Dead Man Talking
By Brian N. Walin
After living with my cancer for many years now, I have met several cancer patients along the way. Most have some other type of cancer. Only a few have the same, rare tongue cancer that I do.
What makes this story so difficult to write is the fact that most tongue cancer patients I have met along my journey are no longer with us. Squamous carcinoma of the oral cavity is responsible. This is an extremely aggressive cancer that leaves the recipient with a 50/50 chance to live five years, after being diagnosed. If it has infiltrated the lymphatic system, it can further worsen those odds by an additional 25%.
In 2007, after being diagnosed myself, I began to aggressively fight back. I underwent several operations to remove the Stage IV venomous growth along my left lateral tongue and the floor of my mouth. Cancerous lymph nodes were excavated from my neck. An uncomfortable tracheotomy allowed me to breath. The corners of my mouth were filleted open to allow access to the project within.
Body parts were rearranged: a skin graph from my thigh covered the hole that was left after removing a skin flap from my forearm that was then used to fashion a new tongue. Dangerous radiation and cancer killing chemotherapy followed…more invasive surgery to my oral cavity and a two and a half year engagement with a life sustaining feeding tube protruding from my belly.
After months of speech therapy, mouth and tongue exercises, food modification, depression, and mounds of mind-numbing medication, I’m exhausted. I’m still alive, winning my battle, and eating some solid foods, but always concerned cancer will strike again and I will repeat this dance anew.
The clock is ticking. Half of my time here is gone, according to statistics, yet I am still cancer-free. In my mind I fear the evil will return. I think that is a fear all healthy survivors have. You live day to day with that cancer cloud looming overhead. I’m free, but am I really?
Every time I lose a fellow tongue cancer patient, it’s a staggering blow that brings me front and center to the harsh realities of this dreaded disease. I personally don’t have an issue with dying. I’ve faced that road before. It’s the suffering, pain, and overall loss of the quality of life that goes along with continual treatment that is an issue for me. Horrifically, “life altering” does not begin to describe the reality of the situation.
Many friends and family members of cancer patients ask themselves, “What do I say at a time like this? How do I react? What can I do?” or even, “Why?” as they watch their loved ones suffer a slow, agonizing defeat.
First, let me go on record to say there is no answer to, “Why?” It is what it is! It isn’t anybody’s fault. It’s not a punishment, nor is it anything you have total control over. For those of you with controlling personalities such as myself, let this one go!
Having been close to death a few times now, I feel I can give advice as to how you should treat a cancer patient. Just treat us as you always have. No matter how bad we look or how weak we are, we want life to be as normal as possible. Save the tears, we don’t need them. Jokes are a good thing, laughter is best. Reminisce about the good times, and hugs are always welcome, if not longed for.
We are no different with or without cancer, even if we have no hair! Be honest with us and yourself. We know our odds aren’t good. Don’t make things worse by throwing a pity party. Now is not the time to hide from the truth. While life hangs in the balance, emotions are raw. Don’t say or do things YOU might regret later AND say all the things you wish to say, before we are gone. We need to hear them now.
We need a caregiver and patient advocate who is strong and caring and understanding of OUR wishes and not those you think we want. If others object to the plan in motion, remind yourself, these are our wishes, not theirs. This could be our finale, our last goodnight, and therefore needs to be our choice how things should be managed.
Personally, I don’t like to be fussed over. I prefer to do as much as possible for myself, even if it appears I’m struggling. I will let you know when I need help. I need that independence to get my strength back. If I let you do too much, it’s like saying, “I give up!” which is never a good thing. I think it’s essential for a cancer patient to remain emotionally strong and independent to survive, if not be down right stubborn.
I’m compelled to write this, because once again a fellow tongue cancer patient’s life hangs in the balance. The harsh realities are rearing their ugly heads. Bob Pemberton, is a friend and fellow tongue cancer patient. I met Bob after I completed my last surgery, while still sporting my feeding tube. We had a long “talk” about life with tongue cancer and the necessity of a feeding tube.
Bob, is someone I look up to after being through so much more than I have at this point. When I now look at Bob, I see what my future might be. He’s like the senior classmen and I the novice freshman student.
I generally maintain this blog to surround readers with my life and my cancer issues…Me, Me, Me! But, today I am inclined to open up the door and let Bob in. Not just Bob, but other readers and fellow cancer patients. I thought I would set the stage and have an open, raw, discussion with a man who is facing a death sentence. Something has compelled me to do this. I can’t tell you why, but I think either selfishly I need it, or I feel that others need to hear it. Especially those who are healthy and think they have something to worry about. Perhaps we’ll even touch on the meaning of life.
For me this is a personal project. I wanted to enroll the help of several people who are also surrounded by cancer in some way, to interview Bob. My goal is to obtain an open and honest dialog about doctors, treatments, and what it is like when you’re not sure if there is a tomorrow. For those of you who get upset because you get caught in a traffic jam, or have lost your home or job in this bad economy…look out, this might just change how you view the rest of your life!
If you had the opportunity to ask a dying man life altering questions, would you, could you? In Part 2 of this blog post you will find six seasoned cancer veterans who volunteered to step up and ask Bob some riveting and emotional questions. Bob has agreed that EVERYTHING is on the table for discussion. This has not been easy for any of us involved. So, stay tuned for the most enlightening story I’ve ever written.
©2009 Brian N. Walin (All rights reserved)
LINKS: PART 2 - PART 3