24 October 2018
Nearly a month has shot by since late September when we filed the post, “Final Stretch,” that closed out our Las Vegas-to-Woodbridge, Va., road trip, the nine-day slog we never intended to make. Medical things have incredibly bad timing. To allow anyone now reading this to avoid scrolling all the way back to our “Las Vegas” posts, we arrived there Saturday, August 25, turned the van over to our daughter Kathleen, and flew home Monday the 27th. The next morning we met with a urologist who talked about the “lesion” on my left kidney that showed up in the MRI scan I underwent early on the morning of the mid-August day we left for our On the Road extravaganza.
The radiologist’s report indicated a possible transitional carcinoma. We tried to think it also “possibly” could be something else—not a carcinoma, not cancer, just something, like a freckle, that could be ignored. But now it couldn’t be ignored.
So that was then. A week later I had one biopsy, or an attempted biopsy, which the doc could not complete because the tube from the bladder to the kidney was too narrow for his biopsy tool (enough about that). So he inserted a stent to fix that, and a week later completed the procedure. The next day we flew to Vegas to pick up the van and resume our trip and our not-quite-carefree posts to On the Road.
The day after getting home the doctor gave us the news: it is cancer. The kidney would have to come out.
Cancer. The disease that happens to other people, including younger brother Bob, who passed three years ago of a highly aggressive strain.
In my case, not a surprise. The nurse practitioner who called us as we arrived in St. Louis told us as much, with her warning that we had to come home for the biopsy. It was in her voice.
I wondered whether the doc watches for the patient’s reaction to the news. We said nothing, maybe shifted in our chairs. He went on: I would need a “nephrectomy” to remove the kidney, ureter, and the chunk of bladder where it attaches to the ureter, just in case the cancer cells have leaked down there.
“Risks for this surgery are minimal, but they exist,” he said. “Injury to other organs, infection, bleeding.” But the procedure is a common one, he added, and after a month or so of light duty I’d be back to almost normal. Lots of people have only one kidney, some are born that way. I’m most likely done with ultra-trail running, though.
We called the kids, my sisters and brother, repeating the doc’s assurances that it’s routine, no worries. I sold it pretty well. Our son Michael, the medical physicist who works with cancer, knew all about it. “You’ll be fine,” he said.
The operation was scheduled for October 15. I had to see our family doctor for medical clearance for the surgery: blood, urine, EKG, chest x-ray. I had been there two months ago when the symptoms first hit. He knows about the trail running, the kidney stones, the three-day stint in the hospital after a bad trail run six months earlier.
“You did everything right,” he said. “You drew the short straw.”
That night Sandy drove me to the emergency room with chest pains. The ER doc ordered another MRI. We finished there around 3 A.M., with instructions to deliver the radiologist’s report to the family doc. The next day he ordered a biopsy of the thymus gland, which is near the heart. A few days later I got that done. Today I feel fine.
Then it got complicated The urologist canceled the Oct. 15 operation because he thought I might consider a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins Hospital. That would mean no surgery. I hesitated and nearly bit on that, but decided against it. After a week of leaving messages, I got through to him to tell him I want the operation. Closure.
Cancer makes you focus. Did I really get the short straw? It’s a metaphor, but I don’t think so. For many, cancer is a path to depression, despair, loss of the love of life. We’ve all heard the tragic stories: diagnosis, surgery, radiation, chemo, ravaging side effects, metastasis, palliative care.
But we’re all on that path, cancer or no cancer. The meter is always running. All those common-sense health habits—eating well, working out—are just a holding action. On Ash Wednesday the priest says, “Remember, man, you are dust, and unto dust you will return.” Nothing about life is more obvious. It ends.
I feel great. This little guy sitting in my kidney will go away. Too bad he’ll take the kidney with him. But after all, I’m 69. It’s not really surprising that things start going wrong. But what do you do about it? You recognize it for what it is: part of life. Something to understand and confront. Maybe a little nudge from the Lord, a reminder that this adventure, this gift of the miracle of life, doesn’t last forever. While it does, we ought to make the most of it.
Love those closest to you, love everyone you encounter. I remember wisdom from Thomas Aquinas: “love is the desire for good for the other.” What could be simpler? Make life worthwhile, to yourself, to others, to God. You still go through the operations and take the pills. But all that is just another part of the holding action.
Forgive the melodrama but life goes on. The kids call, we go the gym, we cook dinner, we go out. For the fun of it, I put up our six-man tent in the back yard, we slept out there. Sandy is looking for a job. The other day I went for a short run at Fountainhead Regional Park in Fairfax. Today I coaxed Sandy into a three-mile trail hike at Prince William Forest Park.
I missed a 25-kilometer destination run in Tennessee last weekend I had registered for with three other guys in our local running group, the Lake Ridge THuGs. When I withdrew the race director bequeathed my bib to a local runner named Melissa. Hope she had a great race.