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Cancer Doesn't Wait for You to Be Ready

A Personal Perspective: The second lesson on my cancer journey.

This post is part two of a series about my experience with cancer. You can read Part 1 here.

The second lesson on my journey came quickly: Cancer doesn’t wait for you to be ready. This might seem obvious, but one of my initial reactions to my prognosis was that my cancer journey came at a most inconvenient time. I had just started a new job and didn’t want my work to be disrupted. I really didn’t have time to be sick. I would quickly learn that cancer works on its own schedule.

Prior to my appointment with an ENT (ear, nose, and throat, aka otolaryngologist) specialist, I had been told by the technician, who stuck the needle deep into my neck to draw fluid, that the lump on my neck could be cancer. When I went in to see Dr. Swanson, I was tense, bracing myself for bad news. I tried to appear unafraid even as I also held on to the hope that the lump was benign; after all, I hadn’t been in any pain.

When the doctor entered the room, I sat up straight on the stool, ready to face the verdict. Dr. Swanson dispassionately conveyed his prognosis: “Yes, it’s cancer.” I sighed heavily with a profound sense of resignation. Younger than me, but confident and highly competent, he detailed his diagnosis in a technocratic monotone. “Squamous cell carcinoma, manifest in the lymph nodes of the neck and the back of the tongue. It’s an HPV cancer, commonly found in men.” As his words set in, he added quickly, “Fortunately, your cancer is very treatable. “

He didn’t seem to care if his words were reassuring. He was a medical specialist, trained in treating conditions like mine. I feigned stoic toughness, but his words caused my head to spin and my knees to shake. I thought to myself: “I have an HPV cancer—human papillomavirus; a sexually transmitted disease.” I immediately started thinking about who I might have contracted it from.

Dr. Swanson interrupted my pondering. “It has probably been dormant inside of you for many years,” he shared, “and it doesn’t really matter how you got it. The important thing is to get it treated.”

Ironically, I learned about this form of cancer after meeting the actor Michael Douglas. I saw him at an event in New York City and was struck by how skinny he was at the time. I asked him, “What happened, Michael?” as if we were old friends. He replied in a raspy voice, “Cancer, but I’m recovering.” I wished him luck and walked off, only to find out later that, like thousands of other men, he had HPV cancer. I was now part of a fraternity I hadn’t ever wanted to join.

I still can’t remember much of what the doctor said during my first visit as he explained the course of treatment he would prescribe. The fact that I had “cancer” was still sinking in. I needed to process what it meant for me. Instead of focusing on who might have caused it or why it was manifest now, I immediately started thinking about how my illness would make it difficult for me to perform the duties of my new job.

Again, my musings were interrupted by the young doctor. He was in a hurry. He didn’t give me any time to take in the news or even to ask questions. Instead, with technical precision, he proceeded to send his scope, a tiny camera attached to a long tube, up my nose and down my throat, causing me to gag. Without an ounce of emotion, he announced yet again, “Yes, it’s definitely cancer, and we need to act quickly.”

The Journey Begins

After he withdrew the scope, I began to absorb the news he had shared. He didn’t seem to notice or care that his words had hit me like a punch to the gut, or that tears had welled up in my eyes. “You will need surgery to have the cancer cells removed, followed by radiation and chemotherapy. I suggest that we schedule surgery immediately.”

His words and the plan he laid out were unnerving but I sat there, numb. In three weeks, I would have surgery on my neck, followed by seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. He didn’t care if his plan for my treatment weren’t in my plans, or that I had just started a new job. I also had a family: five kids, five grandkids, a wife/partner, an aging mother, five siblings, dozens of nieces and nephews, and many dear friends, all of whom relied on me to varying degrees. Would I share the news with them, or would I keep my cancer and the news that I was embarking on an unexpected cancer journey to myself?

I had surgery on March 9, 2021. We were still in the middle of the pandemic so the hospital limited the number of visitors. My wife drove with me to the hospital and sat with me in the lobby as I waited to be summoned to the operating room. She was nervous but tried her best to comfort me. I pretended to be fine, ready to accept my fate. This wasn’t going to be my first surgery. I had double hip replacement surgery in 2015, so I knew I could get through this part. I just wanted it all to be over.

I went spent one night in the hospital and went home the following day with a tube in my neck collecting the fluid that was still being drained. It looked weird and disgusting but I didn’t care. I thought at least the worst was over. Little did I know, the journey had just begun.

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