“You Have Cancer.”

Some thoughts on a diagnosis I never expected to receive

I’ve tried to write this blog for a couple of days now, but I can’t seem to find the through-line. As a professional writer, I know that the point of any communication — written, spoken, non-verbal or otherwise — is to help the audience not only receive the message but be changed by it.

I’m not sure how telling people I have cancer is going to change anyone. And yet here I am, blogging about it.

Almost three months ago, as I lay in bed talking over the day’s schedule with my wife, the phone rang. It was my doctor. Earlier that week I’d gone in for an MRI that was supposed to help identify the source of my recurrent back pain. Well, the MRI led to a CT scan, which led to that Saturday morning phone call that changed my family’s life forever:

“You have cancer.”

What type, he couldn’t be sure, but they thought, given that it was in my lower back, my left hip, and my right rib, that it was possibly sarcoma — a rare bone cancer. That may sound familiar to some of y’all — my former employer, Ravi Zacharias, just passed away from sarcoma. In fact, the week before my scans, I saw an announcement from Ravi highlighting that his cancer had been undetected until surgery for an unrelated issue. My wife read it too.

She looked at me and said, “Oh God — what if that’s what’s wrong with your back?”

I dismissed it. After all, I was 44, no real history of cancer in the family to speak of, and I was in decent shape and even better overall health. Cancer produces warning signs, none of which I’d exhibited, and Ravi’s cancer was very, very rare.

The odds of me having that same issue were astronomically low. And yet, there the doctor was. I had cancer, likely the kind Ravi had.

Well, the next several weeks were a blur of doctor’s visits and scans, and the final determination was that I did NOT have sarcoma like Ravi — instead, I had Stage 4 Metastasized Adenocarcinoma of Unknown Primary. A terminal, though manageable, diagnosis with lifestyle changes and medical treatments.

My first treatment was radiation therapy. Not hard to go through, but the after effects were challenging. I also wasn’t fortunate enough to experience immediate relief from the procedures…which meant my “feeling better” would be somewhere between 3–6 months down the line.

In the middle of radiation, the docs recommended a colonoscopy and endoscopy — to be done on the same day — to see if we could locate the origin of my cancer. It was suspected to be my colon or intestine, but they wanted to cover as much of my GI tract as possible.

Cameras up your butt and down your throat, despite the charming description, are a delicate matter. I had to fast for a day, then drink a horrendous concoction that made me puke at first and then did other horrible things to my body. I’m sure other colonoscopy patients can laughingly tell you about the impact it had on their bowel movements, but for me, it dehydrated me to the point I couldn’t walk. Rachel had to wheel me into the office for the procedure.

The next day, I couldn’t get out of bed. I ended up at the emergency room on Saturday for fluids. Then I heard from the doctor: the scans found nothing. No sign of cancer in any of the places the cameras were able to go.

That was important, because without a primary, my chemo prescription would be for adenocarcinoma of unknown primary. That meant a three-week cycle: a bag of fluids infused on a Tuesday morning, with a two-week regimen of chemo pills that started Tuesday night, followed by a third week with zero chemo medicines. Then, rinse and repeat three additional times.

I’m in the first week of my third round. I’ll go in Tuesday morning for another check up, and keep my pill regimen rolling. I’ll complete my fourth round sometime in July, when we’ll do yet another scan to see if the chemo meds have had any impact on my cancer.

We’re hoping that the cancer’s growth has slowed or stalled, but until then, it’s wait and see.

And the waiting — well, it’s not so bad. There are some personal things that I’m working through, and the reality of a chronic or sustained illness is that there are constant tweaks and adjustments that have to be made. First, I needed more fluids. Then I needed to cut back on the number of pills I was taking. A couple of weeks ago, I found out I’m iron-deficient, which meant an IV bag of fluids that looked a lot like coffee mixed with blood, which — after thinking about it — sounds pretty badass.

Along the way, I had a chemo port installed to help make it easier on my veins. Now the nurses know exactly where to poke me for fluids or blood, and my arms no longer like I withstood some sort of weird assault where the only thing my attackers were after were the soft insides of my elbows.

A lot of my time ends up centered on other people. I pray a lot for Rachel and Ella and Jon. Then, my mind will drift, and I’ll end up praying for people I miss, or people I know are hurting, or people whom I’ve not seen in years but their name danced across my mind so there was no further prompting needed. Lately, I’ve been praying for our country.

I don’t know what cancer will bring next. I feel like every day is incrementally better, and I’m slowly recovering — or should I say, discovering — my writing voice, which is to say you can expect to see more blogs on what I’m thinking. Read ’em or don’t it’s up to you, but they’ll be there nonetheless.

I can’t say that this post has made you better, reader, but it’s helped me break an internal dam. Until now, I’ve not publicly mentioned my cancer. Just didn’t want to. But I think it’s a good time to acknowledge my diagnosis, as well as encourage you to think about the thousands of others who are afflicted by this disease. It’s an even better time to acknowledge the injustice happening to black Americans and use your time to listen, read, and educate yourself in ways that will make you an ally of anti-racism.

Some healings you have to work for, but no healing begins until you know and admit you’re sick. Cancer caught me by surprise, but now I’m working to beat it, and I believe I will. I wish that same belief for you too, whatever your struggle may be.

Writer. Observer. Humorist.

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