Michael Douglas and Me

Michael Douglas is facing the fight of his life.  It is in the form of a cancerous tumour at the base of his tongue.  He has been open about what it all means.

A doctor found a very similar tumour on my tongue seven years ago, almost to the day.  I survived, but it was somewhat of an ordeal. BTW, Douglas and I were born just four months apart in 1944.

Our bodies are our most intimate part of our hearths.  And keeping it healthy isn’t at all a new idea.  (My mother was a health educator.)  Douglas admits he drank and smoked, and assumes these practices caused his tumour.  In my case, I didn’t smoke and was a moderate drinker.  Of course these factors don’t control one’s fate; but they do influence it.  For instance, my father and his mother died of cancers (different ones), and two of my brothers have been diagnosed, also with different cancers: one beat skin cancer before mine came along, and the other has just had his prostate removed in his fight that began less that a year ago.  Family history is an important ‘pointer.’  I don’t know Douglas’s.

The only other difference is that my cancer was Stage III, while his is Stage IV, which means that besides advanced growth of his tumour, there are signs that the cancer has spread, probably to lymph nodes.  While I fought mine in Canada with our complete public health system, Douglas is in the US, which allows the rich to get far better care than the poor.  That might make our odds just about the same (my doctors gave me a lower, 70% chance of success).

I, too, had gone to my doctor earlier with symptoms, only to be assured that there was no problem.  The first was in April 2002, with a sense that my voice was changing, probably the result of stress related to a late night in a bar shouting to a group of people against competition from the sound system.  Then 13 months later, I had two consecutive mornings when I awoke with my mouth full of blood, which I had been ingesting during my sleep.  The first day, I was sent home with my fingers crossed; the second day, they ambulanced me to another hospital to have a bronch0scopy, as they thought something was happening with my lungs (this, after they quarantined me for tuberculosis, until tests eliminated that).   I stayed there for five days, being released with a sore throat that never went away, departing with a diagnosis of ‘bronchiectasis’ (sp?) which was an error they didn’t correct later in the summer, just after my third attempt for an answer proved successful, after my Calgary daughter said my voice was changing even more.

I would tell MS, if I could get through his ‘filters’ (which all successful people must have), that it was not too rough.  I had chemo and radiation every day for seven consecutive weeks, while he is taking some weeks off.  I did feel fatigued, but that showed up only with my slightly earlier bed time; I still went to work and did my chores and other things.

My appetite went south, as the opening in the throat closes down from radiation ‘burn,’ and I helped myself by switching to liquid ‘meals.’  I perhaps didn’t compensate enough, and still lost about 20 pounds (apparently less than most), half of which I gained back soon after treatments concluded.

There are some permanent downsides: I lost my ability to grow a beard in parts of my face (I now have a goatee).  One of the most memorable parts of the routine that preceded my treatment was the direction from a nurse to take a safety razor and shaving foam she was handing me and go into the toilet and shave off my beard just before I was to be fitted for a ‘mask’ that would be used to lockdown my head during each radiation treatment to ensure it was lined up right for the incoming electrons.  I had quite a struggle shaving off longish beard hair with that device.  They should have also provided an electric hair trimmer to shorten it all to a stubble, first.

The other permanent problem is the loss of 95 per cent of my saliva production.  That necessitated me getting preventative dental treatment (to bring all maintenance items up to snuff) and be outfitted with a ‘tray’ for flouride for my teeth.  This end-of-day ritual is with me still, as I have to compensate for the preventative benefits of saliva in my dental hygiene.

The daily chemo injections, while they didn’t last much beyond a half hour, did play havoc with the veins in my hand each day.  Even switching to a single lead for each week brought its own problems.  On top of this, you needed to have blood tests twice a week, so they could monitor how bad I was being hit, and whether I needed other help.  I did well, getting only a couple warnings to lay off bananas for a few days, as my potassium levels were high.

As I visited regularly with my doctors after the treatment ended (just before Christmas 2003) over the following months and years, I entered their office more than a little apprehensive.  I would have a few symptoms that I was worried about (but only once so much to insist on an extra such session).  It was with great relief that I got a ‘cure’ pronouncement in 2008.

Along with an unrelated matter of chronic pancreatitis, which, along with accompanying type-2 diabetes, has suppressed my weight, too, I am a fit 175 lbs on my 6-foot-2 frame, rather than the 215 lbs I carried for most of my adult life.  I am a bit of a health and fitness ‘nut,’ as I watch diet and use my legs for almost all transportation (thanks in part to our decision 16 years ago to sell our car).

I have not really shared much of my ordeal before, and that is part of why I am doing it now: it is not a common form of cancer.  I was asked in an initial-visit questionnaire whether I wanted to meet with other patients of mouth-and-neck cancers, and I said yes.  But I heard nothing.  When I asked one of the social workers, I was told that there were not any others in treatment who wanted to be part of such a group.

I am using my blog to share my story, rather than try to get my thoughts to personally to Michael Douglas.  That means it will be ‘out there’ for other people to get my experiences, and maybe to post their own experiences here.  Perhaps Douglas will help by using his considerable celebrity power to draw more attention to this form of cancer.

The mouth and throat are so important, as the means for not just our air, water, and food sustenance to reach the body (and to keep the three somewhat separated), but as our primary means of communications.  I was told that I didn’t really want to think about the third treatment — surgery — since it would, in my case, mean the loss of my tongue and my voicebox.  That probably is what MD is also facing.  Although my keyboarding skills are getting close to awesome, I would dearly miss hearing my own voice.



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