Friday, May 29, 2009

Catching Up...

So, I'm finally out and done with my surgery.

I'll make a few comments about the days leading up to it, and then update on my current condition. Please bear with me...

The day before the surgery (Tuesday 5/26):
It was a day spent wallowing in the mundane. I started my leave on Tuesday and, after getting the kids on the bus, I did some laundry, cleaned the house, and did some running around. I went and traded in some PSP games in on some UMD movies (I scored Resident Evil, Zack Snyder's awesome Dawn of the Dead remake, and Starship Troopers). I also managed to find a used DVD copy of Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn Special Edition for $4! wOOt!

Like I said, it was spent doing just normal stuff as I prepared for the surgery. I didn't spend much time thinking about the upcoming surgery, only thinking about all of the stuff I WOULDN'T be doing over the next month. I also spent some time cleaning up the yard from the party we had over the weekend. It was a great time and it was a humbling, gratifying outpouring of love on the behalf of my friends and family. I am so grateful for the support I've received as this whole fiasco's ensued, and I think a large part of my attitude can be attributed to the sheer coolness that is my family and friends.

And another thing - and this is to all of my friends who believe in a higher power - please don't let my heathenism and atheist beliefs stand in the way of your prayers and well wishing. All week, I've had people apologize to me for praying for me when they understand that I don't believe in a god. PLEASE STOP APOLOGIZING! It's all right, really! I am grateful for any positive thoughts, energy, and all around good karma it brings. I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and love and appreciate all of your prayers. Although I don't personally have any religious beliefs, I understand the importance of it to others and am overwhelmed that you care enough for me to add me to your church's prayer lists or own personal prayers. Thank you sooooo much.

Anyway, back to the night before, I ended the night with a yogurt and some ramen noodles at 11:30. My metaphoric last meal before midnight and the interminable fast before my surgery. One great bonus thing that happened, our friend and neighbor Joy (a fellow breast cancer survivor) came back from her cabin in Pennsylvania and brought me a case of Yuengling Lager. Mmmmm.... I will most definitely enjoy it when I'm feeling better!

The Day of the Surgery (Wednesday 5/27):
I got up at about 6am and got a shower and a shave. I shaved my head and took great pleasure in NOT shaving my goattee. You see, I worked my last shift at the hospital on Sunday morning and, since I won't have to adhere to some stupid cop rules, I can actually grow some facial hair again. (At least until I have to do some chemo). I know it's stupid and silly, but I love having facial hair and the only regret I have about my side job is that I can't have a freaking beard.

Michelle and I then went downtown and were at the McDonald's Woman's center by about 7:50.

We met Dr. Persons, my surgeon, there and she injected me with the radioactive isotope to track my sentinal nodes.

First, she gave me four injections into my nipple with some anaesthetic (DAMN! WHY DOES IT ALWAYS BURN!) and then, while we were waiting for it to take effect, they called a tech over from nuclear medicine. The second set of injections were easy as I was already numb. It is weird that - my whole life - I've heard that radioactive material causes cancer. And now, here I am, treating my cancer with nuclear material. And I mean serious nuclear material. The tech brough the shots over in a lead case festooned with radiation symbols and he and Dr. Person's handled it with special lead gloves.

I, of course, was my typical 12 year old self and joked that I could feel the radiation activating my super mutant abilities. I made my wife promise to tell Professor X I'd call him back at Graymalkin Lane if he happened to call me while I was under general anaesthetic. She said she'd do no such thing and laughed, telling me that I needed to stop acting like a buffoon.

After that, one of Dr. Person's assistants walked us over to Admitting... and from there to Surgical Prep. That is one thing I need to comment positively on. The whole staff at the woman's center, even considering the fact that I'm a dude, were absolutely incredible. She stayed with us the entire time and was there to answer any questions we might have. The attentiveness and caring of all of the staff was very comforting throughout the entire process. Especially so to my wife who finds solace in asking questions and focusing on details.

From there, I got naked, put on a little tiny robe and gown, and sat down for the interminable wait for my surgery to start. I was scheduled at 10:45, but as is our typical luck, we didn't get into surgery until around 1pm. Once things got going, they went quickly. I had a huge surgical team and they all made a point of coming out and meeting me. There were three anaesthesiologists, two or three surgical residents, and - of course - Dr. Persons.

While we were waiting, my family took turns coming back and visiting me.

The best part of the day, however, was right before I went into surgery. We'd chased all of the family out and were waiting for the doctors to show up. Michelle made me scoot over in my bed and she climbed in with me. As we lay there, snuggling and talking and holding each other, it was like we were in our own personal bubble; free from the scramble and frenzy of the pre-op area around us. It was a few beautiful, perfect moments in an otherwise hectic day.

Then the gas passer came in and gave me a shot of happy juice and it gets all groovy after that.

I remember wheeling into the Operating Room, and scooting over onto the cold table. The anaesthesiologist gave me the general and I remember it burned like fire as it went into my IV... and then there was nothing.

And I should add that I think that's what death must be like. I don't believe there's any bright light, or angels, or music... there's only darkness. For the 4+ hours I was in surgery, I was truly like Shroedinger's cat. there's awareness, and then darkness. And that's kind of scary... but I digress.

I woke up in recovery several hours later, groggy and sore.

Really sore.

Really, really, really sore.

And you'll have to excuse me as I stop here. I'm due for some more pain meds and I need to pace myself. I promise I'll write more later.

I do want to let you know that, although the surgery took two hours longer than predicted, things look really good. I had both of my moobs removed, the doctor said they got all of the tumor, and that it hadn't extended beyond my breast tissue into my pectoral muscles. Also, the sentinal nodes showed no signs of metastasis. It took about 90 - 100 stitches to close me back up, and I have two little jug- like jars pinned to my shirt. These jugs are connected to my chest by tubes that feed into my chest wall in order to prevent fluid buildup.

It really hurts, for obvious reasons.

The tumor, my nodes, and all the other removed tissue has been sent to pathology and I should know more within a week.

Now, my life consists of pain, some Percoset, sleep because the Percoset kick my ass, and then more pain.

And, on that note, time for more Percoset

Friday, May 22, 2009

No! It's Not THAT one!

So - it's down to a waiting game at this point. I'm going into surgery on Tuesday, I've wrapped up work, I'm officially on Short Term leave, and I'm looking forward to the Memorial Day weekend. We're having what started out as a small get together at the house on Sunday, but has now blown up and grown into an open house that everybody's coming to.

That's cool. I'll most likely be getting drunk anyway, so whatever.

And I haven't done that yet. And by that I mean getting myself skonched. One would think that I would have at least gone out and tied even a small one on... but not so. I did go out with my brothers; Curt, Phil, and Rich, last week to our favorite Irish pub, Mick's. (Mick's, by the way, is closing -- problems with the boys who owned it not paying the taxes and bills to the tune of some several hundred thousand dollars. It's sad really. Fortunately, we've got Mullarkey's in Downtown Willoughby and, truthfully, it's a much shorter stagger home for me).

So, anyway, we had a few pints, but that's really been it. This weekend, on the other hand, may be a different story. But you didn't come here to here me wax rhapsodic over the wondrous elixir and frothy, cold, adult beverage that is Guinness.

I'm writing this update to clear something up. You see, several people have asked me about it, and I feel it necessary to clarify... no, my cancer is NOT in the moob that I had pierced.

That's right folks, I did have a pierced nipple at one time. Hard to believe, I know.

Let me tell you the sordid tale...

So, some years back, when I was single and enjoying all that being single was about, I decided to - on a whim - pierce my nipple. The girl I was seeing at the time said that it was like "paving a four lane highway of feeling to your genitals".

Not one to argue with such a well put together - albeit crude - simile; I was convinced that it would be a good idea to, in fact, jam a surgical needle through my left nipple and follow that jamming with a horseshoe shaped piece of body jewelry. This would have been about 1995.

I'm often asked, did it hurt? I guess it's the same question people with tattoos get asked about all the time... and I'll answer that with a simple, "Fuck yeah it hurt! How do you THINK it felt!"

Actually, the piercing itself at the tattoo shop wasn't that bad. Much like returning to the gym after a few months off, or after a car accident... you're not sore when it's happening. It's the days afterwards when the aching pain settles in. I took to cutting a tennis ball in half and taping it over my nipple and piercing because the simple act of rolling over in the middle of night was painful enough to wake me from a dead sleep.

But, as in all things, the pain went away and I healed.

I have to say I liked having a pierced nipple. There was something so cool and subversive in sitting in business meetings and knowing that, under my polo shirt, I had a piercing that would have shocked and horrified many of the conservative and buttoned-up people I worked with. When I was still single, I also took great pleasure in going to concerts and clubs and dancing shirtless. (Ahhh... how I still long for those lost days when I had abs and significantly less body fat). And, best of all, remember that girl who'd made mention of the sensitivity of a pierced nipple? Yeah, she totally had it right.

Then I met Mrs. Zombie. From the beginning she hated it. I still remember the look she gave me the first time I took my short off. She raised an eyebrow and said, "WHAT is THAT?"

So, obviously, she wasn't a fan.

But she liked me, and so tolerated it. I like to think she had actually started to accept it. So you could say that life was good for me and my pierced nipple.

And then tragedy struck...

Michelle and I'd been married for a year or so and it was summer. She was in the house with our oldest, who was still a baby, and she asked me to water the garden for her. I happily obliged.

So I headed out the back door with our English Bulldog, Clay, and went to where we had a small vegetable garden set up. I should preface this by telling you that we've always had a considerable amount of rabbits in the neighborhood and, to thwart the ravenous Lepus, I had erected a two and a half foot anti-rabbit wire mesh fence around the garden.

So, I took the sprinkler and placed it in the center of the garden. After turning it on, I realized that it was not getting all of the tomato plants. So I returned to the garden, reached over the fence, and readjusted the sprinkler. I jumped back to avoid getting wet and, as I stood up, I felt a pull on my nipple ring.

I thought nothing of it, as it was always catching on things, and turned to our bulldog, "C'mon, boy. Time to go in!"

As I turned, I noticed a flash of silver on the ground. On closer inspection, I saw it was my nipple ring. My first thought was that I must have lost the ball off of the end of it and it had fallen out.

But then I looked at the front of my white t-shirt.

Spreading like spilled wine on a white tablecloth, I saw blood spreading from my nipple and soaking the stomach of my shirt.

So... long story short, I wound up at the hospital with my angry wife who did not find it anywhere near as funny as I did that everyone had to keep saying nipple. The ring had torn and severely traumatized my poor nipple. If you were to look at, say, a gum drop -- and imagine that someone had taken a knife and cut a cross into the top of it -- you'd have an idea of what it looked like. A ragged, bleeding, unevenly cut cross that bisected my nipple into four uneven bits.

As I said, I was, actually having fun with the whole situation. That's my personality really... it comes from years of being the butt of some sort of unlucky cosmic joke (look at the Cancer thing... need I say more?!?) Much to the disgust of Michelle, I was joking about the situation. For instance, I found it hilarious when, while waiting for the doctor, I had a high school student volunteer poke her head in the room and ask if I needed anything. I flashed her my mangled nipple and she bolted from the room, her face suddenly green and a hand held up to her mouth to suppress the nausea she suddenly felt.

It was all fun and games until the doctor came in. I can think of few things worse than the sharp burning pain of the needle and lidocain doctors inject you with before any procedure. It's like fire until the nerves go suddenly and blissfully numb.

Now understand, I have a very high threshold for pain (I mean, I had my frakking nipple pierced!). And, knowing that I have an unusually high tolerance for pain and discomfort, imagine how horrible that pain is when they're doing it TO YOUR NIPPLE! I am not at all ashamed to admit that I almost lost consciousness. Getting my nipple pierced and subsequently having it torn out was nothing - NOTHING - compared to having it jabbed with that insidious little needle before they put two stitches in.

So... after that ordeal, my nipple healed fine. It was slightly larger than my right nipple, and that was a result of the piercing itself (piercing nipples causes the nipple to enlarge). Truthfully, that never really concerned me.

And - as I've said - it was my left nipple. The cancer's in my right side. So... the piercing had nothing to do with it.

Although I do feel sorry for my poor abused nipple. After Wednesday of next week, he and his smaller brother will be gone. That'll be odd, ya know?

By the way, it's still funny to say, and write, "Nipple". : )

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

So Much to Do...

I'm going a little crazy trying to finish up everything I have to do at work before I go on leave next week.

This whole cancer thing came up so fast. It's hard to believe it's been only two weeks since I was diagnosed, and only five or six days ago that I was told when my surgery would be. It's even harder to believe that I've got, seriously, like three days to wrap up everything I need to do before I'm off for a whole month.

I have a few projects on my desk and I, truthfully, am a little anxious about leaving them. I'm in the process of putting together a list of them to give to my boss for while I'm out... but I'm also fighting my own control freak tendencies.

It's not like others can't do the job, or that they can't do them as well as me... it's more that I don't WANT anyone else doing them. There's one specific project that I was recently given that involves putting together a press and multimedia package for upper management. It's for an internal Brand campaign. I was soooo excited to have landed the project...but now, however, I need to put together the project plan and just hand it off.

It doesn't sit well with me.

I was in the shower this morning, thinking as I often do. I actually do my best thinking when I'm in the shower, or driving into work. Seriously. Anyway... I was considering the fact that I will not be working for a whole month and it seemed weird. Just this week, I reached my 15 year anniversary at work. 15 years I've been here... this little job that was supposed to hold me over until I decided what I wanted to be "when I grew up". Now, here I am, 15 years later with a career.

And, with only a few exceptions of the very occasional vacation week here or there... I've been working five days a week for the last fifteen years. I have, on average, worked 49-50 weeks a year for the last 15 years. To have a month break seems somehow monumental.

Little thoughts like that, the endless parsing of details and minutia, help me not think about the pain and uncomfortableness of the coming weeks and my need to be strong for my family.

I also find myself having more and more surreal moments that I know are part of my own acceptance of my health situation. Yesterday, for example; I went down to ground floor of my office to go to the on-site convenient store. Imagine if you will, a long open floor plan, much like the concourse of an airport. It's nicer though. There's wood trim and dark, comforting carpeting. On the walls is an odd mix of modern art. Some of it is beautiful, some of it's odd, and some of it is even mildly disturbing; but isn't that really the way art should be?

But I digress...

I walked off the elevator around noon and the halls were filled with people on their way to or from lunch, or to meetings in other buildings. They were all talking, or laughing, or walking silently with only the buzzing drone of worker bee thoughts in their worker bee heads.

I stopped near a sculpture that can only be described as a midget Cthulhu businessman... and had an overwhelming urge to yell, "I HAVE CANCER."

I don't know why. The need to announce it just snuck up and struck me repeatedly over the head. I actually placed a hand over my mouth and took several deep breaths until it passed.

The nearest thing I can compare it to is that almost uncontrollable urge some people get to just step off the edge and jump when they're on a balcony or a high place. There's no reason for the mad thoughts, but they're there... whispering and urging you to take a suicidal swan dive. A few years ago, I read that a small percentage of people felt this urge and manage to suppress it, but it is a weird little evolutionary glitch, don't you agree? And, for the record, I'm one of those people. The article helped me in showing that I wasn't alone, that I wasn't the only person who had to physically restrain myself when a several story drop was a mere step away from the tip of my black, Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers - that I had to restrain myself from jumping out and experiencing the brief, yet exquisite, exhilaration of a few, short seconds of free fall.

The urge to shout about my cancer, like the irresistible pull of launching myself skyward like poor, cloud-chasing Icarus, soon passed... but it lingers still.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Laughter's the Best Medicine

So, I've been joking all week about naming my little malignancy... and I can think of no better name for him than Quatto...

For those who don't know, Quatto was a character/mutant from the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Total Recall. Great movie, by the way! Anyway, Quatto was the leader of a rebellion and was quasi-psychic. What makes him totally appropriate is that he was basically a tumor that grew out of the chest/stomach of another character.

And, I wanted to share some of the awesome things that my friend Stephen's been working on. His lovely wife, Michelle, was the first of my friends to respond when I announced that I had cancer. And, I hold her (and my own lovely Michelle!) largely responsible for helping me establish my outlook about the next month or so. She summed up my feelings, attitude, and way of looking at my situation. Her first words to me?

"Fuck cancer!"

Stephen went one step farther and designed the following sample graphics for various t-shirts. And I fully intend on purchasing several of each when he gets them finalized.

I need to add that it's the love, support, and scathing irreverency of my friends that will get me through this... and I am sooooo grateful to them for it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Update: It's a tumor!

So I received the biopsy results last Thursday. The doctor confirmed that it was cancer.

I'm still doing fine mentally and emotionally... but I will admit that some small part of me was hoping it was a piece of errant bubblegum or something. (Isn't that what they used to say when we were kids... "Don't swallow your gum! It'll take seven years to digest!!!" I was kind of pushing for the highly improbable possibility that a piece from the late 90's had somehow migrated from my intestine to my flabby man-tit. A guy can hope, right?)

So Michelle and I went to the surgical oncologist's office on Friday and spent a couple hours discussing next steps.

Per the doctor, I have non-invasive ductal in situ carcinoma. At least that's what the doctor thinks. They won't know eactly what's going on until I get into surgery and they can look at it. But the doctor is confident that I've caught this early enough that it's totally curable.

Which is great.

So, what's next?

Well, on May 27th, I'm going in for a double mastectomy. The doctor and I decided that we'd take care of both my moobs at once as it's so rare that someone as young as me has male breast cancer. My doctor's of the opinion that it's better safe than sorry. And, if I have a double, I may not need to do chemo because we'll remove all the tissue that has cancer, or may have the potential to get cancer.

As for my lymph nodes, the doctor reiterated that they look good, but she'll still pull a few of them. This whole process sounds like a ball of suck, but it's better this way and will reduce complications later on.

Here's the deal... back in the day, they used to do the mastectomy and take 30 - 40 lymph nodes on the affected side. The problem with that is that it caused a condition called lymphedema, which was a painful swelling of the arm because the lymph nodes that used to pump fluid and toxins out of the arm were gone. Now, they take what are called sentinal nodes, and usually only have to take a half dozen at most. This reduces, but doesn't eliminate, the risk of lymphedema

What they do is, before my surgery, the doctor injects me with a radioactive serum called technetium-99c. It's the same nuclear medicine they usen to detect bone cancer with. They will take the serum and inject it into my nipple and aeroeola prior to the surgery. When they get me on the table, the doctor will use a small Geiger counter-like wand to trace the serum's path and use it to find the lymph nodes that drain my chest. She'll remove a handful of them, and immediately send them to pathology while I'm still in surgery. They'll dissect the lymph nodes, scan them for cancer, and then let my surgeon know whether they're clean or not. (I have visions of some messenger running back and forth from the OR to Pathology and back to the OR like a WWI courier carrying top-secret documents in a diplomatic pouch).

If they sentinal nodes look good and cancer-free, she'll be done with the lymph nodes. If there's cancer present, she'll start digging out lymph nodes like she's digging for gold.

I'll spend the night in the hospital, and then end up back home for three weeks or so of healing. There will be drains in my chest, by the way. Yuck.

So... what are possible complications?

Oh, there's a whole bunch!

For instance, there are nerves in the same area as my lymph nodes. There's a rare possibility they may get cut and that I may have decreased mobility in my right arm. I may also lose feeling in my upper arm. And - this is the part that really chaps my ass - I'll need to watch for lymphedema for the rest of my life. Which means I can't give blood or get shots in my right arm. I can't expose that arm to the sun because a mild sunburn can cause lymphedema. AND IT MEANS NO TATTOOS.

Jesus-Titty-Fucking-Christ! I wanted to get a half sleeve tattoo. I was within a few weeks of getting one, in fact, before all of this shit started. Mrs. Zombie and I argued some over the weekend because I was of the mind that I should go get one - RIGHT NOW! - before the surgery. She nixed that because we should be spending our money on other things... but dammit!

Fucking cancer.

Anyway... I'm happy because we have a plan of action, and some of the veil been lifted on what our next steps are. I'm feverishly trying to get things squared away because I won't be able to work or do any strenous lifting for three weeks or so. Yesterday, I spent the day doing stuff around the house that I'd planned on procrastinating about for at least MOST of the summer.

I pulled down the kids old swing set and took the Sawz-All to it (Dear, dark Pagan Gods... thank you for bestowing upon us the total kickassedness that is the craftsman Sawz-All reciprocating saw. It is the greatest tool EVER!). I then rototilled our new garden (Sorry, kids! You're too big for the swing set and so that area is now a garden. Ooops!) and put up rabbit-fencing. I wired a new floodlight on the back of the house in an effort to give me a better view of the back yard at night and somehow prevent the yearly dousing of my idiot dogs because they STILL HAVE NOT FIGURED OUT THAT CATS DON'T HAVE WHITE STRIPES.

Finally, I spend a couple hours building a rain barrel on the side of the house. We're trying to teach the kids to be more environmentally conscious and Zombie Boy helped me build it and attach it to the downspout. He's excited for the first rain to see how much water we get and Wolf Girl can't wait to use the recycled rainwater to water the garden... although it's now where she used to spend EVERY DAY playing on her old... ... swingset. (Punctuate that with a typical nine year old's dramatic sighs and over-acted shows of 'being strong' and you can get a picture of what dinner was like last night).

Anyway... I'll try to update as info comes available.

Thanks again to all who've expressed sympathy and offered to help. I really do appreciate the incredible outpouring and it was wholly unexpected. Everyone's been so wonderful.

Friday, May 15, 2009

You're Gonna Jam a Big Needle Where?!?

Note: My apologies, I wrote this a couple days ago and haven't updated as well as I should. I found out last night about the biopsy results, and it confirmed that I definitely have cancer. I'm posting this as I'm on my way out the door to go see my doctor... I'll update more later.)

The internet is a wonderful thing -- but a scary thing as well. It is possible to have too much information. I’m finding this painfully true as I research more and more about what’s going on, what the next steps should be, and what lies ahead.

Things like “5 year mortality rates”

Apparently, my five year mortality rate (or chance that this is going to kill me) is high. Really, disturbingly, unbelievably high. But further research shows that it the mortality rate is based on one of the facts that I shared a few days ago. The fact that men - because we’re idiots and more prone to ignore our bodies and wait until the last, terminal moment to go to the doctor - tend to have a higher mortality rate than women with breast cancer.

Everything I'm hearing from the oncologist and the radiologists is that I caught this quickly.

So, I’ve been immersed in the internet and trying to get a handle on what I’m facing here.

According to my oncologist, until we determine what my biopsy finds out, it’s too soon to discuss treatment. She did say, however, that a radical mastectomy is almost a certainty. It’s the after treatment that is dependent on the type, level of invasiveness, and potential for metastasis that the cancer has.

The choices I have after a mastectomy are chemo or radiation treatment. I’m a dude, so I don’t have to worry so much about hormone therapy… which is a result of chemo in women with breast cancer. Apparently it kills estrogen. That actually sounds like a plus to me… if there’s such a thing as a cancer “plus”.

And a mastectomy doesn’t matter to me. It’ll be some scarring and will look evil when I take my shirt off… but I’m not a woman and my sexual identity isn’t tied up in my boobs. It'll actually look downright Frankensteinian. It’s silly, but I’m actually concerned about the asymmetrical result of the surgery. I want to talk to my oncologist about doing a double mastectomy if only to even things out. It’s an affront to my mild OCD that I’ll be uneven… especially as I have always hated my moobs. Of course, I have a valid medical reason to have cosmetic liposuction now. If I can’t do a prophylactic mastectomy, I’ll definitely be eligible to have lipo on the other side to even things out. (Bonus points in that I’ve already reached my health insurance deductible and co-pay limits. wOOt!)

So I went on Friday of last week and had a biopsy done at the McDonald’s Women’s health center at Cleveland’s University Hospital. (The whole women’s health, and stupid pink ribbons thing, are never going to get old. Grrr….)

So I went into a small room where a doctor and two radiology techs did an ultrasound of the mass in my chest. They also checked my lymph nodes. There was good news there, they all looked fine. The lymph nodes, by the way, are where the cancer will spread to and they’ll carry it to the rest of my body. The lymph nodes are the subway to metastasis. So… no cancer in my lymph nodes means I may have caught this early enough to beat it.

So they took a large needle, injected it into the side of my right breast, and pulled out a chunk of the mass. It only hurt a little, and was fairly quick (less than five minutes when they got to it). The actual procedure is called an ultra-sound guided core needle biopsy. They found the mass with an ultrasound machine, made an incision, stuck the needle in, and pulled out several samples.

They then left a little stainless steel clip, about the size of a half a piece of rice, in the tumor where they took the sample from. They do this so that the oncologist who does my later surgery knows where the sample came from, and also to help determine if the mass is still growing.

I then got to do another stupid, fucking mammogram.

The admission that I’ve got this kind of cancer, and that I have to do mammograms, is killing me by the way. There’s no reason for me to feel like this, but my y-chromosome rebels at the thought that I’ve got to do these kinds of tests. And admitting it and being honest about it is taking every ounce of self-respect I may have. I hope you fuckers understand that!

So, now, it’s a waiting game. They said it will take 3-6 days to get the biopsy results back. The doctor said that University Hospital’s pathology lab is open all weekend, so I’m hoping to know by the middle of this week.

After that, things will move quickly. Whether it’s malignant or benign, the oncologist wants it out. So I either have a mastectomy or a lumpectomy sometime in the next few weeks or so.

In the meantime, the site of the biopsy is so bruised it looks black and I’m now leaking blood out of my nipple. I can’t wait for this shit to be over.

I hate waiting.

(My right breast... two days after the Core Needle Biopsy)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Feelings...whoa whoa whoa...Feelings...

I’m having trouble articulating how I feel about my diagnosis. Funny really, since my life revolves around using words to convey messages and imagery.

But, as I said before, it is what it is.

I feel numb and indifferent. I don’t feel any different than I did before the doctor said, “You have cancer.”

There’s a surreal quality to being able to label myself as having cancer. It’s incomprehensible, and unreal.

I’m seriously not worried about the disease. I’m more worried about not being able to work. Progressive is great in that they’ll give me short term leave, long term leave, and FMLA… and I’ll not lose one dime. My security job, however, will probably have to go. And that money’s sorely needed at Dr. Zombie’s castle.

More important than that, though, is that I don’t feel angry. What do I have to be angry about? It’s nobody’s fault. I don’t believe in God, so I can’t be pissed off at him.

I guess I’m most affected by the fact that I now see my own mortality.

I’ve always thought of myself as immortal. I’ve always seen my life in terms of the things I plan to do. Now though, I find myself not looking forward like I once did. In the course of a couple of days, I’ve stopped thinking about things I want to do. I’m suddenly trapped in the swirling, curling chaos of the present. My sense of time is restricted to the upcoming few weeks and everything beyond that is now an impenetrable darkness stretched out like a dangerous storm cloud before me.

I think my attitude’s good. I find myself laughing about it, and making cancer jokes. I joke about being worried I’ll lose my hair (I have a shaved head). I’ll be the first to say that my fat ass and waistline could use the slimming efficacy of a few rounds of chemo. And things aren’t that bad. Even ten years ago, breast cancer would have been a death sentence. Not so now. Cancer IS curable. And I intend to be around for a very long time, but now there’s that feral whispering of doubt and mortality in the dark corners of my subconscious.

I AM angry because I suddenly feel that I need to do some of those things I said I’d get to later in life. And I find myself intentionally turning the wheel and skidding my imagination away from the affect my mortality will have on my kids. We’ve told them that Daddy needs to have an operation - but the idea of not being there for them when they first have their heart broken in high school, not seeing them off to college, not being able to see either of them get married, or not being able to kiss the fat bellies of their own babies is almost more than I can bear.

So I just don’t think about it.

And I find that I need to be strong for all of the women in my life. My wife has a good attitude. She went through her crying fits at the beginning, but she’s come around to my way of thinking that this is something to be beaten back and bullied into submission. My mother is a basket-case, my sister is quiet, and my boss and good friend Laura vacillates between crying and calling me a stupid boy.

And I feel the need to joke about things, to be strong. I realized today that I don’t feel the selfish need to say, “What about me!?!” It never occurred to me that I should worry less about them than myself, but I do.

I don’t think that’s going to change… but let me get back to you on the whole selfish thing after I go through my first round of chemo.

And then there’s the whole notification thing. I have to tell so many people… and fight my urge to just send out a blanket email.

"To whom it may concern,

I got the cancer!!!1eleven!!

Sucks, huh? Anybody want to meet
up for a Guinness?


Doctor Z.”

Is that inappropriate? There’s so many people who need to know, but in just the last week I’ve had to tell family and that’s almost unbearable. So… for those of you who are finding out this way, I’m sorry I couldn’t contact you personally, but it’s just so hard. And, things are happening quickly. So quickly that I feel that I have little control, so please forgive me the coldness and impersonal nature of this… I’m going to have to pull the cancer card on this one. Oh, and get this! A couple of weeks ago, I was in the Half Price Bookstore and picked up a copy of Lance Armstrong’s book, It’s Not about the Bike. Funny, huh? It’s about his fight with the ball cancer. Whether it was a subconscious thought or not, I find it weird that I’m drawing some small comfort from it. Is it gauche to take that with me to read when I go to get my biopsy?

But, I digress - back to what I was talking about with the future. There’re certain things I’ve always wanted to do, but always put them off. And I think Mrs. Zombie senses that I’m feeling like I need to speed up my timeframe on them.

At first she was worried about my leaving her when I get over this. She says it’s happened before, and knows couples it’s happened to. The husband realizes that he could be banging 20 year old strippers and leaves the wife to go on a filthy whore trampapalooza.

I assured her that wasn’t going to happen. Lance Armstrong did that to his wife. She was there with him through the ball cancer and, once he was cured, he left her and started humping Sheryl Crow. I respect Lance, and think he’s quite possibly the greatest athlete of the 20th century, short of Muhammad Ali or Wayne Gretzky. But, no matter how you slice it, having the wife stand faithfully by while you fight cancer and then promptly leaving her afterwards is a douchebag move.

And I love Mrs Z. too much for that; even if Sheryl Crow decided to show up at the door wearing nothing but a guitar.

I do know that she suspects that I will become more adventurous, and I can’t deny that it’s a possibility. It’s been a constant struggle in our marriage to find common ground on these sort of things. She loves hotels; I love backwoods camping. She loves vacations with beaches; I’d love to spend a month in Alaska. She likes room service and nice restaurants; and I think food tastes best cooked over a campfire or a backpacker stove under a starlit sky with coyotes howling in the distance.

I’ve put off much of my outdoorsy, adventurous nature. And I don’t regret it. We have had to work, raise our children, and live day to day. There’s not much room in our lives to take a couple weeks and go hike in the Rockies. Again, I have no regrets.

Now though… now that I’ve realize that life can be short and fleeting …I know that I can’t put some of those things off any longer. And Mrs. Z is recognizing that. She may not approve, and it may not please her… but instead of camping under the Aurora Borealis, I could be chasing cocktail waitresses, right?

So… my list of things I need to do sooner than later. (And I’m putting these on here purely as an incentive and motivator to get through this as soon as possible.)

MY Bucket List (And I absolutely LOATHE calling it that, BTW….)

  • Finish my degree and get into a Master’s program for English Lit.
  • Drive the Dalton Highway above the Arctic Circle and dip my foot in the Arctic Ocean. – I long to see icebergs floating in cold seas, the frozen northern tundra, and polar bears.
  • Go to Ireland – Drink much Guinness.
  • Hike Isle Royale National Park and possibly see some wolves.
  • Climb a 14,000+ peak in the Continental US
  • Get another novel published.

On a final note – I think 75% of getting past things like cancer is a positive attitude. And I plan to keep joking and being positive all the way through… or at least as positive as I can be. I do have this carefully cultivated image of being dark and brooding to maintain….

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's Been a Bad Week

Note: This was written on Thursday, May 7th. For obvious reasons, I held off on posting this in order to notify family.

It was just three little words. The three words you never want to hear. I heard them as I found myself sitting in a surgical oncologist’s office two days ago, the lights dimmed so she could better show me the MRI scans, the ultrasounds, and the mammograms.

You’d think that I would have reacted differently then I did.

“You have cancer.”

Three little words.

“You have cancer.”

Instead of getting angry, or crying, or denying the obvious - I simply nodded and asked the doctor what the next steps were.

And it’s been like that ever since. That same numbness, that same measured acceptance; it’s not so much apathy as it’s acceptance of an unpalatable inevitability.

I often joke with my wife that I’m not a lucky person. I can count on one hand the times I’ve won something. And yet, I somehow managed to pull the cancer lottery and get one of the rarest forms of cancer for men. I’ll get to that in a minute… and that last statement will be abundantly clear as you read on.

You see, back in November or December of last year, I started to notice occasional wet spots on my shirts. For a week or so, I didn’t think anything about it. Then I noticed that it was always the same spot. Imagine my confusion when I realized that my right nipple was leaking a clear serum-like fluid.

“Hmmm… That’s odd,” I thought.

So, as I'm a typical Gen-X'er, I turned to the internet to figure out why in the hell an otherwise healthy, albeit slightly overweight, 38 year old male would have clear shit coming out of his nipple. I saw some bodybuilding websites that talked about increased estrogen levels and changing up supplements. I disregarded those because I’ve, for the last two years, been taking a doctor prescribed testosterone supplement to deal with lowered boy juice levels (it’s the result of a wonky liver). Besides, who listens to the meathead jocks anyway? They’re the ones who think it’s cool to pump anabolic steroids and shrink your nuts.

So my web crawling continued. I landed at Web MD, where I found some information that was a little more helpful. Disturbing phrases kept popping up, though. Thinks like; “unilateral discharge” and “cancer” and “ductal carcinoma”.

I decided to see my doctor. That was in March. I had increased my dosage on my testosterone and noticed a decrease in the nipple discharge. Sometimes I’d go days with no leaking. Then one day, on a whim, I gave the old moob a squeeze, and it shot a stream of liquid across the bathroom. Time to see a doctor, I said to myself.

My doctor looked at it and recommended further testing. And here’s where the indignity kicked in. Believe me when I say that there is nothing more emasculating then being a man and having to go get a mastectomy. The waiting room, the exam room, even the consultation room are all festooned in the ubiquitous pink imagery and ribbons of the woman’s breast cancer movement. And there is nothing so embarrassing and cringe inducing than being a five foot ten inch, 240 pound, shaved head man with a bad attitude who has to sit in the waiting room - all while explaining to the young, vacuous, and gum snapping female receptionist, “No, it’s not a mistake. I’m supposed to be here for a mammogram. And thanks for letting everybody in the waiting room know.”

The indignity continued.

The mammogram was inconclusive - and so they immediately walked me over, shirtless and wearing a paper gown made for a petite woman – to get an ultrasound. The thing was - it wasn’t inconclusive. The radiologist was unsure of a spider-web like mass on the right side of my chest. I saw it on the screen and I remember sitting there, getting that weird feeling that things were bad.

So I had an ultrasound. Afterwards, I was allowed to get dressed, and I waited expectantly in the ultrasound room for the radiologist to review the new test. After ten minutes, the technician who’d done the ultra sound (wearing nursing scrubs with more of those Pepto-Bismol pink ribbons on it) came back and told me it was fine. I just had some dilated ducts due to excess fat and it was nothing to worry about it.

I breathed a sigh of relief and went home, happy and confident it was nothing. I was losing weight because of a diet and exercise regime I’d worked out with my regular doctor, so I figured that – once I lost some more weight – the problem would clear up on its own.

My doctor called two days later. He said the radiologist had recommended a follow up MRI. I was confused and told my doctor so.

“They told me it was fine,” I said.

My doctor assured me it most likely was, but that they were just being thorough. “If it were me,” he said, “I’d do it… although I’m sure you have nothing to worry about.”

So I went for the MRI.

At this point, my wife was getting worried and went with me. I reassured her that they’d said it was all right. I told her that it was just to be safe. I promised her it was nothing.

The day after the MRI, my doctor called back and said I needed to get a biopsy. The mass was still hard to define and they weren’t sure, and the best bet was to get a chunk of it. He was still optimistic, but I was starting to get worried.

So, two days ago, I went to a pre-op appointment with the surgeon. As I walk through her door, I see that she’s actually a surgical oncologist.

And that’s how I found myself sitting in her office, listening to her matter-of-factly tell me that it’s a malignancy and that she’s 95% sure it’s cancer.

“You have male breast cancer,” she said.

All I could focus on was the stupid pink ribbon on her wall.

Let me give you some facts:

-- First, men DO get breast cancer
-- Male breast cancer accounts for less than 1% of all breast cancer cases.
-- That equates to about 400 cases in the US per year, and about 1200-1500 worldwide.
-- The mortality rate is higher for men than women… but that’s mostly attributed to the fact that men ignore symptoms or because of the stigma attached to what’s commonly believed to be a woman’s disease (See: My articulation of shame at having endured a mammogram).
-- It mostly occurs in men over 60 years of age, but factors like a bad liver can cause it to occur earlier.

Remember I said I hit the lottery? Yep! I’m lucky in cancer! There’s nothing quite like scoring a super rare form of the Big C, for men at least. Yeah, me! I’d not recommend you stand near me during a lightning storm. My luck for personal catastrophe seems especially significant.

I’m sure I’m paying some sort of karmic debt here. It was most likely my joking about my man Patrick Swayze’s pancreatic cancer. Either way… it is what it is. So – this will probably be the last post about this that I put on the Midnight Theater of Terror. I have a couple other blogs that I’ve set up for various jackassery, so I think I’ll cannibalize one of them and user that to update my regular readers about what’s going on with this crazy journey I’m about to start.

I’m doing that because Doctor Zombie’s Midnight Theater of Terror is my creative outlet for fart jokes, movie reviews, fiction, poetry and other various nefarious shenanigans. Cancer - unless you’re wishing it on, say, Ann Coulter - is generally not funny. So I’m partitioning things. I think I’ll need to write my way through this, writing is a therapy for me. But, on the same hand, I don’t want to bore you or depress you here. Hope you don’t mind, dear reader. If you’re interested, feel free to follow along over on the Zombie-A-Go-Go blog.