It’s kind of a blur to me now, this quiet meeting between three people in a sterile, bright hospital room on the first of June. I have a good recollection of the conversation until the doctor spoke the words stage four adenocarcinoma; after that, she was sort of a disembodied, floating, talking head.
Since that day, we have blown through sixteen different emotions, ranging from resolute to terrified. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t experiencing “caregiver guilt” on some level; I half expected my hopeful talk to be greeted with something like, “Sure, you can be a cheerleader; it’s not happening to you.” Of course, I never heard that, and never will, because the Thriller isn’t built that way. Still, it’s the mosquito buzzing around the back of my brain. I need to work on that.
So to begin my chronicle of this journey, I’ll start at, well…the beginning.
Over the last year or so, Michael’s health began a downhill slide, specifically with regard to his breathing issues. All along the way, we both thought it was part of his progressing emphysema: the rough coughing, some shortness of breath, decreased appetite, general malaise. By late winter, he’d lost over 20 lbs. in several weeks. In retrospect, I am horrified that I never once suspected cancer as the underlying cause, but I was focused on his COPD to the exclusion of all else.
Then all of his activities stopped. Things he loved to do, like yard work and taking care of our dogs and cars, were too much for him physically. One by one, his routine chores fell by the wayside. I’d come home from school and find him sitting forward in his easy chair with his elbows on his knees and head hanging forward, just struggling to breathe. It was around that time that I noticed a huge air leak in the sound of his voice, as if his vocal folds weren’t fitting together properly in order to vibrate. He is a chronic sinusitis sufferer, so we decided he needed to see an ENT to find out what was causing his constant coughing issues and hoarse voice.
The ENT examined him and noticed his left vocal fold was paralyzed, and said the nerve controlling it was likely being impinged upon by something. Then he made a startling request: Michael needed to see a pulmonologist. That was the day (4 April, 2017) that I started to really worry that something was seriously wrong (as if emphysema wasn’t “serious” enough). We selected a lung doctor at random from the Cleveland Clinic website, and finally got in to see him on 31 May.
We met with him for maybe 3-4 minutes, max. He looked at the CT scan the ENT had ordered, and informed us that the next stop we make should not be home, but rather the emergency room. We were gobsmacked. This total stranger, in three minutes, had already dropped the word. It looks like you may have cancer of the throat. We were speechless and in shock. Then I flew into mother bird mode, and wanted to get him out of there and to somewhere safe. We thanked the doctor and walked to the parking lot. In the car, I frantically searched on my phone for the address of the Cleveland Clinic ER, while simultaneously fighting the pressing, selfish urge to have a complete meltdown right in front of the person who’d just received the most devastating news of his life. I found some calm and started driving.
Twenty or so minutes later, we arrived. I dropped Michael at the door and parked. Inside, I found him in the processing office and on his way to a room. For the next seven hours, we waited. Test after test later, the attending ER doctor came in and shut the door. He broke it to us as gently as he could that all tests pointed towards cancer — but of the lungs, not the throat. The mass in the back of his throat turned out to be polyps — but I am grateful for those polyps, because had the pulmonologist not mistaken them for a tumor at first glance, I’m not sure where we’d be right now.
Stage IV lung cancer is no minor affliction; there is no cure, and as it’s the most advanced stage, surgery and other curative measures are off the table. We know we’re in for a fight. But we have a fantastic, supportive, loving family, and incredible friends and colleagues who are praying and sending all kinds of positive energy our way. We really like our oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic, and the Thriller is getting the best care in the country. His attitude is 100% “can do,” and even though he continues to suffer physically, his mental state and focus on healing are outstanding. On many occasions, he has comforted me when I have a breakdown about how unfair this is to him. How screwed up is that??
Anyway, our hope is high and our resolve granite; we plan to beat this cancer down at every turn, and we’re ready to begin right now.