by Kip Baker
Most things are easier the second time around. Having had cancer twice, though, I can tell you the second time is no better than the first. In my case, it was harder.
And yet there were blessings that were part of it, too.
After having prostate cancer two years ago, I had made a commitment to living a healthier lifestyle. I lost 50 pounds and decided to mark the occasion by shaving the facial hair I’d had most of my adult life. After getting rid of the beard, I discovered a lump in my neck I never would have seen had the beard been intact. My GP referred me for a CAT scan, which led to a biopsy, which led to the discovery that I had cancer.
In fact, I had the one lump that was visible to me and a second one on the other side of my neck. The cancer had gone to my lymph nodes.
Since I had such a great experience at Duke Raleigh when I was treated for prostate cancer, I decided to return there for treatment. (Raleigh was home for 25 years, but my wife and I moved to Emerald Isle when our kids were out of college and off our payroll.) Part of the benefit of being treated by doctors who are part of a teaching hospital system is that they continue to do research and collaborate with others physicians in their field. Dr. Hahn is my radiologist-oncologist, and I was originally scheduled for both radiation and chemo, but the latest research indicated that this rare form of cancer I had – squamous large cell carcinoma – responded as well to radiation alone as it did to the radiation/chemo combination. I was spared chemo, but 35 radiation treatments in seven weeks is harsh.
I kept a journal during that time. Here’s part of it:
“If you remember going to the dentist or doctor for the very first time, then your first experience with radiation would not be much different, except for the fact that you would be going every day for seven weeks. Even with this not being my first ‘rodeo.’ the first day this time was similar to what I had experienced before, with my heart pounding in my throat and my breathing rapid and shallow. By the second day, I was much calmer and now I find myself fighting the urge to doze off during the twenty minutes of treatments. It is amazing how much we generally dislike change, but how readily adaptable we can become.”
“To make sure that each time you are aligned properly, there are lasers in the ceiling and walls that create a set of crosshairs on the treatment table that are lined up perfectly with the machine. Since there was no support mechanism with the prostate cancer, they simply made three small reference tattoos (one on each hip bone and one on the pubic bone) with which to guide the technician setting up the treatment. With the head and neck being the targeted area this time, I was fortunate that they made all of the reference marks with a Sharpie on the mask, so no facial tattoos! The technology with this process is absolutely amazing, once you get past the ‘Man in the Iron (Mesh) Mask’ aspect. How they can ‘shape’ the beam of radiation to try and spare very sensitive organs only millimeters apart from the cancer is absolutely incredible.”
“Since the source of the original cancer could not be found and the resulting cancer in my lymph nodes is not lymphoma, they are having to irradiate everything from my lower jaw to the top of my esophagus. All of my throat, the tonsil bed, the base of my tongue and the lymph nodes are all targeted with a much wider approach than if the original site could have been identified, which would have resulted with much more refined approach.”
“… Radiation is a progressive process. While the amount of radiation you receive each day is about the same, it has a cumulative effect on the body, and those effects increase over the course of treatment and beyond for several weeks. Even though the effects will continually worsen, my resolve is to stay positive and to continue focusing on the big picture of getting past this small speed bump on my path of living well.”
The treatment made me temporarily lose my sense of taste (and another 20 pounds), but my taste is coming back. I allow myself one beer a week – on Friday afternoons after a week of teaching all my elementary students. Fortunately, that beer still tastes good.
During my prostate cancer treatment, I had a good friend going through the same thing just a few months ahead of me. He was able to tell me everything he was going through and help me anticipate what was coming next. I didn’t have a guide this time, so I asked my Duke Raleigh dietitian, Lindsay Kovacic, if she could find someone for me to talk to. She did, and that made a huge difference.
I was back at work three weeks after my last radiation treatment, and I feel good. I think it helped that I was in the best physical shape of my life when I discovered the cancer. I eat right, I exercise – biking up to 150 miles a week – and I “indulge” in just one craft beer a week.
Life isn’t back to normal, but it’s a “new normal,” and that feels good.