Trial By Fire… I Survived 13 Bouts With Cancer

Trial By Fire… I Survived 13 Bouts With Cancer

So, I now reside in the small town of McDonough, just a few miles south of Atlanta in Georgia. I am a proud grandfather of four. I live with my grandchildren and five chihuahua rescues who have space to roam and frolic. All perfectly idyllic; well wait, not exactly.

It was 1968, I had just turned six and was not feeling well. A trip to my family physician and a careful examination determined my tonsils were largely swollen. A trip to an ENT, who diagnosed 1) Oropharyngeal Cancer, my first date and surgery with deadly cancer. As early as six years old I learned to pray and trust God’s healing grace.

It was two years later while I was attending second grade and I noticed an unusual growth on my right ear. My classmates were making fun of my ear behind my back in class, so I asked my parents to take me to our doctor. My doctor took a biopsy and it revealed 2) Squamous Cell Carcinoma. At an early age it seemed Cancer was going to be on my radar screen going forward. The top part of my right ear was excised and then surgically reconstructed by surgeon Doctor Lawrence Grennen.

During a routine yearly checkup, my family physician Dr. Wallace noticed an unusual bump on my right arm and did some diagnostics that discovered it was a cancer called 3) Basil Cell Carcinoma. Back to Dr. Grennen to have the Carcinoma removed. It seemed that I just might have a clear path to health as I had been free from cancer’s bonds for a number of years.

Then came the day, I was working at a restaurant during my junior year in high school back in 1980. I felt an excruciating pain in my right side and collapsed. I was taken immediately to General Hospital and had my infected 4) Appendix surgically removed. Post surgery pathology determined my Appendix was indeed malignant. Even with my Christian faith my body was being tested.

That same month my right hand began losing strength and became difficult to use at all. I sought out an orthopedic surgeon and he found I had developed an unusual cancer in my right hand. 5) Chondrosarcoma is a cancer of the connective tissues and surgery is the only option for this debilitating cancer. My right hand has never been the same, but I thank God I can still use it and the cancer is gone.

We fight a disease that terrifies everyone.

We are strong because we endure treatments that can feel worse than the actual malignancies.

We are brave because our lab tests come back with news we don’t want to hear.

The reality of life with cancer is very different from the image we try to portray.

Our fight is simply a willingness to go through treatment because, frankly, the alternative sucks. Strength? We endure pain and sickness for the chance to feel normal down the road. Brave? We build up an emotional tolerance and acceptance of things we can’t change. Faith kicks in to take care of the rest.

The truth is that if someone you love has cancer, they probably won’t be completely open about what they’re going through because they’re trying so hard to be strong.

From the very first diagnosis I was determined that cancer wasn’t going to ruin everything in my life. Doctors assured me that my cancers were all in check and my future prognosis was good, so I chose to believe them, prayed hard and embraced the future. I had just turned eighteen and had just started college. My left shoulder was experiencing tightness and restriction in movement, so went to an orthopedic surgeon for an answer. The answer I received from the magnetic resonance image scan was rather terrifying news.

I had 6) Shoulder Cancer in my left shoulder joint, my sixth cancer encounter. I would need major orthopedic and joint reconstruction surgeries to remove the cancer. The five hour, intense surgery was successful as the cancer was removedl however a complete left shoulder joint reconstruction was required. The recovery time and physical therapy required was simply grueling. My faith and physical determination propelled me to overcome another setback.

Why was I being “tested” with these deadly cancers time after time? This question was at the forefront of my mind as I contemplated what lay ahead of me. I made a decision there and then that I was going to deal with these issues with the only weapons I had, prayer, patience and perseverance.

I had just started business college and began having tremendous pain in my left leg bone. My doctor ordered a bone scan to see what was going on. During the scan I noticed a bright light in my leg. I asked the technician what that light on my leg bone was, all he told me was “It’s not good”. My surgeon confirmed that news telling me I had a malignant bone tumor in my leg that had to be removed, and I may lose my left leg.

The tumor in my leg was an 7) Osteosarcoma Malignant bone tumor. The surgeons were forced to saw my leg bone in half to remove this tumor. The surgery took five hours to complete, and we did not know how the bone graft would heal. Well, the recovery, physical therapy and healing took an entire year out of my young life. I had never prayed so hard in my life to God, not to have my leg amputated at the left knee. God is good and I kept my leg as the graphs were successful… Praise God!

I was able to finish college and focus on the future; after all, what more could cancer do to me after all that? I wouldn’t have to wait too long to have that question answered. I was 28 and in the prime of my life, so to speak. I had a couple dark moles on my back looked at by a dermatologist at the insistence of my girlfriend. The doctor told me they looked harmless, but he sent the tissue samples to Mayo Clinic just to be certain.

I hadn’t heard anything back for 3 weeks, so I figured everything was fine. Then I got the call, the doctor needed to see me that day. He did not beat around the bush! “You have two 8) 9) Malignant Melanomas Stage 4.” You could have pushed me over with a feather after he told me. Dr. Grennen told me the only option was “wide excision surgery” meaning he would take a big scoop of tissue out of my back to get all the cancer.

So, I had two wide excision surgeries within a 3 month timetable. Large grafts of skin were taken from my buttocks to transplant over my gaping wounds. The pain associated with these two wide excision cancer surgeries and the skin grafts is indescribable and extraordinary. Prayers and lots of tears were the order of the day as a long, tumultuous recovery ensued over months of time. I survived stage 4 Malignant Melanoma not once, but twice! Talk about being delivered by the blood of Jesus! Amen!

I’m asked time and again is how I’ve managed to remain the glass-half-full type of guy and I’ve always been a Christian. Prayer indeed heals! I had amazing support from all my doctors and clinicians. Honestly, I really thought my personal war with cancer was over. It had been years since those horrible Melanomas and I had been seeing my oncologist Dr. Saphai for yearly screenings.

I relocated from Michigan to Phoenix, Arizona in 2008 for a new job. I was having chest pain and my cardiologist found two arteries almost 100% blocked, I was having a heart attack! I was rushed into surgery to open my arteries with stents. After the surgery I began suffering unbearable pain in my right side and back. I was rolled into the CT lab and a resulting scan showed a large 10) Renal Cell Carcinoma tumor in the center of my right kidney. The prognosis was not good at all. My surgical team and oncologist told me to get my final affairs in order. So I did.

The surgery took over 8 hours to perform due to several complications including blood loss and high blood pressure. This surgery I wouldn’t wish upon anyone on this earth. I was in so much pain and discomfort afterward, all I could do was simply pray for God’s grace and healing. I was in the intensive care unit for two solid weeks fighting for my life. I made it through and somehow fought off the infection. God is good.

Because of my faith, I’ve never once felt I had nobody to turn to. It’s crazy to say that I am accustomed to cancer by now, but that’s the honest truth. My daughter wasn’t feeling quite as brave as I was at that point. Survival instinct and faith simply kicks in to keep me focused, but a cancer diagnosis will still put a person in shock without a doubt.

As I slowly walked down the hospital corridor I noticed an elderly couple, their faces drenched in tears. ‘We’re sorry,’ the lady said. ‘We overheard your conversation with your medical team. We hope you’ll be OK.’ I apologized for upsetting them and told them I fully intended to get better. I had battled cancer, lost weight and felt pretty rough at times. I had my share of infections and all the other delights oncology patients are privy to. But I emerged feeling victorious. At that point, I honestly felt I’d done my time with the whole cancer thing.

The truth is, I’d already known about my cancer risk, because my dad had died from cancer, my mother had died from it also. But I thought at 54 I’d dealt with it. The truth is just 3 weeks ago I was diagnosed with 3 Malignant Melanomas, I just yesterday had excision surgery to remove the cancer. I was pragmatic about the surgery. I honestly thought I’d be safe from cancer now. Sadly, I wasn’t. I knew the surgeons had found pre-cancer cells in the tissue of my back, but I’d been mistakenly assured that no further treatment was required. In fact, my cancer diagnosis came less than a year after that preventative surgery. Melanoma can spread and that’s exactly what had happened.

For me, the worst aspect is the ripple effect. Cancer doesn’t solely affect the person alone – it hits family and friends too. It’s hateful having to tell my loved ones each time the disease comes back.

But by God’s healing grace, I’m still here. Incredible advances in research mean that treatments are improving all the time. Prognoses are increasingly positive and more people now survive. For me, cancer is more like a chronic illness. I am a living example of that idea. Knowledge is power and power can disperse much of the fear cancer exposes. I compare it to my Diabetes and Alzheimer’s : you just learn to live with.

I began writing and discovered that writing heals me. I cannot emphasise enough the power of communication. Silence helps breed fear, and by sharing my story I can offer hope. I can point out that my case was very unusual, that it’s incredibly unlucky to have cancer this many times and that only approximately five per cent of cancers are genetic.

For now, I will heal my surgical wounds and prepare for the next round of treatment. I will continue to play with my grandchildren, watch “Survivor” and walk my little chihuahua.
I’ll think about the future and plan ahead. Everyone’s life is full of ups and downs. We all have issues to deal with. Mine just happens to be cancer.

If you’ve just been diagnosed, or you know someone who has, please take heart from my story. Cancer is not always a death sentence. More and more people are surviving. I happen to be living proof that cancer doesn’t always win. It is true that cancer has invaded my body but I will never allow it to invade my mind and soul. I don’t lie awake at night simply contemplating my death. Cancer will never define who I am. It’s merely a part of my mortal life here on Earth, and I’ve no intention of going anywhere for quite some time God willing🙏🏽

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