Thursday, July 12, 2012

31. Marathon (a.k.a. The Latest Cancer Update)

Marathon, a cool graphic novel with amazing artwork
So the chemo portion has ended, and this week I took a trip down to Houston to go to MD Anderson, undergo a CT Scan and visit with the surgeon and see what the chemo results were.

The results were... disappointing. They could have been worse, although honestly not a lot worse. The good news is that the cancer hasn't spread, and some of the lymph nodes appear to have shrunk somewhat. The bad news is the blood marker (CEA) is elevated, not reduced, and the tumor is still very big, and very much encroaching on things I'd like to use, like my "seminal vesicals" (I think that's the term) and my prostate. So if radiation doesn't shrink the damn thing, or even if it does, the surgery is going to be invasive and probably cause some long-term issues.

Specifically, the surgeon talked about bringing in a urologist and a plastic surgeon, because there could be problems related to having to cut in and around what's in that area. I'll leave it up to the imagination what that means, but suffice to say, my quality of life could be significantly changed after the surgery, beyond just the colostomy that I've come to accept as a fait accompli. This is not the news I was hoping for. I was hoping for a Breaking Bad-style miracle 80% tumor shrinkage.

It was a little discouraging, and it wasn't the only part of the trip that was. I accidentally refilled the wrong painkiller meds, so I wound up on lesser painkillers right about the time we were taking a long car trip, and when you're having pain in your butt, the last thing you want is to sit in a car for three hours. So the trip down was fairly unpleasant.

The CT scan took place at the ungodly hour of 6:30 in the morning. Actually, that's when we got there for blood draw, and prep, the actual scan didn't take place until I'd been sitting around (see pain in butt and sitting around, above) until 10 AM. And it involved drinking a *lot* of banana-flavored barium (nasty), an IV (ouch) and rectal barium (ouch again, and gross). End result? Lot of pain, lot of unpleasantness, and having to clear the barium and such out of my system made for a fairly unpleasant rest of Monday.

On Tuesday, we went in to see the surgeon. Originally a sigmoidoscopy (flexible camera tube shoved somewhere uncomfortable) had been scheduled, but it wasn't on the schedule anymore, so I didn't prep for it by avoiding breakfast or doing an enema or anything like that. Come to find out, that was a computer glitch, and so I did have to get it done. More ouch. Although honestly, Dr. Chang is pretty good, and it didn't hurt as much as when my previous surgeon Dr. Jahadi did it. For those counting, I've now had this flexible camera tube thing done three times.

Then we had to stick around for Wednesday, when we saw their oncologist, Dr. Kee. Unfortunately, we didn't really need to, we only saw him for about five minutes, and the plan was already in place to do radiation in Austin, so that whole day felt like a bit of a waste, especially since we had to pay for another night at the hotel in Houston, and we really would have liked to have come back to Austin on Tuesday night, since we were done at MD Anderson by early afternoon.

So all in all, a disappointing, frustrating and uncomfortable visit to Houston. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Suites, which was actually much nicer than our previous hotel, and we ate at a variety of different restaurants, got some good Thai, some good pie (from House of Pies) and spent way too much money on hotel and food.

That's all bad news and grumbling. Here's the good news. We're still on track for the cancer-fighting plan. Starting next Wednesday, I'll be going in for radiation with chemo pills to enhance the radiation. I have no idea what to expect, although I'm expecting it to be harder than the chemo. It's five days a week for 28 days, so it'll probably run until the end of August. In the first week of September, right after the kids start school, there will be another trip down to Houston for an MRI (and knowing my luck, another sigmoidoscopy) to assess and prep for the surgery. The surgery will take place 6-8 weeks after that to give me time to recover from the radiation, so ballpark, probably in mid-October. I'm expecting recovery from the surgery to take a while and be kind of painful and long. I believe the plan is 6-8 weeks of recovery, than 8 cycles of chemo to make sure we get any cancer that's left. So figure that'll start in December and run through March or maybe April. Best case scenario, cancer free by my birthday next year.

Of course, our deductible resets in January, so our medical expenses are going to pile up in the early months of 2013, but we should be able to handle it with help from our families, who have already offered. Honestly, the money is less what I'm worried about right now than what I'm going to look and feel like after the surgery.

But the next part of this marathon is the radiation/chemo. I have no idea what to expect, and while I'm nervous, part of me is ready to at least know what to expect in terms of pain/fatigue and other side effects so I can get used to the new routine. 5 days a week is gonna be harrowing and is really gonna mess with an already messed-up work schedule, but I'm doing what has to be done, and I'm really blessed to have two great managers in Dave Farabee and Nick Budd and two great employees in Roxy and Teala to keep the store running while I feel like mostly a ghost there.

That's the other upside, and there are plenty of them. I've got amazing support from a huge network of friends and family, and they keep my spirits up when I'm tempted to despair a little. My wife has been amazing through all of this, dealing not only with the bills but driving me around, doing a lot more of the work with the kids and letting me nap and lay around when I feel like I should be helping out. And because I've been forcibly removed from working 40 hours, I've had more time to watch TV, read books and comics and do other leisure type activities that I haven't had as much time for in recent years. It's a forced vacation, and one that's actually more expensive than just taking the whole family to Europe or Disney World or whatever, but there are some vacation-like benefits to it on occasion.

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