Read chapter excerpts from Karen A. McWhirt's book, the story of her son's battle with a deadly disease...
Chapter 2: Defense Can Win The Game, But First We Have To Take Your Nut
Mom woke me gently from a sound morning sleep at about 8:30. “Ian... wake up, honey. It’s 8:30.”
I opened my eyes and looked at her.
“How are you feeling this morning?” she asked.
“Okay...” I muffled in a cracked voice.
She waited for my face to show signs of comprehension, then she spoke with a kind, soft but nervous voice, “Ian, I just talked to your doctor. He wants us to meet him at the hospital.”
“What?”... I rubbed my eyes, “Why?”
“He wants to talk to us about the CT scan...”
My stomach wasn’t hurting too bad at the moment, so I wondered about the urgency. “Now? We have to go now?”
“Yes, we have to go now. Just get up and dressed, and we’ll go as soon as you’re ready. He wants us to go this morning. How’s your stomach? Do you want something to eat?”
“No... thanks... maybe, could you get me a little milk?” I rolled out of bed and went into the bathroom while Mom went for the milk. I threw on a t-shirt and jeans, and grabbed a baseball cap. Mom came in with a small glass of milk, and I took a few swallows as I slid my feet into my white leather sneakers. I sat on my bed finishing the milk, and thought to myself.... why the hospital?
As we were driving, I asked Mom what else the doctor said. She said that he told her I needed to have more tests done. “But why at the hospital?” I asked. “I don’t understand why we have to go to the hospital.”
I could tell Mom was nervous and scared, though she tried to look calm. “Honey, let’s just get there, okay? We’ll find out everything when we get there.”
When we arrived in the hospital lobby, I claimed a chair nearest the door, and Mom went to the admissions desk to find out what we were supposed to do. I sat there still wondering why we had to meet the doctor at the hospital. Something must be wrong, I thought. I gazed around at the lobby, as if looking for clues, and Mom came back to tell me I needed to be with her at the desk, to answer some questions.
When we sat down, I asked Mom why we were there, at the admitting desk. “The doctor wants you to be admitted, Ian,” she said with apprehension.
“Admitted? ... into the hospital? I’m not that sick! I feel fine! Why do I have to be admitted? What’s going on ?”
She looked at me, and her eyes were sad and afraid. Her mouth opened slightly as if she was going to say something, but then she pressed her lips together as if something stopped her. “Please, Ian...we’ll see the doctor soon, and he’ll tell you,” she pleaded.
“This is bad, Mom, I can feel it, and I want to know what’s going on.” I could still see fear in her eyes, and I could tell that she had words in her that she was afraid to speak, and that scared me even more.
“Let’s just do what the doctor says, Ian, and we’ll see, okay?” I didn’t know it at the time, but she was praying the doctor was wrong, that it was all a mistake.
“But I want to know why he wants me to be admitted into the hospital, Mom, when I’m not even sick! I’m not going to be admitted into the hospital unless I know why, Mom...” In my mind, a hospital was a place only for people so sick they needed surgery, or those with a terrible disease, or dying. I wasn’t any of those things. I just had a bad stomach ache and some nausea, maybe the flu.
She looked straight at me and in a barely audible voice said, “He thinks you have cancer, Ian.”
“What ? That’s bullshit...” I shook my head and raised my hands in the air, showing my disbelief. “I’m going to call him.” I grabbed my cell phone out of my front pocket and opened it up, my thumb at the keypad, ready to dial. I looked at her, “What’s his number?”
Mom looked nervously at the admitting representative, and asked her to give me the doctor’s number. The clerk dialed the number for me on her desk phone, and told him that I was sitting in front of her at the admissions desk and wanted to talk to him, then she handed the receiver to me.
“This is Ian. I want to know why I have to be admitted into the hospital, why did you tell my Mom I have cancer? Why did you tell her to bring me here?”
I then listened as the doctor started to speak, and I felt my breathing stop. I felt my whole body change from a tense concern, to an almost numb, vulnerable feeling of alarm and dread. I felt my eyes redden and fill with tears as I looked over at my Mom, who was biting her lower lip, and already had tears streaming down her cheeks. I felt a sense of hopelessness coming over both of us, as Mom leaned in closer to me. I had to look down, to keep from crying, and when I looked back at Mom, I could tell she knew what I was being told. She had heard the same words only minutes before she woke me up. The doctor was telling me there was a large cancerous tumor in my stomach. He said there were numerous lesions in my liver, and many in my lungs, which are also cancer, and that my spleen was enlarged. He continued that it was suspected and most likely that my right testicle was enlarged with cancerous tumors also, and that I must be admitted into the hospital for more testing and immediate treatment. He spoke with a kind of stern, impatient voice. He stated the hard evidence in no uncertain terms, that my situation was one of emergency treatment or death. He said he would be at the hospital to see me once I was admitted, and that he had already contacted other doctors, a urologist and an oncologist, to meet me there. I didn’t even know what those words meant, but the idea that I had three doctors coming to see me brought a cold, weakening chill all over my body. I had never felt so much fear and instant dread in my whole life. I didn’t even know what to think. I suddenly couldn’t feel my legs or my hands. My mouth got dry, and I couldn’t swallow. I felt dizzy, and sick to my stomach, as I laid the receiver down on the desk. I looked to my Mom for that strength she often gave me, and when I saw her tears, it all just spilled out of me. Mom reached to hold me, and I wrapped my arms around her as we cried about the news we now shared.
“I’m so sorry, Ian,” she cried, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t tell you those things, Ian, I couldn’t say it...I just couldn’t look into your eyes and say those things to you! I keep praying it isn’t true! ”
I loosened my hug and sat back to wipe the tears off my face. “It’s okay, Mom...” I sat looking at her, hoping she could tell me it’s not as bad as it sounds.
She dried her tears, and suddenly had that assured expression that I was looking for. “We’ll do what we have to do, Ian,” she said, looking at me with the promise of strength I needed at that moment. “We’ll do what we have to do, and we’ll get through it. We will get through it, together.” ....
later in Chapter 2...
The urologist, Dr. Teitjen, came into the room, and Mom woke me from my nap. She and Mark stood up to greet him. The doctor wanted to examine my nuts, so they had to step out briefly for that. He asked a lot of the same questions as the cancer doctor. My right testicle was enlarged a little, and it was very firm but tender to the touch. He asked me how long it had been swollen and hurting me like that. Just as I’d told the oncologist, I thought it had been about two months.
He had arranged for an ultrasound to be done on my right testicle right away. He told me what would happen after that, that the cancer in my right testicle would have to be removed, and that meant removing my entire testicle. He said it would be sent to the lab to see if it actually was testicular cancer that had spread into my body, or if there was some other type of cancer that had spread into my testicle. He was reasonably sure that it was testicular cancer.
So a transport came to whisk me and my IV unit off in a wheelchair to get the ultrasound, and when I came back, I was so exhausted that lying down in that stiff hospital bed actually felt good. It was dinner time, and a woman with a cart brought a tray of food in for me. The smell of it made me want to hurl, so I told Mom she could have it. I just wanted to sleep. She and Mark descended on that food like a couple of starved animals. I hadn’t even realized that we had been there since nine o’clock that morning, and no one had taken the time to eat anything. It had all been about me.
I didn’t get much rest, because at some point my IV unit started beeping, so someone came in to check that. Then just when I started to doze off again, an aide came in to check my vitals. I had become so used to those interruptions that as soon as I saw the aide coming toward my bed, I held out both arms, one for the blood pressure check, one with a finger extended for the blood oxygen level check, and I held my mouth open for the thermometer. Soon everyone around me got a kick out of my quiet little joke each time an aide came around, and even though I didn’t feel like laughing, I was doing it to be funny.
It seemed like I had just drifted off into the quiet when Dr. Tietjen returned. He said that the ultrasound was successful and the report confirmed there was cancer in the testicle. He said I would be scheduled for surgery as soon as possible. The surgery is called a radical orchiectomy, aka, say goodbye to my right nut. The nut itself would be sent to the lab for a biopsy to find out exactly what type of cancer was in there. I was pretty freaked out by the thought of it, and Dr. Tietjen told me that what is removed is on the inside... they don’t actually just whack it off, as I had pictured it in my head. They would make a small incision just to the right of my pubic bone, then take out the testicle inside of the scrotum, like an egg slipping out of a shell. Just a few stitches would sew up the small incision. He said there would be very little pain afterwards, and that I would notice just a little extra loose skin than what I was used to having down there. The whole idea of this surgery made me nauseous and weak, I mean, losing a nut! I told him I think I’d rather lose a finger!
Mom was writing everything down on the back of some papers I’d received when I was admitted. Dr. Tietjen said that the type of cancer he suspected they’d find in my testicle is called embryonal carcinoma, and choriocarcinoma, also known as testicular cancer. I looked at my Mom, and then at Dr. Tietjen. “Can she come with me?” I nodded my head toward Mom. I just wanted her to be there in case something went wrong... to know she was there with me... someone I know and trust watching over me, just in case. The doctor told me that no one could be in the operating area with me except for those operating on me, but he assured me that she could be just outside the door.
After he left the room, Mom, Mark, and I talked about my fears concerning the surgery. I was afraid the surgeon might remove the wrong testicle, or that the anesthesiologist might not administer enough drugs, and I might feel the pain during the operation. I was so afraid of losing a part of my body, a part of myself, especially that part... and even though the doctor told me that having only one testicle most likely would not affect my natural abilities where sex was concerned, I was still afraid it would ruin my chance for future relationships, my sexual ability, and even the possibility of fathering children later in my life. I was afraid of bleeding, especially from my nuts, and I feared being asleep while strangers surrounded me and cut on my body. Mom promised me that she would stay with me as long as possible, and that she and Mark would not be any farther away than the other side of the surgery room door....
later in Chapter 2...
.... Mom, Mark, and I became increasingly freaked out by the entire unpleasant new experience. The reality had begun to sink in, that I had cancer all inside my body, and that I was suffering this immense, horrible pain because of it, in a cancer hospital, with cancer treatment professionals, people that I now desperately needed to take care of me and stop the cancer from killing me. The whole experience felt like a nightmare happening to all of us.
Margo brought some extra pillows and blankets for Mom and Mark, and they started settling into the chairs on each side of me. The room was quiet, so quiet. Everything was still. There was no sound except the clicking of my IV machine and the clock on the wall, and no sound beyond my hospital room door. Mom kept the light on over the sink near the bathroom. It was enough light that we could see each other, but it wasn’t bright near my bed. I drifted off into a drugged, light sleep, with the comfort that both my parents would be right beside me through the night.
My slumber was ended instantly, when I was suddenly filled with feelings of fright and panic, and a sense that I was completely alone and falling backwards into nothing but darkness. My eyes were wide open, but I couldn’t see where I was, and I didn’t know where I was.
“MOM! ...MOM! ...MOM! ” I called out to her. She was right next to me, but I couldn’t see her. “Mom!...what’s happening, Mom? ” The expression on my face was one of complete terror.
She was holding both my hands and sitting on my bed, talking to me. “Ian, I’m right here with you. What’s the matter?”
“Mom! I’m scared! What’s happening !? Mom, help me!”
“Ian, I’m right here, honey, I’m right here. Look at me, I’m right here,.” she said, still holding my hands.
My eyes wouldn’t focus on her. I couldn’t see anything but myself falling. “Mom! What’s happening to me? What’s happening?! ” I cried out in fear. I was afraid that even she couldn't see where I was.
She moved closer to me, her face right in front of mine, “I’m here, Ian... I’m here, holding your hands. Look at me, Ian, I’m right here. Feel me holding your hands. We’re here together, in your hospital room, in your bed, and everything is okay, you’re having a bad dream... Ian, I’m right here with you...”
As she continued talking to me, I started to feel my hands gripping hers, as if I was holding on to save my life. Slowly her face came into focus, and her voice sounded more clear.
“Mom...mom...oh my God, Mom...oh my God.” I whispered as I came slowly out of the hallucination. I took in a deep breath, and she leaned in to hold me. I wrapped my arms around her neck and squeezed her, feeling intense gratitude that what ever had happened, was over, and for the rest of the night, she slept with her head next to me on my bed, and her hand holding mine, resting on my stomach. That hallucination was the scariest moment of my life, and as I laid there almost afraid to go back to sleep, I wondered if that was what cancer treatment was going to be all about.
in Chapter 4
Dr. Fleming checked in on me, along with the resident and the team of med students streaming into my room behind them. This is how it was going to be every day, a group of people coming in to stare at me, intruding on me, while Dr. Fleming did his job. It irritated me, being observed by a whispering group of onlookers, but I tried to ignore them and focus on what Dr. Fleming was saying or doing. Eventually, I grew to hope that they were learning something from watching me, and would go on to tell others about testicular cancer, and how bad it can get if a guy finds a lump and does nothing about it.
When Dr. Van Veldhuisen, came to see me, he was alone. I liked that. He was very kind, more soft-spoken than the other doctors I had seen, and he had a serious and gentle caring nature about him, an unassuming presence, I felt. He examined me as I was used to after the past few days, feeling for the tumors in my abdomen, listening to my lungs, heart, and digestive system, and asking me questions about how I felt. He said the cancer was Stage III B, which meant it had spread into the lymph nodes, with numerous tumors in more than one organ. To me, it just meant there was a shit load of cancer growing in me. He spoke a little about the tumors seen in my organs, the general progression of this disease, and the chemotherapy plan that was being arranged. He asked if I had any questions. I had hundreds, but I could think of only one that mattered to me the most at the moment. How would the chemotherapy make me feel, and was all my hair going to fall out?
He told me about all the common unpleasant symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and generally feeling sick. They sounded very bad, but I wasn’t to understand the severity of bad and unpleasant until a week later.
Mom wanted to know, that in his experience with cases like mine, what was the most common outcome? She wasn’t asking what my chances were, exactly, just what were the odds. She was looking for more hope.
Dr. Van, as he was known and invited us to call him, told us there were several cases like mine where the outcome was very good, and that he felt confident that I had just as good a chance for a successful result. Dr. Fleming also had shared this confidence with us, that even though this cancer was far advanced, I was still an overall, healthy young male, with a very strong chance for survival. This comment made us all feel very good, and we thanked God for this news. I had medical confirmation that cancer was not the death sentence I had once thought it was. It was just a health challenge, a life challenge as Mom put it, that I had to overcome. I had to fight hard, with the help of my doctors, nurses, and also my family, but I would win. Together, we would win.
We built up our faith and team spirit after he left, talking about all the ways we would work together to help me win the fight.
“Hey Mom, you know that picture of me making that great tackle in high school, when we played North?” I looked over at her as if she could see my idea. “Can we get that blown up bigger, and hang it here on my wall? That’s the way I’m going to tackle cancer...I’m going to keep looking at that picture to remind me what I have to do.”
Mom said she would make sure it got done.
And for the first time, I laid my head down on my pillow feeling some confidence, some fight in me. I think I even smiled, imagining that picture, that perfect tackle I made as a defensive back in my senior year, when I knocked that kid right out of his shoes. Then I used his chest to push myself back up, shoving him into the ground he laid on, looking him square in the eye, feeling like a total bad ass. Yeah. This is how I was going to treat cancer. I was going to kick its ass....
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