. We ended up all eating Chinese food for lunch at a place next to the hardware store. The best part? We have an Xmas tree in our living room:

This tree smells great too!

This tree smells great too!


Posted in cancer, Cancer Life, testicular cancer with tags , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2008 by lawler

The word has come down: with my white blood cells clocking in at 3.9, I will be discharged tomorrow (Saturday) morning. 

Today they will give me platelets, since they are low, and will then remove my apheresis catheter — something I’m a bit anxious about because having it placed was a bit traumatic. I’ve been told that the removal of the catheter is much easier than the placement, so I’m hoping for the best there.

The results of yesterday’s CT scan were straightforward enough: Dr. Einhorn informed me that there is a lymph node in my abdomen that has a distinct teratoma growth, and will need to be removed through surgery in January.

If you’ve ever seen the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you may recall how the character Aunt Voula explains her own teratoma: 

[to Ian’s parents] Now, you are family. Okay. All my life, I had a lump at the back of my neck, right here. Always, a lump. Then I started menopause and the lump got bigger from the “hormonees.” It started to grow. So I go to the doctor, and he did the bio… the b… the… the bios… the… b… the “bobopsy.” Inside the lump he found teeth and a spinal cord. Yes. Inside the lump was my twin.

Yeah, that’s teratoma. It’s like a bunch of confused embryonic cells, and they sometimes just start making stuff — like teeth, hair, bits of spinal cord. Who knows what they’ll find!

In weather related news, the drive home may be an adventure for Todd and I. Once again, Todd is staying on in Indianapolis a day longer than he planned. The issue this time is as much the severe weather we’re having in the Midwest as it is my impending discharge. Today is a bad day to travel the roadways, and we’re counting on tomorrow being just enough better to get us home to Madison without much fuss (or sliding into snow banks).

The finish line

Posted in cancer, Cancer Life, testicular cancer with tags , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2008 by lawler

There is a dry-erase calendar on my bathroom door, where my treatment is tracked meticulously in numbers. It looks like a strange, evolving mathmatical equation. But every square represents a day, and each day contains very specific information. The key information is represented by the letters W, H, and P — White Blood Cells, Hemoglobin, and Platelets. The H and the P are important, and the numbers aside them dictate whether or not I am in need of a transfusion of some sort. But the W is king. It is the number to watch.

This morning, I was awoken by the scuffling feet of my day nurse, just starting her twelve-hour shift. When I opened my eyes, she was standing in front of the dry-erase calendar, erasing and writing, making that squeaky noise that dry-erase pens are famous for. But her head was in the way. I couldn’t discern what numbers were being written after the W, the H, or the P. I moved  my head around, trying to get a  look. Nothing doing.

When she stepped away from the board, I was relieved. The box for today, December 18, read:

The important number here is the 1.6 next to the W

The important number here is the 1.6 next to the W

My white blood cells have “grafted.” My Absolute Neutrophil Count (ANC) is up at 600. Tomorrow they should spike even higher. The finish line is in sight.

Later today, I will have a CT scan to assess the effects of the last several weeks of treatment. I have no doubt it has done the trick. The question that remains is whether or not Dr. Einhorn will recommend the RPLND or not. That is the big question for me.

So, when I have the results I will let you know right away. Thank you all again for the love, energy, prayers, cards, packages, support, gifts, vibes, thoughts, and everything else you’ve sent along to both  Dawn and myself.