1. The Call

It was that time of year. My annual physical. On March 2, 2011, I met with Dr. Jim Ditaranto, my primary care physician for the past 17 years. Everyone calls him Dr. D. And they do so out of affection. Dr. D. has a great way of working with patients. He knows you and your physical condition extremely well. He's wonderfully conversational. You feel free to tell him about anything bothering you. And he always responds with sympathy. You struggle with your weight? So does he. You feel pain. He feels bad for you. Too much pressure in your life? Well, at airports, he's had guns trained on him for looking like a suspected terrorist. (Try staying calm while reaching for your passport!) When he sees my wife, Kate, he always gives her a big hug. Me? Not so lucky. But there's no other doctor I would rather see. To me, Dr. D. is tops.

Anything physical bothering me? he asked. Not a whole lot, I responded. I had put on some weight during the winter, which I promised to work off. And I had tweaked my lower back, a chronic problem of mine, that was taking longer than normal to correct itself. Otherwise, I felt great. In fact, probably better than at any physical in recent years. Still, Dr. D. performed his exam. EKG probes were hooked up. Blood was drawn. A urine sample was dropped off. And a lot else, of course. Then I was on my merry way.

Not so fast. As Steve Jobs would say, Dr. D. had just one more thing: it's time I had a colonoscopy. Like any sane man, I tried to weasel out of this. After all, who wants a thick scope to be put into a canal that was not designed for said instrument? Moreover, I had yet to turn 50, typically the time when guys go through the procedure. That would happen in May, and this was only March. Surely, Dr. D. would cut me some slack.

Wrong. He gave me a half smile, which distorted his goatee into a funny shape, arched his eyebrows, and said not good enough. When it comes to annual physicals, 49 years and 9 months is 50 to him. And so it would be for me. Schedule the colonoscopy, he directed. Now I could leave. Darn. And still no hug. What a cruel man my friend could be.

A couple weeks later, I got a phone call from one of his nurses, Patti. In years past, I had gotten similar calls, which described the results of my blood tests. Cholesterol a bit high, so cut back on fats. Vitamin D. a bit deficient, so take a supplement. Things like that. Things easily solvable. But this call was different. There were traces of blood in my urine, she explained, so Dr. D. would like me to get an ultrasound test on my bladder area. That's odd, I thought. After all, I didn't see any blood in the urine sample I had provided. And so I didn't really think about this too much. I scheduled the test and the follow-up with Dr. D., and then turned my attention back to work.

On March 22, I went to the radiology center next to Loudoun Hospital, and had the ultrasound procedure. A couple weeks later, on April 6, I met with Dr. D. to discuss the results. Like a good patient, I also would be meeting that same afternoon with another doctor to schedule the much-dreaded colonoscopy.

Dr. D. was not his usual cherry self. He said that the ultrasound showed a mass in my bladder, and that he had scheduled an appointment for me with a urologist at 8:30 the next morning. Huh? First, Dr. D. had never scheduled an appointment for me before, so why now? Second, first thing the next morning? Goodness, he must be concerned. About what, I couldn't tell. Invoking my sense of denial, I didn't probe. My denial extended to keeping my appointment with the colon doc.

The next morning, I drove to the urology appointment in Leesburg. A pretty drive down tree-lined streets to a new medical center on the same grounds as the old Loudoun Hospital, where my youngest son, Jack, was born on Valentine's Day in 1997. That day, we drove through snow to get to the hospital. Today, it was trees in full blossom. The drive brought back memories of Jack's birthday and -- even though I don't think about it that much -- how important my family is to me.

I met with Kelly, the nurse, and later Dr. Darlene Gaynor. Together, they would prep my private area, insert a scope with a camera, evaluate the situation, and then determine what to do. Now, as a guy, I was a bit weirded out at having two women grab my privates. But there could be no other way. So I got over it.

Dr. Gaynor is great. She talked with me in a pleasant manner, which calmed my nerves about what she might find. Then after discussing my medical history, she sat on a stool, wheeled forward, inserted the scope, and looked inside. Twisting and turning the scope (ouch!) to see everything possible. Then something odd happened. She withdrew the scope and wheeled backwards. But her body language had changed. Shoulders became straight. Face tightened. Eyes pensive. Then the words: "I think it's best to turn you over to our oncologist." That's when I knew. I had cancer. Bladder cancer.


Time to Get Started

Since being diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 2011, my family and friends have encouraged me to write about my experiences. Kinda makes sense. After all, I get paid to write for a living. But for the longest time, I haven't been in the right frame of mind or physical condition to write, much less think, clearly. Although I have yet to fully recover and I'm still dealing with complications, my major treatments and surgeries are hopefully behind me.

So I'm ready to go. I can begin to reflect on what has been the most difficult experience of my life. Where the heck did all this cancer stuff come from? How is it affecting me and my family? What is it like to cope with a diagnosis where the odds aren't too good...go through chemotherapy treatments that shake your body and blur your mind...and recover from a surgery that has the word "radical" two times in its official description? (I got the point with the first mention.)

I've been dealing with all this with the help of some amazing people, who you will meet in my blogs. Doctors that scare the life out of you with their words, but save your life with their actions. Nurses who are God's angels on earth, watching over you and being there for every difficult moment. And family and friends that rally to your side in every imaginable way, somehow convinced that you can beat this thing. Each blog entry will chronicle a specific experience, be it physical, emotional, spiritual or all three. And I'll keep going until I think I've covered everything important.

The blogs are intended for my family, friends, other cancer patients and survivors, and caretakers. To be blunt, the blogs are not easy to write. They bring up events and emotions that are still difficult to fully absorb. Hopefully, I can get all these down in words. And we all can learn something from the experience.

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