Saturday, August 15, 2009

Redbird Rising

Artwork by Griffin Powell

I am 3 years cancer free as of today, August 15, 2009. A special day for me and my family and will always be a date of unique signifigance for the rest of my life. I am sitting on a beach and the sound of the waves and wind are truly meditative. I have a perpetual smile on my face and I'm not a smiley person. I've made progress towards my goals over the past year. But in many I've fallen short. Even still, it's a journey not a race.

Cancer changes you and I don't think the "dealing" really ever stops per se but the key I've found is to use it as a positive catalyst. I remember writing at the time I knew it would change me and I hoped and trusted in many ways for the better. Better perspective. Better life balance. Better appreciation for small pleasures in life. And yes I have changed somewhat but not altogether as much as I should have. And I'm disappointed in myself for it. I still am a recovering workaholic. I lose my patience with people and let little things bother me. I still take my wonderful wife and son for granted at times. I haven't made time to cultivate my friendships as much as I should. Even my health -- the very thing that started all this -- I don't give it the time and attention it demands much less deserves with working out and eating right. I share all this because it's both cathartic and because I want to challenge you to watch for these things in your life. Because yes time flies and life is short.

Finally I want to share an edited version of an email I sent three years ago. It leaves me feeling a bit raw and naked to do so but it's important. And this line will serve as a good summary: "And that we all slow down a bit and recognize what's around us and what messages they contain."


"Redbird Rising"

Many if not all of you are aware of my current status but nonetheless I wanted to share it in my own words. Let me warn you that this is a long email, but I hope, well worth reading. And the reason for title of this email will become evident shortly.

I have started to write this update email many, many times and have struggled to do so for several reasons I think. One, this entire episode in my life still seems quite surreal, and literally does feel like an episode of a TV show. Two, perhaps I have a bit of what is called "survivor's guilt" -- that is, while I am trilled, grateful and blessed to be CANCER-FREE! at this time, I can't help but feel humbled by the reality that so many afflicted with cancer (including people I know) haven't or didn't have the relatively smooth journey and final destination that I have experienced.

In any event, it still brings tears to my eyes to type or say it but thank God almighty that my post-surgery pathology revealed that my lymph nodes were all negative and therefore no signs of cancer remaining in my body! This means no chemo and just routine bloodwork and CTs for the next 5 years for early detection of any reoccurrence.

Also as many of you know, I had a small set-back after surgery with pancreatitis which resulted in returning to hospital for another 5 days. But I have been home now for a week, and my pancreas and liver levels have been returning to normal with another check-point due this Wed. Pancreatitis is typically a result of gallstones and therefore removing the gallbladder is the standard protocol. However, in my case, my team of doctors (as do I) feel more so that this was an unexpected side-effect of the surgery since the pancreas is the most sensitive organ in the body and it can get jostled during the procedure I underwent.

Now please indulge me in sharing a few stories from the hospital. Once you read, you may think of them as amazing coincidences or dismiss them as merely looking hard enough to see what you want to see. But as for me, I believe in my heart of hearts that these are tangible examples of how your thoughts and prayers have affected my journey and outcome. And for that reason I feel an obligation to share these very personal and meaningful examples with you:

The set-up is simple yet poignantly powerful. I was very close to my grandfather who passed very unexpectedly in 1985 and remain very close to my grandmother who some of you know and love as I do -- Doris. Each grandchild would go visit for a week or two by themselves every summer to Doris and PaPa's. They always had a beautiful backyard full of colorful blooming flowers and plants, birdfeeders and birdbaths. This meant it was quite popular with all kinds of birds but for whatever reason one that PaPa seemed to always like best b/c of it's unique and striking features -- the redbird.

So when I first learned that I may have cancer I made a conscious decision to pick a sign that God and my grandfather would be with me when I really needed them the most. I hadn't thought about redbirds in a long time but they immediately came to mind and was an easy "sign" for me to pick. The afternoon of being told "you have testicular cancer" I was sitting on my couch, crying, and happened to look out my front window to see a magnificent redbird staring right at me from the small tree in our flowerbed. In the coming days and weeks, I would see either the same or other redbirds around our house -- and we have never seen redbirds in the neighborhood before. I'd be sitting at the kitchen table doing cancer research and feel overwhelmed, look out the window and there sitting in a tree would be a redbird. I'd return from yet another doctor's appointment and as I drove-up to the house a redbird would be sitting on our curb. All of these sightings would provide me a sense of peace, calm and confidence that everything would be OK. Upon sharing my "sign story" with my immediate family my mother, father and even Doris noted that they too had noticed seeing redbirds recently that caught their eye.

Fast forward to the Zale-Lipshy hospital on August 10 and the RPLND surgery. The room I was assigned was 626. 6/26 is my birthday. The entire hospital including every single room is decorated with beautiful tapestries from around the world donated by a generous family. In my room was an oversized rug that featured small birds flying all around the border. Many times, with all manner of tubes coming-out of me and feeling miserable I would gaze at that rug. When I had to go to ICU for a day, I was assigned to room 313. 3/13 is my brother's birthday and as much as he wanted to, Brad couldn't come from Wyoming to be there for the surgery -- however he was with me in spirit that day. The worst time in the hospital, when I was in severe pain, nausea, dizzy and light-headed all at the same time it was of course shift-change. As anyone who's been in the hospital knows, during nurse shift-change unless you are dying they don't respond until their mtg is over. Finally, a senior nurse came to our aid with medicine that put me at ease. Sally was the most caring yet jolly nurse there who's warmth I could sincerely feel. She is British with the look and spunk you would expect. Short RED hair and bad British teeth with the front two I swear crooked enough that they came to a point almost. Almost like a bird's beak. My sister-in-law Kerri was a huge Godsend in caring for me in the hospital. I am not a good patient and I guess like most can be hardest on those closest to me. Kerri is a post-partum nurse but she is a nurse, period, at heart. She put up with my constant requests and complaints, pushed me when I needed pushing and provided a hand or a hug when I needed those too. Only after we left did I learn the nickname her family's friends called her all growing-up. With red hair her nickname was "Redbird."

Finally, on the day I was to learn the results of the pathology, I heard a beautiful old man's voice singing next door. And he would sing old church hymns that always touched my soul: Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art. And two songs I vividly remember from PaPa's funeral. Again, this was a sign that God and PaPa were watching-out for me and that everything would be OK. I went to meet the old man the next day and to tell him how much his singing meant to me. To my surprise, Mr. Foote was ironically in the hospital with an eye problem and yet was already blind. But at 99 years old, this was the only health problem he had. He shared that he sang in his church choir for many years and he liked to sing to himself to prevent boredom. I shook his hand as I wiped a tear from my eyes and asked God to bless him as he had me the day before with my good news.

There's probably more I could share but I think that's probably enough to give you an idea, and it's still emotional for me to relive. But it's very important to me and for you to acknowledge that your prayers and wishes did and continue to make a difference. And that we all slow down a bit and recognize what's around us and what messages they contain.

Well, I am recuperating nicely at home now, with continued support from my work and I hope to return soon. Griffin is growing and changing every day and while the circumstances aren't ideal, I feel lucky that I have been able to see him more than a typical new father could. I am able to pick him up easier now that my incision is more healed and less painful. And yes, I have become that annoying Dad who takes a pic of everything his son does. So there, I admit it and apologize for ever making fun of anyone who did the same.

So let me ask and answer the question I posed with my first email update, "What can you do?"

1. Continue to pray for my health, specifically that the cancer will remain out of my body and that the pancreatitis mystery will clear-up on it's own

2. Continue to pray for Griffin, that he continues to grow and be the amazing baby he's been despite spending a lot of time in hospitals and hotels

3. Continue to pray for Kelli, that she finds strength to take care of her two babies and not leave an empty tank for herself

4. Continue to push yourself and your loved ones to conduct monthly testicular self-exams. Here's a link to a simple how-to:

As a society, we've got to increase awareness and dialogue about this disease and get it to the level of breast cancer awareness and self-examination. Some perspective: since my diagnosis three friends or family members of those on this distribution list have been diagnosed with testicular cancer. And that's just the ones I or you know about. Luckily, it appears all caught it early. So please, use me as a reason to talk about TC at home, at work, at your church -- everywhere. Guys don't like to think a little something could be anything but this is literally playing with their lives.

5. Since being diagnosed I knew one of the things I wanted to do coming-out was get involved in the Lance Armstrong Foundation. I am in the process of applying to become a participant in an upcoming Foundation Summit. And will continue to seek ways to apply my God-given talents for marketing towards this cause. Here's the deal, due to Lance and the popularity of the yellow Livestrong bracelets, the LAF has incredible awareness and raised a lot money -- but it's not enough. The gov't (regardless of political party in power) continues to CUT cancer funding year after year. So in addition to lobbying and applying political pressure (there's' now 55 million of us with a bracelet) the private sector's ability to raise money for research, treatment and related cancer issues becomes even more important. So please support Kelli and I as we walk in the LIVESTRONG Challenge in Austin. Net proceeds from the event support the Lance Armstrong Foundation's mission to inspire and empower people affected by cancer. The LAF serves its mission through advocacy, public health and research. All donations are tax-deductible.

With "Redbird Rising" as my personal watchword,



Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story. My father passed a few years ago at 57 from ALS. We too have birds in our story.



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