11. One Year

Until now, I've recounted my experience with cancer in chronological order. That's the best way to tell and understand a story. However, this blog post is an exception. That reason: it's been one year since I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Thus, it's appropriate to break from the chronology to share lessons learned from my experience to date. After first being told that I had a life-threatening disease, I have learned many things and they are all important. So don't consider how I articulate them to be a rank ordering. They all shape the person I have become.

For starters, I have a much better appreciation for the daily wonders of life. Everyday, I tell God how grateful I am to have another day. Everyday, I think about how much I love my wife and family. Everyday, I marvel at the beauty of the sky and landscape as I drive in my car. All this might sound corny -- and before my diagnosis, that's what I would have thought, too -- but emotions can be powerful motivators in your life.

I certainly don't fret about many of the issues that I used to worry about. For instance, if it takes me a while to get ready in the morning -- and it often does -- I don't worry about being late to work. Hey man, I think, there are priorities in life. And getting my body ready to go takes longer than before my diagnosis, so deal with with it.

That feeds into the next lesson learned, which is probably all too obvious. I have a much better perspective on what is and is not important to me now. Or, rather, I have a better sense of priorities. My health. My family. My relationship with God. Things that I enjoyed in the past now I really want to enjoy. On the flipside, I now know what it's like to come close to death. Even though I don't look forward to it, I know I'll eventually be there again. And that makes me a very humble person.

Kate frequently asked me why I never got angry about my disease. After all, I never smoked and yet I still came down with stage IV bladder cancer. (The doctors aren't sure what caused my cancer, although my exposure to second-hand smoke raises a red flag.) I would feel sorry for myself from time to time, but I don't really know why I never got angry. Instead, my thoughts were more on another feeling: I felt I had taken a lot of things for granted in my life, and my cancer was a wake-up call to stop doing that. Message received. I now know that my life means loving Kate as much as I can, helping my kids grow up into adults who can build lives and pursue passions of their own choosing, and to be a bigger part of the lives of my extended family.

In addition, I think one reason why God let me live is to help others facing cancer. And the best way for me, a professional writer, to do that is to tell and share my story with cancer patients. That's one reason why I started this web site and post my blogs on community support boards such as the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network. I'm so pleased that people have told me that my experience is helping them in some way. If that's one purpose of my life going forward, I embrace it.

What else did I learn? Well, and I can't underscore this enough, cancer patients need a tremendous support network to help them survive. Doctors, nurses, other medical professionals, family, friends, neighbors and more. I've blogged recently about how my family and friends have helped me. Their outreach has left a lasting impression on me: there are far more people who care about me than I had recognized before.

Of course, there's Dr. Schenk, who scared the living daylights out of me with his words, but his actions literally saved my life. The nurses in oncology, urology, telemetry, family practice, ER, surgery and post-surgery have made the biggest impact on me. These are people who don't get into nursing to get rich; they do it because they get satisfaction from helping others. And they help you when you are most vulnerable. Just thinking of them makes me tear up. I love each and every one of them.

Since I'm on medicine as a topic, access to high-quality practioners, treatments and facilities is something that everyone should have. I have been fortunate in that my health insurance coverage is incredibly generous. But others are not so lucky. The cost of my many procedures has been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I have come across others whose health insurance isn't so generous -- either because it doesn't cover specific drugs or procedures, or because coverage is capped at a certain dollar amount. For a modern society like ours, that's sinful. Thus, universal health insurance has become an issue about which I am unyielding.

In addition, I, like many others, now have a pre-existing condition. So when I ultimately leave my employer and have to go into another, employer-directed health plan, I am at risk of not being covered should my cancer recur. The federal health care law approved by Congress a few years ago gives me that protection. So political candidates and Supreme Court justices who want to repeal this law earn my emnity. Whatever happened to the old saying, walk a mile in another man's shoes? To the extent that I am active in political affairs, getting people like that out of office will be my permanent cause.

Now that I've got that off my chest, a few words on the horrible effect that treatments and radical surgeries can have on your body. When Dr. Schenk first walked me through his plan of action, I thought that there's no way I could endure all that. Indeed, chemotherapy hits your body and mind like a ton of bricks. And that turned out to be a walk in the park compared to recovering from surgery and all the complications that set in. But here's what I have learned: people have an inner strength in them that they don't know exists. That's because it lies dormant until you really need it. I found mine. And if you're unfortunate enough to be facing cancer, I am here to tell you that you will find yours. You can get through this. You can survive. You can build a new life.

Your mental attitude will determine a lot of your strength. One way I thought positive: I descibed chemotherapy as "medicines," ones that would cure my body. I saw my survival odds on the Internet -- and they weren't good -- but the doctors and nurses told me to think of myself as a statistic of one. I was younger, stronger and healthier than a typical bladder cancer patient, so don't let depression creep in. I survived surgery and its many complications by focusing on the immediate task in front of me, whether that was cleaning my body from leaking drains, to drinking healthy fluids, to pushing myself to walk around the hospital ward. Don't think for a minute that you can't do the same thing; you can. And you will.

Lastly, I discovered that recovery doesn't happen all at once, nor in any single dimension. For instance, there is the immediate, post-surgical phase. This is incredibly difficult, to be sure. Pain radiating throughout your body. Drains leaking all over the place. Clogged drains creating acute, abdominal pain. Sleepless nights. Collapsing veins from the daily blood draws. Irrigating drains became a many-times-a-day experience. Kate became such an expert at this that she would instruct nurses in the hospital on how to do this.

Getting home helps so much with your recovery, probably more mentally than physically. But drains will be with you for many weeks. Learning how to use a neobladder was the next stage of recovery. Let's just say this did not go as planned. Oh my God, what had I gotten myself into? Problems and complications will rise. And you have to develop new skills, from using catheters to removing mucus blocks through irrigation. Doesn't sound pretty, but as Dr. Schenk reminded me, "You can be around to deal with issues like this, or not be around." Okay, he's right, of course. But why is it so damn difficult?

Rebuilding strength in your body in yet another phase of recovery. You need to push yourself to get outside and take walks. My initial walks were while I still had several drains in my body. So I tossed on a bathrobe, hung the drains on a walker, and proceeded to walk my street. Not very pretty, that's for sure. But I did it. I also went through extensive physical therapy to rebuild muscles I had lost, from my quads to my arms.

That's the physical side of all this. But recovery is not so uni-dimensional. One of my nurses, Leigh Ann -- who became so important to me -- told me there are three dimensions to recovery: physical, emotional and spiritual. And don't sell any one of them short. She is so right. Kate would help me emotionally by taking me out on long drives through the mountains. This was during the fall of 2011, when the colors were peaking, and she drove her convertible Mini Cooper with the top down. Feeling the breeze, seeing the colors, looking at the sky, listening to music combined to create an enormously liberating feeling inside me. I felt glad to be alive.

Spiritually, I became a lot closer to God. Not in a religious way. I had been raised Catholic, but didn't belong to that church anymore. Still, I talked with God much more frequently than before. Some of my talks obviously were about giving my strength to get through all of this. Other talks, though, were about my family, the beauty of each day, and a deep appreciation I had for continued life. I felt lucky to be alive. I felt humbled to have so many people rooting for me. I felt blessed. Truly blessed. And maybe that's the biggest lesson I have learned so far.

Cancer has given my new life. And I plan not to waste a minute of it.

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