You may have noticed I've been scarce around here for a while, and you might have wondered what I was up to. Grab another cup of coffee and pull up a chair, there's lots to tell...
About a year ago, I felt like I had twisted or strained my neck. It bothered me for a while, but I before I made a doctor's appointment, I thought a therapeutic massage might help loosen it up.
So I visited a massage therapist, a nice lady I had seen before. I was feeling quite relaxed when she said:
"I can feel the inflammation where you strained a muscle, but I feel an odd swelling on the other side of your neck. I'm pretty sure it's an inflamed lymph node."
She assured me that people get these all the time, often as a result of things like a shaving cut or fighting a cold, but I might want to visit a doctor if I was at all worried.
I was worried.
A couple decades ago, I might have waved this off and ignored it. However, I wasn't a kid anymore, and remembering what happened to our colleague Joe Galuski, I saw my primary care doctor a few days later.
"It certainly looks like a swollen lymph gland," she said,"and I wouldn't worry about it yet, but let's get you an ultrasound and some tests, just to make sure."
I had the tests on a Saturday, felt great the next few days, then when I came home from the station the following Tuesday, Karen met me at the door. She was visibly upset:
"You need to call your doctor. They found something."
I was told the lymph node was definitely an issue, but there was other stuff going on down in my throat that needed to be evaluated.
And thus began a series of scans and tests, concluding with a surgical biopsy; they had to put me out and dig tissue samples out of my throat. By then, my doctors and I pretty much knew what was happening, but the biopsy confirmed it:
I had throat cancer. It was pretty bad.
The tumor started deep at the base of my tongue, had already spread to that misbehaving lymph node, caused a bunch of other lymph nodes to inflame, and was growing aggressively. My vocal cords were coming into the line of fire.
"We usually see this in guys who smoked and drank heavily for years," said my oncologist.
"I never smoked, never used snuff or chewing tobacco, and the last heavy drinking I did was back in college!"
He shrugged. "Could have been triggered by a bunch of things. We might never figure it out. Maybe just bad luck."
Well, that was encouraging. So, what now?
"We need to start treatment as soon as we can get you scheduled. You have some time to get a second opinion, but don't wait too long."
The second opinion reinforced everything we already knew, so I started radiation and chemotherapy soon after. Years ago, they might have done surgery right away, but the current prevailing protocol is to try radiation and chemo first, unless things are really advanced; I wasn't that far gone yet.
I spent most of last summer getting juiced and nuked. They were using high-intensity photon-beam radiation. If "photon-beam" sounds familiar, you might be a Star Trek fan; when Captain Picard orders the crew to "fire photon torpedoes," that's exactly what they were doing to me, on a smaller scale. I'm not kidding. Scale up the equipment a few orders of magnitude, and that's what the Starship Enterprise would use to fend off a Romulan assault.
I handled the chemo okay, but the radiation was another story. Totally exhausting, serious external radiation burns, and the internal stuff was even worse. Talking was difficult, I could barely eat (I lost more than 30 pounds), swallowing was brutal, and the pain ranged from quite uncomfortable to, on some days, off the scale. My local pharmacist and I got to know each other very well.
The recuperation took a while. I finally started feeling better toward November, but my voice was a disaster for months (I was warned there could be permanent damage). It wasn't until right after Christmas that my voice started to loosen up (Thank you, Santa!), and my doctors eventually cleared me to try going on the air again.
So, I'll resume hosting the morning show this Monday. We're not sure how my voice will handle it, so we'll be doing a slightly shorter show (from 6 to 9 am) until we know that everything is working. I hope I'll be able to return to a four-hour show eventually, but that might take a little while.
Now, aren't you glad you asked?
Fortunately, in the midst of all this, I found a few reasons to smile, even laugh. There were three in particular:
First was when I found out that my radiation oncologist was once a hot-shot on the radiology staff at the Cleveland Clinic... and he knew Dr. Mike Roizen quite well! That was, indeed, a good omen. If Dr. Mike plans to join us next week, I'll have to ask him about it.
Then, there was the mask...
Have you ever been to a film festival and watched the original 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera?
Or maybe you're an old-time hockey fan who remembers Jacques Plante, "The Masked Marvel," the brilliant goaltender who was the first NHL goalie to regularly wear a mask.
If you remember those scary, primitive-looking masks... well, that's what I had to wear during radiation treatments. It was designed to keep my face from moving during photon-beam blasts. Custom-fitted very tight to the face, then fitted with hardware to keep my head clamped solidly to the table. I'm glad I'm not severely claustrophobic.
After a couple of the treatments, I caught a glimpse of a still frame taken from my treatment video -- evidently, they record everything -- and I couldn't help laughing. I looked like Jacques Plante flat on his back on the ice, knocked out after taking a slapshot to the noggin. No, I will not post the video, don't bother asking. (I still have the mask; Karen refuses to even let me take it out of the bag.)
And then, there was my beard, until it wasn't...
The physical measurements for targeting radiation are very precise (they line them up with multiple lasers), and when I was getting measured up the first time, one of the doctors walked in and said:
"No way. Go home. Shave. Now."
Apparently, the measurements are so exact that even the extra thickness of full facial hair can throw things off, perhaps dangerously so.
I went home and did the deed. I felt like I was amputating my face. I almost cried.
The treatments really did a number on my beard follicles, too. Some of them are gone forever, but most of it eventually grew back in full. In fact, my moustache looks even better (go figure). It's funny now.
Finally, there are a bunch of people I need to thank:
Dave Allen, Ian Wheatley, Jim Donovan, and Nick Russo were put in a very tough spot for months, especially after the sudden passing of our friend and colleague Kevin Schenck. They had to scramble, rearrange their lives, and pull double and even triple duty to keep the morning show running and cover all the vacant slots. Thank you, gentlemen. Fine work, and very much appreciated. I'll try and make it up to you.
A number of folks, both station staff and WSYR listeners, managed to convey their best wishes and kind thoughts, even though very few of them knew any details about my situation. I will thank all of you personally in the coming days, and I apologize in advance if I miss anyone.
Finally, I am grateful for the non-stop love and support of my wife Karen. She was my rock throughout this entire ordeal. I don't have the words.
(I will thank Divine Providence privately.)
Well, that's it. I'm officially back on Monday.
Whew, I could use a vacation...