Unexplored Territory

Yesterday I went down to the Juravinski Cancer Centre for the first check-up since the end of my radiation treatments. My radiation oncologist Dr. Wright and his resident poked, prodded, peered and perused every corner of my throat, inside and out. The tissues are healing nicely, slightly ahead of the average curve apparently, there’s no swelling anywhere there shouldn’t be, and everything is returning to a colour vaguely resembling the colour it was before it all began. The conclusion: he is willing to go out on the proverbial limb and declare me to be 100% cancer free – with 95% certainty.  The 5% is reserved until after I have a high-contrast CT scan performed in the next few weeks in case it reveals something completely unexpected. Failing that though, I’m done. To quote the good doctor, “Just keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll see you in six weeks”. In two weeks we’ll see if my surgeon is willing to make the same bold declaration.

If he does, it’s a declaration that has me facing some previously unexplored territory – the future.

Let me explain…

I was 14 in 1967 when my Dad decided to explore the family genealogy as part of the whole ‘Centennial Year’ thing. What we discovered was that the males in the Gray family are pretty short-lived. On average we tend to kick off in the mid-Fifties, with the overall average being a ripe old 56. In the dozen or so generations he was able to track down nobody survived past the age of 60. My father did not buck the trend, passing away from colon cancer at that very same Gray family average.

So over the next few years I thought about that from time to time and by the time I reached my twenties I had pretty much resigned myself to the idea that 55-60 years was the best I could hope for. Planning for retirement was pretty much set aside and I started living life with little more than your basic 5-year plan.

But now, it looks like I have to re-jig my thinking. It would seem that there is a new paradigm on the horizon; for the first time in my life I have to seriously consider the prospect of growing old!

I know, to you it sounds strange, but the reality is that I truly had fully resigned myself to dying of cancer sometime in my Fifties. In fact, in some respects I was actually looking forward to it; you know, seeing Jesus and all. When Dr. Wellman revealed that cancer had been found in my cyst back in November there was no shock, no dismay, no fear, because I had been expecting it all along. The diagnosis arrived exactly on schedule just as it did with my father. There were no surprises at all.

However, one thing has changed – medical science. Unlike all the preceding generations, when the inevitable struck me, no one was saying, “This is it I’m afraid. You have x months to live.”  No, instead, there was a very confident team of specialists saying, “Here’s how we’re going to get you out of this.” They laid out a very convincing plan of action and all that they planned has gone exactly as planned, maybe even a little bit better.

There was another difference as well. While my family has always been of the church going variety, faith in God to change the future was never a part of the religious dynamic. Faith was something that carried you through the hard times and gave you the strength to face certain doom with the traditional British stiff upper lip. Disease, misfortune and death were not things to pray your way out of, they were part of God’s mysterious ways and no one seriously expected anything to change.

I however, have been blessed to be part of a praying and more importantly believing faith community. Dozens of people have contacted me to tell me they are praying for my successful recovery; there have been dinners brought to the door, rides to treatment offered and a variety of other expressions of love and support that have, quite frankly, left Roberta and I feeling slightly over-whelmed. And it would seem that all that prayerful support have borne fruit. The cancer has come and gone and I’m still here. Praise God!

Now, before I get a minor flood of emails taking exception to my crediting God in this I will answer your objection right now. I have absolutely no idea why everyone who is prayed for as I was doesn’t get healed. I have no doctorate in theology, no inside track on the details of God’s plans for the Universe, and no pretensions for being anything other than the simple believer that I am. However, I am a believer, and I believe that the prayers of my friends at Kortright and elsewhere have had just as much a bearing on this outcome as the ministrations of the doctors, nurses and technicians at the Juravinski and St. Joseph’s in Hamilton.

And I am immensely grateful to each and every one of those who prayed, cooked, drove, hugged, filled in for, and gave of their time and resources to support Roberta and I over the last 5 months.  You people are amazing!  God bless each and every one of you!

However, that still leaves me facing a future I never thought I’d face.  And though the prospect is actually a little scary, I’m looking forward to it. I now have to actually ponder what I might do with my twilight years. Any suggestions?

Till next time… Shalom.

Side effects may include…

It’s a strange thing when you are doing well means you aren’t doing any worse than average. I had my third review with the radio-oncologist the other day and he tells me he’s pleased with my progress. I suppose I have to take that at face value, but it’s hard when you realize that his standard is based on how bad most cancer patients feel at this stage. Since most people feel the same as I do or worse, he’s pleased because I’m not feeling worse than I am. My pain levels are increasing “pretty much on schedule” and he’s content to continue “farting around with various meds” until we find the combination that manages my pain the best.

I know that it’s my frustration talking but it really is hard to endure some days. I never truly appreciated how small changes in my life could make such a big difference.  I haven’t talked much about about the side-effects of the radiation treatment, so now seems like as good a time as any.

The primary target of the radiation treatment is my throat, since that’s where the tumor was located in what was my right tonsil. However, since the cancer cells that originally blew the whistle were in a cyst attached to a lymph node basically everything from the Adam’s apple up to my earlobes is being bombarded to one degree or another.

Most noticeable is the area at the back of my throat, the traditional ‘I have a sore throat due to cold’ location; although in what can only be described as the biggest pain in the neck since  the guillotine, nothing that would traditionally sooth a sore throat can be used in this case, as all of the traditional remedies will actually aggravate the condition. So no cough syrups, lozenges, citrus based juices, or dairy (yes that means ice cream).

What this all boils down to is swallowing hurts – all the time. Imagine the mother of all strep throat cases and there’s nothing to take for it except Tylenol3, in liquid form no less as liquids are a little easier to swallow than solids. However, the Tylenol elixir stopped working about a week ago and now I’m on another liquid cocktail of various pain medications. Fortunately, it can be mixed with juice so it tastes a little better (I’m using mango) but that’s really a moot point because….

Everything tastes like crap!

Actually everything tastes like tofu on wet cardboard. You see, the radiation has shut down both of my saliva glands, which means I suffer from a very dry mouth. Your taste buds require saliva to function properly, so now, due to that and the radiation thing nothing, and I mean NOTHING tastes the way it used to. Ice cream and all other dairy taste like paste, bread tastes like tofu, potatoes taste kinda like sucking on a wool blanket, you get the idea.  The only thing that tastes normal are a few spices so right now I’m loading up on cumin and oregano just so there is a flavour of some kind.

Dr. Wright assures me that after the radiation treatments stop my saliva glands will heal and return to function, but never back to 100% so while flavour will return things will never taste quite the same. I will admit to a certain curiosity as to just what this implies. Will I suddenly like lentils? Will chocolate lose it’s appeal? Who knows?  A friend who had this same situation had to have most of his tongue removed, taste buds included, and now just eats to refuel as there are no tastes left to him at all.

The dry mouth also has affected other things. I’m drinking a ton of fluids (4 liters + a day) to compensate and there is a special mouthwash that is a concoction of the good doctor himself that helps a great deal, but no fluid except saliva can replace saliva and so there are still things with which one must deal.

My dentures not fitting or tasting right is one. A few weeks ago they felt okay and tasted of nothing. Now they float a lot more and have a definite flavour that occasionally triggers my gag reflex. Lots of fun.

Spontaneous coughing is another one. Although that could be a virus that I’ve picked up on top of everything else, because the radiation has also compromised my immune system. My boss called me and told me to stay away from work today because he has something I don’t need to catch. I wasn’t about to argue.

The dry mouth, non functioning taste buds, and the hurts-to-swallow thing have left me with little or no enthusiasm for eating; which is bad because the radiation is burning up my energy levels which come from the good calories not the fat ones so actually I should be eating more than usual. I’ve lost 10 lbs since I started and that’s about the limit. They tell me I must gain some weight this week. Cue the protein supplements.

The extra fluids are of course giving my kidneys and bladder more exercise than they’ve seen since my college days. (Actually I didn’t go to college but my girl friends did so I went to a lot of parties.) This means a change in habits as I must now never, ever, bypass the opportunity to visit the loo.  Even more fun I must say.

Finally; dry mouth, spontaneous coughing, perpetual sore throat and a tripling of the need to pee do not combine to make sleeping an easy thing to do. Especially since I need to sleep more to compensate for the radiation sapping my energy levels. Cue to sub-lingual lorazopam 1 mg. under the tongue before bed and while I do wake up three times a night to visit the room next door, I do sleep between visits. Thank You!

So, if I seem a little agitated from time to time folks, you now know the reasons why. Like most guys, I’m pushing myself too much and d0 need to rest more, but for the most part I seem to be handling things fairly well.  But that’s only because I’m getting a ton of support. At church, at work, on the Internet and of course from my own dear wife Roberta, the emotional, spiritual, and physical support has been amazing. I can’t begin to express my gratitude.

When I feel my lowest in the midst of all this even just knowing how many people are out there praying for me makes a world of difference. I feel like I need to see this through just for them. And believe me I will see this through. I have every intention of participating in the 2011 Ride to Conquer Cancer with a yellow flag attached to my bike designating me a cancer survivor.

Oh wait… there’s one more thing. The radiation has also killed numerous hair follicles on the sides of my face, so the beard that I have traditionally worn for the last 20 years is now toast. Guess I’m going to have to get used to looking at this face… and so will the rest of you.

So thanks everyone! Until next time …  Shalom!

Don Pardo, Tell Him What He’s Won!

Well, it seems that no good deed goes unpunished has a reciprocal – no stupid plan goes unrewarded!

Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who was going to burn the Koran to mark Sept. 11th will receive a brand new car from a dealership in New Jersey. Now, to be fair, the dealer promised he would as a means of getting Jones to abandon his plan and, like any good Christian, he’s keeping his word. My problem is with a) making the offer in the first place, and b) by calling to collect on the deal Jones continues to reveal his true nature.

It’s no wonder the world at large has such a distorted view if Christianity. The original plan laid out by Jesus, as I understand it, was to create a fellowship of believers that were different from the world around us; different even from others who claimed to follow the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob. It was His intention that the world would notice us by the fruit of His Spirit within us: love, joy, peace, etc.

And yet, time after time, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and everyday believers demonstrate no difference at all between them and the world they oppose. Hatred, egotism, bribery, distrust, violence – all these are far too often the tools the “church” uses to spread the gospel. Is it any wonder that so many people see no reason to consider Jesus.

Why would they when they look at his followers?


A Lesson in Faith

Like many of you I was watching the Chilean miners being brought to the surface the last few days; mostly from my hospital bed after surgery to remove a cyst. What struck me most was the number of men who thanked God for their deliverance along with the engineers and others who made it possible. That these spiritual accolades were more than mere words was made evident by the clutching of Bibles, the sign of the cross, and in one case, a miner taking the time to kneel in prayer before moving on from the place of his extraction. I was moved to tears more than once.

Though my situation was no where near as dire and that of the miners I too felt the strength that comes from my faith. Please understand I make absolute no comparison here between my situation and that unfolding in Chile. But also understand that as I laid in the hospital, the knowledge that there were people out there praying for me made even my minor challenges more manageable.

Our culture is inundated these days with the message that our faith is worthless, that we pray to a God that doesn’t exist.  The skeptics will look at the events at the San Jose Mine and tell you the same outcome would have resulted if there had been no prayer, no Bibles, no spiritual references, just the indomitable human spirit to survive.

I doubt it!

What these men have gone through is beyond imagining. As their stories unfold of the next few months, a nearly endless list of magazine articles, interviews, a few book deals and at least one feature film I’m sure, I am sure the majority of them will tell of how the strength to survive this ordeal came, not from within, but from each other and from somewhere far outside of themselves. The events surrounding the rescue of the Chilean miners are a study in faith and it’s power to strengthen the human spirit with the indwelling of the Spirit of God.

There is much to be learned here. My fervent hope and prayer is that the media will not shy away from the religious context but rather examine its role closely and allow that lesson to be heard, unedited and without editorial comment.