12 months ago today, at approximately 8am, I underwent a bronchoscopy; a procedure my pulmonologist ordered to look for the cause behind the painful cough I’d had for nearly two years. When they wheeled me into the OR that morning, I wasn’t terribly worried. Instead, I was hopeful my doctors might discover what was wrong so they could fix the problem.
My OR nurse was a youngish woman with a big smile and a wry sense of humor. When I mentioned my wife in passing, my nurse made a point of mentioning the lady she’d lived with for over two years. Hey, jokes and bonding in the OR: sweet! When I went under, I felt secure, surrounded by an upbeat, confident medical team. I awoke to a more somber vibe. The nurse who had been so chatty seemed sad and suddenly had few words for me. When I saw her face, I remember thinking, “Uh, oh…this can’t be good.”
Back in the recovery area, a young doctor broke it to me: I had lung cancer, probably stage 3. He showed me pictures taken of the blockage to the middle lobe of my right lung. Having never smoked in my life, I was surprised and devastated by the seeming unfairness of it. The people I’d known who had lung cancer had died; painfully and in a matter of months. When Joanie came to check how I was, she found me alone in my curtained off cubicle, quietly crying and clutching bronchoscopy printouts. After yelling at the nurses for leaving me alone with such horrible news, she took me home. We took to our bed for the rest of the day, me shaking while she held me. All I could think was, “so this is how it feels when you find out you’ll be dead soon.”
Luckily, the next day came and I felt more myself. Perhaps not the jolliest form of myself, but definitely not the trembling, hopeless creature of the day before. Googling non-small cell lung cancer informed me life expectancy for stage 3 is 12 to 18 months, with treatment, not exactly cheerful statistics. Still, it looked like some people lived months; some going into remission, living a year or 2, occasionally 5. A few lucky souls made it years beyond that grim day of diagnosis.
12 months, 30 radiation treatments, and numerous chemo sessions later: I’m still here. I have less hair than before, but I’m neither shaky nor depressed. Frankly, I’m feeling pretty grateful. Saying I’m thankful for having cancer because of all I’ve learned might sound Pollyanna-ish. Let’s just say I’m thankful for all I’ve learned over the past year, however that knowledge was gained. I’ve learned how many true friends I have, and how much they mean to me. I’ve slowed down enough to enjoy those friends, my wife and my life more consistently than I did before November 26, 2010. While I previously gave lip service to the notion that life is precious and to be savored, now I feel it in my bones every day. Through friends who are living with cancer, I know that absolutely nothing is guaranteed with this disease. Following doctor’s orders and having a positive attitude seems to help, but cancer kills even those who do. So, we grab life while we can with both hands, great appetite and gratitude beyond belief. If all goes well, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing next November 26.