My Cancer Journey Begins - Jan 23, 2014
I'm 45 years old with an active lifestyle and no family history of cancer. So when a cold started at Christmas time, I was annoyed but it seemed normal enough. I was playing tennis and jogging attributing the shortness of breath to the remnants of the cold. After an indoor tennis tournament I sprouted a few cold sores on my lips. Nothing new for me….annoyance, not alarm. I also developed a few bruises, but they came from traumas on the tennis court, so again we explained away any early warning signs of what was about to come.
Separately, my wife had been telling me that I had chronic halitosis and she was concerned with my overall health. She kept saying that I had bags under my eyes, bad breath, and a pale complexion at times. I wanted to see if I could address the bad breath so I moved a scheduled dentist visit up two months to 1:30 on the afternoon of January 23rd. As the cleaning progressed, I could tell - and the tech was saying - that there was a lot of bleeding in my gums. I had noticed that even regular flossing was producing unusual bleeding. By the time the cleaning was over I looked like a vampire after a very good meal. But what I had was a growing pit in my stomach. The dentist came in and was alarmed immediately. I could tell she thought something serious was wrong and suggested that I get a blood test immediately.
I drove directly to the walk in clinic and by 3:30 pm they drew blood and sent it to the lab. The PA was also concerned given the sequence of events and the symptoms. I still was finding it hard to believe it was going to be anything more than a new prescription. I went home and waited for the results to come in. At 5:00 the preliminary tests were back and showing positive signs on Leukemia. Full details would take another 90 minutes, but the shock had already set in. I called my brother-in-law who is a hospitalist in Orlando and starting talking though options with him. When he heard the actual blood cell counts, he immediately jumped on his phone to an Oncology colleague who advised him that I should get myself checked into a hospital pretty quickly. By 7:00, the numbers were confirmed and there was no denying it. Acute Leukemia and I needed treatment in short order.
We live in Vero Beach, Florida which has a great community hospital, but I don't have a primary care doctor (as I'm never ill), and we had no idea about the capabilities in the town. They're building a new cancer center, but completion is still two years off. My wife is a physical therapist and deals with many patients who go to Orlando or the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville for their treatments. We had to make a decision to keep things local to Vero for convenience or go to Orlando where we know the treatment level is going top notch. By 9:00 we were packing up our van, kids, and dog for a road trip to Florida Hospital in Orlando, where in addition to a recommended doctor, we have extended family.
My brother-in-law had jumped in and made all the arrangements during our 2-hr trip, so that when I arrived I was ready to check in and brought right to my room. Now after 11:00 at night he had even called in the lead Hematologist to meet with me personally to discuss my case. We reviewed the sequence of events I outlined and they began to draw blood to conduct their own confirming test. In a matter of 10 hours, I went from unsuspecting guy going to a teeth cleaning all the way to the newest cancer patient at Florida Hospital. The anxiety was high with everyone with all these new unknowns. The grounding force in the room was the Hematologist who laid out the different scenarios that all seem to point to a cure down the road. But without answers, the mind will permeate through all the different possible outcomes, and at least one of them is scary.
Sometimes, positive and humorous thoughts are impossible without a script.
In 2010 Showtime television launched a show called The Big C, the premise described as “a suburban mother faces her cancer diagnosis while trying to find humor and happiness as well.” Cancer, brought to you over 3 seasons in 30-minute segments with carefully worded punch lines and poignancy, with no commercial interruptions. I admit, I never watched it.
But now here I am, a suburban father, facing a cancer diagnosis and searching in every corner of my hospital room for some humor. I have no script. I couldn’t do a retake of my facial expression when I got the diagnosis. No one fixed my hair or make-up before I said the words to my wife, “I have leukemia.” No child actors had to reshoot the scene….my kids cried on the first take.
So maybe my story will not be critically acclaimed….and I sure as hell hope it lasts longer than 3 years. A lot longer. So here, over the next – well, however long it takes – is my story. I hope there will be humor. I hope there will be poignant moments. I know there will be tears. I can tell you unequivocally there is fear. But I also hope – no, dammit – I believe, there will be triumph.
I tell my story not for ratings or Emmy awards. First, I know there are people who want to know what is happening, and this is a good way of getting out the details efficiently. But long term, someone may come here because they have started a similar story of their own. (I don’t wish it on anyone.) Or they have a loved one beginning their journey. Hopefully my story can provide an idea of what to expect so that maybe it’s a little less horror story, and more a drama of hope and inspiration.
Brian Duncanson – aspiring cancer survivor