AUTHOR: Carolyn Savage | POSTED: February 6, 2011 | COMMENTS: 1 Comment
CATEGORIES: Love This...Not So Much,
It’s been five months now since the word “cancer,” a word to which previously I only gave passing thought and concern, turned my life upside down at the age of 41. My wife Jennifer and I were sitting in our home office one afternoon when the call came. I was confident that all I had was an infected sore in the back of my mouth, but I remember quickly initially thinking, as he introduced himself, that a call from the doctor directly can’t be good. Also, it was Tuesday, and they promised the results by Friday. When do they ever call you earlier than you expect? The doctor was compassionate, but straight to the point. My biopsy had come back positive for cancer. There were more tests needed to determine what cell type, but he wanted to get me this information as quickly as possible. He said it would require surgery and perhaps radiation and/or chemotherapy. There was a strong sense of urgency in his voice about getting to the next steps quickly. I was scared. Jennifer was on another call while I was on with the doctor, but she ended her conversation as she started listening in on mine and saw me frantically scribbling down information and names. She was already trembling. “It’s cancer.” I said. We fell into each other’s arms.
Jen is admittedly one of the worst secret keepers in the world, and I’m not a whole lot better. We’ve just grown into being pretty open people and have always tried to be straight with others, especially our kids and families. So the initial decision that we were faced with – what do we tell our kids – was probably already made up for us by our makeup. We’d tell them first before anyone else and keep telling them everything we know first before anyone else as soon as we found it out. We wanted them to know that we wouldn’t hold anything back from them, that our family unit was strong; and we will get through it together. Honesty and openness creates family bounds that are hard to break; and our kids are of ages (14,16,and 20) and maturity levels that we didn’t have concern that they needed to be protected from anything. So while we had more questions than answers at this point, we immediately planned to tell them what our approach to this unexpected medical situation was going to be. But then came a dilemma for me – what was our approach going to be? What was I going to say to give them confidence that we can handle this? And I learned something very important from this first decision: more often than not, the answers are already inside of you. You just have to trust your heart and let them out.
The first thing I told them was that if this had to happen to someone in our family, I was grateful that it was happening to me because I have always been so thankful for the good health that our family has enjoyed and wouldn’t want to see any of them go through a major illness. The second was that when life throws you an obstacle to work around, you can’t ask “why is this happening to me?” – you look at it as an opportunity to show what you are made off. The kids took the news as well as you can expect, and we were now a family united against cancer.
So I was 40 years old – never smoked or tried tobacco in my life–and I found out I had some kind of cancer in my mouth. Inconceivable? Well, at least a pretty shocking jolt. Still, I pretty quickly convinced myself that whatever I had; I would be OK. I was very hopeful that we caught it quickly – and with surgery and maybe radiation; I could be done with it. I didn’t think that I needed any miracles, just the right doctors and proper treatment. But bad news just kept getting worse for a while. My surgery revealed a tumor in my minor salivary glands to be more than twice as large as they expected; and the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes on the left side of my neck. My cancer was diagnosed as Stage 4 and high grade, putting me at greater risk for more spread and potential return. I started radiation a month after surgery. Radiation to the neck and mouth is a grueling; and the side effects are many. It proved as tough as advertised.
And then, as I completed 29 of the 33 radiation treatments scheduled and seemed to be at the end of the road, a hospital visit brought more bad news. A chest X-Ray revealed that the cancer had not only spread, but exploded in both of my lungs with hundreds of tumors formed and forming. In 25 years, my doctors had seen nothing like this with my type of cancer. We were off the charts now. I traveled to consult with some of the leading cancer doctors in the country. The word I kept hearing over and over again was a tough one – incurable. My most trusted doctor had a very long and frank conversation with me about the realities of how hard it would be to fight this with radical chemo and maybe experimental drugs versus the option of considering trying to get the best quality of life to spend with my family while I still had the chance. Inconceivable? I think we crossed that line now.
When I’m not feeling well or getting bad news, of course it’s hard to stay positive. I’ve had my moments, believe me. But I find that if I just go back to those first two things that I told my children, I can find most of the wisdom that I need to keep my outlook bright. First, be thankful for what you have been given, and I can never forget that I’ve been given so much. Jennifer has become my guardian angel, taking care of me in ways that I would never wished upon her. I have such wonderful healthy children that have given me so much joy over the last twenty years of my life. And the cancer that I have is considered an “unlucky” tumor (that is, not hereditary), so I am grateful that they are likely to remain healthy. Secondly, I remember that every obstacle is a chance to show what I am made of. I am willing to accept God’s will whatever it may be, but I’ve asked Him for strength to fight this battle and be strong for my family. He has delivered that strength to me. I’m a fighter and that I refuse to quit. Our friends and family have rallied behind us and proven to me that there is so much good will in the world. It’s given me so much comfort to know that I’m not in this fight alone. So I go back to the first decision that we made in facing this by telling our children, and I’ve found all the reasons I need to stay positive.
And finally – we received some good news:sometimes fast-moving cancers react quickly to radical chemo. While there was no proven chemo protocol for my cancer cell type, we threw everything we could at it; and after one round of chemo, my chest X-Ray shows markedly less cancer in both lungs. The cancer is responding. Remission has a better chance. While there still is no cure and the threat of it coming back will always be there, I maybe can get a normal life back for a while and have a puncher’s chance of waiting it out until a cure can be found.
I’ve learned so much from all of this and am sure I will continue to do so. I learned that I am much stronger than I ever thought, but that this is something you can’t really know about yourself until you are tested. And by being open about our situation, sharing it with my family and friends, allowing them to come along for the ride and join the fight with us, I am a hundred times stronger. The answer to the inconceivable choice you might be facing is already in your heart. Trust it.To follow my continuing battle with cancer, please visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/chrisdrouillard