This post is going to be a little different. You see, each time I would sit down to blog in the last couple of months, one thing came to mind. As you know, I use this blog as sort of a journal of my life. Well, something pretty major happened in my life and I felt that I couldn't blog about it. I covered it up with recipes, crafts, and home renovation stories and pictures. I couldn't write what I really wanted to. Why? Because it wasn't my story to tell...
To all the regular readers of this blog, be forewarned! This is not being written by Shannon. I'm her dad and I'm doing a guest blog entry. So, don't be bummed out because you aren't getting her regular, funny insight. My subject may be a little dry but may be educational. It is about my spring and summer experiences in the healthcare system.
First, a little background. I used to be a really heavy smoker. I smoked over 3 packs a day for over 30 years and couldn't walk to the corner without hacking and hacking. Along with my wife, I quit smoking 6 1/2 years ago. After that, we joined Weight Watchers where I lost 120 pounds.
With that I was able to lengthen my walks from one block to five miles. All was well, health wise. My sleep apnea disappeared. So did my Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and everything else I was taking pills for. Like many people who have vastly improved their health issues, I slacked off getting regular check-ups. Why see the doctor when you are feeling great?
Then Prudential [insurance company] reared its ugly head. I had a small Whole Life policy with Prudential for many years and it has been paying its own premiums for years. Then one day, I get a letter from Prudential telling me that this policy will quit paying for itself and I will have to start paying an exorbitant premium. Well, we looked at all the options and decided to convert it to a term life insurance policy that gives us 10 times the coverage for the same price. So, last December, a home healthcare lady came to the house, took blood and urine samples and gave me an EKG. Late February, we got a letter from Prudential telling me that I can't get the new insurance because of the lab results! I looked it over and saw that my PSA test (measures the likelihood of prostate cancer) results was 11.4! Anything over 4.0 points to prostate cancer. It was 1.4 on my last test 2 years ago. I called my family doctor and he referred me to a urologist.
My urologist put on his glove and did a hand check of my prostate and said that the right side was "hard" and had an ultrasound done. He showed me where the prostate showed some white spots which indicated cancer so he ordered a biopsy. When Jen and I went in to get the results, we were expecting a cancer diagnosis but what the doctor told us hit us hard. All 16 biopsy specimens came back positive for cancer. My Gleason score, which measures Prostate Cancer was over 9 out of 10. The diagnosis was Stage 3 prostate cancer and he ordered a CT Scan, Bone Scan and chest x-ray to see if the cancer spread, which is typical with Stage 3 cancers. He said, with the prostate cancer diagnoses of my brother and dad, along with the aggressive kind I have, that more than likely I have a genetic predisposition for prostate cancer. He made a strong suggestion that my son and nephews have base line PSA tests and that my two other brothers be extra vigilant.
That week and a half between the diagnosis and results of the scans and tests were the longest ten days of my life. When the radiation oncologist casually said that the tests all show that there was no cancer spread, we both about collapsed with relief. Our moms were emotional when we told them and my kids were equally happy.
I immediately started my treatment. Prostate cancer is different from most cancers in that chemotherapy is not an option. I've got so little hair left, I'd hate to lose it. Besides, I have an odd shaped head that would look horrible bald. Removing the prostate is also discouraged because of many factors with one being the likelihood of the cancer returning. So, my treatment started with my receiving hormone therapy. This starts with a "3 month" shot that will lower my testosterone level to zero and will cure the cancer. Radiation is used to "seal the deal". After getting my tattoos (which are used to line up the radiation beam exactly) and the forms my legs fit in (so I don't move during treatment), I started getting my radiation treatments. I'm having 44 treatments, every weekday at 8:20 am. My daughter, Shannon, made me and her a pad of paper with the numbers on the pages in descending order. Today, I tore off #10 so I only have nine to go!
The first 25 treatments, despite hitting the prostate, were also focused on the lymph nodes and the area surrounding the prostate. If any cancer had escaped detection, it would be microscopic and would be killed by this treatment. The last 19 treatments focus entirely on the prostate. My radiation oncologist has told us that I will be on the hormone treatment for two years after I'm done with the radiation. (Jen is hoping that this long absence of testosterone will get me interested in scrapbooking!) I had another PSA test prior to my appointment last week with my urologist and it was 0.2. That made us extremely happy that the treatment is doing its thing. We won't know positively until after the two years of hormone treatment are over and my testosterone returns to normal. It the PSA stays near zero then I'll be set. One thing the radiation oncologist told me during my first appointment with him was that some day I'll die, but it won't be from prostate cancer!
During that first appointment, when we were going over the scans, the radiation oncologist pointed out where I have early signs of arthritis that showed up and some calcium deposits in my heart and arteries. Calcium deposits show up on a CT Scan but cholesterol and fat deposits don't. But "where there's smoke, there's fire." When I got the results, I set up an appointment with my family doctor to go over the results. When he saw the calcium deposits, he set me up with an EBT test which measures the calcium in and around the heart. For some reason, no insurance will pay for this test so we had to cough it up ourselves. When the results got back, his office called me and told me they were scheduling me for a stress test (called an Abnormal Myocardial Profusion) in two days. When Jen and I got to where the stress test was, the technician said that they hadn't gotten it okayed by my insurance company yet. He said there shouldn't be any problem getting it approved and if I would sign a paper guaranteeing payment if the insurance company doesn't pay. Jen asked how much the test cost and he said $7000! If he was trying to get my heart rate up, he succeeded! We both said "Hell NO!" and rescheduled for the next day when he had approval.
Well, I flew through that stress test. I was walking on a 16% incline 4 1/2 MPH for the full time. No sweat, no problem. Not quite. The stress test showed a reduced flow through one of my coronary arteries so my family doctor scheduled me to see a cardiologist two days later. Coincidentally, my cardiologist is my mom's too. He told me that he was going to schedule me for a heart catheterization for Friday afternoon (so it didn't interfere with my radiation treatments) and if I had a blockage over 70%, they would put in a stent and if the blockage was less than 70%, they would treat it with diet, exercise and drugs. My blockage turned out to be 75-80% and they put in a stent. The ironic part of this was that the artery that showed the greatest calcium build-up on the EBT and threw up all the red flags, wasn't the one that was blocked. That one was the one with the lowest numbers and the most favorable score on the EBT test. So, here I was. I had a battery of tests to see if my cancer had spread. They showed no spread but some calcium deposits. Other tests showed a large risk in one artery for a blockage so a heart catheterization was done and found a blockage in another artery that showed clear in the tests. I have two occasions where a symptom raised a red flag and a problem elsewhere was found that was a life saver for me. The artery where my blockage was, showed very mild calcium build-up on the tests and even my cat, Lucy, wouldn't have bothered with it. Boy, did I dodge a bullet!
One of the reasons my family doctor, Doctor Anthony Henry, was proactive and quick to react to my test results was because he KNEW my family history and didn't take any chances. I'm extremely pleased that my doctors were so good, so professional and so able that I could be diagnosed with an 80% blockage of a coronary artery and get it fixed (with no other blockages over 15%) without ever having ANY symptoms whatsoever!
So far, after 36 radiation treatments, I'm feeling pretty good. After I get done with my treatments and I get over whatever after affects there are, I'll be taking vacation until I can retire after my birthday in August. This entire ordeal and the last 7 years leading up to it has taught me some very important lessons:
- If you smoke, quit. No one out there smokes more than I did. I tried every method, twice. Chantix worked. Nicotine replacement doesn't work. Forget about the patches, gum or e-cigs.
- If you're overweight, lose the extra poundage. I lost 120 pounds on Weight Watchers and you can too! Fad diets like "no carb" or "high protein" don't work. As soon as you go off them, you pack it back on big time. Weight Watchers helps you change your lifestyle that includes eating properly and exercise and the weight will fall off.
- Quit drinking so darned much beer! One a day is sorta OK, but don't keep sloppin' them down!
- Pay attention to your family's medical history. Let your doctor know it and keep a close eye on what has been diagnosed in other family members.
- Pay attention to your doctors! My radiation oncologist tells us that we should cut out red meat from our diet. He's no dietitian or nutritionist. Yeah, but he sees people over and over who have cancer and that red meat "could" easily have been a contributing factor.
- Lastly, share your burden with your family. They will give you great comfort when times are bad and will pick you up when you're low. I couldn't have gone through all that I did as easily as I did if it hadn't been for Jenny and our families. God bless them all.
So, there you go, that's my story. Sorta long winded but I've never said anything in a sentence when a paragraph was handy.
First of all, I can't thank my dad enough for sharing his story with all of you. This whole ordeal has been the absolute hardest thing my family and I have ever gone through. Like Dad said, those 10 days were the longest days ever. Even knowing that prostate cancer is very treatable if it hasn't spread, all I could think about was, "What if?" All I knew was, I was NOT going to lose my dad to cancer. I am 31 years old and have a wonderful relationship with my own Grandpa. I refused to think about my girls growing up without that relationship with my dad. I got the call at work. I was walking and literally fell to my knees. Knowing that my dad was NOT going to die from cancer was the best news I have ever heard. Ever in my life.
Dad started his treatment and all was well. One thing that you may not know about my dad is that he is a swimmer. He swims a mile every morning. He started talking about his left arm numbing a little bit as he was finishing his laps. Mom kind of thought that maybe it was a effect of the hormone shot; maybe he doesn't have all of his strength and endurance. Dad didn't want to ignore it because last time he ignored a nuisance symptom, he found out he had cancer. He listened to his body and we are all thankful that he did. He dodged a heart attack and all I could think was, "How many more lives does this guy have?!"
The dad I knew back in 2008 was a meat and potatoes kind of guy. He could fill a plate and go back for seconds. He also salted everything! The salt shaker was always on the table in our house. He also drank a ton of Diet Pepsi. After Dad's diagnosis, he completely turned his habits around! No more red meat. No more salt. He is all about eating fresh! He also puts back at least 64 oz. of water each day instead of the pop! Because of all of this, I took a second look at what I was eating. I, like my dad, was salting everything. I stopped. I cut back drastically on my red meat intake, as well. Knowing that heart disease is the number one killer of women AND that it runs in my family, I decided to be proactive and prevent it as much as I could. I'm now a huge fan of mushroom burgers and veggie burgers :-)
I'm telling you, my dad has really changed his lifestyle! I'm so incredibly proud of him. He has not let the cancer or heart issues get him down. He is definitely a man to look up to. I love you, Dad, and am so thankful that I have many, many years to keep telling you that.