Four Years

This Saturday is my Alive Day.

alive day
n. the anniversary of a close escape from death, especially one involving permanent injury. Originally coined by US veterans, and adopted by survivors of accidents, cancer treatments, etc.

Four years since my cancer treatment. No recurrence.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that, as you probably can imagine. I realized that a lot of the blog posts that I made at the time (over on Livejournal), were friends-locked, and seen only by a few. So, I’ve decided to post them here, in the open for the first time.

It began with a visit to the doctor’s office on 1/06/07. Coming back, I wrote:

Cancer.
Not what you want to hear your doctor say….

I have a mole on my leg (since birth) that has changed over the past 6-7 months. I had it checked out today, and the doctor said that it might be a melanoma. My family has a history. I’m supposed to call the specialist first thing on Monday morning, to go and get a biopsy done this week.

Worst case, I go in for surgery to have it removed ASAP, along with exploratory to make sure it hasn’t involved the lymph nodes as well. Always best to plan for the worst case.

Best case — my father just told me that he’s had something similar on his calf (a mole that changed, and he describes the appearance as pretty much exactly what I’ve got), which he’s had checked regularly since 2002 or so, which 3 different dermitologists have told him is non-cancerous (his current derm in Maine jokingly refers to it as a “barnacle”).

Nothing like a little bit of terror for your weekend.

Through a confluence of events, including the specialist in question having to do a surgery, I didn’t get the official news for nearly a week more. My post from 1/12/07:

The results of the biopsy were not good. I’ve been diagonosed officially with skin cancer. A malignant melanoma.

So, the next week is spent meeting with various doctors, running tests, all leading up to Monday the 22nd, when I’m scheduled for surgery.

They’re going to remove the melanoma, along with a fairly sizeable chunk of the tissue surrounding it, patch a skin graft from my other thigh, and also do a “sentinel node” test — they inject the site with radioactive material, and if any of that material shows up in the lymph nodes nearby, they remove those nodes as well.

There will be post-surgery therapies, possibly radiation, chemo or bioimmune — I’ll be talking to the oncologist on Tuesday.

That’s the bad news. The good news:

1) we have a plan of action,
2) this is a standard procedure,
3) the doctor’s examination showed no further areas of concern,
4) it’s on an extremity, rather than my head or trunk
5) I’m 37, which means that a lot of treatments are available to me that wouldn’t be do-able if I was 60 or older. I’m strong.

I hate to hit you all with something as cliched as “I’m gonna beat this thing”, but….well, damn it, I’m gonna beat this thing.

And that led to a 10-day stretch of panic, constant visits with an ever-growing bullpen of doctors (oncologist, dermatologist, two surgeons, etc. etc.), and the worst part of the entire process:

Back from the day’s joy at the hospital. I had my pre-admissions interview (no problems there), and then a PET scan and a CT scan.

Sweet jumping jesus on a steam-driven pogo stick.

Next time they offer to give me a perscription for Adavan as a “calming agent”, I’m fucking TAKING IT.

Let me ‘splain: Here’s the process for the PET. I get an IV, and then an injection of irradiated glucose. (Y’see, cancer cells are highly metabolic — more so than normal cells, so this stuff will go right to them) Then, they scan you, and can see if you have any cancerous cells anywhere else in your body.

All well and good.

However. Because I have melanoma, this needed to be a top-of-the-head to the bottom-of-the-feet scan.

No problem.

However…

The aperture for the PET scan machine is roughly the same diameter as the width of my shoulders. And you lie down, and get stuck into that hole, and then sloooooooooowwwwwwwwwly inched out.

A hole where my shoulders were rubbing against the sides, my arms above my head, and when I breathed out, I could feel it bounce off the wall inches from my nose and back into my face. And, because I’m gigantofuckinghuge, they put me through this twice — once feet first, and once head-first, to make sure they had overlap.

The first scan was about 30 minutes. In the hole.

The second scan was almost 45. Holyshitholyshitholyshitholyshit.

Did I mention that I’m claustrophobic, and have been since childhood?

Yeah, not so much with the fun. Full-on panic attack, in fact….and one that I couldn’t do anything about, because I had to lay completely still, in that dark little hole, for over an hour.

This was followed up by a lovely barium milkshake, and a CT scan, which is like the PET, but merely a donut instead of a hole, and much, much faster.

As one attendant said to me: “Think of it this way — this is, in all likelihood, the hardest thing you’ll have to do during your treatment. When you come in for surgery, you’ll just be sleeping.”

A good way to think about it. But DAMN.

Yeah, I can’t even begin to tell you how much that sucked. I still have nightmares about it, in fact. Easily the biggest scare of the entire thing (beyond the whole “holy crap, I might DIE” part of having the actual cancer, of course — but even then, this was much more visceral).

On the 22nd, I went into surgery. A team of surgeons carved a chunk out of my leg — a circle about 4 inches across (about the size of a CD) and 1 1/2 inches deep. A secondary incision on my lower abdomen was where they removed two lymph nodes for a sentinel node biopsy (to make sure the cancer had not spread). They took a roughly 5 x 5 skin graft from my other leg, so they could patch the crater they’d created.

So now, four years later, I’ve had regular appointments with the dermatologist. So far, one mole “of concern” has been removed, but those tests came back clean. Next year, I’ll be five years clear — and five years is the window where most recurrences occur. One of the things that scared me the most during the whole process was reading the 1, 5 and 10 year survival rates for people with the same classification of cancer that I had, but I’ve cleared the first hurdle, and I’m heading for the second.

It’s been a strange four years — as I’ve said to friends, it’s been a bit like waiting for the other shoe to drop. Stomach problems? What if it’s cancer? Headache? What if it’s cancer? Was that mole always there, or is it cancer? Almost like jumping at shadows….but no, more like being afraid of the sound of a gun, because at least there’s a reason for that. I’ve seen the gun, and heard it fired at me, and had the bullet with my name on it taken out of me.

But this Saturday, the 22nd, marks another year of successfully dodging the bullet.

14 Replies to “Four Years”

  1. That’s a fascinating concept. I guess I have my own Alive Day, then, from when I had to be wheeled into surgery because I almost got a terminal brain infection from my inner ear.

    Good to still have you around. :)

  2. Happy Alive Day, Gareth! As someone who lives with cancer, it is always a joy to hear someone doing well years afterwards! (And, yes, I’m gonna beat this thing too, thanks to Christ!) Have a cold beverage of choice and celebrate mightily!

  3. “lovely barium milkshake”

    Don’t those things suck? I describe the two I’ve had like drinking milky plaster of paris which you know is going to pass all the way through, ’cause digestion is not happening with that stuff.

    Bleargh.

  4. A description that is heartfelt and eloquent. Glad you are around to tell the tale. Here’s to MANY more Alive Days!

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