Monday, December 19, 2016

Twenty Years Ago This Month: "Mr. Reno, You Have Lymphoma!"

Twenty years ago this month, I lay silent, scared and shaking in a cold, antiseptic surgery recovery room with a warm blanket wrapped tightly around me waiting for an ear, nose and throat doctor to tell me whether or not I had cancer. 

A few weeks earlier I had visited his office to check out a walnut-sized lump on my neck about three inches to the right and below my Adam's Apple. While cancer did briefly cross my mind when I first discovered the lump, I quickly dismissed it. Not possible, I thought. I'm just too healthy.

The doctor initially did a needle biopsy of the lump, which came back inconclusive. But when I came into the exam room he was holding a folder on which the word "LYMPHOMA" was written in large type, all caps. 

Obviously I wasn't meant to see that. My heart started beating super fast. Tears welled up in my eyes."Oh, shit," is all I could say. He reassured me it wasn't definite, and that only the surgical removal of the swollen lymph node would tell us for certain. 

When he entered that chilly recovery room, with no emotion on his face and in a monotone voice, he said, "Mr. Reno, you have lymphoma. I'll contact the oncologist," and walked out. Yes, he flunked Bedside Manner 101. 

Throughout the cancer diagnostic process, I kept thinking it was a bad dream from which I would awaken. At other times, I honestly felt like they had the wrong guy and that they were looking at the wrong chart.

But it was all real. I was 35 years old, living on the beach in San Diego and engaged to the girl of my dreams. I was an athlete and surfer who had a great career as a correspondent with Newsweek. I didn't smoke. I was very health-conscious. I was, in a word, happy.

After doing the subsequent scans and tests, the oncologist gave me the official diagnosis: Stage IV follicular non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was bad. There was a very large tumor in my nasal pharynx. 

There were also tumors in my neck, abdomen and pelvis. The oncologist said I could live three to five years.

I started chemotherapy a few days after Christmas. But not before my girlfriend, Gabriela, and I got married. The wedding took place 20 years ago today: Dec. 19, 1996. Needless to say, it was the most bittersweet day of my life. 

I was so freaking scared of the chemo and of dying. But I was ecstatic that Gabby chose to be my wife as I headed down that dark road. I know for sure that I would not be alive without Gabby's love these last 20 years. And I am even more in love with her today than I was the day we recited our vows and I prepared to start my treatment.

We had a big, bold, beautiful Gatsby-themed wedding planned for the following April, but we canceled that and instead went down to the San Diego County building and had a quick, no-frills wedding. Just me, my wife, and my sister, Michele. 

The chemo was even worse than I expected. It was brutal for me. Thankfully, not everyone gets as sick as I did. I got very, very sick. But I got through it. And I kept working, at least through most of it. I've never stopped working in fact.

My Roller Coaster Life Since the Diagnosis

Since my initial diagnosis, the cancer has recurred, a few times. I've fought it off with a combination of integrative/holistic things and traditional pharmaceutical treatments. 

I opted to enroll in a clinical trial for an experimental radio-immunotherapy treatment called Bexxar, which, along with all the dietary, lifestyle and supplemental things I was doing put me in remission for about five times as long as the chemo gave me.

There have been some very high highs and some very low lows in the past 20 years. I've had many difficult health issues related to the cancer, and some that are perhaps not related. 

I've learned a lot about myself, and about human nature. Perhaps the most surprising thing I've learned is that in the eyes of others, even those you love and who love you, you at some point become your cancer.

Despite all your successes post-diagnosis, despite all the things you overcome, including sickness, fear, physical pain and emotional turmoil, people eventually stop differentiating between you and your illness. 

People conclude that if you're sick, that is just who you are. You essentially become your illness. If you're unable to do something in your life, whether it's taking your daughter to school or attending a family reunion or wedding of a close friend, at some point people in your life inevitably no longer think it's because you were dealt this bad hand. They just see it almost as your choice, and as your flaw.

At some point, people simply see you for your inabilities. They blame you, not your illness. It's not a conscious or mean-spirited thing. It is I think largely involuntary. It's human nature, I guess. And it is based on both ignorance and fear. Everyone's afraid of getting cancer, of getting sick.

We're Still Here!

So, for every cancer patient and survivor or anyone reading this who has battled any serious illness, I want you you to please remind yourself these very important words: you are not your illness!

You didn't ask for any of this. You don't deserve any of this. You are not to blame for any of this. And it is not your fault that sickness and pain prevent you from doing the things you want or even need to do. 

You are not the things you can't do. You are in fact all the amazing things you can do and have been able to accomplish despite being sick and in pain -- no matter how inconsequential they might seem to someone who has never battled serious illness or chronic pain. 

Despite being scared, despite being in physical pain, despite everything, you are still here. From the moment you hear those words that you have cancer, you are a survivor. And everyone who has heard those words is my hero. 

This month, as I celebrate 20 years of survival, I want to express my admiration and love to all my fellow survivors. Not just those of you who've survived cancer. But those of you who've survived any illness. 

And I want to send specific love and congratulations to anyone who's battled massive chronic pain. It isn't easy, y'all. But I remain a relentless optimist. Even though I'm often either sick and/or in pain, I still love my life. I still love my family. I still love my friends. I still love my career. I am a  proud cancer survivor. And I am not my illness!