My skirmish with cancer… A tale of dumb luck, manly stupidity, and the lessons that I learned (written in 2006).
First of all, calling my ordeal a “fight” with cancer would be giving me too much credit. I know a whole bunch of people who have full-blown, knock-down, drag-out slugfests with cancer. They’re the toughest people you’ll ever meet. Comparing my situation with theirs would be an insult to them. But, if you like that sort of fighting metaphor, I guess you could summarize my skirmish with cancer like this:
Cancer and I got in the ring and put up our dukes. Then, when cancer wasn’t quite ready, I kicked it really hard in the crotch and ran away.
Still the whole thing was scary, and I truly did get lucky. I could easily have died if this cancer had spread. In a heroic display of manly stupidity, I let a malignant lump sit unidentified on top of my tailbone for almost 9 years.
What makes it even worse is that I scared the hell out of my wife who was pregnant with our son (born May 27, 2005 & named Andrew Harris) while I was busy having surgeries, MRI’s, Bone Scans, biopsies, and more.
Well, here’s a little trip back in time to explain the whole thing. Before you start, I want you to really grasp something: I’m fine. As I sit here writing this, I appear to be 100% cancer free. Of course, having cancer is like being an alcoholic: you are never officially in the clear. Lifelong follow-up is the standard. But so far, so good…
In Minnesota, sometime in 1996…
I notice a small lump on my tailbone; right in the middle. Since I was still in chiropractic school, still young and dumb, I had one of the faculty chiropractors take a look at it. He said, “Oh, that’s no big deal. It’s an Epi-sacral Lipoma. It’s a lump of fat on your butt.”
Sounded good to me. I forgot about it, other than the fact that it looked silly.
Fast forward to Colorado, early September, 2004…
A second red line appears within the indicator window of the EPT home pregnancy test that my wife, Meredith just took. The second line means she’s pregnant. A few days later, a follow-up blood test confirms that we are 9 months away from becoming parents.
Meredith starts nagging me to get a physical. I haven’t had one in about 15 years. Of course, as a jaded know-it-all chiropractor, I suspect that any medical doctor who gets a hold of me will immediately find some reason to make me take drugs. I resist. She persists.
She plays the, “what-if-we-have-this-baby-and-then-you-die” card. Finally, I agree to get a physical just so I don’t have to hear about it any more.
Our 6-week ultrasound. I’m surprised to see that little embryo Hyman, despite the fact that he looks like a shrimp, has a heartbeat. For the first time, it really hits me that I’m going to be a father. Meredith is right, I don’t want to become a father and then croak while the kid is young.
I have my first physical with Ian Levenson, DO. He expresses surprise at the size of the lump on my tailbone. He suggests that we remove it. Frankly, the lump had gotten fairly large over the last 9 years. I figured that since it was made of fat, it grabbed a little bit of every pizza, every burger, and every scoop of ice cream that I’d thrown down my throat over the last 9 years.
Seriously, the lump was huge and looked ridiculous. It was time to remove it.
November 24, 2004…
The day before Thanksgiving, I had a simple outpatient procedure at Dr. Levenson’s surgical center. As soon as he opened it up, he said, “I don’t know what this is, but it is NOT a Lipoma.” I told him, “If you feel comfortable proceeding, then just remove the damn thing.”
Over the next few days, my wife and I joked that the lump was my un-developed twin, Herschel. (That really is a thing. You may recall the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Toula’s aunt describes hers to Ian’s parents.)
December 1, 2004…
Back in Dr. Levenson’s office to get my stitches out, we got the shocking news. He walked right in, looked me right in the eye and told me. “Swedish Hospital’s pathology lab couldn’t identify that thing, so they sent a sample to an expert at Emory University in Atlanta. It looks like is was a sarcoma — a cancer. You have to go see an oncologist.”
You know, some people spend a lot of money in therapy so they can stop living in denial about various things. In this instance, denial was a good thing. I immediately jumped head first into denial. My official reaction can be summarized like this:
“If this were an aggressive cancer, I would have died 6 years ago. I’m fine.”
While that seems easy enough to believe, when you’re awake worrying in the middle of the night, denial sounds an awful lot like bullsh*t.
December 2, 2004…
At Meredith’s 16-week ultrasound, we find out that the baby is a boy.
As you might imagine, this was a strange couple of days. I find out that the lump on my butt was cancer, and find out we’re having a boy.
December 3, 2004…
I show up at Sky Ridge Hospital’s Cancer Center. The waiting room is full of people fighting various kinds of cancer, and the reality of what’s going on finally hits me. This cancer may have spread, and it could kill me. I’ve done my research on the internet (something I don’t suggest), so I know that sarcomas kill people. I’m scared.
My oncologist was Iona Hinshaw, head of the department. She spends about 20 minutes with me, tells me that I have to get an MRI, a CT scan, a bone scan, and then a have another surgery to remove a wider radius of tissue. She tells me if it spread to my lung, they’ll have to remove parts of my lung. She asks if I cough a lot.
I say “No, I do not cough a lot.” This must be good.
For some reason, Meredith objects and insists that I do cough a lot. We argue in front of the head of oncology at Sky Ridge. I have to say things like, “I’m a mouth breather at night and therefore have phlegm in the mornings” to convince the doctor that I in fact do not cough a lot. (I guess frequent coughing is a sign that cancer is in the lungs.)
December 15, 2004…
I have my MRI. They want to scan everything from my neck to my thighs to look for any indication that the cancer has spread. This is crunch time. 90 minutes in the tube. Nothing to do but think and breathe. And yes, spending 90 minutes wide awake in an MRI tube was a form of torture, to say the least.
I get to take a copy of the scans with me. I run home and read them. There are thousands of pictures, but I can pretty much tell that no unusual masses are there. The lungs look great. I start to feel like I’m going to make it.
December 16, 2004…
I get a CT scan. To this day, I still don’t know why they did both an MRI and a CT, but they did. Again I took the films with me, and again I saw nothing unusual. 2 days later, the radiologist’s report agreed with me.
December 21, 2004…
I go to see Dr. Cynthia Kelley at Colorado Limb Consultants. She is an expert orthopedic surgeon who specializes in rare cancers and limb preservation. If I were cancer, I’d be afraid of her. She tells me that my first surgery was not a true cancer surgery, and I will therefore need a second surgery. (After I get my bone scan, of course.)
December 27, 2004…
I have my bone scan. It’s normal, and kind of cool, actually. Surgery will go ahead on the 29th.
December 29, 2004…
I have surgery at PSL Hospital. Dr. Kelly performs a wide excision around my tailbone, removing some of the Gluteus Maximus muscle, a lot of sacral fascia, and the fat pad that protects the bone. All of these things will be biopsied.
I have over 100 stitches inside and out. Despite the doctor’s instructions, I refuse to stay over night in the hospital. There was just no way that I was going to let my pregnant wife go home alone and worry about me. In fact, I also refused to be wheeled out of the hospital in a wheelchair. Four hours after surgery, I walked to the back seat of my own car and tried not to throw up from the anesthesia.
New Year’s Eve was subdued to say the least. A few days later I got word from the oncologist that the biopsies were clean. That also meant no chemotherapy and no radiation. So after two surgeries, various MRI’s, CT’s, bone scans, biopsies, and 6 weeks of worry, I was fine. Except for the giant crater in my lower back.
I went on to have the external stitches remove and start rehabbing myself, with the assistance of some of my Russian Kettlebell friends. I’m still not completely 100% recovered, but all things considered, I’ve got no complaints.
And now, the rest of the story.
May 26, 2005…
Meredith checks in to Rose Hospital to have the baby. Because her blood pressure has been high throughout the pregnancy, the doctor has scheduled her for induction.
May 27, 2005…
After 17 hours of labor, the doctor decides that Meredith needs a C-section. At 4:43 AM, Andrew Harris Hyman greets the world with a scream and immediately pees all over the scale. He weighs 7 pounds, 9 ounces.
We spend a few days in the hospital, and take him home. As of this writing, he and Meredith are doing very nicely.
So what can you learn from this?
First of all, get a physical every year with a doctor that you trust. Quite frankly, if Dr. Levenson hadn’t removed that cancer from me, it would still be there. If it’s been over a year since your last physical, call you doctor and get one. Many problems can be picked up at the early stage. Dr. Levenson can be reached at 303.221.5400.
Second, get any lumps thoroughly evaluated by qualified providers. A chiropractor at my school’s clinic dismissed my cancer as a “harmless Lipoma.” He clearly was not qualified to make that diagnosis, and it could very easily have killed me.
Third, a lot of people get cancer. While the experts still don’t agree why that is, there is much they do agree on. The prevailing theory these days is that all of us are constantly fighting malignant changes to cells in our bodies. Usually, your immune system can keep up and kill off cells that are turning bad.
You should minimize exposure to carcinogens, eat quality foods, work to reduce stress, and get sleep. I’ll have much more to say about this in the future. Once you get a cancer, you have to be checked for the rest of your life to see if it’s coming back. I plan to make sure it does not.
Finally, when I was in that MRI tube worrying if my cancer had spread, I spent most of my time thinking about family, health, stuff I enjoy, my unborn child, etc. Your family and your health are the two most important things you have. Make sure you take care of both of them FIRST. They’re more important than your work, they’re more important than your money, etc. Do what you can to make sure that they know it.