It is hard to believe that six years has already come and gone since I heard the words from a Doctor after having emergency gallbladder surgery at the age of 39, “You have Cancer”.
I was extremely active and way too busy in life to slow down or even think that something was seriously wrong with my health. For the 10 years leading up to when I hit that Cancer brick wall, I had my foot on the accelerator pedal and it was mashed to the floor. I had no intentions of slowing down. I was finally happy in the career I was in. I was traveling the United States. I had reached one of my bucket list goals of visiting all 48 continental states as well as Mexico and Canada. I was finally using the college education I earned 20 years earlier.
Towards the middle of 2008, I started to notice a few changes in how I felt after a long day. That it was so hard to get up in the morning, to climb out of bed and get my day going. I just figured it was me extending myself too far and pushing myself to do way too much. I, like many men my age, never would think to go see a doctor about what my body was telling me. Just find something over the counter to give me energy, take vitamin C, multi-vitamins, drink more orange juice, anything that offered to wake me up and get me going.
Then one day, I started having issues with blood in my stool. It must be hemorrhoids, I told myself. No biggie, just use what is over the counter to cure the problem. After a few months, the issue got worse. So, I broke down and finally made an appointment with my primary care doctor, who I hadn’t seen in forever. Didn’t think I needed to. (Man’s way of thinking there).
At the end of 2008, I was taking prescription medications to remedy the issue I thought I had. Then the call comes in that I need more test for blood work done. My liver numbers was twice what they should be. More test were needed again and after every test I had completed, my liver numbers were going higher and higher. I was finally told that my gall bladder was bad and needed to be removed.
I didn’t think anything was wrong with me. I wasn’t feeling sick, I wasn’t in pain. So, like most of us men. I put off getting it taken care of. It wasn’t until March 16, 2009 that I finally had to go to the emergency room at Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton, and that was because my eyes had turned almost green and my skin was a darkening yellow.
Up to this point in my life, I had only been in a hospital three times. Once for tonsils, the other two were for injuries. As I was being wheeled into the operating room, the surgeon told me my gall bladder was about to burst and while he was removing it and had me under. He would do a Colonoscopy to see what was going on with my hemorrhoids.
After the surgery, I was in a regular room when the surgeon came in to check on me. He said everything went okay. That the gallbladder was removed just as it had ruptured. Then he says, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” I told him the good news. He says, “well, you don’t have hemorrhoids.” What’s the bad news? He says, “You’ve got Cancer.”
From there he explained that I had a tumor a little bigger than a golf ball and that it was growing through the muscle walls. I was dumbfounded. How could I have Cancer, especially Colon-rectal Cancer at 39? I spent the next two weeks in the hospital undergoing more test to see how far the Cancer had spread. After having the last test called a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which is an imaging test that uses a radioactive substance called a tracer to look for disease in the body. I was visited by the hospital Oncologist and the Radiologist.
The Oncologist came in to see me and pulled up a chair and sat down beside my bed. The doctor said, “This is going to be hard to hear and we have people you can talk to, I’ll explain things as best as I can. First off, you are in what we call stage 3 of your Cancer. This means your Cancer has spread into your lymph nodes surrounding the tumor. This means, what we can offer you is palliative care, which focuses on providing relief from the symptoms until the end.”
I just didn’t know what to say. This was really starting to hit me, and hit me hard. How could this be? How could I have Cancer this far along? This can’t be happening to me? All those questions started running through my mind. Could this really be it? Am, I not going to live past 40? The life I thought I was living to the fullest, didn’t seem to be such a fulfilling life anymore.
A month after being back at home, I just couldn’t accept that this was going to be the end. That all that could be done was making me comfortable until I was to die from this. I just couldn’t sit on my hands and let this happen. I started researching the Cancer I had. Squamous cell carcinoma of the rectum and its survival rate for patients with the health factors I had. It didn’t look good for me at all. If I followed the recommended treatment, I would have third degree burns on my bottom for over three months, plus the chemo treatments would severely lower my immune system to the point that it would most likely be what killed me.
I had to find another way to beat this diagnosis. I then called the American Cancer Society toll free number at 1-800-ACS-2345. I told them what was happening, and was directed to departments within the ACS and given numbers of experts and research scientist to call and talk to. I was calling specialist at the Mayo Clinic and others all around the U.S. and they told me there was a way to beat this, but it would be a complete life changing event. That my life as I knew it, wouldn’t exist anymore. That it would require two surgeons working together to remove the tumor and all infected cancer tissue.
After talking to the surgeon that did my gallbladder surgery, he agreed to do the Cancer surgery. I had him contact the specialist at the Mayo Clinic and the American Cancer Society. They discussed what was needed to be done to remove the Cancer cells. Everything was planned and ready to go by the end of May 2009.
I went in for the surgery and eight and half hours later. I had 28” of my lower colon removed along with the rectum, 25 lymph nodes and the left groin lymph node and my bottom hole removed and sewn closed. A stoma was put in on the left lower side of my stomach and I now had a permanent colostomy in its place. All healthy tissue was cut and no Cancer infected tissue was cut into during the surgery.
They were right when they said my life wouldn’t be the same. Things would be different. Having to adjust to having the colostomy was the one of the biggest parts after the surgery. Adjusting my life around taking care of the colostomy. The other would be realizing that my body would no longer digest or accept certain foods anymore was the other.
As my body healed over the next several years, complications from the surgery started to surface. I had lost all control over emptying my bladder, due to the nerves being cut that controlled it. I started getting abdominal hernia’s due to the weak spots in the muscle walls from where my colostomy was located.
Since the first surgery to remove my gallbladder in March of 2009, I have had a total of 8 other surgeries in 5 years. Those included; the major cancer removal surgery, a colostomy re-sectioning with another 10” of colon removal, hernia repair #1, hernia repair #2, bladder nerve repair with an medical electrical implant, hernia #3 repair, and this past December 31st hernia #4 and #5 repair as well as having to cut my small intestine in two places from past hernia mesh repairs along with re-sectioning my colostomy and moving it from the left lower side of my stomach to the upper right side below my ribs. This last surgery removed another 34” of my lower colon and small intestines.
I always felt that I had to find a way to give back to the American Cancer Society for all they did to help me overcome, what I called my, “death sentence.” So, I looked into the ACS program called, Relay For Life and found we had a program here in Pickens County. My first year, I went as a survivor. (Anyone who has heard the words; You Have Cancer, is a Survivor). The second year I joined a RFL Team and started fundraising. The third year, I had joined the RFL of Pickens County Committee and became a Co-Captain for Team Tate Fire Department with Sherry Maddox. This fourth year has me stepping back from the RFL Committee as I need to finish recovering from this past surgery, but I am still Co-Captain with Sherry for Team Tate Fire Department and I’m working on putting together a few events to fundraise for our team.
Besides putting all my energy into Relay For Life of Pickens County, I still felt that I needed to give back to the community, to do something more. So in 2013, I went to a Jasper Merchants Association meeting and ended up volunteering and becoming the Secretary on the Board of Directors to help the organization move forward and do more for the business owners of the county and for its citizens. Along with Nancy Watkins, the new President of the group and other members of the JMA, we stepped up our presence by bringing more types of free family friendly events to the community, and made sure to continue events like the annual Easter Egg Hunt, and the annual Night of Lights/Parade of Lights Christmas Event.
I’m thankful for the multitude of new friends I’ve made while volunteering for both RFL of Pickens County and the Jasper Merchants Association. Without all these new friends and the support I have I don’t know how I would be able to keep pushing on through all the setbacks that I’ve had to overcome since hearing those three awful words back in 2009. I have to mention also that without my Pug, Little Bit and her unconditional loving support to make me smile and laugh, it would have been even more difficult to become a Survivor.
I am very happy to say even though I’ve had to undergo so much over the past 6 years since that first surgery. One great thing has happened; I was told I am, “CANCER FREE!”
Co-Captain – RFL Team Tate Fire Department
Secretary – Jasper Merchants Association