Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Who's Afraid Of Cancer

It was a most scary day that Dr. Monroe informed me that I had, in his words, "a very serious health problem." That much I already knew based on the events of the previous week.

It was a week that would forever change my perspectives on many things, including - in no order of importance - how uncertain at best life is, how some people's egos are soooo out of whack, how what we think we know can sometimes be so wrong or mistaken, how dismal it is to expect or await death, the true value of money, the real value of friendship and last but not least on this still incomplete list, how we all really really need each other. Oh!, did I mention how some people's egos (more intuitively spelled "Igo") are soooo out of whack?

It was a week that was a measurable descent into despair from my most recent experience with cloud-hopping. I'd just accepted a contract position with a new company and left a dead-end position I'd had for ten years. This new position required travel, paid much more and would have enabled me to be debt-free - including mortgage - in about three years. At which time I envisioned aggressive investing and saving to enable retirement at that magic double-nickel.

But it was not to be.

"A very serious health problem." Dr. Monroe, who would eventually perform surgery on me to remove my right kidney, spoke the words with the tone of "seriousness" they mandated. He told me that I had renal cell carcinoma, or kidney cancer. It was already in Stage IV, the last and FINAL stage, characterized by rapid growth and rapid spreading to other body parts and/or organs. Stage five is when people stand around and (in some cases) lie about what a wonderful person you "were."

I already knew I was bad off. When you eject, with excruciating pain let me add, a gelatinous mass resembling a chunk of cranberry sauce while trying to urinate and have it followed by a cherry red stream, you tend to know something is really wrong. I don't mean to be too graphic, just to make you aware of the gravity of the situation. One which many others have faced.

Dr. Monroe paused after delivering his dire words. I then told him to give it to me straight. "I'm not afraid to die" I said. "I don't want to, but I'm not afraid" I added.

The doctor then began to describe to me the fist-sized malignant (what an ugly word) growth attached to my right kidney. He said it was as large as the kidney itself. Visions of an evil nasty thing having invaded me came to my head. Suddenly, it had its own personality. It was no longer a mere biological process brought about by anything from poor dietary habits to genetic heritage, all explained by cold clinical scientific data and case studies, nooooooo, this thing was now a living thinking thing that had as its life mission my ultimate death.

Now It Was PERSONAL!!!

Continuing his somber tone, Dr. Monroe told me that death was a certainy in mere weeks if I did not have my right kidney removed. With my rapt attention he continued to provide me with his prognosis. The type of cancer I had, that renal cell carcinoma kind, "was notorious for putting people in the ground." The surgeon continued with more bad news concerning my stage IV predicament. Even with surgery he said, I stood at best a 50/50 chance of being alive in a year.

Like colorectal and colon cancer, even with radiation treatment and after-care, kidney cancer is a very life-threatening disease. I was starting to realize that I may indeed be close to death. It was a life-changing situation for me, and I know countless others had been there before me and many others after me.

No, I really wasn't afraid to die. But I really didn't want to. You see at the time I thought I had too much to live for. I'd just taken a new job that dramatically increased my income (yeah, that's important right), I'd recently began dating again and had found a spiritual soulmate. I still remember looking into her eyes and seeing the sadness at her conviction that I would soon be gone. I was more sad for her than I was for myself. I would be dead and she would be alone. Again. But that was almost nine years ago.

Fortunately for me, and lots of others, Dr. Monroe possessed the skills required to surgically remove cancerous tumors and diseased body parts and give victims a new lease on life. Even though my cancer was very advanced, as the trained and experienced specialist he was, he knew I stood some chance if the surgery were performed right away.

So I chose to fight for life. To take the only route available to me. After Dr. Monroe scheduled a date to remove my right kidney I underwent many more medical exams and tests over the ensuing weeks. It was discovered that I had a "suspicious" spot on my right lung. Additional testing proved it malignant. Which meant I would have lung surgery six weeks after having my kidney removed.

The days I spent waiting for my first surgery were a time of sober reflection. I really didn't want to die. I'd called and spoken to family members and it seemed to be an unspoken acceptance that I would maybe be around for a few more months at best. My oldest sister however kept telling me I wasn't going to die. And this brings up what I said at the beginning of this article about some people's "igos" (aka ego). I take this opportunity to engage in an extensive aside because the whole thing is one of those Rod Serling experiences that occur far too frequently to be ignored, and indeed speak to a most serious problem with our world.

I can recall this episode as if it happened yesterday. It was a beautiful Tuesday afternoon. I was scheduled for surgery the following morning; had to be at the hospital at 5 AM. About two in the afternoon a certain family member called me over the phone. This person was widely known to have a most overbearing igo. He and I had debated many times over philosophical issues, primarily his assertion that he was a spokesman for God and that God spoke to him directly. A few years my senior, he never accepted the fact that I was a much better debater than he. And even though he never won, he was always spoiling for a battle of wits. And pitted against myself this always rendered him an unarmed man.

"Hey cuz", he said when I answered the phone. It was my first conversation with him since learning of my cancer. Word had reached him by another family member. I assumed he had learned of my surgery date and was calling to either pray with/for me or to express his best wishes.

But he almost right away went onto the real reason he had called me. He said that God had told him to contact me and inform me that I did not need to have surgery. That he (God) had already removed the disease from my body. I laughed of course. He assured me that he wasn't kidding me or playing a prank. I soon realized that he actually wanted me to take him seriously.

This epiphany sent me into debate mode. I asked him when God had told him this. He answered that it was only minutes before his call. God's voice spoke to him as he sat in his office.
So he called me right away. I asked him why God didn't just call me directly with this great news. I didn't possess or exhibit the kind of faith required for that level of interaction with God, he informed me. The instantaneous and inescapable inference of course was that he himself enjoyed such status.

He further explained that God had always used faithful people to carry out his wishes. I continued to express incredulity at his comments and told him that I thought that he had maybe fallen asleep briefly after lunch and had a vivid dream and didn't realize it. He stated he was wide awake when he heard God's voice. I asked him what God's exact words were to him concerning my surgery. "Call and tell Herbert not to let them cut on him" was the answer.

He predicted (actually prophesied) that my doctor would suffer a jaw-dropping moment when he realized, after cutting me open, that my kidney was not being overtaken by a cancerous growth that had already spread to my right lung. I told God's messenger about all the test results that had all concluded I had cancer of the kidney. Incredibly he told me that things had changed as of a few minutes ago when God healed me.

I made a deal with him. After reminding him of previous discussions we'd had and how I was more reliant on science than mysticism, I promised him that if the doctor did not find cancer on my kidney I would quit my job and become a traveling tent preacher and bear witness to God's miracle. I also would throw in 50% of whatever I might receive from a malpractice lawsuit.

He chuckled a little and when I told him I had to hang up, he urged me to have more tests run before submitting to surgery. Some people's igos. Man.

Anyway, this same individual had a migraine headache a few months later and guess who spent three days in the hospital?

Well I had the surgery. Otherwise I wouldn't be writing this. It's been close to nine years. With no recurrences and not one minute of therapy. Anyone interested in knowing more about my alternative treatment can contact me directly at and I will respond. Just place "Cancer Survivor" in the email subject field.

I had health and hospitalization insurance at the time I needed surgery. I don't enjoy such luxury today. I'm sure the insurance I had then would have probably covered most of the costs of chemo-therapy and radiation treatment. However I chose to forego that post-surgery option.

I did so based on the information a former co-worker provided me as I recuperated from my first surgery. He told me that he was in contact with an M.D. who believed in the merits and benefits of so-called alternative treatment based on nutritional supplements and immune system boosters. I pondered long and hard the information he gave me and the written material he provided.

My decision to waive the traditonal oncological after-care was based on the prognosis the surgeon had given me in his office that first scary day. Even after removing my kidney, he told me, I stood no better than a fifty-fifty chance of being alive in a year. And that's assuming I took the chemo route. Hmmm, I could spend that year undergoing the most grueling and demanding process and still die soon afterwards. I decided I didn't want to spend my final months of life in a struggle against death that would take so much out of me both spiritually and physically only to have death be the victor in the end.

Dr. Cathy was quite surprised when I told her that I'd decided to bypass the post-surgery treatment that she was planning to administer. She strongly cautioned me against this decision but told me it was mine to make and that she would still do office exams, blood work and X-rays on an established schedule.

I had no idea how my future would evolve at that point. I still had to undergo lung surgery that was scheduled for six weeks after my kidney surgery. I was on my back in the hospital for 12 days after that first surgery. I came home weighing about 128 pounds, down from my previous 170. I'm a little bit north of 170 now though...LOL.

As I allow my mind to wander down the darkened halls and into the shadowy rooms where the memories of those days are kept, I clearly recall that when I came home after the first surgery, it was to die.

It's still almost impossible to recall certain details of my daily activities during that time. I remember not really wanting to pick up my bass guitar, and not even feeling like it meant anything anymore. My girfriend was pretty much ever-present. She even quit her job and looked after me for five months. For that I'll always be grateful. Another thing that was fortunate for me was that the contract firm continued to pay me each week for the full five-month convelescence period. The probability of that is so infinitesimal that my cousin (God's messenger) must have arranged for divine intervention and never told me.

Naahh, he would have told me.

So anyway, these old dark rooms don't scare me anymore. They're just musty old illusions like the man behind Toto's curtain. In actuality I hadn't bothered to even consciously acknowledge their existence too much of late. No, not that I repress the fact, but indeed because of their total irrelevance in my present mindset. Like a two-week relationship from 20 years ago, they constitute at best a mere faint outline of a memory.

At some point between the day I came home and my scheduled return for lung surgery, I got a message from Dr. Peterson, the lung surgeon, that the tests he'd been conducting indicated that I had the exact same cancer in my right lung that had required the removal of my right kidney. In fact, the tests had revealed a second "suspicious" spot that hadn't been detected during the initial tests; (Keep this fact in mind, I'll talk more about it later) Dr. Peterson was so certain that it was more of the same that he said it wouldn't even be worth it to run additional tests on the second spot.

So he told me to continue to rest and build my strength for my second encounter with the blade.

He asked if I was undergoing chemo and I told him I'd waived the treatment. He mentioned that Dr. Cathy was an excellent doctor and suggested I might rethink my decision. He didn't recommend that I rely solely on the immune system nutrients I'd started taking. I told him my mind was pretty much made up. He had his assistant call later to confirm the date for his surgery on me and tell me I couldn't eat during the two weeks prior. Well it was only 18 hours or so, but it felt like two weeks.

I do remember one day, not having anything at all to do, calling my cousin to tell him the awful news that my kidney was indeed eat up with cancer and that if I'd taken his message from God seriously and not had the surgery, I would certainly be nearer death than ever. He said the reason the cancer was still there was because God put it back due to my lack of faith. He said I didn't believe God and thereby didn't benefit from the blessing that had already been bestowed. I corrected him, not all too gently, by telling him that it was he whom I didn't believe.

He asked if I thought he had told me a lie when he delivered the message from God. And I told him as straight-forwardly as possible that I couldn't say he lied. Then I added that from all I've read about psychology that his igo was such that he possibly believed his own lies, thereby technically he wasn't lying, he was indeed just insane.

Since I've had those surgeries, nine years ago this coming June 2009, I've lost an uncle to colon cancer, a male cousin to brain cancer, a female cousin had a double masectomy and my father died from diabetes. And sadly, my other cousin, God's messenger, also passed away from a heart attack. But I'm still here. Why? Despite the real possibility that I can be in the ground next week, I have a theory on why my stage-4 renal cell carcinoma that spread to my lung didn't lead to my death in 2001. Not a hunch or a gut feeling, but a theory which is defined as "a general principle or explanation which covers the known facts."

The lung surgery was scheduled for a Thursday morning. It wasn't as long as the kidney procedure. I spent Thursday afternoon and night recuperating. On Friday morning Dr. Peterson checked on me. When asked how I felt, I told him it only hurt bad when I coughed.
He looked at my chart and deemed everything to be to his satisfaction.

He began to tell me that he had removed the two spots and that one, the first one detected, was indeed malignant, and microscopically comparable to the kidney cancer. But the second spot, he told me, was just scar tissue. I asked how that scar tissue had gotten to be there. He said that it could have been from a severe respiratory infection from as long as 20 years ago. Hmmm.

I queried him as to why the second spot wasn't detected during the earlier tests. He explained that the machine that takes the "pictures" of internal organs could only get tiny slices at a time, but a growth like a new cancer spread could have been small enough to escape detection. OK, he was the expert.

I remember musing (yes, men do that sometimes) as I lay in bed later how a $1800 test could miss the very thing it was supposed to find. Hmmm.

I had a few visitors Friday afternoon and that cheered me up. I watched C-SPAN while lying in bed after they all left. I don't remember what I had to eat, but it must have been something. Maybe one of those $50 cups of jello. I was still wide awake when a nurse came into my room about 9:30 PM Friday night.

She asked how I felt and I said OK. She was standing at the foot of my bed holding the clipboard in one hand and flipping the pages with the other. Almost as an after-thought, with no more import than saying "it's a nice day isn't it?", she told me the doctor wanted me to resume taking my prescription. Genuinely puzzled, I told her I wasn't taking any prescription medication. She asked if I were sure and I said yes. "You don't take any type of home remedy or anything?" she asked. No, I told her. Are you sure she asked, yes, I told her. Then added that I used Tylenol for headaches but that was seldom.

Continuing to look at the papers in her hand as if maybe the answer she sought was to be found there, she asked me if I were taking anything of any kind. I said no once again and then immediately remembered the Mannatech products. I told her I was taking the Mannatech products for immune system fortification. "That's it" she exclaimed, "the doctor wants you to start back taking it as soon as you go home." And with that she was gone in a flash.

Dum de dum dum....dum!

Now I'm not a conspiracy-monger, (at least not the irrational type) but I had some definite sensations that my unconcious mind picked up on that caused me to go down a path of analysis that led me to a certain conclusion. I always, when I'm unsure of something, attempt to organize the facts, that is to say, the known and verifiable data.

For one thing, the whole episode with the nurse seemed to be that she actually came into my room to achieve the sole result of telling me to resume taking my nutrients. And I was under the impression - after thinking it all over many times - that she felt a certain sense of urgency in her mission.

I lay awake for a long time trying to make sense of it all. Why would the doctor, the surgeon who'd removed the two spots from my right lung, be so insistent that I resume my nutrient intake immediately? This question, among many others, swirled through my mind as I rested in my hospital bed that Friday night. At some point I did fall asleep, but I awoke early Saturday morning with those questions still commanding my thoughts.

I'd fallen asleep with the TV on and was treated to C-SPAN's Washington Journal program (the single best use of TV/radio ever!) upon awakening. Great way to start a day! Not much later the man of the hour showed up. The doctor who I thought had given the order to resume my alternative treatment. The doctor who had performed the surgery on me two days before. The man with the answers. Or so I thought.

"Good morning, how do you feel?", he asked me. I said I felt fine except when I coughed. He, just like in the movies, picked up the clipboard to look over whatever it is that doctors and nurses look over and said that everything looked normal and that I would be able to go home on Monday. That was great news. Music to my ears. He moved over to the bedside and asked me to shift position so that he could look at the area underneath my right arm where he had made the incision, more like drilled a hole, to remove the nasty stuff from my lung. He said the bandage was scheduled to be replaced that morning.

After he checked the bandage it was obvious that he was prepared to leave so I popped the big question to him. "Why did you want me to start back taking my nutrients?" The look on his face was akin to that of the little kid getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Excuse me" he stammered. And I know damned well he heard me. He was standing right next to the bed and looking into my face when I spoke. I restated the question and he seemed somewhat uncomfortable with it. "I don't know what you mean", he stated. It was an obvious lie.

"Well, the nurse was in here last night and she told me that the "doctor" wanted me to start taking my nutrients again right away." "Well, I didn't give that order...but I don't see where it could hurt", was his next response. Hmmmm. The doctor's entire demeanor had changed almost instantly. He was more than ready to leave my room. But before he could depart I asked hin who he thought had given the nurse those instructions. And to be honest, at this point I can't really remember what his actual reply was. But it was painfully apparent that he badly wanted to leave and he used the standard "gotta finish my rounds" offifcial excuse.

I was now really into Bloodhound mode. Something was real fishy here. I mean, the whole thing about me taking my nutrients was taking on the air of a James Bond movie. A real "WhoDunit" type of thing. Just who was it that had given the order? The answer was right around the corner and once it came it only enhanced the suspense and, dare I say the word, intrigue.

Between the time the doctor left my room and the "answer" walked in, I started to formulate a theory about the events of the last 10 hours or so. A nervous nurse, a suspicious surgeon and unanswered questions about who gave the orders in this place. Well, I wouldn't have much longer to wait before that one big question was answered. You may be as surprised as I was when you hear who it was that was giving the orders.

Less than an hour after the doctor left a young man walked into my room. He was dressed like a doctor and other than being quite youthful he looked like a doctor. Lo and behold, he was a doctor! Well, as he put it, he was an intern. An intern I'd never seen before. I can't even remember his name. Ater all, we were only in each other's presence for a few minutes. Just like it had been with the nurse.

Ater introducing himself he looked at the clipboard too, and when he'd finished he too asked how I was feeling. I told him I felt pretty good (I know it should be well) but that I was a little bit confused. Naturally he asked why. I told him that someone had given the nurse directions for me to restart my "home" medication and that Dr. Peterson (the surgeon) said he didn't know anything about it. "Oh, I gave that order" said Mr. Intern, readily owning up to it. I was just a little surprised because number one, I'd never seen this guy before and number two, he was an intern. HELLO!! They don't say "nurse's orders" or "intern's orders" people, they say


I don't even remember how the rest of this conversation went, but he too had to "finish his rounds" and was soon gone.

So what would you think at this point if it were you in this same circumstance? Yeah I know an intern is a real doctor who's just in training and that he or she can do doctor stuff. But I'm yet unable to understand how anyone can give "orders" without the primary physician in attendence both knowing about it and approving of it. I still can't figure that out to this day, almost nine years later.

But I have a theory. Remember a theory is a "general principle or explanation which covers the KNOWN facts."

So let's start by listing those known facts.

I had renal cell carcinoma on my right kidney.

  1. A suspicious "spot" was disovered on my right lung.

  2. The "spot" was diagnosed and found to be malignant.

  3. Shortly before surgery on my lung a second spot was found.

  4. The surgeon told me the second spot was most likely the same and didn't do a biopsy.

  5. Surgeon told me day after surgery that Spot 1 was cancerous and Spot 2 was "scar tissue."

  6. Night nurse tells me Doctor wants me back on my "medication" immediately.

  7. Doctor professes to knowing nothing about nurse's instructions attributed to him.

  8. Never before seen Intern takes credit for giving nurse the order.

  9. All 3 above individuals acted noticeably uneasy when asked about the "Order."

OK, that's plenty of facts to formulate my theory.

So here goes.

I mentioned before that a former co-worker informed me of an alternative approach to the routine applications of chemo-therapy and radiation treatment that was supported by an M.D. who believed in its efficacy. He gave me this info while I was recuperating from the first operation to remove my kidney. I was hospitalized for 12 days after the kidney removal.

During those 12 days he ordered me a supply of two products the alternative doctor recommended after he (the alt. doctor) was told of the nature of my malady.

I was in contact with the alternative doctor via email and he told me the quantities of each nutrient to ingest each day. I began this "treatment" on the second day after coming home with only one remaining kidney. At this point in time it was about 40 days until my appointment for lung surgery.

Each day I consumed the two nutrient products in powder form as directed by the alternative doctor. He told me he was recommending somewhat large doses to really get my weakened immune system back to full strength in the shortest amount of time.

So I followed his "prescription" until the lung doctor's nurse called about a week before the upcoming surgery and requested, more like ordered, me to stop taking any medication of any kind. I didn't mention to her anything about the immune system nutrients. But I did email the alternative doctor about it and he told me to take the nutrients up until the night before my surgery. I followed his orders.

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