On June 21, 2017, I received the type of news that literally knocks the wind out of you.
After visiting an oral surgeon who advised I get a CT scan in an attempt to determine why I was experiencing pain in my jaw, I was diagnosed with Stage IV Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma, a fancy name for throat cancer.
Within a few days, a PET scan revealed that the tumor had originated in my right tonsil and had spread into my lymph nodes. Although the diagnosis was grave, my oncologist insisted that head and neck cancer was treatable, and with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy, I had a good chance of beating it.
I knew I’d fight it with everything I had, and that’s what I did.
In the weeks that followed, I received 35 bouts of radiation and three rounds of chemotherapy at the highest possible dosage.
The radiation itself was not that terrible, however the after effects have been brutal. As the days progressed eating and drinking became more difficult and I was forced to rely on a feeding tube that was inserted through my small intestine.
I hated that feeding tube, but for a month and a half it provided me with the nourishment that I needed to live.
Then there was the chemo.
The first batch wasn’t terrible, but the last two were rough.
The chemo left me severely nauseous, more tired and weak than I’d probably ever been and unable to do much other than lay on the couch and sleep.
As an active father of three – my kids are ages 3, 6 and 8 – the fatigue was probably the most difficult part as my family still needed to participate in “life as usual.” There was school, work, soccer and football games, housework, etc. – as all of us working parents know can be exhausting without cancer. The beauty of children, however, is they are resilient and forgiving. They still seemed to look at me as the same old daddy – maybe just now a much thinner version. When I would explain to my 3-year-old daughter that I was sick, she would insist on me going to see Doc McStuffins who she was certain could get me healthy again.
Initially post treatment, in late September, I was healing and getting stronger each day. Determined to ditch that dreaded feeding tube, I ate everything I had been craving – nachos, hot dogs, hamburgers, chili, sushi and most everything else. I had started to gain weight but have
recently regressed a bit which is all part of the process. I now suffer from trismus, a condition that prevents my mouth from opening more than a few millimeters due to the radiations effect on my jaw. Also the radiation has caused extensive damage to my soft palate and it now does not close all the way, which makes it difficult to eat or drink without substances coming back out through my nose. It also has resulted in a speech impairment which can make the job of a reporter difficult.
But, like the rest of the year, this too shall pass.
From the beginning of my cancer diagnosis, my support system has been what has kept me going.
My family, neighbors, co-workers and friends have been my anchor and overwhelm me with prayers and words of encouragement as I battle this disease.
The Crestdale Middle School community, where my wife is the assistant principal, has been unbelievable. Throughout this ordeal every few days a different staff member would arrive with groceries, a hot dinner, or gifts for our children. One staff member made rosaries for all of our children that I have hung on their beds.
I am so grateful for my support system as I truly believe I would not be where I am today without their prayers and encouraging words.
My wife always says that life is 10 percent about what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.
It’s true, but the people that have supported me and my family have made my response that much easier. To this day I get texts of encouragement and see people – some of whom I hardly know – out and about who shake my hand and tell me they’re praying for me.
As I reflect on my year I have come to realize the impact of love and compassion on healing. Although I am far from out of the woods, I truly would not have made it through some of my darkest moments without such a caring community.
That’s what this time of year is most about and why, despite a not-so-good year, I’m more thankful than ever.