Movember: My Cancer Story
My cancer story. Written for Stripes of a Warrior, a nonprofit organization that helps cancer patients fight cancer financially.
If you watched any cartoons in the 1990’s you are probably familiar with the animated series “Hey Arnold!” and the fictional character Eugene. Those who know me may accurately compare some of our characteristics. Like Eugene, I can be accident-prone and a nerd who tries to find the optimistic side of my general misfortunes.
The week after I finished my sophomore year of high school I broke my collar bone. About four months later I broke my collar bone again. I had a hernia surgery before breaking my collar bone for yet a third time in less than ten months. This was only the beginning of my misfortune of health that would follow me for the next couple years.
During my senior year of high school I started to get intense pain in my abdomen and lower back. The pain was so severe that it kept me up most nights. Often, in the middle of the night, I would get very hot water to pour on my back and abdomen to relieve the pain.
I went to the ER several times. Each time they would dismiss me without performing significant tests. The nurses, doctors, my parents and friends didn’t take my discomfort seriously. I looked like a healthy 17-year-old; there was no reason to believe that anything was seriously wrong. However, I knew something had to be wrong. There were times where I could barely walk from the indescribable pain I was in.
A week after graduating high school in 2003 my family went on vacation to Waikiki, Hawaii. I spent most of the trip in extreme pain. The day we planned to fly home a miracle happened. Everyone was boarded on the flight to LAX. The flight safety instructions were already given and we were about to depart. I was seated next to my mom. Randomly, I whispered to my mom that I could not make the flight home that day. Concerned and with no other options she tried to calm me down and explain that there was no way we could get off the flight. A few minutes later the captain addressed everyone, explaining that the plane had unexpected engine problems.
As soon as I got off the plane an incredible amount of pain overcame me. I rushed to the nearest bathroom and vomited uncontrollably. I was taken in an ambulance to the Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu. Unfortunately, there was high surf that day which sent many people to the hospital. I spent a grueling six hours waiting for any treatment. Finally, I was given pain medication and a CT scan with contrast dye. I was told that the results of the scan showed a mass in the retroperitoneal area, and also a possible tumor or blood clot in my left renal vein to the inferior vena cava. I was to go to the hospital as soon as I arrived home in California.
I went to St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton when I arrived home on June 22nd, 2003. I was anxious and still in serious pain. I was given morphine, dilaudid, and ativan for my pain and anxiety. I was so drugged up that I can’t remember much of my week-long stay at the hospital.
The doctors had a difficult time with the diagnoses. I was told that I had blood clots, and I was started on a blood thinner (Coumadin) immediately. The next day I was diagnosed with stage III non-seminoma testicular cancer which had spread to my lungs.
Normally, a radical inguinal orchiectomy (a surgery to remove a testicle) would be performed first. However, because I was on blood thinner any surgery would have to wait. I was to start chemotherapy immediately. My oncologist, Dr. William Lawler, commenced treatment with cisplatin, etoposide and bleomycin for four cycles which started in the end of June and ended in September of the same year.
Chemotherapy treatment varies significantly from case to case. For me, each cycle of chemotherapy lasted three weeks. For the first week I would go into the cancer center from Monday to Friday and get pumped with chemo from 7 AM to 4 PM. I would then wait two weeks before the next cycle began. I was ignorantly jealous as I spoke with other cancer patients who had far less side effects and who only spent a few hours getting treatments. However, I was fortunate that my cancer had a high cure rate.
The two weeks after a cycle were the worst. I felt as sick as I had ever felt. I could barely eat anything without vomiting. I went to bed with a bucket each night and when I woke up in the morning I would stay perfectly still for about 30 minutes to avoid throwing up. There was hardly one day that I didn’t vomit. My average weight is around 150 pounds, during chemotherapy I weighed 95 – 100 pounds.
Beside the common side effects of chemotherapy (loss of hair, fatigue, pain, nausea, and vomiting) I would get rashes all over my body. A vein in my left arm would bulge and it felt like my arm was broken, limiting about 50% of any arm movement.
I went to the ER a couple times during my two weeks between chemo cycles. One thing that helped me get through these hard times was keeping a notebook where I would write down ten things I was grateful for each day. Despite feeling terribly sick, I felt genuine happiness and peace. I will never forget one night when I was looking at myself in the mirror. I saw a hairless, skinny, deathly sick teenage boy. I smiled at myself and felt real inner peace. I learned then that no matter the circumstances of life we can still be happy. I believe my peace of mind came from my belief in God, doing my best to stay true to my morals, and the support I received from family, doctors, nurses, church leaders, and friends. Without these things cancer would have been much harder.
The response to the chemotherapy was good. After I finished my four rounds of chemotherapy, it was suggested by my oncologist and other doctors that I would need an open retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (O-RPLND) as well as a left radical orchiectomy. I met with several doctors to discuss the potential problems of an RPLND surgery. I was terrified when a doctor informed me that the procedure could result in infertility, an inability to ejaculate, or the inability to have an erection. My surgeon, Dr. John P. Stein, reassured me that I would be able to have an erection after the surgery. However, it was likely that a nerve would be cut during the surgery that would result in retrograde ejaculation (when semen is redirected to the bladder). I was not able to bank any sperm prior to my chemo treatments, after chemo my sperm count was zero.
The surgery was scheduled for November 21st, 2003. I was given around two months to regain strength and finish treatment for my blood clot.
The RPLND procedure was my hardest trial. I arrived at the USC Norris Cancer Center the day before the surgery. My anxiety and stress caused me to vomit. A nurse, who was taking my blood, saw how nervous I was and simply told me to trust in God. I had so much support from family and friends, but somehow that small gesture calmed me down.
My surgeon, an internationally recognized urologist, described my 8-hour surgery as an “exceedingly difficult operation”. Over 100 surgical staples were used to close my scar which extends from my waist line to directly under my left armpit. A part of my rib was removed during the surgery, which still causes me discomfort every day. My nerves that control ejaculation were damaged, which caused infertility problems and retrograde ejaculation.
After the surgery, I was in intensive care for three days with a ventilator. I remember hearing the man next to me constantly screaming in pain. After three days, the ventilator was removed and because of my shortness of breath I wasn’t allowed pain killers. The pain I felt after leaving the ICU was unlike anything else. My surgeon told me that it didn’t matter what happened to me in the future – I would never experience that much pain again in my life.
The week after my surgery was the hardest week of my life. I slowly began to recover from the surgery and enter into complete remission.
I spent my birthday and Thanksgiving in the hospital that year, so I was excited and determined to spend Christmas at home. The surgery and pain medication affected my digestive system and days before Christmas Eve I wasn’t able to hold down any food or water. I had gone a couple days without any food or water before telling my family on Christmas Eve that I knew I needed to go to the hospital. I spent two days in the hospital to recover. Thankfully that was my last hospital stay.
Cancer sucks! However, I am grateful for the life experiences I gained from going through it. I wouldn’t be who I am today without those trying moments.
In 2007, I met my wife Amanda. After three tries with IVF we were blessed with a beautiful baby girl, Caitlyn. She was born exactly 11 years after my cancer diagnoses.
Note: This post was written for Stripes of a Warrior.