Five years ago I was in the middle of living my chaotic, work-centric life. I was blessed with a happy personal life; which revolved around marriage to a wonderful woman; 3 dogs, a parrot and a large, mature group of friends. My professional life was tougher, sometimes rewarding, but increasingly worrisome due to reorganizations.
Unfortunately, I was more focused on the problems at work than the bliss at home.
For nearly 2 years I’d had a very painful, chronic cough, which produced a small amount of blood. My then doctor thought the cough was due to allergies and treated it with Flonase. Finally, I saw another doctor. She saved my life by sending me to a pulmonologist, who sent me for a CT scan, then for a bronchoscopy. Having never been a smoker, I wasn’t worried. On November 26, 2010 I woke up from the bronchoscopy to be told I had lung cancer. I couldn’t believe it. How could a never-smoker have lung cancer? My wife took me home and tried to comfort me as I lay curled up in a mournful ball for the remainder of the day. To me, lung cancer was an absolute death sentence. November 27th I woke up, went to my computer and started looking up statistics. A Google search found that, for the type and stage of cancer I had, the life expectancy was 12–18 months from diagnosis.
The cancer was deemed inoperable so I managed to hang onto both lungs, something I’m grateful for. Over the next few years I went through radiation therapy and several types of traditional chemotherapy. The cough disappeared, as did the tumor blocking the bronchus to the middle lobe of my right lung. A pattern developed: the tumors would shrink some, then time would pass, then they’d grow again and pop up in new places. Next, my oncologist would prescribe another type of chemotherapy. She got me well past the predicted ‘expiration date’ of 12-18 months. Then it was time to seek another solution.
Before I knew I had cancer, I thought my biggest challenge in life was dealing with the stress of my job. My job seemed to consist of attempting to maintain an even keel with a possibly bipolar boss, placate clients both great and small minded, all while trying to motivate underpaid staff to produce their best work for the mere joy of producing their best work. At times it was fun. Often, not. But I let it get to me. I lost countless nights of sleep worrying. After being diagnosed, I retired from my night teaching job of 21 years; having lung cancer is not conducive to giving long lectures. But it never dawned on me to take a break from my day job. Equipped with an iPad and phone, I proudly worked Fridays from the infusion room through my chemotherapies. Perhaps my fixation on work kept me from worrying about my cancer. It’s doubtful it was helping me recover from the cancer.
Despite some of the looks I got at work, it never occurred to me how weird it was to be working with stage 4 lung cancer. Then my oncologist asked me if I wanted to apply for a yearlong study of a drug initially christened, “MPDL 3280A.” It became clear that I’d been handed a new chance. One that might extend my life. Suddenly, I realized the most important thing in my life wasn’t work; it was living life.
I took a disability retirement last year. All that largely self-imposed workday drama has vanished. Life with cancer is hardly stress free, but it’s easier to understand what I can control and what I cannot. I don’t know if I could have helped getting cancer. I can help what I’m getting from cancer. Cancer knocked simplicity into my life and my priorities into order. It’s taught me tolerance for the most out-there advice from well meaning friends, along with an understanding that most people just want you to be ok. I’ve learned to pronounce medical terms I’d never heard of and gotten to know patients and medical staff encountered only because of cancer. And cancer can wake you up, as it did me. It seems to say, “Hey! You’re alive now. Don’t waste it. What’s worth fighting for, if not your own life? And while you’re at it, enjoy yourself!”
November 26th will mark my fifth year since diagnosis of metastatic non-small cell lung cancer. Statistics tell us that only 5% of patients at stage 4 are alive at the five-year mark. It’s looking promising that my wife, Joan, and I will be celebrating another Thanksgiving: our 23rd together.
Who knew that even cancer can come with blessings?