One year ago this week, I was trying from afar to support my dad as he was starting his chemo treatments and to help my mom as she was managing the abrupt changes in her household that cancer was again causing. I was also gearing up for my eighth PMC and my first effort at our team’s Day Zero ride from the New York border to Sturbridge – a mere extra 100 miles piled on top of the main event’s 192. And I was reeling from a followup visit that was not boring enough.
If you have read my blog or are friends with me on Facebook, you will know that my oncologist and I use the term “boring” to describe when I have bloodwork and CT scans that show no evidence of cancer. Last July 14th, I had my regular oncology followup early in the morning. The procedure for these followups were the same back in 1996-2000 as they are today. Get blood drawn. Get CT scan. Wait. Talk to doctor. Boring. Go home or go to work. But this time, it wasn’t boring.
The oncologist actually wasn’t there that day – I spoke with my nurse. She looked at the paper a few times and took a deep breath. It didn’t strike me that something was wrong. I honestly don’t remember what she said, it was something about lymph nodes…. abdomen… enlarged… talk with Doctor…. more tests needed. I was stunned. That was not BORING!
I haven’t shared this part of my cancer journey with many people. Let me jump ahead to the end before I tell the rest of the tale – at my last CT scan in May, the lymph nodes were no longer enlarged or showing any cancer-like tendencies, and we have gotten back to regular monitoring and followup. I am not being treated like I am having a possible recurrence. Back to just being your everyday, average, two-time cancer survivor. That’s the good news.
But I am sharing this story of the close call and the 10 months of uncertainty and discomfort that it caused in our lives because this is not uncommon. As diagnostic technology advances, more people are learning about ‘possible cancers’ or other potential diseases at a very early time. Sometimes, the body just takes care of these things. Other times, the body needs some help. Twice, I’ve needed that help. This episode last summer, it seems that my body took care of it. Who knows how many times my body has just taken care of it?
The stress caused by learning that you may be having a recurrence or may have cancer can be paralyzing. As I rode the PMC last year, I wondered if I would ever be able to do it again. I tried to learn about what the treatment options for round 3 of Andy vs. Hodgkins Lymphoma were going to be. The answer is that it is really serious stuff with some pretty serious risks. I wondered if the stress of not knowing if I was having a recurrence was going to actually going to cause me to have a recurrence.
Somehow, we pushed on. As summer turned to fall and then winter, I doubled down on my cycling training, hoping to spin my legs so hard that the lymph nodes would shrink. That makes sense right? But really, I had to workout to tire my mind so that I could sleep. I spoke with a few different oncologists about how to get a second opinion. All this while going through more tests, scans, and biopsies to determine if the initial results showing “enlarged mesenteric and pelvic lymph nodes” were truly “compatible with disease recurrence” (that’s what the report said). We couldn’t make a plan until we knew if it was a recurrence or not and that wasn’t going to happen until the nodes shrunk or we could identify biopsied cells as lymphoma.
In August, there was a PET scan. Still enlarged and metabolically looking like possible cancer. Then in September, they did a needle biopsy. Unfortunately, the location of these nodes is inside my abdomen and pelvis – they don’t want to do surgery to remove one or some (as they have done both times in the past) until they have more definitive PET results or a more accessible-via-surgery node. The needle biopsy was inconclusive. So we wait. November was a CT scan that showed more of the same. The tension and stress continued to build. I didn’t broadly share this as we went through it because we didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t have cancer. But I didn’t not have cancer either. And if we did find out that it was a recurrence, there would be plenty of time to discuss and share. We had a few close friends and family members to discuss this with, but that too was challenging and, at times, exhausting, just sharing the many steps, options, and results as they presented themselves.
After the November scan, my oncologist said that we would check my blood again in February. Nothing extraordinary there. So we waited until May to do more bloodwork and another PET scan. Certainly at this point, 6 months after my last scan, there would be something different, some movement one way or another. And there was – the report from that PET scan reads “near complete resolution of the metabolic activity previously seen external iliac lymph nodes”. And most all of the nodes were back to their normal size and all of them had shrunk in size. All that to say – my body was taking care of it and that the recurrence was called off.
And all of a sudden, I am expected to go back to the rest of my life. It has taken me a couple of months to be able to have some perspective on this experience and be able to share it. I’ve taken this near recurrence as a reminder about how delicate my health, both physical and mental, truly is. I’ve thrown myself in full bore into cycling – I am nearing my goal of riding more miles before this year’s PMC than I actually rode all of last year (including the PMC and Day Zero). I am taking steps to reduce my general stress level, eat better, and be more fit. I am proud to say that I weigh the same today as I did when I co-captained the 1990 Bangor High School soccer team – at one point, around when we got married in 2002, I weighed fifty pounds more than I do today.
And finally – my unwavering commitment to raise awareness about cancer survivorship and to fundraise for the Pan Mass Challenge and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has somehow become more impassioned. My anticipation for being part of this year’s ride and the Living Proof photo is off the charts. And I am planning something even bigger than a 300-mile, 3 day ride in August for next year, when I will be celebrating being a 20-year cancer survivor, a 10-year PMC rider, and, thankfully, 5-years of being cancer-free. Stay tuned for an announcement after the end of this year’s ride and fundraising.
Thank you for taking the time to read. If you have been kind enough to donate to the PMC already, thank you for your generosity and for helping make cancer history. If you would like to donate and help end cancer in our lifetime, a goal that I know we can achieve, please donate here today! 100% of your donation to the PMC will be used for live-saving cancer research and treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.