I can see clearly now

My cancer buddy Ted, who had the same cancer as I but whose first surgery is so far his last, just wrote: “I’m at an event where this song was playing, and my heart went out to you.”

He knew it was my favorite song, my theme song, a song that sometimes reflects where I am in life but other times spurs my aspirations and gives me hope. He sent me this link:

Tomorrow I will be in the hands of the surgeons. I’m lucky to have a great medical team in whom I have complete confidence. About this time tomorrow it will be over, and I will already be healing. So no worries. And if you do think of me tomorrow, think of this song.

Ted, you brought a tear to my eye.

But a good tear.

Nightmares

A curious thing has happened. I don’t normally have nightmares, but I am getting nightmares.

I’ve already forgotten most of them, but one from a couple of days ago was so clear and so vivid, I still remember the details. I was watching a Piper Cherokee take off with full flaps. The nose kept going up and up, full power, an unsustainable angle, and the inevitable happened. The plane peeled over and headed straight for the ground…toward me. I watched as the inevitable crash was about to occur, except the plane did not hit me. It just glanced over me. I did not wake up. The crash happened, there was a loud noise, a hole in the ground, and the wreck came to rest a few hundred feet beyond. Then I woke up, my stomach in knots.

My daughter said that I should take an anti-anxiety pill before I go to bed, so I called the pre-op nurse and asked about it. She paused, measured her words, and said “Ken, it is perfectly normal for someone in your situation to have this kind of stress. You are about to go through a very rough procedure.” I thought for a moment. “Oh. Yeah. That makes sense. OK, no worries, and thanks.” That was all I needed, to know that it was natural, that I was OK, nothing was wrong, it’s just how we’re programmed.

I’ve been wondering if it was like this for pilots in WWII who knew a major raid was approaching. They would know that it could be bad, and they could well die or get seriously hurt or be captured, but on the other hand they might come back without a scratch. I know it’s going to be bad, but I also know I won’t die. So which is worse? The known which is bad, or the unknown which could be much worse, or not. I wonder which would generate bigger nightmares.

Of course, those steely eyed WWII movie heroes never had nightmares, although the privates and corporals they commanded certainly did. A good slap in the face seemed to do the trick. Maybe I need someone to come over at 6am every morning and give me a good slap. I’d make the offer except I’m afraid there would be too many takers.

Here is the interesting thing. Once I’m up and around, I accept that this is where I am and that this is what has to happen, and I can function. But in that foggy land between sleep and wake, the transition from the dreamy state where nothing bad can happen to me to the semi-awake condition where the worries of life are magnified, my mind roils at what is coming up. Sometimes it says “no, let’s not do this anymore, this is not fun, let’s go back to Arizona for the rest of the winter, we were having fun there.” And other times it’s just “NO!!!” My heart races, warmth is carried throughout my body, the covers are thrown, I move, I toss. And then – blessedly – I wake up, start focusing on the tasks that need to be done, work the problem.

And then I’m OK.

Note: A heart-felt thank you to all my well-wishers who have extended encouragement and requested that I keep wasting their time with updates now and then. I will keep updating the blog after surgery, although I’ll be under some pretty heavy medication. Come to think of it, the blog might actually be the better for it.

Cancer: Round Two

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This blog was never intended to be about me. It was about all the interesting people I met, and things I saw and experienced, while traveling around North America in a motorhome towing a Jeep. Unfortunately, cancer de tongue intervened last summer, and way, way too much of this blog since then has been about my cancer journey. When I was found to be cancer-free, I was looking forward to never having to write about me again.
Alas, as readers of my last post know, cancer-free does not always mean free of cancer. I am the proof.
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To those who read this blog to find out what fun things we have been doing lately, stop now. This post is not that.
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To those who know me and want to find out what is happening with my second round with cancer, here is more information than you could rationally want to know. Feel free to hit the delete key. I support your decision and, frankly, will never know.
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One week ago, a biopsy confirmed that I have tongue cancer once again. On March 5, one-half of my tongue will be removed (a hemispheric glossectomy), and replaced with tissue from my arm to fill in the part that is missing (a “free flap reconstruction”). The new portion will have no function other than to exist. It will not move on its own, there will be no muscles in it, no taste buds – it will simply go along for the ride, but there is a medical consensus that it is better to have it than not. They will also perform a neck section, basically removing the lymph nodes in the neck.
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The surgery will last about 8 hours and I will remain in the hospital about a week. The reconstruction will be done through the neck, and to avoid problems with swelling they will do a tracheotomy so I can breathe regardless. The trake will likely come out before I am released from the hospital. I will have a feeding tube for about a week or possibly more. A speech pathologist will be actively involved in my recovery, mostly to help learn how to swallow again. Speech comes later. I will have no voice for the first 2 or 3 days. After that, I should be able to mumble; within 2 or 3 weeks I should be able to communicate intelligibly. There is a lot of variability in how people recover from this, but I am hopeful that I will be able to articulate and enunciate almost as good as now, but there is no way to know. There is a separate recovery path for the arm since they will be removing not only skin but also an artery. Typing may be a one-handed process for a while, but ultimately it should heal well with some physical therapy.
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Radiation will likely be recommended, but that is a decision for later not now, in part depending on what they find during surgery. Based on the side effects, both during and after radiation (loss of taste and enjoyment of food and drink are among them), I will have to give that a lot of thought. Hopefully the surgery will be so successful, and the margins and lymphatic tissue so clear, that they will not recommend it.
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No question about it, this is not going to be fun. But the clock will continue to turn, the dates on the calendar will change, and by April or May life should be getting back to a new normal. In 2 or 3 months, my surgeon expects I will be healthy enough to get back on the road again. That was better than I was expecting.
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In the meantime, I still have a lot of notes from past trips, so who knows? Maybe I can still crank out a post every now and then about past trips until I can start traveling once again, writing stories about the fascinating people I have met and interesting things I have seen.
Good-bye for now, but not forever.
Ken
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Persistence

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My stupid cancer has returned. This picture has nothing to do with that. Just thought something beautiful would be appropriate here.
The good news is that after this next surgery, I should finally be able to talk and eat again without pain. Even Mexican food. Especially Mexican food!
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Cancer-free, it seems, does not mean free of cancer. It means a scan cannot detect it. The scans after the first surgery led to the magic words: “you are cancer-free.” Apparently though, some lingering cells, undetected by the scans, got busy and decided to throw another party in my tongue.
We caught this second cancer early. Re-excision (the next surgery) will involve removing the cancer and some additional tissue around it. They may need to do some reconstruction of my tongue by importing tissue from somewhere else. I was thinking about James Earl Jones – I wouldn’t mind sounding like him – but they say it has to be from my own body.

The lesson from all of this is the value of persistence. Never, never, never give up. (The actual quote from Churchill is “Never give in, never, never, never–never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”) Take it from me or take it from Winston, the point is the same: persistence.
Persistence: First, of course, just because you have cancer (again), don’t throw in the towel. Just get busy and and do what has to be done. Work the problem, as they say in the flying business. But second, don’t take no for an answer. The first time around, after 5 health professionals had told me they didn’t know what it was but it was not cancer, the 6th took me more seriously and found it. This time around, a biopsy and scan in the Fall did not detect it. But as the symptoms started worsening in the last month (pain on contact with food or teeth, and sensitivity to spicy food) I pursued it relentlessly so that the people in masks with surgical knives in their hands can now go back in and kick all the remaining party-goers out of my mouth.
We have some logistical issues. Our home is in Portland, we and our motorhome are currently in Phoenix, and the potential places where I might have the surgery are in Portland, Tucson, and Houston. Time is of the essence; this is not a cancer that patiently waits until surgery is convenient. So, it is time to get busy. Work the problem.
But not to worry avid readers, I am fine. I was prepared either way. Disappointed yes, but not discouraged. After all, I have Mexican food to look forward to again when I get past all this.
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Dispatch from the Field: Searching for Aliens in Roswell, New Mexico

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I came to Roswell in search of aliens. If I was the head of tourism in Roswell, I would be inclined to promote the connection. This of course is where the little green men were taken after their flying saucer crashed in 1947. But to my surprise, Roswell instead prides itself on being the Dairy Capital of the Southwest.

I went to the local Starbucks to find out where the little green men were, and met Leah instead:

IMG_4682Leah works at the Electric Coop which supplies the power needed to keep the little green men refrigerated until the authorities can figure out what to do with them. Instead of Roswell, she encouraged me to go to Artesia instead. “They have statues all over the downtown, plus a great craft brewery.” I asked her where to find it and she replied “it’s half way between the aliens and Carlsbad Caverns.”

I asked her if people around here are getting tired of being known only for the UFO/alien connection. She said “kind of, but there are a lot of big companies that are leaving the area and we’re trying to focus on tourism to bring people in.” I told her they could sure do a better job of it, and told her about the decrepit sign coming into town that says “Welcome to Roswell – Dairy Capital of the Southwest.”

Instead of going to Artesia, I went to the Farmer’s Country Market (motto: “Better Meats And Produce Than Any Whole Foods”) where I met Richard. Playing guitar in front of the store is what he does; he especially likes it when kids come by and watch, and listen. He has schizophrenia, but he’s OK because of the meds he takes. I told him never stop taking them; I have heard too many horror stories from friends and clients about loved ones who did quit. He said he lives on his disability payments, and does this for beer and cigarette money. He agreed to let me take his photo and I gave him some money. “This is for beer not cigarettes” I told him.

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By mid-morning my search for aliens was unsuccessful, but I had worked up an appetite. At the Cowboy Cafe, they pride themselves on comfort food. My breakfast consisted of a bowl of gravy, a bowl of grits, scrambled eggs, a biscuit, chicken fried steak and – their specialty – chicken fried bacon. I am not kidding. Fry up some thick-sliced bacon, then dip it in batter, then deep fry it again. It’s in the upper right of the photo below.

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I did finally find aliens – at the UFO Museum in downtown Roswell.

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Proof positive that aliens exist:

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Proof positive that aliens visited ancient cultures and made doors for the inhabitants:

Proof positive that aliens prefer Coke:

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The museum actually contains a substantial number of fascinating exhibits, artifacts, and lore. They take no position on the existence or non-existence of extra-terrestrials, but present a lot of evidence that gave pause to my skeptical predisposition.

So, despite the wonderful resources in the museum, and my own personal search, which consisted of looking around the RV park, I never did find an actual extra-terrestrial in Roswell.

But I did find one back home in Oregon, where in McMinnville they host an annual UFO Festival (motto: “Second Only to the Roswell UFO Festival”). Judy, below, had recently adopted this baby alien, and everyone in the coffee shop took turns holding it. The next festival is May 14-16, 2020.

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Dispatch from the Field: Houston – art deco wonderland in a city with no planning, a graffiti artist paints a jet and the city pays him to do it, and what is a Kolache?

The 1940 Air Terminal Museum

Anything goes in Houston. You want a build a tractor dealership right next to a residential subdivision, go ahead. I know. I saw it. “Dear, will you pick up the kids from school today? I have to walk over and pick up the John Deere.”

Oddly, the same town that allows you to build anything anywhere has done a great job preserving its art deco buildings from the mass execution of which most communities are guilty. Preservation Houston has a website (http://www.houstondeco.org) and has published a book detailing over 100 examples that still remain.

Case in point: the original Houston Municipal Airport Terminal still exists as a museum dedicated to preserving its art deco architecture and commemorating aviation in Texas. It is named, appropriately, the “1940 Air Terminal Museum.”

When I walked in, there were three volunteers, which was exactly three times the number of visitors, including me, they had had all day. I thought I’d take a quick look around and then go grab a Kolache but volunteer John insisted on giving me a personal tour. John used to work in upper management at Continental, which had been based here, but retired when he found out they were merging with United. My retired airline pilot readers will understand.

He told me that the airport, actually just a field back then, was started in 1920. In the 1930’s Howard Hughes was based here, and had a number of hangars filled with the best and most modern airplanes. One of them was the plane he flew on a record-breaking flight around the world in 1938. The City was so proud of his accomplishment, and the fact that he built and paid for their first control tower, they named the airport after him. That lasted for less than a year. On learning that they would lose all their federal funding if they kept the name, they changed it back to Houston Municipal Airport.

The terminal building was completed in 1940, but almost died in the late 1970s when the new international airport was built about a hundred miles north of town. A small group of people worked hard to preserve the old terminal and use it to showcase things like a quilt made by Continental employees/spouses memorializing the airline before its death, err, I mean merger. Each quilter took a segment, and it was then sewed together. The flags represent each country where Continental had flown.

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The picture does not do it justice. It covers an entire wall.

My favorite artifact was a model of the Cessna 310 airplane flown by Sky King in the tv series of the same name. John said the 310 was actually Songbird 2; the original Songbird was a WW II Cessna T-50 that was used to train navigators. Made of wood and fabric it was derisively referred to as the Bamboo Bomber. John asked if I remembered the niece’s name on the show. “Sure, Penny. Do you remember the dog’s name?” I asked. He didn’t, but neither did I. I told John that I loved the show as a kid, but when I watched a DVD of it a few years ago I thought it was terminally lame.

When John agreed that I could take his photo, I told him I’d like to take it in front of his favorite artifact, and he chose the original rotating beacon from the control tower Howard Hughes built in 1929:

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I was puzzled why chose that until he told me why. He said you can tell it’s from Texas because there are two bullet holes in it.

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Ahh Texas, the land of concealed weapons and open carry. Yet, just about every building has a sign at the entrance that says you may NOT legally bring in a firearm even if you have a permit to do so. So it seems Texas is the land where you can bring a gun anywhere unless you can’t.

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As I was leaving, volunteer Larry asked if I wanted to see some things they have locked up in a hangar nearby. I jumped at the chance. On our way, he showed me one of the most interesting pieces of public art I had ever seen. This is Larry, the 1940 terminal building in the back, leaning on a painting that was created on a business jet:

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The story behind this amazing piece of art displays a hipness I had not expected from Houston. There is an artist around Houston, whose real name is Mario Figueroa Jr., but is better known as GONZO247, who “strives to educate communities through engagement, advocacy, and street art /mural tours in order to promote the positive aspects of the…art form.” Meaning, he’s a graffiti artist.

The museum acquired a decommissioned jet, and with a grant from the city, commissioned Gonzo to transform it. “When I first saw the jet, I couldn’t believe that it was going to be my canvas! I have transformed cars and even beer silos, but this is a project of a whole different scale.”

Here’s Gonzo in front of the canvas before painting began:

 

Gonzo at work:

Mario Figueroa Jr., aka GONZO247, has been busy painting a 1969 Hawker jet near the 1940 Air Terminal Museum.

Now if they commissioned Gonzo to paint the terminal building, well there you would have something.

Larry took me to an inauspicious building and opened the door to what turned out to be the oldest hangar on the field. There was a treasure trove of artifacts. He showed me air traffic control equipment that had been the state of the art when I was learning to fly but now looks like it was built by Thomas Edison. There was an old Model A fuel truck, simulators from decades ago, and other oddball items. He saved the best for last: Sky King’s original Songbird – a Cessna Bamboo Bomber. The real deal, not a model. If only the tv series wasn’t so dorky, I’d watch it all over again to see Sky King’s old airplanes.

One other thing Houston has preserved from its ethnic past – Kolaches. Never heard of them? Me neither, so off to the Kolache Factory I went.

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Kind of like a Beerock or a Calzone or a Verenika, if you took any of those and rolled it up in a ball. The dough was tasty just on its own, but you have your choice of any number of fillings. I had bacon, egg and cheese, but I was tempted by the Texas twist on a Czech specialty – the Brisket Kolache. Next time. Which might be tomorrow.

(11/14/19)

 

Dispatch from the Field: Miles and Miles of Texas.

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A note to those expecting this to be about some off-beat character I met in a coffee shop, or some fascinating place that only I and thousands of other travel writers had discovered, or some other road trip insights that you already knew but somehow are willing to give me credit for observing: this is not about that. BUT, there is hope! Stay tuned.

It seems I had been living in denial that I had (or had had) cancer. The diagnosis came so suddenly, the surgery so quickly, and the results showing everything was clear so promptly, it did not feel like I had cancer. No oncologist was involved, no follow-on radiation, chemo, or other treatment was even discussed. Just come back every 2 or 3 months for monitoring, they said. It felt more like they had removed a wart or a mole or something, got it out, and that was that. Isn’t cancer supposed to be a big deal? The surgery was nasty but it just didn’t seem real to me that it was cancer.

Nevertheless, my cousin Herb and long-time friend Bob had a clearer understanding than I and encouraged (that’s the polite word, it was actually more like demanded!) that I go to Houston for a second opinion on further treatment from MD Anderson Cancer Clinic, the best cancer clinic in the world. (OK, let’s just say one of the top two to avoid argument.)

We decided to make an RV road trip out of it. The trip was long, but with one exception, uneventful. My navigator’s power seat failed, leaving her with her feet dangling over the entry stairs for a day and a half until she got on her hands and knees, looked under the chair, and found that a cable connection had come undone. I put tab A back into slot B, and she got her footrest back.

Stress levels sky-rocketed as we entered Texas, not so much due to the pending medical appointments but because every single freaking city in Texas is undergoing dozens and dozens of miles of massive road construction resulting in excessively narrow temporary lanes that dipped and dived with lane markings that went everywhere, just like the nut cases that were flying around me as if I was a Honda Fit and could stop like a sports car rather than a 35 foot long, 32,000 pound motorhome.

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I hadn’t worried too much about the weather, since this is not hurricane season nor is it the time of year for Houston’s famous heat and humidity. Clouds loomed as we entered Houston’s obligatory 30 mile road construction project, and we arrived at Lakeview RV Resort to balmy temperatures and a light drizzle. Before I had completed hooking up the motorhome, however, the wind came up, the rain came pouring down, and the temperature dropped 20 degrees and was getting colder. It turned out that a massive cold front had come straight down from Canada (thanks cousin Ted), with sleet and freezing temperatures in the forecast. We had made it just in time.

I began to wonder what the MDA people were going to say. They are the world leaders in big C Cancer research and treatment.  Would they say this is a big D Deal and advise radiation or re-excision (a euphemism for taking out another 10% of my tongue)? Those were the only options unless they agreed with my Oregon doctors to simply monitor the situation.

Tuesday morning the wind chill was below freezing as I walked into the enormous MD Anderson complex. Image result for pictures of md anderson cancer centerAll of a sudden the realization hit me: every single person in this building has cancer or is involved in treating it. No more denial. This is the big C, I am here because I had it, maybe still have it, and all options are on the table. This is real. With a big R.

The exam room was cold. I put on my Oregon Ducks sweater. When the PA came in he smiled and said “that sweater will not necessarily get you better treatment, but it won’t hurt.” My assigned doctor, Dr Gross, had trained and practiced in Portland before he moved to MDA. My choice of sweater was not a coincidence.

“When patients come to us for a second opinion after having already had their cancer surgery,” the PA continued, “we don’t always get complete records or cooperation from their treating surgeons. In this case I want to compliment your OHSU doctors – they gave us complete records and a full report.” Apparently, everything I told him matched what they had written. The MDA team felt comfortable they had the full story.

Dr Gross came in. My first reaction was that he was so young! As we talked, my perception of him changed. He exuded competence and had a great bedside manner. He examined my tongue and mouth. He said everything looks good, the problems I’ve been experiencing are normal for the healing process.

We reviewed the options. The tension built. It was time for him to give me his recommendation. The envelope please…and the winner is…

“There is no right or wrong answer for what we do now. There is some debate about it. Everything looks good now, it’s hard to argue for more treatment. At this point I would be inclined to sit tight.”

Monitor!

The magic word! Every 2 or 3 months. Forever. It seems that inflammation from my big RA arthritis had set the table at which the stupid cancer came in to feast. That uninvited guest is gone. Another may come. But all the same, no radiation and no re-excision at this point.

I asked what are the chances of me getting another stupid cancer, I’d heard 12 to 20%. He thought and gave me an answer based on my situation not the averages: “I’d say a little under 10%.” I’ll take those odds!

BUT, all of this was subject to the results of a new CT Scan he ordered. If it came back positive, all bets were off. After an already long day, I headed to Diagnostic Imaging and had the scan. It was late at night when I drove back to the RV, physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

Wednesday it felt good to just veg out and try not to think about it. What will be will be. Que Sera Sera.

Thursday I was confident I would hear from him. I did not. Anxiety began to build.

Friday, I called to follow up. The assistant checked my records, and then hesitated. I would need to talk with the doctor. (Not good.) She said she would send him a message. I had to do something to take my mind off of what was taking so long, and we decided to head to Space Center Houston. Late in the afternoon the call came while I was in the bowels of the Space Shuttle and was outside of cell coverage. I checked my voicemail when I came out. The results of the CT Scan were in:

All negative. No cancer.

That evening, we celebrated the results, knowing that many are not so lucky, but appreciating that, for now, we are in the clear. We have been in limbo for months, not knowing whether to plan the next trips or sell the motorhome. Now, it’s time to break out the maps and tour books.

Let’s boogie!

This is the LAST of my cancer posts. This blog will now return to its roots: writing about some off-beat character I met in a coffee shop, or some fascinating place that only I and thousands of other travel writers had discovered, or some other road trip insights that you already knew but somehow are willing to give me credit for observing.

A special note of thanks to all who have traveled this cancer journey with me. Many thanks to lawyer buddy Bob who greased the skids and got me into MDA and made me go. Thanks to cousin Herb for his continuing coaching and assistance in figuring out what is happening and what I should do. Thanks to Cancer Buddies Ted and Jerry who gave me their support and shared their experiences, as they continue on their own (former) cancer journeys. Big time thanks to Dr Dellinger (who humored my complaints long enough to actually look at my tongue) and Dr Clayburgh (my cancer surgeon who jumped into action and saved my life). Big thanks also to all my family, each of whom has been supportive and loving, but most of all to my navigator, friend, companion, lover-doodle, encourager, tolerator, and wife, Carol. She keeps me grounded, is steady when I am ready to go off the deep end, and goes with the flow – even when the flow is like a class IV rapid. I love you babe.

#KenLicksCancer: a post-script

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Today was my two week post-op. All is going well. Eating and speaking are uncomfortable but no longer painful. I can eat most anything I want, and activity is no longer restricted.

About 10% of my tongue was removed – more than I had thought. People tell me my speech is almost normal, though to me it feels like I just left the dentist’s office after a filling.

I will not need radiation or chemo, however the usual cancer rules apply. Regular follow-ups, and I will not be considered cured for 5 years. If it recurs, it will typically be in the first year or two. 

The hashtag (#KenLicksCancer) is from my daughter Kate, created when things were bleak and we did not know how this would end up. Her confidence and optimism, and that of the rest of my family and friends, helped a lot.

But the hashtag is inaccurate. I did not lick this cancer, my medical team did. My job was easy: whatever they thought was best, I said OK. They did the hard part.

I made it through with the love and support of my family and friends, as elegantly symbolized by the heart-shaped cushion at the top of this post made by my granddaughter Hannah, who also gave me a note that touched my soul.

Many people have been thinking of me during the past month. Many prayers have been offered for healing, although one person apparently screwed up and prayed for a big hematoma under my jaw instead. All were nevertheless appreciated.

This whole experience was surreal – 30 days from diagnosis to removal to confirmation that they got it all. But my experience was unusual. Many readers have shared their own cancer journeys with me, and those of close family and friends. Most were more arduous than mine and many did not end well. I am lucky. I know that and hope that sharing my journey did not cause heartache for those who were not so lucky.

One other thing helped me get through this: this blog. Writing helped me crystallize my feelings at various times when it felt like my life had been tossed about like a mobile home in an Oklahoma tornado. Without my dear readers, I would not have had this blog, and without this blog I would have been unable to process what I was going through.

So thank you my family and friends, and my avid and casual readers now spread across 43 countries, for helping me get through the dark clouds and find a bright, bright sunshiney day.

 

#KenLicksCancer

This blog is usually devoted to interesting people other than me. I travel a lot, and wherever I go I find things to write about. The last few posts, however, have been about my personal journey. A journey that began on Friday, July 19, when I received word that I had cancer of the tongue.

In the future, this journal will return to the search for the quirky, the unusual, the fascinating – but not me. However, since so many avid readers have expressed interest in learning about my cancer journey,  I will share one more post about it.

I write this from the OHSU emergency room. Two days ago, I had surgery to remove the cancer and take samples (biopsies) of nearby lymph nodes to make sure it had not spread.

Removing part of one’s tongue produces some interesting challenges, such as chewing. The tongue, it turns out, is a tool, although in the hands of some it is a weapon. As a tool, though, you use it to push food around your mouth, to line up that food for chewing and then placing it in the queue for swallowing. When a chunk of your tongue is removed, it takes a while before your mouth, throat and tongue figure out how to deal with each other again.

In the meantime, you are on a strict liquid diet, until you graduate to mush. It’s only been two days and this is what I have learned so far: first, the 2019 vintage of Ensure is pretty good stuff; second, a good Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is an essential component of a liquid diet; third, the second one was a total bald-faced lie, because you are on such high-powered pain meds that a good glass of wine might be your last. So it’s back to Ensure and pudding and the fabulous chicken broth that your daughter-in-law made just for you and who cannot believe you did not add any salt to it but loved it.

About pain meds. I have a some experience in the pain department, having had RA (arthritis) since 1960.  I have also had five surgeries over the years and in each one I have declined any pain medications. No Oxy, no Percocet, no Vicodin, no drips, no pills, no nothing. I was not trying to be a hero, I had just learned how to detach myself from the pain in my affected joints. This time, however, it became immediately apparent that the pain from this procedure was another octave higher, and it was impossible to detach myself from something as close as my tongue and jaw.

So bring on the pain meds! And do you know what? They work! What a revelation! I am now two days into using OxyCodone and tylenol, and I am already worried about becoming hooked on it. That is healthy and suggests that I won’t. But I can certainly understand how people who get relief from major chronic pain do not want to ever stop taking what helped them. In my case, the tongue and surrounding area will heal. This pain will not continue, nor will the need for high-powered pain meds. But I still have a healthy concern about it. Which means I think I will be ok.

Talking is another challenge. It took hours before I could stand the pain of uttering anything, and what came out sounded like Daffy Duck saying “sufferin’ succotash.”

Only wetter.

Speaking of which, I have picked up a new competitive sport: drooling. Do not challenge me on this – I have become an expert. You will lose. And think hard before coming to visit. Dress appropriately.

But the body wants to heal itself. One of the doctors told me that half of medical treatment is just keeping the patient occupied long enough to allow his or her body to heal itself. My new, sleeker tongue will make friends with my mouth and throat, and a speech pathologist is coming to see me tomorrow to help me learn how to talk and swallow again.

But all that healing will take some time. Last night was a rough night, and today the doctor told me to head to the emergency room to check on a hematoma that appeared to be growing. A flock of medical people flew in and out of my room, confirming that all was healing nicely, but deciding that I should remain in the hospital for observation overnight. So I sit here in a private room in the ER, writing this post, taking up space that could be better used by those lying on beds out in the hallway. But the ER nurses like me, mostly because my needs are pretty limited right now, and they don’t want to give me up to a hospital room upstairs.

Earlier today, my doctor brought some news. He’s a good doctor. Under-promise, over-deliver. He initially told me that it would take a week or two to get the results of the biopsies (the pathology) from the surgery. They didn’t. They came back today.

Clean.

He got all the cancer out, the margins are clear of any cancer, as are the lymph nodes. I am cancer free.

Check!

If you have cancer, do you still have to follow the rules?

 

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My dad said that after you turn 8o years of age, you don’t have to follow the rules anymore. I never figured out which ones, because he didn’t break any that I could tell.

A long time ago I was following an old Cadillac whose driver didn’t notice that the light ahead had turned red, and he barreled into the compact car ahead of him. The Cadillac bounced back from the crash, and then moved forward hitting the compact again, and then again. I stopped my car, put on the emergency flashers, then headed over to the Cadillac. I helped the elderly and severely inebriated driver put his transmission into park, and then went to help the woman in the compact get out of the car and off the roadway so she didn’t get hit again by someone else.

The man slowly got out of the Cadillac and then staggered around in the traffic lanes essentially oblivious to what he had done. He just kept saying “I just found out I have cancer,” over and over. He said it in a way that sounded like it excused what he had done.

I had no sympathy for him. The police showed up, I explained what I had seen, and they took over.

Clearly, drunk driving is not an appropriate response to a cancer diagnosis. Yet I have found myself, having been cut off in traffic or tailgated, or otherwise having been subject to inconsiderate conduct, mouthing words such as ‘oh come on man, give me a break, I’m going in for cancer surgery next week.’ It isn’t a Dead Man Walking situation where you get to eat anything you want the day before you are executed, but I have found myself experiencing a little sense of entitlement, like maybe that I should be able to go through the express lane at the grocery store even though I have 17 items.

So, self-pity can come easily. But you go down that path and you end up feeling worse, and like the drunk in the Cadillac, you get no sympathy.

I’ve found some things that do work.

First, I try to always keep a smile on my face when I’m around other people, and laugh easily. Last night we met a couple at dinner and when they had to leave, he looked right at me and said “Ken, every time I see you, you are always smiling – I like that!” I thought to myself, ‘if you only knew.’ But he felt better being around a happy person, and I did too. Some times I have found that even if I am not happy, if I pretend to be I will often become happy.

Second, someone recently said if you find yourself in a major crisis that could consume you, find someone who is worse off and try to help them. Focusing on other people will help you forget about yourself. I am remiss in not yet having found the venue for this, but I’ve still got about 36 hours before my cancer surgery so there is still hope.

Third, just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time. After all, you might die because the guy behind you in a Cadillac just got diagnosed with cancer, got drunk, and barreled into you without touching the brake. So take heart and enjoy the time you have, be it days, weeks, months or years. You never know. So get out and have some fun.

So there you have it in a nutshell: Ken’s rules to live by:

First, drunk driving – bad.

Second, making other people feel better – good.

Third, enjoy yourself while you can.

And even if you have cancer, you still have to follow these rules.