Larry had been free of any significant medical issues for the first 84 years of his life, but then a heart valve issue and bladder cancer diagnosis brought things into focus. He has recovered but is hesitant to say he is cured.
I retired at age 75 and live a relatively sedentary life, although I have eclectic hobbies, which include playing piano, collecting presidential memorabilia, and watching old movies on TCM. I was free of all major illnesses until I had open-heart surgery to replace a valve about four years ago. While I was recovering from that surgery, I noticed some symptoms, but didn’t think they were particularly serious. I was a little concerned, considering my age, but didn’t worry about it a lot, which was my way of mentally avoiding it. I used to go to the urologist every four months for a checkup, and told him I was experiencing some discomfort. He looked into the bladder and saw two growths, “one doesn’t look like anything; one looks very angry.” Sure enough, bladder cancer.
Hearing the diagnosis was unbelievable—was this happening to me? I had out-of-body thoughts, “what did I do?” I’d always been good and never had fatalistic thoughts before this. But it stopped me in my tracks.
I went through treatment in the urologist’s office. He would put some kind of chemo into my bladder and then I would have to retaining it and sit in the office for an hour. Once I passed it, I could go home. I did this once a week for six weeks and it did absolutely nothing. When the treatment was done and tumor was still there, he said he’d see me in six weeks. But I thought, what were we waiting for? So, I sought other advice and ended up seeing a different doctor.
I received the second treatment at a hospital—traditional intravenous chemo for 12 weeks. It didn’t really make me sick, no real nausea. But I did experience fatigue and loss of appetite. The fatigue really bothered me. The fact that I couldn’t do things that I had been doing before; I didn’t have the strength. It was depressing. For a long time, I had to come and go in a wheelchair and use portable folding chairs to get to and from the hospital.
The other thing that became very difficult after the first couple of treatments, was that there was a great deal of difficulty getting the intravenous line started. That was almost the worst part. Sometimes the needles ended up in the strangest places since the veins in my left arm were totally useless. We began to know the names of the best technicians; there were a couple who we knew to stay away from. If I ever had to go through it again, I would opt for a port.
No Such Thing As Cured
By the end of treatment, the tumor had shrunk from 4.2 cm to 1 cm, which please the doctors. Then they told me that the gold standard of treatment would be a complete bladder removal. My cardiologist wasn’t happy with the prospect of a seven-hour operation, with two hours for removal and the other five to rearrange the pipes. Instead we went with Plan B—a partial removal.
When they did the partial cystectomy, they took out a bunch of nodes, which were all clear. But there are a lot more nodes in the body and all it really takes is one cell to escape and come back to haunt you in 5 or 10 years. The doctor never said to me “you’re cured” but did say “we’ve dodged a bullet,” which seems equivalent to “you’re cured.” I’m not happy with them saying they cured anything, so I am vigilant. From that point on, I was in surveillance mode: every three months for the first year. It’s not like I’m 50 and would have another 20 years of surveillance, but I am aware of the need to be watchful.
I lost my first wife to breast cancer 35 years ago, so I worry about being told there is a cure. She had had a mastectomy and was about 2 weeks short of the magic 5-year mark when they discovered another tumor. She was dead a year later, after 4.95 years of being cancer free.
My Family, My Staff
My wife and daughter were with me all the time. They were my support system. I didn’t do any research about the disease, but my daughter did. I didn’t have the patience for it, and maybe I also just didn’t want to know. And whenever I went to the doctor, they were always with me. My daughter even keeps an index card in her wallet that lists all of my medications. I referred to them as my staff. They were so helpful, but sometimes they would pressure me to do more than I could, even if said I couldn’t do it. Their intention was great, but they were trying to have me do more than what was reasonable.
I’m very fortunate that I still have a couple of fellows I grew up with in my life. We went to grammar school together and have been friends for close to 80 years. We talk on the phone and see each other frequently. We’re like the Three Musketeers. It’s difficult to watch other friends of ours dropping like flies as the years go on, but the three of us stay together. I’ve thought about which one of us will go first and assume it will be me, but other than that I don’t really think about death a lot. It doesn’t keep me up at night. From the time of the diagnosis, I knew I had a problem, but was more concerned with doing what I needed to do than with death.
Anticipation and Anxiety
The most surprising thing is that I got through everything pretty well. Whatever the doctor said to do, I would just do. It was a process, but now it’s done. I do feel some anxiety around the follow-up testing, which involves blood tests and a CT scan of the chest, abdomen and pelvis, then I see the surgeon who does the cystoscope to examine the bladder from the inside. The anticipation, not the reality, is what was bad. Now that it’s been more than six months, Robin said I don’t have to worry any more, but I think I will worry more, because what can happen in six months’ time? A lot! I know when I go for the checkups that my blood pressure is off the wall.
Before you get old, your knees are referred to as the right one and the left one, but as you get older, they’re known as the good one and the bad one. I need a knee replacement, but the thought of going through it seems like too much. I’ve had enough with hospitals, and it will limit my mobility, but I’m not ready to tackle it, at least not yet.
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