Monday, March 20, 2017

CC17: Thank You

Since the beginning of ABSOT, I’ve used Saturdays to let others share their feelings about my diagnosis. Today, it’s my turn to give thanks.

To Dr. Maurer, Nurse Jenn, and my healthcare team at HOAF -

Chemo is not a fun time. Period. However, you all made it as enjoyable as possible. Even on days that I wasn’t feeling great, especially when I was both the youngest and the most vomit-producing patient, each of you made me feel comfortable.

I liked getting to chat with you about my life and hearing about yours. Some of those conversations are not fit for publishing here, but they put a smile on my face. That’s perhaps the best part of being a patient with you all - I felt like you got to know me as a person first and a cancer patient second.

Being a cancer patient was still a huge part of our relationship. When I experienced a setback, of which there were many, you were there with advice and medicine to help me get over that hurdle. Ringing the bell at the end was a bittersweet feeling. I was glad to be done with the treatments, but I wouldn’t get to see you guys daily. However, I’ll be sure to stop in soon. Thank you for the best medical care and your friendship.

To my mom -

This is what happens when you take
selfies on my phone without permission
I’m not the world’s easiest son to deal with (though I am the world’s best son). I’ve always known how to push your buttons and drive you to the brink of insanity, but I know you are always there for me no matter what. When I told you that I might have cancer, your first words were, “What can I do to help?” Even though I live three states south, you were willing to come down to care for me for as long as I needed during surgery recovery and later chemo. Whether it was driving me for treatment, cleaning up my vomit, or doing my laundry, you did whatever I asked without complaining and with great compassion.

Words can’t express how appreciative I am of your visits down here, although I wish they were under different circumstances. You happen to be here this weekend, and it’s the first time we’ve seen each other since finishing chemo. As I type this on Thursday evening, I’m sure it’s a wonderful time. I’ve saved my laundry for you to do, if you’re in the mood (for old time’s sake).

Thank you for all you did for me. I really feel like we got to bond while I was out of commission and I’m glad we did. I will truly never be able to repay you for what you did for me. However, I promise when you get old and senile that I will put you in a slightly nicer home than I was planning on before going through cancer. I love you.

To Mallory -

Cancer was, and remains, one of your biggest fears. It’s touched your life in many terrible ways, and you have a right to fear it. Your view of cancer is probably what prompted me to take that initial lump more seriously than I may have if we were not together. Thank you for that awareness.

Despite you trying to do everything possible to prevent it, cancer was in our home. I know it must have terrified you, but your strength through it amazed me. You managed to care for me, our pets, the house, and yourself all at the same time (with help from my mom). I knew I could be vulnerable with you and you would be there for me as my rock.

It’s a cliche and sort of weird thing to say, but cancer strengthened our relationship. It helped show us what is important, and it’s not arguing over whose turn it is to do dishes (plot twist: it’s always yours). What matters is being there for each other all the time, no matter what. I don’t know what the future holds for us, but I know that together we will do great things, and this experience has helped bring us closer as a couple. I love you.

To my other family and friends -

I know I am doing a disservice by not individually thanking each of you, but there are far too many people I need to thank to properly do it justice. From diagnosis to remission, I received a ton of support in various ways: texts, calls, emails, gifts, cards, food, and so much more. (And Dad, your endless ball-related puns always put a begrudging grin on my face, while Kyle's asking if I was ready for Mexican masked wrestling brought a confused smile to my face.) Each showing of care helped me tremendously in my healing process.

Oftentimes, a simple “How are you doing?” was the greatest gift you could give me (although Deadpool pajamas are pretty awesome too). Hearing that you were sharing my story and helping to spread awareness was an even better feeling, especially when Courtney told me she was making this year's "Strike Out Cancer" softball game dedicated to testicular cancer and me. You all helped me make my cancer bigger than just my own battle.

I had a great support team in all of you. Some of you have known me my whole life, some have been in my life for a few years, and some I have never met face-to-face. However, each of you played a vital role in my journey. Thank you for the kindness, care, and compassion you showed me in a tough time in life.

This concludes the Chemo Chronicle section of my story. Posts from this point onward will be labeled as Post Cancer Life (PCL). 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

TBT16: The Next 18 Days (Friends/Family Edition)

During the eighteen days of “down time,” I also had time to catch up with family and friends, amidst the final days of working and baseline medical procedures.

When I got home from my port pre-op appointment on Friday, November 11th, I realized that, in addition to being home alone, I was also on my own for lunch. It was liberating. Someone else had been making and serving my meals since the surgery, and this would be the first time I would fend for myself. I ended up heating up a bunch of leftovers, which was a small victory.

Other signs of normalcy appeared during these eighteen days. On Sunday, we went for our wedding cake testing. It was a nice change of pace - something light and cheery instead of more devastating news(Although, designing a wedding cake still is not my definition of fun.) However, I wasn’t able to forget about my diagnosis for long, as I was struck with a pain attack from my incision nearing the end of the consultation, causing us to need to leave. Mal needed some things from Target, but I needed to get home to ice my incision. I tried making plans for her to drop me off and then go, but she didn’t have time. We argued back and forth about how she could do both, but ultimately, we couldn’t make it work.

It really upset me to the point of tears (not that Mallory was to blame.) I’m usually extremely independent and can solve problems, but now, I was practically useless and at the mercy of my diagnosis and all it entailed. I wasn’t allowed to lift things at all, couldn’t bend over very much, and now, it seemed I couldn't even solve a minor problem. It wasn’t the actual event; it was the culmination of my feelings of frustration paired with the realization this would be my life for the next few months. It was a reminder that life still wasn’t really back to normal. One minute, we’re planning our wedding; the next, I’m doubled over in pain.

Despite setbacks like these, for the most part, life was appearing to be normal. John came to visit on Saturday, November 19th. It was nice to see my friend, even if my port and incision stopped us from doing much. We spent the time together playing Call of Duty, watching Deadpool, and competing on a practice Praxis (teacher licensure) exam, a tradition we have had since college. I know, we are super cool. On Sunday morning, I was not in too much pain or discomfort, so we ventured out for breakfast and Wal-Mart. It was only the second time (the first time being to see Dr. Strange) that I had left the house since this all began for something other than work or a doctor’s appointment. It was a seemingly normal activity, but again, reminders that I was still a cancer patient were still present, as I had to use one of the motorized carts in Wal-Mart to help with mobility. Nonetheless, it was a nice change of scenery.

The rest of my family arrived the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. My parents had a new king mattress for us, and we had to get it upstairs. Under normal circumstances, I would be one of the powerhouses to get it up and over the railing, but I still wasn’t allowed to do strenuous exercise. As a teenager, I would do just about anything to get out of doing work, but now, I wanted nothing more than to help. It was yet another reminder of how things were changing in my life.

I was also beginning to feel tired throughout the day, especially in the evening. A side effect of cancer is general fatigue, even before chemo begins. This was the first “real” symptom of cancer I was feeling, beyond that first lump in my testicle. I regularly felt tired around dinnertime now, but on the first night my family was in town, I didn’t want to go to bed quite yet. My family has been an avid follower of Survivor, and they wanted to watch an episode. I made it about halfway through before I was too tired and had to go up to bed. Another surreal moment of “normalcy” that was skewed by cancer - watching TV as a family, only to be outlasted by my father (who normally falls asleep around 8 pm).

The next morning, I woke up and Thanksgiving was upon us. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because I love food and there is no pressure of gift giving involved. Although I wanted to get chemo started as soon as possible, I was glad I could have this meal first.

The feast was glorious, with turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, rolls, stuffing, and piles of other delectable food. I stuffed myself fuller than normal, with the nagging reminder that food would soon be losing appeal to me echoing in my head. It was a different sort of Thanksgiving. Normally, we are with my grandparents and extended family in Allentown, PA, or Pittsburgh. However, once my port was put in, I was not supposed to travel due to the risk of infection.

Despite this mandate, I did get to join in for some of the extended family fun. On Thanksgiving Eve, my aunt and I set up a Google Hangout with my grandparents. She handed them the phone, saying, “Want to see a picture of Justin?”

I sat still, pretending to be a picture. After a few seconds, I sprang to life and said, “Hi Grandma!” They were tickled by it, and I got to talk to each member of my extended family. Despite my inability to be physically there, I was happy I was still able to be present in some way with them.

Up to this point in my journey, things had been moving very quickly. However, these 18 days were somewhat back to normal. I went to work (although I had to teach from a chair and used a cane). Friends visited (although it was a more tame visit than normal). I spent Thanksgiving with my family (although we weren’t with our extended family in Pennsylvania). It was surreal - on the outside, things appeared to be mostly normal. On the inside, I knew life was about to change in a drastic way.

To sum it up, it was 18 days of false normalcy.

This is the last post in the series. To continue reading my story, check out the Chemo Chronicle posts, which detail my chemotherapy experience.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

CC16: The Cost of Cancer

$100,855.72

That’s nearly three years of my salary. Half of my mortgage. Roughly four new trucks. Approximately one-tenth of a wedding in 2017 (just kidding, but they are crazy expensive).

It’s also how much it has cost to defeat cancer over these past few months. That’s a crazy figure. Oftentimes, it’s said you can’t put a price on a human life. Essentially, now I can.

That figure doesn’t even take into account the gas money to and from the clinic, the fees from freezing my sperm, random food runs when the mood hit me, pharmacy prescriptions, and other miscellaneous comforts in the long journey that was chemo.

To be fair, all those prescriptions set me up with a
really cool medicine pyramid now. 
Luckily, I don’t have to pay the full amount out of pocket. I would literally have to take a loan out to do that. My bank account would barely put a dent in that, especially if I wanted to have electricity, running water, and food still. My insurance is covering the bulk of the bills and I am responsible for only a few thousand of that staggering figure.

However, I was not prepared to spend even hundreds, let alone thousands, of dollars on medical bills. (Before cancer, buying a house and planning a wedding were my financial goals for 2016-2017.) I have always been really good with money, saving, and budgeting. Even so, like most people, I didn’t have a line item for keeping cancer at bay. I am appreciative of the medical treatment I received, and I know it was a worthy cost.

However, all these bills pouring in, paired with the fact that I had to take thirteen unpaid workdays in February, causes me more undue stress. Part of me can’t get past the injustice of it. I didn’t do anything to cause myself to have cancer, yet I am still on the hook for thousands of dollars of medical bills.

I’m also not entirely sure what exactly I owe and to whom. My insurance company told me a set amount that would end my contributions to bills, but I received one bill from my initial surgery that was over this amount. When I called the insurance company to question them, they said that the claim had been improperly processed and I shouldn’t pay it. I keep getting bills for it, but I work through the business hours of the hospital and the insurance company and can’t call to figure out how much I owe. Becoming adept at bill paying and navigating automated phone menus is a skill I need to improve.

I hate asking for help and I never want it to feel like I am using ABSOT as a platform to solely benefit me in any monetary way. However, I am also a realist. I simply can’t afford to foot all of these medical bills by myself. There was a GoFundMe set up and both my former and current schools did fundraisers to help defray the costs and I am incredibly grateful for all of these contributions.

As I conclude this piece, I’m left wondering about those who do not have insurance. Would they be responsible for the full cost of treatment? That’s a wholly unnecessary burden on someone who doesn’t need it.

I am not a very political person, but I wonder what changes to the Affordable Care Act will bring to me (or other patients and survivors) if I ever need to change in insurance. Even though I am in remission now, I still need surveillance scans and follow up visits for the next year, which means more bills.

When talking with a friend in Australia, he said all bills are taken care of by the government. Wouldn’t that be a nice reality to have?

Although, I’m sure this comes at a price of having the risk of a dingo eating your baby.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

HBA15: Andi's Reaction

The staff at our school was called for an after school meeting the other Friday.  Anxiety was setting in as we checked each other for any facial clues to determine what this impromptu meeting was about.  After ten more minutes, a teacher started to tell us about “Justin” and immediately I thought he was killed in a car accident!  I am pretty sure by everyone’s expressions that many feared the same.  When she continued and informed us that he had CANCER, I personally kind of phased out.  My mind immediately went from “Good, he did not die in a car accident” to “this is only a slight step above”.

My experience with cancer is very fresh, as I lost my dad in August.  I saw first hand how quickly this dreaded word earns the fear it spreads when it is spoken.  At that moment, there was no fluffy optimism screaming that Justin is young and will beat the crap out of this!  Instead, my hearing got muffled, and visions of my dad overrode my thoughts.  My head was screaming that Justin is too young and that is far less acceptable than my father at 73 years old.  I am never known for my optimism, and the hands-on experience from this past summer did not help.  I “heard” that Justin had already come out of surgery that same day and was getting scans to see if it had spread.  I only thought of his new job, new house, and soon-to-be wife.

Disbelief was the first word of choice.  Fear of what news would come next was soon to follow.  Last, before leaving this meeting, was guilt over the lack of communication with my friend once this new school year had started.

Andi taught the third graders that I inevitably wound up with at my old school. We had a strong bond - that of masking emotions and ridiculing events we didn't like. I also threaten to kidnap her daughter on the regular.


Testicular cancer isn’t just affecting me; it’s affecting those closest to me. Every Saturday, one of my friends or family members will be sharing about their reactions to my diagnosis.  I hope these posts serve as a reminder to talk to the men in your life about performing regular self-checks and their health in general. Together, we can lessen the impact of testicular cancer. Check out Healthy But Aware posts here

Thursday, March 9, 2017

TBT15: The Next 18 Days (Medical/School Edition)

The span between my meeting with the oncologist and beginning chemo represented the longest period I would go without a major development (I hoped.) Within that time, I still had a lot to get accomplished: pre-op and placement surgery for my port, the chest CT scan, a lung function test, and a chemo orientation (which didn’t sound nearly as fun as college orientation.) Additionally, I would teach as many days as possible and would need to arrange medical leave and for a long term sub. On the surface, it seemed like it was going to be a pretty normal eighteen days.

On Friday, November 11th, Mallory had to work, so I was left home alone. I realized this was the first time I would be left alone for an entire day. Under normal circumstances, I enjoy my solitude and I was going to make the most of it...until I got a call to schedule my pre-op appointment for my port placement. The office was able to schedule me for the same day, so I drove myself there. At the office, there was an older woman who asked for a “hand sock” because her hands were cold. Little moments of humor like this made me smile. It was good to feel like life was back to normal, even as I sat in the waiting room of yet another doctor’s office.

Returning to the classroom also helped to restore a sense of normalcy and gave me an opportunity to be independent through teaching. I would be teaching Monday through Thursday and the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. On the Monday I returned, when I shared details of chemo, my students had about 45 minutes’ worth of questions. Some may say this was wasted time, but their inquiry was driving good discussion. I was able to dispel their misconceptions about cancer (no, it’s not spreadable). I was in pain from time to time during the school day from my incision, but it was manageable. I knew I was going to be cooped up in my house for a while, and it was empowering to do what I do best.

Probably the most memorable moment while teaching those few days was from "Charlie." He’s a student who works hard and mostly keeps to himself. "Charlie" took it upon himself to make me a care package. The attention to detail was amazing. He got me many Avengers toys to cheer me up, soap to stay germ free, a blanket to stay warm, and lemon drops. When I asked him about the lemon drops, he said, “When I was researching about chemo, it said sometimes it gives you a funny taste in your mouth. I was hoping the lemon drops would help with that.” The smallest gestures showed that the students were looking into my disease at home and that they truly cared.

Though most of the week continued as normal, on Friday, it became clear to me that this was a false sense of normalcy - a small break before the real battle began. That morning I had my port put in. (I explained the purpose of the port in CC01, which you can read here.) While I was put completely under for my first surgery, I was merely sedated for this one. I was actually talking to the doctor and nurses during the surgery. Aside from some slight discomfort, I didn’t feel any pain during the procedure. I was shocked, because they were threading a catheter into my veins. I would have assumed a degree of pain would have been associated with that. The sedation kept me nice and relaxed.

On Monday, November 21st, we had the chemo orientation with Nurse Practitioner Candace Sullivan. My mom went with Mallory and me to the orientation (she had come back and would be staying with us for the foreseeable future to help care for her little boy while he was sick). Chemo orientation was more similar to college orientation than I initially thought. We had my class chemo schedule explained, learned the rules and the side effects of binge drinking chemotherapy, got a tour of the campus chemo area, and met with the financial aid office accounts representative. Also, I got a free cup with the college oncology office logo on it!

After the orientation, I had another CT scan to establish more baselines. I arrived two hours early to drink the contrast dye, only to find out that there was no dye needed for a chest CT. Luckily, they were able to fit me in early, so I didn’t have to wait around all day.

When I left the appointment, I noticed I had a voicemail. My final baseline, a pulmonary function test, was scheduled for Tuesday at 11 am, which was to be my final day with my students. It was the only slot they had before chemo started, so I had to do it. I also knew my kids would be scared if I had told them I was there on Tuesday and then suddenly wasn’t, so I spoke with Brian and swung a half day of teaching.

In the morning of Tuesday, November 22nd, I had my pulmonary function test. One of the first things the respiratory therapist told me was that, “I would be sucking and blowing harder than I ever had before.” Essentially, the purpose of the PFT was to measure my lung capacity, power, and exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. A potential side effect of chemo is lung damage, so this would provide a baseline to compare to after the treatment was over. I had to breathe in a variety of ways. “In, in, in, now out! Slower, faster, harder! In, out!”

"Charlie's" card
After completing the test, it was onward to my last day of teaching for 2016. I wasn’t sure how the kids would respond, but I was ready for anything. I arrived to find the half-day sub was thrilled with their behavior. She had nothing but positive things to say, which was great to hear. We came together for one last class meeting. I showed them my port (through my shirt, don’t worry!) and fielded more questions. Various students and families had sent in care packages, which I greatly appreciated. After lunch, we did a Breakout EDU box and then had one last read aloud. Finally, it was time for dismissal.

I was anticipating lots of tears, but there were none. A common refrain was, “Have a nice Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and chemo!” Each student said they would miss me and many gave gentle hugs. I truly think that the lack of tears were due to the amount of open conversation we had been doing over the past week. Their empathy and insight were well beyond their years. Truly, experiencing this journey together as a classroom family would teach them much more than any set of state standards would.

The medical tests and school side of things were complete for these eighteen days. I was ready to tackle the next medical obstacle - beginning chemotherapy.


On Thursdays, I am chronicling my journey from discovery to the beginning of chemotherapy. To read through my story up until this point, please click here

Monday, March 6, 2017

CC15: Everything is Normal?

October 26th: I was told I most likely had cancer
November 2nd: the cancer was confirmed
November 7th: I was told the cancer was stage II
November 28th: I began chemo
January 30th: chemo was completed

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear
(Blonde up top, beard is dark)
These are perhaps the five most significant dates in my cancer journey. This past week, another date I won’t ever forget joined the above:

March 2nd: the day I was told I was in remission

Mallory and I met with Dr. Maurer in the afternoon to go over the results of my most recent CT scan. He began by pulling up my scans from November and comparing them to the scan from this past Saturday, February 25th. I am not a doctor, but even I could see that things had vastly improved. “Robin’s egg sized” tumors that lined my spine in November were now small specks. (These specks are normal sized lymph nodes.) My scans were clear - I was officially on the road to being cancer free. (No word on when I get my official monogrammed “Cancer Survivor” letterman’s jacket. That’s a thing, right?)

Hearing the words “you are in remission” was surreal. I wasn’t sure how to feel right then. Mallory was beaming from ear to ear, and my mom (via FaceTime) welled up with tears of joy. At that moment, I just wanted more details.

Dr. Maurer said that I would be tracked closely for the next two years, as this was the timeframe for the greatest risk of recurrence. I would have another CT scan in early June to confirm that there were no changes. Those scans would be compared to my “new baseline” scans from February. Changes would be tracked and closely monitored. If those scans were good, my port could be removed shortly thereafter. He wanted to make sure that my port was out well before the honeymoon in July, so I wouldn’t need to have limits on what I could do. A simple gesture, but it meant a lot to me. (We have plans to ride ATVs where they filmed Jurassic Park. I am not going to miss out on that.)

I'll pretend I know what any of this means
We discussed various other details. My hair (which is now a rich fuzz) will continue to regrow and should be back to its normal length by the wedding. (However, it’s coming in blonde. As my mom puts it, I guess I’ll find out if blondes really have more fun.) I would need my port flushed in April to make sure it didn’t get clogged up and cause difficulties for me. I need to be proactive in monitoring my health for any changes.

One thing that really resonated with me was that he advised me to seek counseling to help process everything and recommended a specific therapist. He said that oftentimes, cancer patients are more or less emotionally fine during treatment but face struggles in the aftermath.

I agree with this. While I was receiving chemo, my nurses and doctors told me what to do to be healed, and Mallory and my mom helped support me. My grandfather’s mantra, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it” became my own. I had little time to react and process anything - I just had to act.

But now, I’m back at work. My hair and beard are regrowing. My cancer is gone for now. My energy levels and appetite are recovering. We’ve resumed wedding planning. From the outside, things look pretty normal.

Remission is a good thing, and I am happy about that. People tell me congratulations (although I don’t feel like I did anything worthy of receiving this) and that I must be relieved. I am, but it’s a weird mix of happiness, anxiety about the possibility of recurrence, and built up stress from everything that has happened.

My life had changed drastically since October. Things should be getting back to normal, but life has now just slowed down enough for me to begin processing everything that has happened.

From initial discovery to being in remission, it’s been less than five months. It’s a lot for anyone to process and handle in an incredibly short time frame, let alone a 25-year-old whose biggest concern before this was if he could stay up late enough to watch a Marvel midnight showing.

I’ve really had no time to process what has happened to me. Emotionally, I do not feel quite normal. Yes, I had three months off of work, but that was no vacation. It was spent allowing my body to recover and dealing with side effects. I don’t really feel like my body betrayed me or wonder why this had to happen to me, but I’ve also not allowed myself time to reflect and process this whole ordeal. It’s really hard to put into words, and it’s the type of thing you can’t quite understand until you experience it for yourself (which I sincerely hope you never have to do).

I am looking into getting counseling now and feel no shame in admitting that. I’ve been completely transparent with ABSOT and want to continue to do so. I will most likely not share exact details about what I discuss in counseling, but will share what I’ve found has worked for me in hopes of helping future patients.

I always try to mask my emotions and appear to be strong, but I know that this is not a time to do that. That might work when I am upset about the dishes not being done that evening, but it’s not a good way to handle a post-cancer transition back to normal life. As I mentioned before, I was in counseling in high school and it helped get me out of a bad place. I want to be proactive and not let myself get to that place again.

But despite everything, I still see a positive.. Cancer really put things in perspective for me. I can more clearly see what is important to me, like my personal relationships, and what really isn’t worthy of my time, thoughts, or energy.

Even though my body may be healed, my emotions are not recovering quite as quickly. The real work with that is only beginning, but I’m confident that with the support of those closest to me, I will truly be able to embrace the joy of being in remission.

I’ve completed undergoing chemotherapy to cure my cancer. Each Monday, I’ll post my thoughts on this experience. These may be reflections on my prior week’s treatments, musings about my newly-altered life, or anything else that comes into my “chemo brain.” Follow along with all of my posts here.


Saturday, March 4, 2017

HBA14: Maria's Reaction

“So I finally got the pathology back. It is cancer." Those are the words I read when I heard the news that my dear friend had cancer. As I sighed quietly to myself, I was thankful that they got it out quick. I thought, "This is Justin, he can't have cancer. He is way too young!" So he had cancer, and they took it out, other than a test here and there, DONE!

Of course, my positive attitude got shot down. I remember reading the two words: aggressive & spread. At first I was in friend mode. I was sad for him and I immediately prayed. Later, I selfishly I think, "Will another one of my friends die from cancer? Will his future wife be ok? Will his students be ok? Will his former students find out and will they be ok?"

Honestly, none of my selfish thoughts are important whatsoever. The most important thing I choose to remind myself is how important the positive attitude is. It is something that Justin and I bonded over. Quit the whining and complaining and be happy for what you have. If I were to lose another friend, shouldn't we be happy with the time we do have together now? If his future wife is not ok, she could reach out to her support system or even me. If his students aren't ok, they have a counselor at their school. If his former students need someone, I am here.

So while I can't fix all of the problems of the world, especially cancer, what I can do is keep my head up, pray daily, and be there for all the people I love. Breakdowns are necessary sometimes. Selfish thoughts will happen from time to time. Deep down I know that Justin's positive attitude will help him tremendously through this journey and my positive attitude will help me understand and be there for my friend who is fighting cancer.

Maria is the school counselor at my former school. We share a birthday (different years, though.) We grew close over the years, with me often coming to her with needs of counseling for my own life.

Testicular cancer isn’t just affecting me; it’s affecting those closest to me. Every Saturday, one of my friends or family members will be sharing about their reactions to my diagnosis.  I hope these posts serve as a reminder to talk to the men in your life about performing regular self-checks and their health in general. Together, we can lessen the impact of testicular cancer. Check out Healthy But Aware posts here

Thursday, March 2, 2017

TBT14: The Oncologist

While it was exhausting and painful at times, I loved every moment of returning to my students. When I came into the classroom the day after telling them, I saw that the students had hung up support posters for me all around the room. Questions popped up here and there about my diagnosis throughout the day, and I answered them to the best of my abilities. My students surprised me with a gift basket of treats to enjoy while I was undergoing my treatment. They made sure everything was all natural, so it wouldn’t react with my chemo. The compassion and attention to detail was amazing.

Towards the end of the day, I had to leave early for my oncologist appointment. For some reason, the GPS took me down Route 1 instead of I-95, so I was a few minutes late to the appointment. Not exactly a stress-free way to start an appointment that was almost guaranteed to be stressful enough. Luckily, it was delayed by 45 minutes so it didn’t matter.

After taking more blood and getting more medical history, we met with Dr. Maurer, who would become my oncologist for the next few years. Whereas Dr. Dumont was straightforward and had an air of confidence, Dr. Maurer gave off a vibe of comfort. Between the two doctors, I knew I was well taken care of.

Dr. Maurer reviewed some of the details we had discussed with Dr. Dumont. One lymph node appeared to be bigger than originally measured. In total, about 5 nodes were affected, with the possibility of more that were too small to see. He agreed with Dr. Dumont’s assessment that the lymph node removal surgery was not a wise idea and agreed that chemo was my best bet.

In my mind, before talking to Dr. Maurer, I had this appointment on Thursday and would start chemo on Monday. Apparently, it’s not that easy. Before that, I would need another CT scan and a lung screening for baseline screening. A port would be surgically implanted to make administering the chemo easier. Essentially, I would become a Chromebook and chemo would be a USB. It was a dream come true for this tech geek and Tony Stark wannabe. All of these procedures would be done the following week, which would be more time off from school before chemo even began.

We then discussed the type of chemo I would receive. Because I am a non-smoker, I could get BEP chemotherapy, which would lessen the amount of cycles I would need overall. If I had smoked at any point in my life, I would need a different type of chemo, which would need more cycles and other side effects. Maybe they should use that in anti-smoking PSAs! This type of chemo had the normal side effects - hair loss was likely, temporary infertility, and fatigue. Luckily, nausea medicine has advanced exponentially, and it might not be a factor. I may have a diminished appetite and funny tastes in my mouth, but I had no real dietary restrictions.

My chemo would be in three week cycles. In week one, I would receive chemo every day for a few hours. In weeks two and three, I would receive chemo treatments for one day per week and spend the remainder of the time recovering for my next round of treatment. I would go through three cycles, with an additional three weeks after for recovery at the end of my treatment. In total, I would be missing a minimum of twelve weeks of school. Even though I had researched chemo ahead of time, I was confused about how long a course of chemo lasted. I definitely wasn’t expecting twelve weeks (or more.) I knew I would need a long-term sub, which meant I was entrusting someone else to do my job. For someone who is as independent as me, this was hard to accept.

We chose to set my start date on November 28th - eighteen days from now. Finally, some time to breathe. That date was chosen to accommodate for Thanksgiving, and I was assured that this gap wouldn’t adversely affect my health. Initially, I was confused why we would be waiting at all. I wanted to get this party started immediately. After reflecting on this, I realized the chemo would wipe everything out anyways, so a few extra days wouldn’t matter. On Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, they don’t have their own staff on hand so I would need to receive my chemo treatments at the hospital. Dr. Maurer said that the key to beating this was to maintain a rigorous and precise schedule (something I was sure I would come to appreciate) so he didn’t want to take the risk of holiday staff at a different location giving me the wrong meds. He also did not want me to travel for Thanksgiving because of the port and the increased risk of infection. If something went wrong, I would be stranded in a hospital hundreds of miles away from Dr. Maurer. I was sad because I was supposed to be going to my grandparents’ house in Pittsburgh and my grandmother makes the absolute best mashed potatoes. However, looking to make the best of it, Mal and I asked my parents come to us for the holidays.

After all of my questions about chemo were answered, there was still one area that still had a lot of question marks: what my role in the classroom would be throughout the duration of my treatment. The plan Dr. Maurer had outlined for me obviously represented a lot of time away from school, but Brian reassured me again that my health was number one. Later that evening, after I updated my friends and family, I sent a Remind message to my class sharing my chemotherapy start date and that I would be in school the next week for a few days. Parents and students alike were happy to hear that I finally had a start date and that I would be there for a few more days before I left. I hadn’t yet told them that I would be gone until February, but that was a conversation best saved for later, once my schedule was 100% finalized. I would be allowed to visit them in the third week of each cycle if I was up to it, and Brian and I discussed me teaching via Google Hangout. I would make further decisions once I determined how “sick” I would look during the chemo. While I would want to see my students and they would want to see me, I didn’t want them to worry if I looked scary or incredibly ill.

The weight of this imminent chemotherapy and exactly how life-altering these next twelve weeks would be dawned on me the next morning. Dr. Maurer said that I really had to avoid getting sick between now and chemo so my immune system wasn’t compromised before we even started. Since I had Veteran’s Day off from school, I wanted to visit my old school to see former coworkers and students. However, I decided to check with the secretary before showing up. During our conversation, it dawned on me to check with her whether any illnesses had struck the school recently. Lo and behold, many students were showing flu-like symptoms. Remembering Dr. Maurer’s strict instructions to not get sick, I decided not to go. I also realized I would need to sit out the EdCamp I was signed up for on Saturday for similar reasons.

While chemo would cure me, between limiting my travel and activities, the various side effects, and taking me out of school, it would definitely cramp my style for a while. Even for this low-drama guy, it didn’t feel too dramatic to say that chemotherapy would be life-changing.

On Thursdays, I am chronicling my journey from discovery to the beginning of chemotherapy. To read through my story up until this point, please click here