One morning in October of 2005, while I was shaving, I noticed a sizeable lump on the right side of my neck. Assuming that the lump was an enlarged lymph node, I immediately made an appointment with my doctor. Within a week, I was being seen by a specialist in otolaryngology, which is medical talk for an ear, nose and throat doc.
A series of tests suggested, but did not confirm, that I might have a form of cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma, more commonly known as throat cancer. But the tests, including a needle biopsy, were inconclusive, and a CT scan of the neck did not reveal a malignancy. Instead, I might have a benign growth.
On December 1, 2005, I underwent surgery for the removal of the lump. It would be a relatively simple operation if the removed tissue was benign, and I’d be back to work in two or three days.
I awoke from the four hour surgery and immediately knew I had cancer, because it hurt terribly when I swallowed. My doctor had told me that if the removed lump was cancerous (so established by a biopsy if the lymph gland while I was in surgery) he would immediately remove my tonsils, as they are statistically the most likely source of the kind of cancer I would then be confirmed to have. And, he had told me, I would be in pain, because removal of tonsils in adulthood is painful.
Pain was what I felt, and for several days morphine was my dear friend, but the pain gradually subsided over the next two weeks. In the meantime, my surgeon, Dr. Greg Farwell of the UC Davis Medical Center, educated as to my condition. That the cancer had spread to a lymph node was not good, he told me, but no evidence of it having spread beyond that point was found in the other lymph nodes in my neck, wich suggested we’d caught it early. The highly recommended treatment was six weeks of radiation therapy, to begin as soon as I healed from the surgery.
I began those treatments in early January of 2006. By then, Dr. Farwell (whom I had instructed to be completely candid with me) had told me that my five-year survival rate was 50%, which meant I had a 50% chance of dying from the cancer and a 50% chance of beating it. (Five years with no evidence of a recurrence of this kind of cancer is indicative of being “cured.”)
The five-year countdown began on the last day of my radiation treatments, February 22, 2006. And so, if the calendar isn’t lying, I celebrated my cure date last week.
So, what was it like? I’d be lying if I said it was a walk in the park. But two tips I received early on helped me immeasurably in getting through it. The first came from my father, who, at 90, was still practicing medicine when my cancer was discovered. Dad told me in one of our earliest conversations at that time never to think about “what ifs.”
“Put those thoughts out of your mind immediately when they start to creep in,” he said. “They are completely negative and destructive of the most important asset you have in fighting the disease, which is a positive attitude.”
His advice made complete sense. I gained nothing by thinking of “what ifs” (What if the cancer returns? What if I lose my voice? What if I can no longer work? What if I die?) Moreover, thinking in those terms just increased my level of anxiety and stress, which could not help in any effort the body might be making to cure itself.
The second tip came from George Nicholson, then and still an Associate Justice on the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento. Nick, himself a cancer survivor, gave me a very simple tip: “Stay busy, Ed,” he told me. “Stay very busy.”
It was a variant of my Dad’s advice, being, essentially, the practical way to avoid “what if” thinking. I had always been something of a workaholic anyway, so his advice would not normally have been hard to put in action, but I was so tired in the aftermath of the radiation (a normal side effect) that I would otherwise have happily consigned myself to the reduced work load I was offered by the good people at McGeorge.
Instead, I took on as much responsibility as they were willing to give me. And, often to the point of complete exhaustion, I worked harder than I’d ever worked before.
That approach to my life—staying very busy and thereby avoiding “what if” thinking—got me through that first rough year. And it was rough, have no doubt about that fact. When they say they almost have to kill you to cure you, they aren’t exaggerating very much.
The radiation killed my taste buds and burned the inside of my mouth and throat to the point that it felt like a very bad sunburn. Eating anything became a major ordeal, and I was at risk of severe weight loss, which would have meant a feeding tube through my stomach, something I desperately wanted to avoid.
Instead, with my wife’s constant care and support (she was truly my rock), I managed to lose only five pounds. I also lost my voice for a time, but both it and my taste buds ultimately came back, as did my appetite. I regained the weight, recommenced my very rigorous exercise regimen and went on with my life.
Many friends and my dear family helped me get through the roughest days, weeks and months, and I am deeply indebted to them all – my parents and siblings, Jeri and my sons, my colleagues at McGeorge, many of my readers, and old friends like Bob Greenberg, my best friend from my youth, who called me every week from his home in New York, to make sure I was keeping a smile on my face.
So now they say I am cured. Of course, I know better. No one is ever completely cured from cancer, or from anything else that hits us as we journey through life. We just move on to the next battle. But, having won this one, I can say that I am truly blessed—and one hell of a lot stronger.