I can still clearly remember the morning after my left orchiectomy, on that cold day in Scranton, PA, in November 1977. Although I vaguely remembered the surgeon telling me "We removed the entire testicle." I was surprisingly pain free and comfortable.
I recognized my surgeon standing next to my mother, at the foot of my bed. Both of them looked very serious, and I realized before either of them spoke that I had testicular cancer. My doctor explained that he believed that the cancer had spread upward through my lymphatic system. He told me that I would require further surgery to remove the lymph glands, vessels, and any affected surrounding tissue in my abdominal area. He also explained that this surgery would be more serious, and that I would be sore after it for a few days.
Throughout his explanation, my mother sat stoically, trying to be brave and strong. I suppose that her demeanor had an effect on me, because I recall telling the doctor to do his best, and that I would do my best, and that together we would beat it.
I had quite a few interesting tests performed on my twenty-year-old body during the next week. I had blood drawn many times each day. The more intriguing procedures were the IVP imaging, in which dye was injected into a vein in my arm, and images of my kidneys were taken. I also remember quite vividly the lymphangiogram, during which incisions were made on the top portion of each foot. Extremely small diameter tubes were attached to lymphatic vessels in my feet, and blue dye was pumped throughout my lymphatic system. This procedure clearly showed that the cancer had spread, as the lymph glands to which the cancer had spread were clearly visible on the film.
On the morning of my second surgery, I was quite tense. My doctor had wanted me to spend the first twenty four hours after the surgery in intensive care. However, I had already been in "my" room at the Community Medical Center for over two weeks now, and had formed a bond with the entire staff. I asked the Doctor to allow me to return to my room after the operation. After conferring with the floor nurses, to my relief everyone agreed. It was only later that I realized the extra burden I had placed on my floor nurses, because after this second operation I would need an increased level of care for a few days.
The post-operative discomfort from my second surgery was intense for three days. My doctor had told me that the first three days would be tough, and he was correct. That did not stop the nurses from beginning my rehabilitation on the day after my surgery. To my amazement, three nurses marched in, disconnected my naso-gastric tube from its pump, unclipped my urine collection bag from the side of my bed, and sat me up! I remember that the initial attempts to have me walk, with a nurse holding supporting me on both sides, did not cover much ground!
Eventually the abdominal pain subsided, my naso-gastric tube was removed, and my strength increased.
Our team now included my doctor, mother and brothers, nurses and staff, and other family members and friends. One of my aunts, in particular, was at my side constantly. We were operating under the "full disclosure principle", so I always knew the status of my recovery.
I knew that my HCG and AFP levels had returned to normal after my second operation. Those of us who have battled testicular cancer anxiously await our latest HCG and AFP test results. These hormone and protein levels give a strong indication of whether we are winning the war. My doctor, who continued to follow my progress, prepared me for my meeting with my oncologist. Although we were confident my doctor had removed all cancerous tissue, he had told me that his "hands werenÃt microscopes" and that he strongly recommended that I begin a chemotherapy regimen.
In order to allow me to recuperate more completely from the operations, and to enjoy the holidays, my initial chemotherapy treatments were scheduled for early January, 1978. My oncologist had explained the course of my treatment. I was to be given high doses of the chemotherapy drugs vinblastine, vincristine, adriamycin, actomycin-d, bleomycin, and finally, cisplatin. The first two courses of treatment would require that I be hospitalized again, for two one-week periods, with some time off in between the hospitalizations. The toxicity of the chemotherapy required that my vital functions be monitored, particularly my heart and kidneys.
I was very sick throughout most of this period of my treatment. I experienced all of the side effects of which I was forewarned, including nausea, vomiting, surprisingly rapid hair loss, mouth sores, and weight loss. But I persevered. I survived the hospital treatment and progressed to outpatient status with my oncologist.
It seems strange, now twenty years later, that I can remember so fully and clearly the events of my cancer treatment and cure. I did not realize it until today, November 28, 1997, that I had begun writing this yesterday, Thanksgiving Day.
I celebrated my fortieth birthday this past October. I have been married for fifteen and one half years. My wife and I and our three dogs live in Tucson, Arizona. Carola, my wife, has just completed her Ph.D. at the University of Arizona. A fantastic achievement. I have so far earned a B.S. in Computer Information Systems, from Marywood College in Scranton, PA, and an MBA from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI. But the best is yet to come. I have enrolled at the University of Arizona as a Molecular and Cellular Biology major. After earning my second B.S., I will be applying to the University of Arizona Medical College, and to the Ph.D. program in Cancer Biology. My hope and goal for the rest of my life is to help others who are fighting cancer, in any form, as an oncologist, researcher, and as an example of someone who not only survived cancer, but succeeded in life.
I would like to offer a few of my own ideas about why I developed cancer, as well as describe the strategies I used to assist myself in the healing process.
From the time I entered eighth grade until the day we moved to Scranton, which was immediately after my sophomore year in high school, I experienced extreme physical and emotional stress due to the deteriorating behavior of my alcoholic father. He became more abusive towards my mother. All of us lost sleep, and I recall that every time I awoke, my hands were clenched. I have often wondered if the increased, continual exposure to stress induced chemicals and hormones during these early years could have suppressed my immune system, thereby allowing the cancer to take hold.
Another theory I have regards a particular job I held when I was between the ages 16 and 17. After school and on weekends I worked at a tire recapping plant. There were particles and strong fumes in the year continually. I wonder if exposure to the airborne chemicals there could have contributed somehow to my illness.
Regardless of how the cancer began, the important aspect of this story is that I survived. Here are a few strategies and tactics I employed which helped me to cope with the initial diagnosis, as well as all aspects of my treatment.
First, I insisted that my doctors be open and honest with me about all aspects of my condition and treatment. This attitude is driven by the personality of the patient and obviously will not work for everyone. In my case, I wanted to be an equal partner on the team, not just a "subject" or patient.
I repeatedly told myself, and anyone who would listen, that I was not going to die. It became almost like my personal mantra. My primary objective was to not leave my mother to raise my three younger brothers alone.
I followed all instructions from medical staff involved in my care, and I listened to their explanations to my questions.
Rather than fight the chemotherapy and its unpleasant side effects, I tried to accept it psychologically and physically as my insurance against the possibility that any cancerous cells were left after the surgery. I also used visualization techniques when I received the chemotherapy, during which I would alternately imagine the chemotherapy as a white light filling my body and killing any remaining cancer.
I remained physically active and in touch with my friends and relatives, which provided much needed mental and physical respite from the treatments.
I sincerely hope that this article can be of use to patients who are dealing with cancer, and also to their doctors, nurses, family and friends, as both a source of hope and information from one happy twenty year survivor!
Stephen Michael Murphy
8140 E. Bellevue Street
Tucson, AZ 85715