I am a father and grandfather from McDonough, Georgia, who has fought through so many medical issues it is mind boggling.
My health issues began when I was diagnosed with an acute cancerous appendix at the ripe age of 17. I was working at a Chinese restaurant and collapsed from the traumatic pain in my right side. I required emergency surgery just before the organ would have ruptured, causing fatal infection to my body. Appendix cancer tends to be rare, affecting an estimated 600 to 1,000 Americans each year. Unfortunately, appendix cancer often remains undiagnosed, like mine was. It mysteriously has no known cause.
A few months after the bout with appendix cancer, I had several episodes of pain in my upper abdomen. I thought I may have gallstones and decided to avoid high-fat foods because a high fat diet increases gallstone risk. I had always been a physically active person. At the time of diagnosis, I had no idea I would tangle with cancer yet again so soon.
Later that year, however, the pain persisted and I started having steady nausea that became constant. I was also having some coronary artery issues and was scheduled to have several cardiac stents surgically inserted. It was in the recovery room after the cardiac stent procedures when I felt unbearable pain in my midsection. My doctor ordered an abdominal ultrasound, which showed irregular thickening of my gallbladder walls. They couldn’t rule out carcinoma, but a surgical specialist reassured me that “cancer was highly unlikely.” He had done thousands of gallbladder surgeries and rarely saw gallbladder cancer. He said, “It is very rare, and if that were the case, you would probably be dead by now.”
He was wrong.
My surgeon removed my enlarged gallbladder laparoscopically, but the news wasn’t good. Unfortunately, the pathology came back showing T2 gallbladder cancer. I fought the disease by having my cancerous bladder removed before the cancer could invade my entire system. The statistics for gallbladder cancer are not very reassuring. I went into surgery hoping to live two years. My wife and five chihuahuas were very supportive during my treatment. My wife was a blessing to me, always being so supportive and making sure I stayed positive.
Two years later, I went to a dermatologist to have a mole examined. I also have a condition called “displastic nevi syndrome,” meaning I have a much higher potential for skin cancers than others. My moles are darker than average and can tend to turn into the deadly malignant melanoma. Two shave biopsies were performed on my moles and pathology tests showed very deep Breslow depths with tumors present in deep margins as well as peripheral. An oncology team referred me to a general surgeon after reviewing my poor prognosis. With stage 4 malignant melanoma, a wide excision surgery was the only radical treatment known to attack and remove the cancer. It is a miracle in itself to survive a stage 4 cancer attack. The cancer left my back looking like a cruel battleground of scars. The surgeon cut as deep as possible, but still did not know if he got it all. I would have to be examined for the rest of my life for the possible return of the deadly malignant melanoma cancer.
But my toughest cancer surgery was the one for renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer). Having a kidney removed was the most difficult of any of the cancer surgeries. Only one year prior, I was still recovering from being forced to have my left leg surgically sawed in half and almost amputated because of intense infection, to remove a malignant bone tumor lodged in the center of my leg bone. The recovery period for these two surgeries was intense and lengthy. My body looks like a battlefield with scars everywhere. A major skin graft was taken from my upper thigh tissue to cover the wide excision scars on my back. Somehow I fought through these cancer surgeries with prayer and perseverance.
After one operation, I opened my eyes and the surgeon actually told me the operation was over, but wasn’t certain if I would pull through, due to serious infection concerns. My multiple cancer diagnoses don’t appear to be based on genetics, just ‘dumb luck’.
Two years after the grim Stage 4 diagnosis, I confessed to a close friend that the doctors had said I realistically only had two years to live, tops. I had kept this information to myself because I felt that if I were to say it, that would make it true. I continue to hold my breath, now that it is past that deadline. I have spent the last couple years holding my breath, as I pray every New Year’s resolution, past and future.
There’s a small subcategory of people with Stage 4 cancer, it turns out, who live for years after being diagnosed. This group constitutes about 2 percent of all cancer cases. Doctors simply can’t predict who will fall into this category.
I now live with my wife and five chihuahuas in a small basement, since our motorhome we lived in burned to the ground. I’ve had it tough with the cancer and other ailments I guess. I cannot really do much at all these days. I consider myself a cancer “frequent flyer,” being operated on now for five bouts with different deadly cancers. How many people can really say that? I now fight a myriad of daily health issues including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, lupus, heart disease, peripheral neuropathy, and needing both knees surgically replaced. I try not to let my physical and mental conditions run my life, but it takes everything that is within me to get through another painful day.
Loving myself enough to reveal my deepest vulnerabilities is the most courageous choice I can make at this point in my life. Unlike bravery which can be externally motivated, courage comes from deep within my soul. Courage allows me to acknowledge my hurts, wounds and scars without escaping, distracting or resisting them on a daily basis. It takes courage sometimes to be who we are in this world. Courage comes from the Latin word for “heart.” To be courageous is to be open-hearted, speaking our message honestly and openly with our whole hearts — in other words, sharing our most intimate thoughts, fears and experiences that comprise our true beings.
I’m practicing my courage right now by putting my thoughts, words and experiences out there for you to read.
My mind is simply racing with thoughts such as, “I have nothing of interest to share that they would want to read,” or “People aren’t going to like what I have to say.” All these insecurities stem from my deepest vulnerability–that I am still broken somehow.
My doctors told me in 2012 that I was the only male, five-time cancer survivor in the world. Surviving cancer once, twice, maybe even three times may be rare, but five times is simply unheard of. What is in a human being to survive is beyond explainable. We have all heard about survival instinct, but until you are put into a survival situation you have no idea what you are really capable of. I have beaten any and all expectations to reach my 53rd birthday! I am still fighting despite enduring a multitude of cancer operations, including two my surgeons thought I would not even survive. I have every wicked surgery scar to remind me of my multiple battles with different types of cancer.
I’ve told myself, “Hey, I’m a fighter.” Somehow I have managed to recover from the cancers, pain, the surgeries, harsh drugs, infections, and scars.
If you want to help a friend diagnosed with cancer, just be there. Friends can’t make the fact that you have cancer go away. They can’t make it all better. They can, however, help you feel safer. When you’re scared, it’s important to know that someone is there.
I pulled through because of my fighting spirit, belief in God, and because of the skill of the surgeons who performed the procedures to remove the deadly cancers from my body.
If there was one thing I would say to another cancer patient and their family, it would be my favorite quote from Winnie the Pooh. “There is something you must always remember: you are braver than you believe, smarter than you think and stronger than you seem.”
Only the bravest of warriors are given this battle.
Editor’s Note: This article was a letter to the editor of Live Action News.