Most average 19 year olds don’t think about becoming seriously ill and definitely not about dying. They don’t think about cancer as something to worry about. Cancer is a disease that the elderly get; a disease they won’t have to worry about for years to come. What follows is one young man’s story. It is his personal perspective about his life, disease, and future.
I guess you could say I was an average 19-year-old. Cancer never crossed my mind, at least not as it soon would. I had been touched by cancer before; my grandfather had died from intestinal cancer 10 years earlier. But that was what I thought I knew about cancer. You smoke for 70 years of your life and your chances of battling cancer are pretty good. But I was young and didn’t have to worry about cancer. I was soon to find out that cancer can (and does in some way) touch everyone.
I had just started my sophomore year at college and was coming home for Labor Day weekend. When I got home I did what all college students do, brought home every possible article of clothing to wash. First thing through the door I launched the huge laundry bag down the flight of stairs to begin the process. As I walked back through the living room both my parents were sitting there and they weren’t being their usual selves. I paused on my way through and one of them said, “Sit down for a second.”
Now, I remember hearing all the important details, but there is some blurring of the specifics. Minor pieces of information were lost and it became difficult to remember who was saying what. As I began listening, my first thoughts were that someone in the family was sick. My parents began the horrible process of telling their child that he has a deadly disease. Like I said before the details blurred, but I sat there and tried to comprehend what they were telling me.
A few months earlier I had a small flesh-colored cyst removed from my inner right ankle. Nothing else was thought about the growth because its appearance was not suspicious. It turns out that during the routine biopsy, it was discovered that the cyst was a malignant melanoma. I was to have surgery within the next month to have the surrounding tissue removed. Samples from the lymph nodes in my groin would be taken and biopsies would be performed. In addition to this, I was to receive one chemotherapy session (isolated to the right leg) to destroy any cancer cells that may be working their way through my lymph system. This entire procedure would take three hours and I would spend the next week in the hospital. After that I would be allowed to go home but would not be able to return to college for another two and a half weeks.
Due to me being away at college all of this had been discussed and scheduled by my parents and my oncologist, who I had yet to meet. My prognosis was very good despite the seriousness of the disease. There were many factors in my favor including the location of the melanoma and my age.
No matter how good the outlook is, it can be incredibly hard to come to grips that your life is not at all how you perceived it. As physically challenging as the procedure was, the process of coming to grips with having cancer was more emotionally taxing on me. I was lucky that I was diagnosed early on and did not have to undergo multiple chemotherapy sessions. The difficult part of the experience for me was admitting that I was now a cancer survivor. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to be a survivor; it most definitely beat the alternative of not surviving.
For several years, I didn’t speak of being a survivor or of my follow-up visits to my oncologist. I now realize that I was in denial about the disease. When the conversation would arise, I would pre-empt any comments by saying, “I only had one chemotherapy session so it wasn’t serious cancer.” I didn’t feel as though I “earned” the right to be a cancer survivor compared to some of the other stories I had heard. While hobbling around on crutches during my recovery, I would reply that “I had surgery” when someone would inevitably ask what happened.
I am not sure when I finally began to become comfortable with being a survivor. There wasn’t one enlightening event that made me come to terms with my role. In retrospect, I think I just became more and more comfortable as the clean check-ups started piling up and I began revealing my history with others. One turning point that I can pinpoint was reading the book "It’s not About the Bike" by Lance Armstrong. The book is not just an inspirational book for athletes, because as the title indicates life is much more important than any possession or activity. The underlying theme is that no matter how successful Lance becomes in cycling, he considers himself a cancer survivor first and foremost because of the community to which he belongs.
Another main point of the book is the responsibility that survivors have to the cancer community. This is something that I am finally coming to terms with and working to develop within myself. The role of a cancer survivor is not just to survive, but also to give back to others who are fighting the same battle. That is the one thing that all cancer patients have in common, the battle. It doesn’t matter if its melanoma, lymphoma, etc., we all face the battle. Survivors have the responsibility of giving back to help those who are still fighting. Everyone gives back in his or her own way. Some people contribute money; some educate the public about cancer awareness. It doesn’t matter how you choose to devote yourself, but just that you make an effort to help the cancer community. After all if others before me did not give back, my experience with cancer may not have turned out as well as it did.
This April will mark my third year participating in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. I have also donated to many other fund-raising events to help fight cancer.
I speak more freely about being a cancer survivor these days. When someone inquires about the skin graft on my ankle, I don’t just say I have a skin graft, I add, “I had cancer.” Not that I am happy about having had cancer, but it has changed my outlook on life and on what is really important. I owe much of my getting through the experience to my family and friends who were a constant means of support. I now support the fight against cancer whenever possible.
T. B (T-Bone) Therrell of Jackson, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in August, 2002, after a regular check-up from his family physician, Dr. Eric Muir. Dr. Muir had routinely checked Therrell’s PSA level and when the PSA level was found to be elevated, Therrell was referred to urologist Dr. John Carraher. After exam and biopsy, cancer was confirmed in two areas of the prostate.
Dr. Carraher reviewed treatment options with Therrell and his family which included surgery, radiation treatment, and watchful waiting. Of the three options, Dr. Carraher recommended radiation treatments and the Therrell family concurred. Therrell was referred radiation oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Kovalic at the West Tennessee Cancer Center.
After further evaluation by Dr. Kovalic, a plan of 40 radiation treatment to be given five times each week was arranged beginning on the first Tuesday after Labor Day.
Therrell is employed by Wal-Mart’s Super Center as a Security Guard and continued to work full-time during the treatments only missing six minutes of work the entire time. He felt well and suffered minimal side effects from the radiation. His treatment regime was completed on October 28. A follow-up PSA test on December 3 revealed the PSA level had dropped to three. Upon this good news, Dr. Kovalic released Therrell back to Dr. Carraher declaring the cancer cured. Follow-up PSA in May, 2003, showed the PSA down to 1.2. Mr. Therrell continues to enjoy good health with no after effects from the radiation. He contributes his good outcome to early detection by routine PSA tests and to the excellent care given him by Dr. Kovalic and the caring staff at the West Tennessee Cancer Center