So, what now? The immediate aftermath of being told “you have cancer” is a bit fuzzy to me. I’m sure my first words back to the doctor were “So, what now?” We had an appointment immediately scheduled the next morning with a colorectal surgeon, and that appointment would outline what the next few weeks would look like for me.
To make matters worse on this July afternoon, upon leaving the doctor’s office with a brand-new cancer diagnosis, my car decided to die. We were stuck at the doctor’s office! This, among many other things, would act as a microcosm to my cancer journey; issues would arise, and we would deal with them. And honestly at the time, a dead car battery was miniscule. While my wife and a kind employee tried to get my car to start, I went back into the doctor’s office lobby area and just collapsed. I had some immediate phone calls to make. The first being to my parents, how am I supposed to tell my parents that their 30-year-old son has what appears to be a serious cancer diagnosis? Very tough to do. After several emotional phone calls to my parents and siblings, Sarah and I decided to ditch the car at the doctor’s office for the evening (we’d be back in the morning) and get an Uber back into Philadelphia from the South Jersey doctor’s office.
God bless the Uber driver who picked us up. He had no idea what emotional state the passengers he was picking up, were in. I don’t remember much from the 20-minute ride, but I do remember him asking if we were heading into the city for “happy hour with friends”. How I wish that were the case. When we finally got home, I collapsed into my wife’s arms, something I would do plenty of in the future. Sarah has been my bedrock throughout this entire journey. I don’t know how I would get through this without the love, positivity, encouragement, and support of my wife. I am so blessed. And God bless my older brother Chris and his wife Ashley, who volunteered one of their cars for us. They drove two hours that night to drop off a spare vehicle.
After a few more phone calls to family and friends, I decided it was time for pizza. I had been on a very strict, Crohn’s disease preventive, diet for almost two months. I needed some real pizza. Walking to the pizza shop from our Philadelphia apartment is something I remember drastically. We passed so many couples and groups heading out on the town for the evening, and it made me realize how different my life was going to be going forward. How I wished I could go back in time and appreciate those times more than I did, just careless, fun nights in the city with friends. What real problems did I ever have before? But with cancer, looking back is harmful. Many would probably tell me this is a glum outlook, but part of my life ended on July 15th, 2021 and a new life began. I won’t be able to do things that I could do on July 14th. But, I feel like I’m better because of this. I’ve adopted healthy habits that would probably never have happened without my diagnosis. I’ll get into all that stuff in a later post. But, pizza (what I could finish) was great and it was time to head home for the evening.
On July 16th, 2021 we met with the colorectal surgeon who would be performing my surgery. A note to any patients, get second and third opinions when possible. When having work done on your house, you should always get three contractor quotes, so why not do the same for the most important structure of all, your body? I did not do this. After chasing doctors for so long, part of me was just relieved to being seen at this point and having a medical team on top of the situation. I was told I would be going in for surgery on July 27th to remove the softball-sized tumor from my colon. I should have gotten other opinions, I probably would have stayed with my medical team at Cooper University Hospital, but I should have gotten second and third opinions. I felt like a train was leaving the station, and I wanted to be on it. But, you live and you learn, and this would become a much larger deal to me down the road.
The appointment with the colorectal surgeon and team was pretty straight forward. The biopsy report was still being generated but the doctors were certain it was cancer, most likely stage III due to the tumor size, but a chance of being stage II if no lymph nodes were cancerous. This would be determined during surgery on the 27th. The goal of the surgery was to remove the tumor and a chunk of my colon, take a bunch of lymph nodes, stitch my colon back together, and then six to eight weeks of recovery, followed by chemotherapy for six months. There was also a chance they would have to remove parts of my bladder, my appendix, and other organs if impacted by the cancer, but this also would not be discovered until surgery. The doctor informed me that he believed my tumor had been growing inside of me for nine to ten years, that blew me away.
(Leg cramps were a big pain in the butt prior to surgery)
One of the perks of having colon cancer has been meeting other young adults with a similar diagnosis. One of the most inspirational people I've had the pleasure of meeting has been Trey Mancini, a 1st baseman for the Baltimore Orioles. Trey was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in March 2020 and missed the entire 2020 baseball season while he underwent treatment. My twin brother Ryan got in contact with Trey and told him about my diagnosis. Trey called me one day prior to surgery to tell me his story and his experience with surgery, chemotherapy, and recovery. He was the first colon cancer patient I had spoken to since my diagnosis and it was very beneficial. Only a few days prior to my diagnosis, I watched Trey compete in the 2021 Home Run Derby. He has been such a great resource to me, and an inspiration as well. I'll always be grateful to have him in my corner.
(On the phone with Trey Mancini, prior to surgery)
Fast forward to July 26th and I was getting ready for surgery. The surgery prep was identical to that for a colonoscopy, and boy that was not fun. Imagine prepping for a colonoscopy when you have a tumor basically blocking your entire colon. I did not sleep at all the night before surgery. My last memory at home before going in to the hospital was sitting with my mother and the couch and watching the Olympics at 4:30AM. Sarah woke up, we gathered my things, and it was time to head in to the hospital for my 6AM check-in.
I got all checked into the Cooper University Hospital, but was told that an emergency surgery had required the services of my surgeon and I would not be going back for surgery until close to noon. Oh well, I said goodbyes and I love you’s to Sarah and my mom, and also called my family. Thankfully, they gave me meds while I waited to lessen the pain and “brighten my spirits”. Next thing I knew, it was time to go back. Last thing I remember is being wheeled into the operating room and being amazed at all the technology. Modern medicine is amazing. Then, I went to sleep.
I woke up almost eleven hours later in the post-surgical waiting room. I remember being so groggy and in so much pain. I couldn’t believe how long the procedure had taken. During surgery, it was discovered that the cancer had spread a little more than they expected, and my appendix needed to be removed and bits of my bladder might have also been impacted. All in all, 16 inches of my colon was removed. I was given a catheter and an ileostomy bag to wear for the foreseeable future. That was a fun discovery to wake up to. I was told initially there was a 90-95% chance I would NOT need an ileostomy bag, but as you’ll learn, I have been defying the odds, both good and bad, during this journey. But its whatever, the ileostomy bag, no matter how unpleasant, allows me to live a somewhat normal life while my colon heals properly. That’s worth the discomfort and annoyance.
(Me in the hospital)
My wonderful wife and mother stayed at the hospital all day, from 6AM to midnight to see me in my patient room. They waited all that time in the hospital waiting room waiting for my surgery to be completed, despite our apartment only being seven minutes from the hospital. I love them both more than I can describe. When I was ushered to my patient room and was able to see Sarah and my mom, I was overcome with emotion. It was so good to see them, and I’m so thankful to the hospital staff, despite COVID restrictions for visitors, for allowing them to see me after-hours. We hugged and said see you tomorrow, then it was time to rest.
I have always had an appreciation for the nursing profession, but after a week in the hospital, my appreciation for nurses is through the roof and into the universe. Anything I needed, I received. I was helpless at times; I needed help getting out of bed, sitting up in my chair, eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, bathing, etc. It should have been humiliating, but the nurses at Cooper University Hospital were fantastic to me. When I didn’t want to get up and go for “walks”, the nurses forced me to. When it was time to eat and I didn’t want to, the nurses forced me to. Because I was only able to have visitors for a few hours each day, the nurses were my visitors. I appreciated their help and time spend with me so much.
(More fun in the hospital)
After a week in the hospital, it was time to go home. My one critique of the hospital stay was how quickly they ushered me out when it was time to go home. I felt like I could have used another day or two in the hospital, but the medical team felt different. I had my catheter removed (ouch), drains pulled from my wound (double ouch!), and was trained how to use my ileostomy bag. How fun. The hospital almost has a Stockholm Syndrome to it, I guess I just liked feeling watched over. That concern was quickly dispelled however. My mother was staying with us, and between her and Sarah, everything I needed at home was taken care of. They had gotten me a device for our bed that allowed me to sit up and lie down easily and I even had a shower chair so that I could bathe while sitting down. These were huge for my recovery! After about a day at home, I received a call from the surgeon and it was revealed in my pathology report that I had stage III colon cancer due to several lymph nodes testing positive for cancer. I would be starting chemotherapy after a few weeks of bed-rest at home.
So, this was my experience in the hospital and with surgery. My next post will highlight my recovery at home and prepping for chemotherapy to start. I’ll leave you all with Psalm 28, verse 7: ”The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in Him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise Him.” One of the blessings of cancer is walking closer with God. This is another hidden blessing that would not have happened if not for my diagnosis. I have always had faith, but nothing rocks your faith like a life-threatening illness. I trust that my life is in the Lord’s hands, I speak to Him for comfort and direction and constantly ask Him to remove all fear and negative thoughts from my being. I hope this will be a welcome dialogue on this blog. I look forward to continuing this journey with you all,