2003, in hindsight, was one of the best years of my life. At the time, it seemed pretty awful.
It got off to a really bad start. In December 2002, my second relapse (of Hodgkin’s lymphoma) was diagnosed. The first one was diagnosed in October 2001. My original diagnosis was in December 2000.
January 2003 started off with getting second opinions as to what I should do next. My physician at the time, Dr. C (names have been changed to protect the innocent) at a cancer center in Connecticut, told me that an allogeneic bone marrow transplant would be an option, but its chances of success were unknown. He gave me names of other doctors I should talk to, Dr. M (at a cancer center in New York City) and Dr. F (at a cancer center in Massachusetts). We made the appointments and hoped for good news.
I knew my situation was grim. Given I was originally diagnosed with the most advanced stage of the disease, and relapsed twice in two years, statistically, I was screwed. I was also 37, married and had a seven year old daughter.
I pretty much convinced myself cancer was going to kill me. Though I got into remissions, cancer came back twice. I saw no reason why attempt number three would work. I’m a pessimist, if you haven’t guessed.
After my second relapse, I remember looking at myself in the mirror, studying myself, thinking, “So, this is what a dying man looks like. I’m dying of cancer, and this is what I look like.” At some point, I don’t know what sparked it, but when I looked at myself in the mirror, I thought, “I’m not dying, I’m living.”
In this topsy turvy emotional landscape my wife and I saw Dr. M. He had few questions. Dr. M told me, “There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just come out and say it. You’ll never get rid of this disease.” That is the easy way to say it. He could’ve told me, “This disease will kill you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
I remember chuckling this nervous laugh. I think I asked him, “Really?” It was all so unreal, like I was a character in a bad play. I was watching someone else in the room, but it was me. I remember half laughing my way through the rest of the meeting.
Dr. M told me an allogeneic bone marrow transplant would be a waste of my time (and he apparently didn’t think I had much to waste). He’d never had a Hodgkin’s patient cured by one. He suggested I get on a trial of monoclonal antibodies, because, he told me, “You might get lucky.” I should’ve asked him what he’d seen in my chart that made him think I had any luck.
Dr. M was very helpful in suggesting I take a combination of gemcitabine, Navelbine and Doxil (GND). He said they wouldn’t cure me, but they might get me back into remission. They were all FDA approved drugs, and his cancer center was doing a trial to see how well they worked on relapsed Hodgkin’s.
A week or so later, we saw Dr. F. He was of the same opinion as Dr. C. An allogeneic bone marrow transplant may, or may not, work, but it was my last chance at getting cured. He agreed that the GND would be worth a try. At least we got some cheerier news in Boston, that I might actually have a chance of being cured.
Long story short, the GND got me back into remission in early March 2003. Contrary to Dr. M’s opinion, I had the allogeneic bone marrow transplant in May 2003. The most important person in my life was (and I guess, still is) my daughter. I was going to do anything necessary to continue to be her father. Kids learn from their parents, not by what we say, but by what we do. I decided if I couldn’t teach Kaitlin by how I lived, I was going to teach her by how I died, by going down swinging.
I got through the transplant relatively unscathed. I took a year off from work, had many doctor’s appointments, gradually built back my strength and slept a lot. There were times when I feared the cancer was back, but it hasn’t happened yet.
I can remember my conversation with Dr. M like it was yesterday. It’s changed my life, almost as much as dealing with the cancer itself. It was a bucket of ice water to the face. Dr. M was like the grim reaper, looking at his watch, tapping a foot, just waiting for me to drop. I’m sure he’s saved many lives during his career, but if I took his advice, it probably would’ve cost me mine.
There are times when I need to decide what to do, or how to approach a situation, and Dr. M’s voice starts ringing in my ears. He’s a reminder that my life, no matter how old I’ll be when I die, is finite. I have to do my best to do the right thing, make the right choices, be the best husband, father, son, brother and friend I can be.
Given my cancer experience (complete with Dr. M), and the fact cancer killed my brother in 2006, I’ve decided I want to spend the rest of days doing something, in some way, that will help others (now or in the future) with cancer.
At the time, 2003, was pretty awful. It was filled with fear, anxiety, dread and suffering. But it was also an excellent year, filled with hope and love. I hope it was the year I was cured of cancer.