South San Francisco, CA January 12, 2021 by Mel Ellison, SSF neighbor, ESC correspondent
I began to sense something was wrong starting at the end of 2019, and on into the first part of 2020. At my annual check-up with my doctor last February, I asked her if she would check my throat which she did and pronounced that it looked fine, and better than most. By May and April, there was no longer any doubt in my mind that something was seriously wrong, but by then the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing and Kaiser doctors were not seeing patients in person.
It was “tele-visits” only as my doctor referred me to specialists who listened to my symptoms and decided it was “allergies” or I needed to “use a Neti pot”, and other various remedies. Of course, actually deep down I knew exactly what it was: it was throat cancer. But I didn’t insist on it.
When I was a young man and a “starving artist/jazz saxophonist” in NYC and in the Bay Area, I had been without a healthcare plan. When I finally was able to afford a good health plan, I was determined to use it at the slightest hint of a problem, and I did, and have…..often over the intervening years. I’ve never had a problem recognizing a medical issue, and having a doctor evaluate it. Except this time. I knew what it was, but I clung to any alternate idea that was offered to me….the reality was just too much for me to admit to myself apparently. Very unlike me…..but it speaks to the heavy weight of cancer and the fear and anxiety around the disease.
Finally my dentist’s office re-opened for patients in July, with COVID restrictions in place of course, and I was due for a cleaning. Luckily I have a very thorough hygienist who does an incredible job, including looking carefully down my throat and screening for the very problem I had. On the day of the cleaning, looking down my throat she suddenly stiffened and said “….there is a real problem here”…..and that was the life changing moment that started me on a journey that continues to this day.
After many preparations…..including having a feeding tube surgically installed into my stomach on August 14th, my 74th birthday…..my treatment begin on August 19. It consisted of two doses of the very potent but nasty chemotherapy drug Cisplatin, given 3 weeks apart. At the same time, my radiation treatment began, lasting 6 1/2 weeks, Monday-Friday. By the time it was over on October 5th, I was in unbearable pain and discomfort. As the doctors said I would, I continued to radiate for another two weeks after the end of treatment, and then began a slow recovery. And when I say “slow”, I mean sloooooww…..glacial in pace, almost imperceptible movement. I was also on high dose Fentanyl patches for the pain while also taking Hydrocodone pills around the clock. FYI, Fentanyl is some 50 times stronger than heroin and 80 times stronger than morphine. Besides being in horrible pain and discomfort, I was becoming an emotional wreck from all the narcotics. Anxiety and depression were becoming daily companions.
But I did begin to recover, a little more and more each day. At one stage in the process, I was being fed through my feeding tube exclusively as I couldn’t swallow….I lost around 25 lbs. That all began to improve and I began to re-introduce real food to my stomach again. I began eating complete meals and putting weight back on. I weaned off the narcotics which, along with the other improvements, helped raise my morale. I was starting to feel like my old happy self again.
Before all of this happened I had been power walking 3 miles at 5 am every morning, while also lifting weights and doing other exercises such as push-ups and ab crunches. In short, I was in excellent shape….so the doctors treated me as they would treat a much younger man, giving me much more potent and stronger chemo to help ensure the best possible outcome. Being fit also hastened my recovery from the radiation. I’ve now resumed my exercises and and am almost back to full strength.
But it was still an incredibly painful and brutal ordeal, and through it all was my amazing wife who stood by me and nursed me back physically and emotionally. I don’t know what I would have done without her. She’s is a retired Oncology nurse which really helped too. She has seen it all. She knew what to do.
Yesterday was a huge milestone (1/7/21)….I had my first Pet Scan to see if any cancer remained. There was NONE. I am now cancer-free! We celebrated by first, making a reservation up at the Russia River to rent a home on the water for a few days through VRBO. We could really use a change of scenery! Secondly, we ordered a Westlake Joe’s take-out meal…..my first restaurant meal since before the start of this ordeal.
I would like to give credit where it is due: I received first rate medical treatment from Kaiser. The Chemo and Radiation docs worked what seems like a miracle considering I would have died without their intervention. Very thorough throughout, there was always someone available to deal with any issues that came up…..from physical therapist to Oncology nutritionist and everyone in between……..also, with maybe one or two exceptions, they were all so very kind, patient and helpful.
But I’m most thankful for my wife Lynn who, 24 hours a day 7 days a week, made sure I always had what I needed and propped me up emotionally when I was going down.
So that was my 2020……how was yours?
Mel Ellison is a free-lance writer and photographer who covers special features for Everything South City as well as taking the role of co-admin on our social media. Married to Lynn Brunetti, they enjoy family time with their grandchildren and enjoying their Brentwood neighborhood in South San Francisco. When not dazzling us with his photography you will find Mel on the open seas pursuing his love of sailing or creating music as he is also an accomplished musician.
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