Hope for 3: Marriage, Cancer and Pregnancy

When I first got the text from my friend Emily, I felt an immediate physical sensation of fear mixed with shock—the feeling of an instantaneous cold shower for all the blood in my veins.

The text asked for prayers for a friend of hers who had recently gotten married, recently become pregnant and recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This woman—Mary—had inadvertently become the living embodiment of three of my greatest passions in life. Since getting married in 2014, my commitment to my wife has been the defining relationship in my life and something that I take an immense interest in nurturing. Since being diagnosed with Hodgkins and fighting it into remission throughout 2015, supporting cancer patients and sharing my experience as a survivor has become another personal mission. When my daughter was born in August 2016, becoming a father was the final life change to further refine my identity, goals and life purpose.

In a single text asking for my prayers—and without ever having met them or even yet knowing their names—I felt an instant kinship to Mary and her husband Tom and their growing baby Isla Rose. Since the day I learned of their story, they have been on my mind repeatedly and on my lips in prayer unceasingly.

I often talk about what a whirlwind the last three years of my life have been, with a marriage, a new house, a new job, a cancer fight, and a baby. As a firm believer in the axiom that God will never give you more than you can handle, I know this must be a pretty special family. If God, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit to throw them so many curve balls in rapid succession, they must be excellent hitters with a superb coaching staff.

That coaching staff is where the real miracle happens—when you realize that God didn’t give you more than you could handle precisely because He also gave you a strong network of people who will support you through these challenges. My post-cancer goal has been to join the coaching staff of anyone I encounter who is going through something similar.

If you are reading this, chances are that you were on my coaching staff, and I can never thank you enough. But the work isn’t done now that I’m in remission. I’m asking you to please spring back into action and help the Doherty family. There’s no denying they have a tough road ahead of them. Whether financially or spiritually or in another way you might think of, please join me in lifting up this family as they embark on an undeniably difficult journey. Pray for the health of their baby and a safe delivery. Pray that the cancer has not continued to spread within Mary. Pray that the treatment will be a success. Pray that Tom, with the difficult job of simultaneous caretaker to a newborn and a cancer patient, will get the support he needs and have the strength to persevere with a positive attitude. Just generally keep them in your prayers and consider making a donation to their GoFundMe account.

Reading their story makes me feel incredibly blessed for the way mine worked out and for the oodles of love and support I had along the way. Please help me to spread the word about their situation so that they can share my happy ending and recognize the enormous blessings that are ultimately born of suffering.

Is it Time to Find a New Oncologist?

As I type this tonight–about two months from my one-year No Evidence of Disease remission anniversary–I find the thought almost comical: Why would I switch oncologists now? After all, I’ve already endured 12 rounds of chemo on my current doctor’s watch, put up with his idiosyncratic bedside manner, his maddening lack of clarity and availability, some mistakes in treatment and his Groundhog Day-like inability to remember the details of my case between visits.

After reading that last sentence, perhaps you’re wondering why I stuck with him in the first place. Well, the answer is largely because the hospital was conveniently located minutes from my house and my oncologist was supposed to be administering chemotherapy according to the marching orders of a highly respected lymphoma doctor at the University of Chicago who provided my second opinion and course of treatment. That doctor assured me that chemotherapy is chemotherapy no matter where you get it, and it seemed a lot smarter to get it five minutes from my house than to brave rush hour traffic to-and-from Hyde Park once a week for chemo sessions or checkups.

But I’m assuming that while the ABVD chemotherapy poisons are the same everywhere, the level of care from your oncologist can differ greatly from practice to practice. And in that department, my oncologist could surely use some…practice.

So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? It happened earlier today. My wife and I had recently been chatting about how I am due for another PET or CT scan, as my oncologist had said he wanted me to get one every three months for the first year. For each of these scans, we have had to call his office to see if he still wanted me to get one and had to connect with him in order to get the scan ordered. (Is this normal? Or is the office supposed to call you to schedule your scans? I have no frame of reference for this beyond my dentist and my eye doctor, who always call or send a postcard when I’m due for some maintenance. Fellow cancer patients and caregivers: what has been your experience?)

Completing these scans is always a stressful experience for me–both because I hate getting stuck with needles and also because I always have a fear in the back of my mind that the scan won’t be clear and I’ll need more chemo or radiation or some other form of cancer-fighting torture. At the appointments to get the results of my three-month and six-month scans, it was clear that my oncologist had not even looked at the results before entering the room, which left my wife and I quivering in fear as he read them over in our presence. After the first scan, there was some ambiguity in my throat that required me to go back to the ENT who originally diagnosed my cancer. But my doc hadn’t seen this before I was in the room, so we got to watch him process it and ask me questions about my general health before he told us what was going on. It was terrible.

After my six-month scan, he reacted incredibly positively to the completely clear scan as he read it for the first time in front of us…because he thought this was my first scan after remission. When I complained about having to drink a disgusting contrast liquid before the scan, he told me that they didn’t need an abdominal scan because my lymphoma was in my neck, so I wouldn’t have to do that for any future scans. That’s nice, but we still got charged for the unnecessary abdominal scan that was clearly ordered because he wasn’t paying enough attention and didn’t bother to examine the details of my case.

But the back-breaking straw came today, when my wife once again called his office to find out if he still wanted me to get a nine-month scan and to get it scheduled. The office left a voicemail saying that we were supposed to have come back for a checkup after two months (which was never suggested to us on our last visit and had not previously been the protocol) and that my doc wanted me to get a scan of my chest, abdomen and pelvis.

Even casual readers of my cancer adventure will remember that my cancer presented as an enlarged lymph node in my neck. SO WHY IS HE NOW REQUESTING A SCAN OF EVERY LOCATION EXCEPT THE PLACE WHERE THE CANCER WAS?

I’m sorry. I’ll calm down. And turn off caps lock.

A quick scan of his waiting room tells me that he sees a lot of patients and that some of his patients probably have lymphoma. But I also know that I am probably one of the only ones who is under 35 and therefore perhaps a little more memorable than a lot of the older cancer patients he sees. But even if he couldn’t exactly remember the details of my case, shouldn’t he look at my chart a bit more carefully before ordering incredibly expensive scans that are meant to ensure that the cancer hasn’t returned?

So this is why I kind of want a new oncologist now. But I’m not sure that’s even an option for me. Do oncologists take on patients who are in remission and just come in for tuneup scans?

In the 17 months since Lumpy first entered my life, I have tried to be a resource for anyone who is dealing with similar health issues. I’ve tried to meticulously catalog my experiences in the hopes that it could bring comfort or knowledge or solidarity to others who find themselves fighting their own Lumpy.

But tonight I find myself somewhat frustrated and in need of advice. If you are reading this and have any experience with professional medicine or cancer treatment, I would love your feedback. Leave a comment or send me a message (roundingthirty at gmail dot com), and I would be very grateful for your insights.

Despite my frustration, I remain in good health–although perhaps gaining a bit too much pregnancy weight in solidarity with my pregnant wife–and richly blessed beyond measure. My oncologist and his staff did take good care of me throughout my treatment, but this latest development just feels like a logical breaking point, if it’s possible to switch to another doctor. Regardless of any of this, I feel so sure that all of the experiences that came from my cancer battle were oddly dressed blessings from God that fit perfectly into His plan and have prepared me for new and exciting challenges to come. Thank you for reading this and for all of your support!

The Last Chemotherapy Treatment of My Life

On January 30, 2015, I had my first chemotherapy infusion. On July 20, 2015, I had my last.

I was actually looking forward to going in for chemo on Monday, since it felt like I had been saying “one more to go!” for far longer than two weeks. It was time to be done already.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 5.06.00 PMBefore Theresa even arrived home from work for the appointment, I was already receiving a lot of encouraging messages, including the last of the “Monday Memes” my friend Matt had been posting on Facebook to bolster my spirits on each of my chemo treatment days. As for the answer to Confused Keanu’s question, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I started getting more congratulatory texts, and my brothers got into the act on Facebook with more funny memes and signs posted to my wall.

My brother Chris also produced the best animated GIF that I’ve ever seen.

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Theresa’s sister Bridgett also chimed in with a hilarious reenactment of my final chemo session courtesy of the kids she babysits. Notice the USB “port.” Priceless.

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Theresa and I arrived at the oncologist’s office and my brain started getting into the “woe is me” mode that it frequently employs when it knows I’m about to get another round of poison in my veins. She looked me in the eye, told me matter-of-factly that we were going to be positive today because it was the last one, and I tried to obey.

I was tested almost immediately when we were assigned the crabbiest of the nurses on staff (fulfilling the prophecy that Theresa and I had jokingly discussed the night before about how my final treatment might go). She prepared to flush my port with saline and asked if I wanted to put something in my mouth to disguise the taste. I explained that I usually put a few Animal Crackers in my mouth right before the flushing. Hilarity ensued.

Nurse: Have you ever thought of using a mint?
Me: Nah.
Nurse: Why not?
Me: The Animal Crackers seem to do the trick for me. Plus, this is my last chemo treatment ever, so it doesn’t matter!”
Nurse: Oh, you think it’s your last one, huh?
Me: [incredulous] Yeah. I’m sure of it. Six cycles was enough.
Nurse: [almost to herself] So he says it’s his last one…

THUD.

That was the sound of my jaw hitting the floor. The nurses in this office rarely win any awards for their bedside manner, but come on! This exchange made me wonder if they all secretly know that I have a blog and just want to make things more entertaining to read about.

My body apparently had the last laugh, however, as my port decided to stop functioning properly for this last treatment. While the flush went through (meaning that things could go into my vein via the port), the nurse was unable to draw any blood from the port, even after making me lie down, which has solved the problem in the past. Slightly miffed by this entire episode but still trying to remain positive, I returned to the waiting room to find my Mom and brother Joe, who had stopped by for some last-minute cheerleading. I was soon called in to get weighed and blood pressured and then went over to the Office of Blood Procurement (not the actual name, but that’s all they do in this room) where the nurse poked my arm vein to get the seemingly irretrievable blood. I want to state for the record that the nurses in this room are the best blood-takers I’ve ever met. I hardly ever even feel the pinch and I’ve never felt faint from their expert process. Of course today, however, my arm vein wasn’t cooperating either. I could feel the nurse painfully moving the needle around in my arm as she mumbled an apology. At last the blood started coming and I left the room a bit dizzy but relieved.

Thankfully, everything got better from there. We saw my oncologist–who was appropriately jubilant about this being my final chemo treatment–and discovered that the next item on the agenda is a PET scan four weeks from now. That’s right…I don’t have a doctor’s appointment for four weeks! I don’t know what I’m going to do with my free Monday afternoons now! I guess I’ll work.

Unlike the last time I had a PET scan, this next one should be definitive in its findings. I will be given a clean bill of No Evidence of Disease health and my port will be removed shortly thereafter. I asked if I could be fully sedated for the port removal and my doc told me that they generally remove it in the doctor’s office. THUD. (just can’t keep my jaw off the floor today…) I decided to fight this battle later and not dwell on the horrific vision of having a port pulled out of a vein next to my heart while I casually converse with the doctor doing the pulling. Let’s finish chemo first.

By the time we got back to our private chemo room, the original nurse had mellowed a bit and announced that the doctor had in fact confirmed my suspicion that this would be my last chemo treatment. Phew. She also did me the favor of making this final chemo administration go incredibly quickly. The “push” portions of the treatment–in which she manually pushes syringes of various chemo chemicals into my IV line–that usually take 10 minutes each were completed in a matter of minutes. And before I knew it, my head hazy from the Benadryl, it was over. I returned to a balloon bedecked home in a car decorated by my family and drifted off for my customary three-hour nap.

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Six months. Six cycles of ABVD. Three fevers. Two hospital stays. Numerous doctor appointments. Hundreds of pills. Thousands of hairs lost. Countless side effects. Endless prayers and support.

Without a doubt, this was the most difficult six months of my life, but also among the most encouraging and life-affirming. In the midst of this trial, I was never alone. My beautiful wife Theresa was always there to help me in whatever way she could–squeezing my hand as they stuck a needle in my port, making or picking up whatever meal my fickle appetite demanded, joining me on the couch for various Netflix binges, disrupting her sleep and work schedule to take me to every appointment, and comforting me in my darker moments of discomfort or despair. I can’t overstate just how vital she has been to not only encouraging my generally positive attitude throughout this debacle, but also in allowing us to continue to live any semblance of a normal life these past six months. She has picked up the day-to-day slack of what should be the shared responsibilities of husband and wife–from cooking and cleaning to lawn-mowing and grocery shopping. She has worked to make sure that we have the most fun we could possibly have while also beating a scary disease into submission. And she has done all of this with a tireless smile and loving attentiveness that defines “in sickness and in health.” While I might have been the one with the lump who was actually receiving the chemo, Theresa and I were fighting this disease together from the first day of my diagnosis. I am eternally grateful to God for bringing her into my life and making me worthy to have her by my side.

But the two of us were never alone, either. Throughout our entire lives, God had been carefully assembling a team of family, friends and acquaintances who would all step up to the plate for us when cancer came calling.

IMG_1121The endless stream of prayers and positivity that have flooded our inboxes, newsfeeds, cell phones and mailbox over the last six months have been overwhelming and awe-inspiring. I will truly spend the rest of my life attempting to pay forward the many blessings that have been showered upon me throughout this experience. (Case in point: The cool image to the right was part of a hand-drawn card I received from my friend Mike, who has devoted his retirement years to Catholic prison ministry. He told one of the inmates he visits, Vinny, about my cancer fight and Vinny drew this card for me!)

For starters, I thought I would at least try to elicit some smiles, so I posted a video that was six months in the making and filmed at various stages of my fight against Lumpy. If you haven’t already seen it, please enjoy. And thank you so much for all you have done to help me get to this point! NO MORE CHEMO!!!!