February 2, 2009. Like the birthdates of my child and grandchildren that’s one date I won’t forget. It was the day I got a phone call informing me that I had cancer. Seeing as how I’m still here 12 years later, I’m pretty lucky. Some people get a cancer diagnosis and they’re gone in a matter of months, maybe a lot sooner.
My cancer journey started one day in December, 2008. It was a typical day, like any other. I was in the shower, getting ready for work, when my soapy hand felt a lump in my groin, on the left side. It was small, but hard – very hard – like a pebble or a marble. I never felt anything like it before. It had me worried. Later, I went online to see what might be the cause. At the end of the list of potential problems was cancer. The next day I made an appointment to see my primary care doctor, with whom I have a relationship spanning many years.
At the start of the visit the doctor asked me what was wrong, and I told him. I also asked if it could be cancer. “What makes you ask that?” he said. When I told him I went online to see what the problem might be, he said, “Listen to me. Don’t go online trying to diagnose yourself. It’ll just cause you worry and stress. Let the doctors tell you what’s wrong.” From that day on I avoided looking on the Internet for answers to health problems.
I felt fine; no aches, no pain, no symptoms whatsoever. The doctor said it might be an infection. He prescribed an antibiotic with a return visit in two weeks. The lump was still there when I went back. He sent me to a surgeon for a biopsy, which was done in late January, 2009.
The surgeon’s office called me a few days later, and confirmed that it was cancer. Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. My head was spinning as I took in the news. How did I get cancer? What will happen now? Am I going to die? They set up an appointment for me at Penn Medicine Oncology Hematology.
After I hung up the phone I just sat there, trying to calm myself down. The first person I needed to talk to was my daughter, and I had to do it in person. I headed out to her house three blocks away, but first I stopped at my favorite watering hole for a burger and a couple of beers. The whole time there I felt like I was in another world, my mind a million miles away.
My daughter opened the door, I walked in, and I said, “I have something to tell you.” She knew right away something was very wrong. When I told her she started crying. My grandsons, who were 6 and 3 at the time, started crying too. It was painful, but it was at that moment that I found my true strength and resolve. I told them not to worry, that I would fight with every ounce of strength I had, and would beat the disease for good.
The next week I went to my appointment at Penn Medicine, and met my oncologist. The first thing he said to me was, “We’re excited to get a patient like you. We have a chance for a full cure.” The cancer was detected very early. The doctor called it, “low grade.” The weeks and months that followed were filled with CT and PET scans, doctor visits, blood tests, and chemotherapy. The first chemo session was rough. I was in the chair pumped with IV drugs for more than six hours. My daughter, who drove me there, sat with me the whole time. I kept telling her to go, pick me up when I’m done. She stayed until the end.
The aftereffects – nausea and fatigue – started kicking in over the next few days. The cure felt worse than the disease. My hair soon started falling out in clumps. My weight dropped dramatically. Some days I didn’t have the energy to do much of anything. Still, I pushed hard to stay active, determined to keep cancer from ruling my life. Gradually, I walked longer distances, had lunch or dinner with family and friends, played some pool, and hung out with my grandsons. Around other people I acted like it was no big deal. When they asked how I was I just said, “OK. I’m doing better.” But, late at night I would often lie in bed staring at the ceiling, and worry about what might happen.
After finishing the treatments six months later I saw the oncologist every two months at first. As I continued to improve, I started getting four-month checkups. I went into remission that lasted 10 years. In 2011 I went back to work full-time, on my feet during 10-hour shifts. I looked a lot better by then. Few people suspected that I was a cancer survivor, although if I came across anybody who was battling cancer I told them we had something in common, and volunteered to share my experience with them. In 2013 the doctor recommended maintenance chemotherapy. It consisted of one treatment every two months for two years. They weren’t as bad as the first round of treatments. Just one IV drug for around 90 minutes. I arranged days off for the treatments, and went back to work the next day.
The doctor told me early on that if the cancer didn’t come back within five years my odds of staying cancer free would improve significantly. Once I made it past that milestone, and another five years, I thought I was in the clear.