Monday, January 26, 2009

Welcome to the Club

It's gonna be a heckuva winter, believe you me.

Very recently, my health situation had all of the clarity of a snow-filled television screen. Today, both my condition and the steps I will take to address it have the startling sharpness of HDTV.

Today I spent time with the Tumor Board at Kaiser Permanente, a meeting that I've been anticipating for about 10 days, after getting a diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma from my head-and-neck surgeon.

It began on a bumbling note. The friend who took a day off from his job to accompany me for the Tumor Board appointment wanted to grab some breakfast before we checked in, so he headed to the Kaiser cafeteria while I picked up a bottle of liquid Extra-Strength Tylenol in the pharmacy.

When we met in the cafeteria, I was feeling a headache coming on. So as my friend munched on a strip of bacon, I filled a cup of cherry-flavored Tylenol, whipped out my G-tube and began to pour the red fluid into a syringe. (Ever hear the Rolling Stones perform "You Can't Always Get What You Want"? When Jagger wails, "What's my favorite flavor? CHERRY RED!" it's liquid Extra-Strength Tylenol that he is singing about.)

Just because I have never seen anyone using a G-tube in public doesn't mean that I can't be the guy to bring G-tube feedings out of the shadows into brightly lit public spaces.

The syringe was too big for the tube, so Tylenol started flowing all over my hand, the table and floor. My hapless friend set his bacon down to grab a fistful of napkins and began mopping up the cherry-red fluid hemorrhaging from the syringe and on the floor.

Even after dealing with the Tylenol crisis in the cafeteria, my friend and I arrived a full hour early for the Tumor Board appointment.

A nurse in Pepto-Bismol-hued scrubs came over to explain the process for the morning, and to hand off some paperwork, including an application to register for services of the American Cancer Society.

Soon, I was led to an exam room, with my friend beside me to facilitate communication and to contain any further cherry-red Tylenol spills. I had about a dozen questions written out, and my friend had a list of questions that an R.N. had suggested asking, so having a sidekick present was a real help.

The first member of the Tumor Board we met was Dr. Jergin Chen. Dr. Chen conducted a brief, yet probing interview about my condition, and attempted to look at my mouth. I can't open my mouth very wide, however, and my swollen tongue makes it difficult to see anything in it. To continue the examination, we moved to an exam room across the hall, where I met three more members of the Tumor Board.

There, my nostrils were sprayed with some kind of numbing solution, and small video cameras were inserted into my nose and down my throat. Just inches away was a monitor displaying the images. I kept my eyes clenched tight throughout this procedure. I never have liked looking at photos of myself, especially not moving images of my inner organs.

After that, the Tumor Board collected its data and went into conference, and my friend and I returned to the original exam room.

An hour or so later, Dr. Chen returned to report on the Tumor Board's findings.

My cancer is an unusual presentation, Dr. Chen explained, but fortunately that does not preclude treatment. Two weeks from today, I will begin radiation therapy, and continue daily treatments for 33 sessions, Monday through Friday. Dr. Chen said that this will be the most radiation that can be administered safely. During that course of treatment, I also will have three sessions of infusion chemotherapy, which is intended to boost the effectiveness of the radiation therapy.

Side effects may not kick in for two or three weeks, and may include mouth sores, sore throat and dryness of my mouth, along with some hair loss in the lower part of my head, and possible hearing loss.

The best outcome for the treatment, according to Dr. Chen, is increased function of my tongue but I can't expect it going back to how it was before cancer arrived on the scene. Whether I will be able to return to eating through my mouth depends on how my tongue reacts to treatment.

I have high confidence in the expertise of the Kaiser Radiation Oncology Department, and I'm comfortable with the course of treatment that Dr. Chen outlined today. As a friend e-mailed to me this afternoon, at least no scalpel is involved.

The next step, set for Wednesday, is getting a CT scan. A week from today, I will have X-rays made of me in the treatment position, and the treatment machine will be set up. And then, on Monday, Feb. 9, I'll begin the treatment sessions.

So it's official: I'm a member of the "Cancer Club" that my friend living with breast cancer mentioned the other day.

Don't know if the club has a theme song, like the club that Annette and Tommy and Cubby once led. If it does, you'll read about it here.

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