Thursday, October 21, 2010

Would You Like the Can, Sir?

No thanks, I think I'll pass.

So I just got back today from my extended stay at the Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary. I can't speak, I can't fully use my left arm, and I have a ridiculous beard that I can't shave until my tracheotomy and neck dissection scars start to scab up.

But everything is relative...I'm pretty thrilled to be in this position right now. I'm extremely grateful to be recovering, to have Tricare, and to have been under the care and supervision of the medical equivalent of the 1985 Bears' Defense.

I haven't written about this yet on the blog -- I purposely decided to wait until after the surgery. On September 15 I was diagnosed with cancer -- specifically, poorly-differentiated squamous cell carcinoma of the oral tongue. On October 12, a seven-hour surgery most likely removed not only the malignant tumor itself, but quite probably the rest of the cancer as well. I will know more by late next week, but when one of the Top Docs with more letters after his name than I could recite backwards tells you that things "look good" you can respect it.

From the 15th to the 12th, I was biospied and scanned nine ways to Sunday. On the 12th, I had 1/3 of my original tongue removed, which was replaced with live tissue from my left forearm, which was partially replaced yet again by a small part of my left thigh. I also had a radical neck dissection, which means, yes, another cool scar. I've been breathing with the assistance of a hole in my throat (seriously) because of the inevitable swelling issues associated with the glossectomy and radial forearm flap.

When I found out, I just completely skipped the denial stage, the woe-is-me stage, or even the why-me stage. Instead, I went right to the "act" stage, which is important, because there are things I can help you with should you or someone in your family ever get a similar diagnosis.

And if you're wondering, there is not a single epidemiologist or oncologist in the world who can definitely conclude why an otherwise healthy 29 year-old American male with no risk factors develops an oral cavity cancer.

Anyway, back to the diagnosis -- I also promised myself not to either become the "pity party" guy in the corner OR to become the guy with 10 yellow bracelets on his arms who constantly talks about "Lance" like he's my best friend, or uses the term "survivor" every few minutes in self-reference.

ALL THAT SAID, this does fall under the "significant item" header, and it does offer some learning opportunities for anyone who reads this blog, which I might call roughly synonymous with people interested in concepts for their own sake and the real big picture. I will still blog primarily about little ways in which I see the world here in Lowell and beyond, but will also interject medical and cancer stories in whereas I wouldn't have before.

Here are two thoughts for the moment: (1) Everyone should educate himself/herself to some sort of baseline level to better understand what cancer is, how it affects people, and how the blanket term 'cancer' doesn't mean the same thing for all people who get the dreaded diagnosis. For instance, I had no idea what the five year survival rates were for breast, testicular, and prostate cancer until I started doing my own research. Right off the bat, you should know how different those are from esophygeal, pancreatic, or lung cancers. One, it's just one of those "general education" things that people should sort of *have.* (Like whether the 1st Amendment calls for an explicit "Church and State" separation...that's not a trick question!) Two, it will help you get some proper perspective when someone close to you shares a cancer diagnosis. (2) Everyone should take a brief moment to think about how they might react if they received such a diagnosis, or if someone close to them did. The military calls this some variant of a rock drill and I'm sure that businesses go through similar "what if" exercises. As I said earlier, what might seem *right* should vary based on the inevitable medical questions about staging, metastasis, and tumor location. But here's a huge, huge clue that I think some people who instinctively *get* don't need to be told -- just be empathetic. You might feel shocked, saddened, surprised, or whatever when someone shares a diagnosis with you -- now is not the time to become Confucius, to share your vast medical expertise, or to question the person for deciding to "come out." Now is the time I say three words: I am here.

The means through which you do that -- written words, artwork, music, flowers, humor, or whatever else is entirely between you and the friend or loved one, but the message should be simple enough for even a small child to understand.

8 comments:

kad barma said...

I still remain suspicious of those ubiquitous Dunkin Donuts cups!

You look and sound great for a guy just through everything described here. Looking forward to reading more about it.

C R Krieger said...

I am not keen on reading more about it, except to hear how you are doing better and better!

Welcome back from down South.

And thanks for joining the debate on line as you have been healing.

Regards  —  Cliff

JoeS said...

Good decision to go to MEEI! Best wishes with the recovery.

Renee said...

Wow... As to quote you 'cool' in the sense it is rather amazing what medicine can do, and we all should be grateful for.

Bill said...

Best wishes for a speedy recovery and don't stop blogging!

The New Englander said...

Hey everybody thanks for those kind words! And Cliff, no worries...I won't be blogging about nitty-gritty details of MRI results and such, but I meant to say that I'll try to tackle some of the social/interpersonal issues that arise when situations like this come up...always with a big picture focus -- never "Dear Diary!"

Paul Marion said...

I'm just catching up to this news and am glad that the outlook is promising. Your friends and community colleagues and readers are thinking of you.

MEEI said...

Your Mass. Eye and Ear connection caught my eye. We collaborate with a group that does oral, head & neck cancer screenings. I'd be interested in talking to you further about your experience. I am Mary_Leach@meei.harvard.edu and work in the hospital's public affairs office. I have a couple of ideas about raising awareness of oral cancer.