Sunday, January 25, 2015

January 25... Two Years After

Hello everyone.  I hope you all are doing well and feeling good as you read along here. This entry will be a departure from my usual "memory" type. Why, you ask?  The title of this post pretty much gives it away.  Two years ago today I had surgery to remove a good portion of my esophagus and the upper portion of my stomach due to cancer that was at the junction between the two.  In fact, as I write this entry I would still be in surgery were we back in 2013.

Beware...  This entry may jump around a bit.  I am just doing what I call a "brain dump" here... I hope not too much so that it might make at least some sense.

That surgery in late January of 2013 was my first time in a hospital overnight, ever. My first surgery, save for a few out patient procedures throughout life to that point. It took somewhere around 12 hours... Two large incisions... One down the middle of the chest from mid-chest to below the belly button... The other on on the right side and back from under my right arm, curving around the lower edge of the right shoulder blade to near the spine... Internal reconfiguration galore... Esophagus about 1/4 the length it used to be... The upper part of the stomach removed and the remainder of it stretched up into the chest and reattached to what was left of the esophagus... The stomach went from a pouch-looking organ into more of a tube looking one... No more muscle at the top of the stomach that keeps everything in, or out for that matter... Changes to diet, appetite, mental stance, self-image, home life, work, medical... Everything.  Mental, physical and emotional.

To say this time has been an upheaval of our lives would be a major understatement. You'll notice I said "our lives." Those of you reading this because you are currently going through a similar journey, or have been through it already understand why I say it that way.  It affects EVERYONE. The person that has the cancer, the caregivers that person has around them... family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers... pets... Everyone. Cancer is a life-changer, and sadly in some cases a life-taker. In my personal case, at least so far, it has been a major life changer. It has also been a life-taker for me but on the caregiver/family side. I have lost both grandmothers, a grandfather, my father, my mother-in-law...  all to cancer in one form or another. My mother has had it four times. My father-in-law is in remission. Others too, like Lea Ann's grandmother that they affectionately called "Donut Grandma" because they would go to her house after church on Sundays and she always had doughnuts for them. We lost Lea Ann's mother just 7 weeks after diagnosis to a particularly aggressive type of cancer. My father was diagnosed in early 1983. We lost him almost exactly 3 years later, after some experimental and new things were tried and that was able to extend his life for a short time. My paternal grandfather had several issues to go along with cancer that spread rapidly and took him. What I am trying to say is cancer is never minor. I don't care what kind it is. It changes everything... Some may want to debate that, but I'm not going to. At least not at the moment. Just putting my opinion into words here.

It seems like it was only yesterday when I started having issues with swallowing and eating, but it also seems like a million years ago. Being who I have always been, I just basically ignored the problem... Looked at it as an annoyance, nothing more. My thinking was that it was just a little system issue and it would go away given time. I'm here to tell everyone, what I did was a very bad idea. When your body tells you something is wrong by making it uncomfortable or hurting you have to learn to LISTEN to it. If it had not been for Lea Ann and her seeing how I had changed what I was eating, or many times the lack of what I was eating, I might not be here today writing this blog. I hated going to the doctor. Always have all the way back to my days as a baby. Mom tells me that when I was a baby I knew the doctor's office parking lot as as soon as I saw it I started crying and would not stop until we left. I have no issue taking anyone else to the doctor, In fact, I press people to go and I take them... but god forbid if I had to go. It was like pulling fingernails off with needle-nose pliers. To this day I still get that ball of worry in the pit of my stomach when I go. Part of my brain says if I don't hear what is wrong, it's not real. However the larger part of me knows better than that. And it is still learning. As they say in many areas and groups, the first step to getting better is to admit there is a problem. This goes for cancer too. Of course, no one wants to hear they have cancer, but if you find it early you have a much better chance of kicking it's butt. So I urge you, I BEG you... If you feel wrong or you are hurting, listen to your body and go get it checked out. There is no one else that can ultimately tell you how you feel other than yourself and your own body. Just listen...

After my surgery and chemo and radiation were complete, my gastro doctor told me something that I always remembered and it really rang true. After a major surgery like this, It will take at least a year for a person to start "feeling like themselves again." That rang very true for me. It was maybe a little more than a year before I was through all the therapies and all before I started feeling like myself again. Until that time there is just too much going on. Your mind is just too overwhelmed and your body is still healing for much of that time. You just have to ride it out.  It is do-able. It is possible. There are times and situations where it is not doable completely, but I hope that, if you are in that situation, that you go down swinging. You and yours are a lot more tough and powerful than you give yourselves credit for. I truly believe that for everyone involved... the cancer patients and their families and friends and caregivers too. It takes a lot. Mentally and physically. It is the toughest fight you will ever have to fight. Period. If you win, you show yourself and everyone else just how tough and resilient you are. And if you happen to be losing, you can still prove your toughness and show you are not going to give up. Miracles happen every day. Who knows what can happen? Bottom line is, you'll never know until you try. I can say that now. Back in the middle of all this I came very close to giving up. Very close. In fact I actually said words to that effect to my wife... I said something like, "What difference does it make if I do any of this stuff? I am going to die anyway!" That is how I felt at the time, but looking back now I am actually rather ashamed of myself for saying that. I never looked at myself as a quitter, but that moment made me think. Luckily my support system and family would not let me do that. Lea Ann and the rest of our family knew me well enough to know I didn't mean it. Depression makes you say and do things like that. It is common to be depressed and to be scared. It means you are human. Just always remember that you are never alone. Even if you have no family or anything, those at the hospital can help, or support groups, or even on-line communities. There are MANY people that can help you, if anything else just to listen and to maybe understand a little bit of what you are going through. I say again, no one needs to go through this alone... and no one ever should.

I cannot say enough about our caregivers and our families and friends and the other "watchers." They are the source of so much strength for anyone going through this. For the cancer patient, but also for each other. Cancer is scary at ANY level. Everyone involved will go through many levels of emotion and anger and resentment and depression. Everyone involved can and will need some support. We as patients are the center of attention. People from all over trying to help and get us through. The rest that are having to stand by and wait and help and support tend to not get a lot of attention. I mean think about it... When a person has cancer, how many times are the caregivers and families asked how they are and if they need anything? I know it happens some, but not nearly enough in my opinion. That support system of love and prayers and support and anything else we need isn't a 9:00am to 5:00pm, Monday through Friday only thing.  It is a 24/7/365 thing. That is mentally, physically and emotionally draining. They are just as scared and worried and anything else you can think of as we patients are. I know that without my wife and our kids and our family and friends, both with us there in Arizona and those that were with us in spirit, we would not have made it. Our family and friends were the source of all of my strength when I was ready to give up because I was so scared or so tired or so depressed. They would not let me quit. And I am forever in their debt. I was not an easy person to be around for quite a while and NO one gave up on me. That is what counts. Our support network is there for just that... to support us. Don't ignore it... don't feel guilty about it... don't just let it sit there... USE it. These people love you. They will help you in any way they can... Trust in that, use that, feel that. Think about it this way... If you were the support and not the patient, would you want to help and do all you could? Would you hope the person "in the fire" would take all you have and use it to fight? I would. I cannot praise those people enough. I've said it once, and I'll say it a thousand times more... the caregivers and families and that whole support network are just as much cancer warriors as anyone. 100%.

Number one on that list for me would be my wife, Lea Ann.  My angel baby, emphasis on the word angel.  She saved my life. She was my anchor, my rock, my everything through this. She was the leader of the whole support system, top to bottom. I speak directly to her right now... Baby, you were there in the sickness, just like the vows say... and you saved me. You were there at all times, without fail and without question. I don't think I can ever repay you for that, but I also know that you would say that you don't expect payback. That is what loving someone is all about. I understand that and I hope I will always make you feel the love I have for you. Whenever you need me I will be there. Forever, plus as many more forevers as you need or want... then at least 10 more. I love you! 

To our kids and grand kids and parents and family and friends... all I can say is that I love each and every one of you. Thank you for being there for us... at all times. In person or on the phone or electronically or spiritually... It all matters. It all counts. It is all needed, and most of all it is the most pure sign of love and respect. I can only hope that you all can feel the love and respect reflected back to you from me and from Lea Ann.

Two years after the fact. I've never stopped fighting. Have there been peaks and valleys, you damn betcha... This is not a fight you stop after a while. It is a fight to live. I have been one of the lucky ones. So far I can say that I have kicked cancer's ass. I've done it but definitely not alone. I have needed and used every last bit of love and friendship and support I have gotten throughout the whole ordeal.  And I vow I will continue to fight as long as I can. I feel it shows respect for you all and your support and love and to prove I am worth all the time and effort you have all put in.

Once a cancer warrior,
ALWAYS a cancer warrior...

Love, prayers, good vibes and light to each and every one of you... For now and for always.  Thank you for reading this rant of a post.  I hope it made some sense.  I appreciate your attention and, as always, hope that it helps.  if it helps even one person, I have done what I set out to do...

See you all next post.