When In Doubt, Get Checked Out!

Ham Family

Eric was sick around the same time as Lisa.  He was younger, early 30’s, married.  He grew up in Raleigh but lived in California, and he was hilarious!  I never met him but reading his CaringBridge page was funnier than a night at Goodnight’s Comedy Club.

Brian was an athlete, a swimmer and a real outdoorsman.  He was a doctor, my doctor.  Not an ounce of fat on his body.  He was serious and cared more about his patients than other physicians I’ve met.  When you were in his office, he was with you.  One-hundred percent focused on your needs for as long as it took.  Cool wife, two teenage sons.

I grew up with Angie, she was in my older brother’s class at Terry Sanford Senior High School, Go Bulldogs!  She was a cheerleader, not only in school but in life.  She worked at PSNC, the place that keeps the residents of Raleigh warm for the winter.  Ironically, she read my book not long before her own diagnosis of colon cancer.

And there was Lisa.  My wife.  Mother of three, just shy of 40.

All died.  All of colon cancer.  The oldest was 52.

Current recommendations don’t call for colon cancer screening until you’re 50 unless you have a family history of the disease.  But while rates of colon cancer are decreasing for older people, the are actually climbing for the younger generation.  And while rates increase, young folks are less likely to be diagnosed until the cancer has progressed.

http://www.wral.com/colorectal-cancer-a-growing-problem-in-young-people/15597972/

Colon cancer can respond well to treatment if caught early.

Younger people think and are often told by their doctor that they aren’t susceptible to this disease.

Younger people put off getting stomach problems checked out assuming it’s a reaction to food or stress.

Many are active which can cause hemorrhoids.  They attribute blood in their stool to a sore butt from running or biking.

And who wants to have a colonoscopy?  I’ve done it.  It was not fabulous.  I drank sixteen gallons of white syrup and 45 minutes into my feast, I ran to the bathroom like I was headed into a Black Friday sale.  It was awful.  But once I was cleaned out, the procedure actually wasn’t that bad.  And there was something sort of invigorating about imploding my innards.  I felt fresh and new.

Not every stomach ache is colon cancer.  But if ongoing, check it out.  If you just don’t feel right down there, you know your body, check it out.  If you have blood in your stool, RUN to the doctor’s office.  And don’t let them tell you it’s nothing.  Press for answers!

When in doubt, get checked out!

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Sunday Post 143: Heather’s Story

I remember when we first learned that Lisa had cancer.  We didn’t have many answers, we simply knew it was a “large” tumor in the lower part of her colon.

I naturally assumed it was Stage IV.  I was right.  It had spread.

I tried to put on a good face, but in the back of my head I knew this was it.  A nurse friend of mine told me of Stage IV colon cancer patients who were beating the odds – 5, 8 years out.

“That’s not long enough!  What about year 9?  Do you know anyone who has survived 9 years??”

Literally every single month I hear of someone else who has been diagnosed with some form of this crappy disease.  Sometimes it seems beatable.  At other times, it just seems ominous.  But what I’ve found is that there is story after story after story of strong people who are kicking cancer’s ass!

While at Duke with Lisa, I ran into an old friend who has Stage IV esophageal cancer.  I said “HAS” – because he is still alive and well, it’s in remission, more than five years later.  It hasn’t been easy, but he’s doing really well!

Checkout this story:

Heather’s Story

Heather took names!  Her body did the unthinkable!  A death sentence?  Not for her – somehow her system responded to the medications and she is living, appreciating life like she never did before.

I haven’t yet met her, but one day I plan to. Part of her new life draws her to spread the word about cancers associated with asbestos – see the facts below.

Many of you are fighting – either yourselves or with those you love.  Cancer is NOT necessarily a death sentence.  There are victorious stories everywhere you turn.  Ha-le-lu-jah!!

Asbestos Facts

The Evolution of a Man

bruce

I had never written a thing, outside of a school assignment, until September of 2009.

They found Lisa’s tumor on September 4.  It was the Friday before Labor Day.  Exactly two weeks later, on September 18, a colleague at work left a blank journal on my desk.  He wrote:

I wish I had superlative words of comfort and healing but I fear them to be inadequate.  The better thing is this journal.

The next day I wrote for the first time:

Mom thinks I’m grieving for something that probably won’t happen.  Although I do have some thoughts around “what if” and it scares and saddens me, I think I’m perhaps more grieving over the loss of life BC (before cancer).  I think about our summer – vacations, laughter, family time without a worry, excitement about courting my wife.  All still possible, all come out now in glimpses – but all happiness, right now, quickly becomes overshadowed by CANCER.  It’s everywhere… on the voice mail, email, text – grocery store, meals arriving at the door, visitors and house guests who wouldn’t be here without IT.  The dread of another trip to Durham where you might find out more… the worry for your kids and constant art Michelle produces all designed to make mom better.  Knowing that for the rest of Lisa’s life, we’ll, or at least I, will be looking over my shoulder for IT to creep up on us again.  We’ll beat it this time, I think we will.

After Lisa died in February, 2010, I began writing a memoir.  It described our happy life together and shared the story of her illness and death.  I’d put together almost 200 pages before I started this blog.

At first I thought my book was about grief and loss.  As I read and re-read it, I discovered that wasn’t really the central theme.  It was more about a boy becoming a man – sort of the evolution of one man, me.

I’ve written a few blogs since then, man have I written.  At times my blogging has been so consuming that I haven’t taken the time to work on my real story, the one that is so personally important to me.

I’ve thought a great deal about why I want to finish my book.  I don’t anticipate it going platinum or being selected for Oprah’s book club.  Although either of those would be nice, it’s not my motive.  My real reason for completing it is for my girls and for me.  I’d like for them, one day, to be able to understand who our family was BC and to have a grasp of what happened the year we lost their mother.  I want them to know how hard she fought to stay with them.  I want them to see and feel how much I loved her.

Recently I began working with a friend, Tanya Stockton at Publishing Unleashed.  She helps authors publish and market their writing.  I have an editor who is currently digging through what I have written, and they’re pushing me to finish the story.  They say we’re going to publish by Father’s Day.  I’m not so sure about that.

The problem is, I don’t know how it ends.  I don’t know what this man ends up being.  I don’t know what the kids look like in the future.  I don’t know if we make it – if it all turns out alright.

Over the next couple of months, I’m going to commit to focusing on my book.  I think that means I’ll temporarily cut down to one blog per week – probably on Wednesdays.  I may toss in a Sunday Post every couple of weeks, if I have something thoughtful to say.  And my plan is to come back full steam once I finish my last couple of chapters.

I have a feeling, I’m gonna need a sequel.

If I Should Not Return

Posted by Danny

Psychiatrists from the UNC Lineberger Cancer Center asked me to assist them with a video to help oncologist better understand the dynamics of young families who are facing the death of their mother.  This is our story:

Sunday Post 74: The Dead Wives Club

Posted by Danny

Every third Monday of the month for the past 18 months, I’ve driven to Chapel Hill, NC.  I’m a NC State man, I’m not going over there to support the Heels.  That’s actually where I meet with The Dead Wives Club.  That’s not our actual name; however, it probably best describes the group.

Two UNC psychiatrists were bored and looking for something to study.  I’m not sure how they landed on us.  I think they ran across one of the dudes in the group not long after his wife had passed.  I imagine the conversation went like this:

Doc 1:  “How ya’ holding up?”

Widower Dude:  “Not so well.”

Doc 1 to Doc 2:  “Interesting.  Let’s study this.”

Doc 2:  “Got anything better?”

Doc 1:  “Nah.  Not really.”

Doc 2:  “OK.”

And that was the beginning. 

There are about 8 of us in the group.  All under 50, all with kids still in the house, all who lost our wives to cancer around the same time.  We gather in an office building – we eat, we share. 

The first year, we cried – a lot – one of the few safe places I’ve found where men cry in front of other men and it’s fine.  We all know each other’s pain and for us, tears are NOT a sign of weakness.

We’ve shared about our kids.  We’ve talked about guilt.  We each, at varying times, removed our wedding rings.  And we found that the lonely nights and the empty bed were difficult for us all. 

I really don’t think that we have that much in common.  We’ve only seen each other 18 times in our entire lives.  And yet, in a way, we know more about each other than we know about most of the people we run across on a daily basis. 

How is that possible?  I believe we can walk into the room and sense exactly what the other is feeling.  It doesn’t really take words.  It’s in the eyes.

Over our time together, we’ve seen great progress.  We’ve moved from discussions on dealing with our incredible losses to discussion about Match.com (no, not yet). 

I didn’t think I was a support group kind of guy.  I’m probably not.  But there has been something incredibly comforting about this oddly matched group of men. 

I’m not sure how long we’ll meet.  We each will move forward and perhaps outgrow the need.  But walking into a room of young dads who lost their wives to the same damn disease has been one leg of my healing journey.  And I’m thankful for that.

Sunday Post 68: Yet Another One

Posted by Danny

It won’t stop. 

Virtually every single week someone else in my circle is stricken with cancer. 

Two weeks ago a friend at church passed on a prayer request:  a 36-year-old mother of three young boys had just been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.

Last week I was eating lunch at Pam’s Farmhouse and ran into an old friend.

“How ya’ getting along?” I casually asked after a great big hug.

“I’m struggling.  Cancer in my back, just like your wife.”

Shit.  Another one.

And this week, my neighbor who came to my house at 1:30 am to sit with my kids on February 24, 2009, when I headed to Duke to tell Lisa goodbye, has been taken to Hospice.  His cancer won’t stop – it’s finally beaten down one of the physically strongest men I know.

I used to hear about folks struggling with illness and toss-up a quick prayer.  In one ear, out the other.  The obligatory appeal to the man upstairs.

It had to be someone mighty close to me to register long-term in my mind.  I just didn’t get it.  I just couldn’t comprehend how cruel disease could be, how deeply one could hurt.

I guess I got a good dose of understanding.   And now that I know, now that I’ve been there, I feel their pain so deeply – so intensely.  Even those I’ve never met.

Maybe I liked it better before.  Maybe it was easier not knowing how deeply the wound could be.

Or maybe I’m better.  Not better emotionally, but a better person.  More able to empathize.  More able to feel.  More able to walk beside –

The Raleigh Roundup

Posted by Danny

I had the good fortune of being asked to speak at the Red Sword Guild’s  Raleigh Roundup last weekend.  The Roundup is an annual event that raises money for cancer research through the American Cancer Society.

When asked if I was willing to speak, I thought, “I’d walk to work naked in January to help find a cure for this crappy disease.  Heck yeah I’ll speak!”

Some of my thoughts that night came from a recent blog post so the beginning may be somewhat repetitive for some of you.  But I thought I’d share it nonetheless. 

A few weeks ago, I learned how to blow dry my 11-year-old daughter’s hair.

Her Nana had taken her to get a haircut and they decided to go with a short bob – longer in the front and I think they call it stacked in the back.  It was a really cute haircut; but two days later, Stephanie came home from school – the top layer of hair looked like a bush – it was poofed out like a head of broccoli.  She said, “Dad, my hair looks ridiculous!”  In my eyes, all three of my girls are always beautiful and I tried to convince her of such – but she didn’t buy it.

I suddenly had a vision of my wife – Stephanie looks just like Lisa did at that age.  And with Lisa, the weather or her mood or the amount of time she had in the morning all played a role in how her hair looked on a given day.  I don’t understand how the weather can affect your hair.  But my wife swore it did.  I remember one day when Lisa left home in the morning and her hair was enormous.  When I walked in the house that evening, her hair was straight and sleek and close to her head.

I said, “Baby, what happened to your hair?  It’s so small.  Is that a wig?”

I dont’ remember exactly how she responded to my question, but it may have been with a hand gesture.  “No, it’s not a wig you idiot!  I do not wear wigs.  I went to see Chris today.”  Chris was her stylist and apparently a hair miracle worker.  I asked, “How’d he do that?”  And she explained that he put some product in her hair that defrizzed it and then he blew it dry with a big round brush.

As I pondered Stephanie’s situation, a light bulb went off in my head.  “I can fix this Stephanie.  Your mom had this same thing happen – just trust me.”  I yelled upstairs to my 14-year-old daughter who also has curly hair.  “Do you have some of that goop that defrizzes hair?”  She did, but she warned Stephanie that maybe it wasn’t a good idea for me to get involved in this particular activity.  But I was determined.

While Stephanie took a shower, I collected all of the needed supplies.  First I slopped the goop throughout her scalp.  I held the brush with my right hand and used my left to wrap the hair.  But I couldn’t figure out what to do with the blow dryer – so, I tucked it under my chin.  I had Stephanie stoop down and turn in semi-circles as I worked the various sides of her head.  At one point, she said, “This is just weird dad.”

Twenty minutes later, she looked like she’d stepped right out of Chris’ salon.

I did it!  I tamed my 11 year old’s bushy doo.

But you know what?  I shouldnt’ have had to learn that.  Prior to February 2010, that was my wife’s role.  In fact, she handled most of the details of our household and most of the details of my three daughters’ lives.

Prior to 2010, I didn’t blow dry hair or by bows.  I didn’t line up the summer camp schedules or set up play dates or drive very many carpools.  I was a good dad, but I was more of the fun factor in our house.  I tickled and wrestled and snuggled.  Lisa did the rest.

When she was diagnosed with cancer Labor Day weekend, 2009, the fun stopped.  When she died six months later, I told a friend, “Our house use to be filled with joy and laughter.  I don’t know if that will ever come back.”

It’s been 20 months since we lost our lifeline.  She was the glue that held us all together.  Can you imagine telling your kids that their mother was gone…for good?  Cancer made me do that.

Cancer robbed our family.  It stole our innocence and many of our dreams.  To a great degree over the past two years, it has stolen our joy.

I just can’t seem to understand how we can put a man on the moon, how we can figure out how to drill for oil 10,000 feet under the surface of the ocean, how we can transplant someone’s heart from one human being to another, and yet, we can’t find a way to stop cancer.  That is unacceptable to me.

None of us can defeat this disease alone.  But collectively, we can make a difference.

It’s going to take money – I’m convinced that is how we will beat it.  So thank you for being here tonight.  Thank you for investing in cancer research so that this won’t happen again.

Two of Lisa favorite things in life were shopping and socializing.  And we have both here tonight.  So I encourage you to get another drink, hit the auction tables and to enjoy tonight in her memory.  And let’s get about the business of eradicating cancer. 

Sunday Post 43: Fear or Hope

Posted by Danny

Last week was one of the saddest weeks I’ve had in a while.  Who knows why?  It could be any number of things.

When I get into these down moods, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking.  That may be what gets me in trouble.

This week, it has dawned on me that too often I’m choosing a life of fear.  I’m choosing fear over hope.  I’m choosing thanklessness over gratefulness.

I worry about life when the kids grow up versus enjoying them today.  Instead of being grateful for my health, I continue to question why Lisa got cancer.  I dread the holidays – instead of celebrating what they stand for.  My fears can rob me of living today.

I was at practice for A Christmas Carol last week.  The Ghost of Christmas Past is a young girl, about six years old.  She’s adorable. 

In the scene, Scrooge has been exposed to remembrances of Christmases long ago.  And at one point, he realizes that the woman he loved when he was young is now dead.  He says, “It seems just like yesterday that we were together.”  Time has moved on, and yet he has nothing to show for it.

The little spirit finally encourages Scrooge to say Merry Christmas.  He struggles to get the words out of his mouth. 

Her message?  Scrooge is responsible for his own happiness.  Only he can make himself joyful.  And, I guess, only he can rob himself of the same.

Last week, I allowed myself to be Scrooge.  I bah humbugged life.  And life, I know all too well, is short.

So I’m going to choose hope.  And I’m going to be grateful.  Or at least I’m going to try.

5 Things I Wish I’d Done Before Losing My Wife

 

1.  Asked her what she would have done had she lost me.  Lisa died 20 months ago.  I bet I’ve wondered 10,000 times what she would have done if she were in my shoes.  I wish I’d known more about how she thought.  I wish I’d had time to do role plays with her – maybe one big truth or dare game, minus the dare, with all questions related to how to handle life without her.  If only I had a shred of her wisdom.  If only I’d observed better.  If only I had asked more.

2.  Find out the most important lessons she’d want me to pass on to our kids.  Lisa did leave a list of four rules for the girls.  But I can’t say for sure what she considered the most important life lessons and life skills she’d want me to focus on.  I can make some guesses and assumptions, but I’d love to have her top 10.

3.  Done a better job of letting her know how much I loved and respected her.  There is no doubt in my mind that Lisa knew I loved her.  I told her on a regular basis.  But I’m not sure my actions always mirrored my words.  It’s one thing to say it.  It’s another to live it.

4.  Shared more about our faith.  We talked about God and talked about our beliefs, and we talked a lot about what we didn’t believe.  But I sure would have liked to have had more in-depth conversations about heaven – what she thought it would be like, what she feared.  We didn’t want to believe she would die.  We didn’t go there.  I wish we had.

5.  Made us a higher priority.  Some of my fondest memories of Lisa were when the two of us had time – with no one else around:  a quick trip to Florida for the weekend, a night out at Porters for dinner with no kids, a Saturday morning on the front porch reading the paper.  Time and life got in our way.

That’s what I wish I’d done differently.

Waiting for the All Clear

Posted by Danny

I got a call from DJ’s orthodontist on Saturday; she’s a very good friend of ours.   She had been trying to find a time that we could meet to catch up.  Our calendars wouldn’t mesh.  I said, “Is there something you need to tell me?”

“Well, yes.  It is no big deal!” she strongly stated.

“Give it to me.”

“There is a round white dot on DJ’s x-ray – it could be several things, none of them serious, but I think you should get it checked out.  In fact, I’ve talked to a friend who is an ENT and he can see you next week.”  She then proceeded to reassure me it was nothing serious and explained the four logical things the spot could represent.

“Why does this spot need to be checked out?”

“It could perhaps be making it more difficult for DJ to breath out of her nose.”

“Do you see this in other patients?”

“Similar things.  I just haven’t seen a round spot exactly like this in the front of the nose (she used layman’s terms for me).  But this is not something to worry about.  Go see him next week so we can figure out exactly what it is.”

I didn’t know how fearful I’d become. 

Before we discovered Lisa had colon cancer, we were assured her stomach issues were not serious.  We’d read on the web that stage 4 colon cancer was deadly but our physicians would tell us incredible stories of those who had survived.  We heard, on multiple occasions, from seasoned oncological professionals, “I have never seen this before.”   I guess it was natural that even though a dear friend I trust and respect immensely told me not to worry, I did.

What was I expecting?  Colon cancer that had spread to the nose?

Ridiculous – and yet it did cross my mind.  I thought to myself, I know this won’t be serious because it says that God won’t give you more than you can handle – and I can’t handle anymore.

We were blessed this time.  With the help of friends and with some medical professionals’ coveted cell phone numbers, we were able to get an answer within about 48 hours of learning about this issue (and she is fine).  That is not the case for many.

There are those among us waiting for an answer.  There are those who go back for a checkup every six months to find out if the cancer has come back.  And they hold their breath in fear, just like I did today. 

I know there have been times that someone has shared with me that they were waiting for a result.  It went in one ear and out the other.  I had no idea how scary waiting could be.  I do now.  And I’ll be more caring and more empathetic, understanding the places your mind can go as you wait for the all clear.

(Thank you to the best orthodontist and ENT in Raleigh!  You’re an answer to prayer.)

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