It was like a finely timed punch to the belly. Explosive and literally gut-wrenching. It snapped me out of my colonoscopy drug induced haze. The Doc said, “you have a tumor in your ascending colon. I want you to get it out next week, don’t wait, and then you’ll be fine.” Wow - that was mortality right up in my grill. I was 55, with a 1-year-old baby, a wonderful wife and feeling good about life. So, I did what the Doc said...and I’m still here 13 years later.
Why me? Why not me? A well thought out approach to regaining health or just a confluence of luck? Well, here’s how it happened. You be the judge.
During the summer of 2004 I developed a cough. No cold or anything else, just a cough. Being a chiropractor and interested in natural healing, I self-medicated with various herbs and nutrients. Nothing really worked that entire summer and into the fall. Finally, I broke down and went to see my primary care doc. He said, "it’s probably just a virus but I’ll give you an antibiotic in case it's bacterial. Come back in 10 days.” I did, but it was no better.
Next, the doc said, “I’m taking blood, come back tomorrow.” The blood test showed I was anemic. The doc said, “I need a stool sample, come back tomorrow.” The stool sample was positive for bleeding. The Doc said, “You need a colonoscopy now - you’re bleeding somewhere.” As I left he followed me out the door and into the street. He said, “This is serious. I’m setting up a colonoscopy for Friday." You know the colonoscopy story, so my primary care doc then set me up with a surgeon the following Monday and I had surgery the next day. I was home by Friday. I didn’t really want to go home, but the attending Doc on Friday morning said, “look, you ate, you farted and you didn’t vomit. Go home - you’ll be better off there.” He was right. My bed felt great.
Ten days later at the surgeon’s office he told me no one he had ever taken care of had left the hospital that soon after having one third of their ascending colon removed (by the way, my scar is terrific.) I asked if I needed chemotherapy. He said it would probably be up to me but I should see an oncologist. As expected, the oncologist confirmed that it was up to me whether to have chemotherapy. Without it, I was looking at an 80% 5-year mortality. With it, 83%. The oncologist told me chemotherapy helped only one out of 49 people, but I agreed to do it anyway. Why? Because I wouldn’t miss work and it was only for six months - I felt I could do anything for six months.
Before I began treatments, I decided I would make chemotherapy just a matter-of-fact part of my life. I would go to have chemo for two hours early in the morning, bring work with me and then go to my office and see patients. I did this once a week for six weeks then off for two weeks, for six months.
My wife and friends wanted to come and visit me during the treatments, but I said no. I preferred to not make an event out of my chemotherapy, but just make it feel like a part of my regular life - like going to the cleaners or the bank. It helped make me feel normal in a very abnormal situation with the environment of the oncology suite and its rows of lounge chairs with people of all ages hooked up to IVs.
The chemotherapy didn’t cause me to lose my hair. I already had. I never missed work either. I didn’t feel great but I just kept going. To counter the side effects of the chemo, I had acupuncture every week. It must have helped because I suffered no nausea or diarrhea as the oncologist had said I would suffer. Post-chemo, I decided to clean up my diet. I no longer eat red meat or pork. Many of my meals are still meatless. The Tai Chi I had been practicing became even more precious to me. I trained more and competed successfully in many Chinese martial arts tournaments over the following 13 years. Today I continue to practice Tai Chi as well as teach five Tai Chi classes per week.
In some ways my cancer has been very, very good to me. Absent cancer I doubt whether I would have practiced Tai Chi as much and competed in tournaments. I am, at my core, an introvert and performing in front of others was very challenging. Experiencing cancer has made me a more empathetic doctor towards my patients, especially those who have had cancer themselves, who are presently going through it, or who have family and friends who are going through it.
Now 13 years later the cancer diagnosis has become part of who I am, no more or less than other facets of me: like being a chiropractor, husband, father, friend, Jew, political progressive and a male. At times when I am at my most vulnerable I remember what I went through and gain strength from that ordeal. I'm older now, 68 to be exact. I have always resisted calling myself a survivor - never really wanting to give cancer that kind of prominince in my life or defining myself in that way.
But then again, I have survived.