Mike Spell, worship team keyboardist and CIBOLOCREEK elder, was gracious enough to share the story of his recent cancer journey with us this week. Please keep Mike, his wife Cathy, and their kids and grandkids in your prayers and give Mike a pat on the back when you see him on Sunday.
Cathy’s doctor prescribed a cardiac CT for coronary calcium scoring. The test was quick, cheap, and tells you how much build-up you might have in your arteries. I remembered that my dad had some build-up when he was my age, so I decided to also have the test done. To be honest, I liked the fact that the test gives you a “score” and my goal was to beat my wife’s score.
At 7:15AM on the morning after my CT scan, my doctor called to tell me that my arteries were fine, but the radiologist noticed a mass on my lung that we need to investigate. He had already scheduled me for a repeat CT scan that same day. My brain was scrambling for benign explanations for what this may be when my doctor shut me down. He told me the mass was not small and it could not be anything good. The repeat scan was with contrast and confirmed the mass. My doctor referred me to an oncologist. He told me to go to her office right then and schedule an appointment in person. The oncologist has a fantastic nurse who noticed me fretting in the waiting room. She came out to talk to me and actually got the oncologist to see me on her lunch break that same day. The oncologist scheduled a needle biopsy of the mass for the following week. Even worse, I learned that my Cathy’s coronary calcium score was better than mine.
On Wednesday night at about 6:15pm I was on my way to band practice at church. This is the night before my biopsy to see if I had cancer, so you know what was on my mind. I was stopped in traffic in front of the fair grounds on Hwy 46. Completely stopped due to construction, sitting immediately behind a white Toyota Tundra pickup. It was four-wheel drive and lifted and I was admiring it like a kid looks at a Tonka toy. A 6-point buck suddenly stood up in the back of the pickup truck, looked around, then jumped out the right side of the truck, jumped over a 5’ fence and ran off through a field. I talked to a few friends about this and we all agreed that the pickup truck must have hit the deer a ways back and thought he was dead, so they threw him in the bed of the truck. It was beautiful watching him jump over the fence, knowing he must be healthy to do that. I’m not sure what this meant, if anything, but it still lifts my spirit to think about it.
The biopsy confirmed that I had adenocarcinoma, a common form of lung cancer among non-smokers. The chances of a non-smoker getting lung cancer are about 1 in 10,000. That’s about how many people live in Boerne so I’m the unlucky guy in Boerne that gets it. Cancer can be caused by radiation, chemicals, too much sunlight, and a host of other factors. The statistical chance that someone will get cancer is defined by a blend of math, physics, and biology but it is not exact and seems rather random at times. I’ve spent many years working in chemical plants which probably contributed to my current situation.
My oncologist then ordered a PET scan to see if the cancer had spread. The technician came in with a large metal container with radioactive warning signs on it. He unlocked the container with a special key and pulled out a syringe which he injected into the IV in my arm. Then I had to sit for a long time with no visitors because I was too “radioactive”. I think we are going to laugh about this test in 50 years. We inject something into the patient that we know causes cancer, to see if they have cancer. Ironic. The PET scan was good – only one red spot showing the mass in the right lung.
The oncologist referred me to a thoracic surgeon. The surgeon is a great guy who only does lung surgery. He is so busy with surgery that he is only in the office one afternoon each week. The three-hour surgery was a video-assisted thoracoscopy to remove the lower lobe of the right lung (lobectomy) and nearby lymph nodes. I woke up on the ICU which is the normal protocol for this type of complex surgery. What was not planned was the heart monitor alarms going off at 3:15AM the morning after my surgery showing that I was about to have a heart attack. All eight nurses in the ICU were in my room in seconds. A video camera in the ceiling with a TV monitor next to it came alive and a doctor on the TV was calling out orders to everyone in the room. Shock paddles were stuck on my chest for defibrillation. They were all arguing about whether this was real or a machine error. About half the people in the room wanted to shock me. The other half were pointing out that I was alert and talking and could not be having a heart attack. I joined in with that half of nurses and asked them to please not shock me. Luckily, my half won the argument, but the paddles stayed on and I was assigned a second night in the ICU just in case. My eyes were glued to the heart monitor machine for the rest of the stay.
The surgery was very successful with no complications. The surgeon sent some lymph nodes to pathology which is normal for this procedure. Unfortunately, two of the eight lymph nodes showed some microscopic cancer cells. This put me at Stage 2B which means my oncologist had to order four infusions of chemo every three weeks for a total of 12 weeks.
I had to have another surgery to install a port into my chest for the chemo infusions. A port is like a pin cushion placed under the skin with a catheter leading to one of the large veins feeding the heart. I recall my experiences in chemical plants when we wanted to mix two components very well. We would inject one component into the pump suction of the other component. The chemo drugs were going directly into my heart (pump) for good mixing and distribution to every part of my body. Scary but effective.
Chemo was quite an experience. Each infusion took about six hours and I received well over a gallon of different drugs and chemicals. Steroids, anti-nausea medicine, and a couple of real kick-ass chemo drugs. I learned that not all chemo treatments make you lose your hair, but the ones I received provide quite a bit of nausea and fatigue. In general, the first week after each chemo infusion was rough and the last two weeks were fine. However, the effects were cumulative and the nausea from the last chemo infusion is still lingering today. My appetite completely changed. Things I used to like were repulsive and things I didn’t like before were now craved. I lived on grits and saltine crackers some days! Thanks to Cathy for her never-ending search for foods that I could tolerate during those bad weeks. My oncologist said that this should all return to normal within about six months.
We saw a lot of unfortunate people in the chemo center. There was always about 10 or 12 of us getting chemo on any given day. Most were quicker than mine, so I saw more people come and go. Many had no hair. Some got extremely cold during the infusion. Some got hot. None of us wanted to be there. One old man who finished about the same time I did one day looked at me and jokingly said “well you don’t look any better”. That was about the only laugh I had in the chemo center.
Now the protocol is a CT scan every three months. They left the chemo port in place until after the first CT scan. Not sure how I feel about the lack of optimism, but it doesn’t bother me except for being a daily reminder of what’s happened. There is no medical test for lung cancer, so they just scan you periodically to see if any new tumors show up. The CT scans will eventually be reduced to every six months, then every year. If I go five years without any tumors, then I will be “in remission”.
Five years is a common milestone for cancer. Most cancer survivability is reported in a five-year time period. The data shows that 99.2% of men with prostate cancer are still living after five years. It shows that only 16.6% of people with lung cancer survive five years. Only pancreatic cancer is more deadly. Luckily, my lung cancer was detected early so my outlook is better. I’m also a non-smoker which helps. Depending on which study you use, 30-60% of Stage 2 lung cancer patients live for five years.
In some respects, a shorter life expectancy takes a burden off my shoulders. I recently retired and was wondering what I should accomplish with the rest of my life. Now I don’t feel as though I need to aspire to accomplish “great things”. Not that I would have accomplished anything great even without cancer, but it does take some pressure off. I also wonder if I still need to wear that blasted bike helmet now.
People gave me cancer books to read during this time. One book said the devil gave me cancer. I don’t know about that. Another book said God gave me cancer as part of His plan. They even quote the Bible verse about how pruning will make you more fruitful (John 15:2). I know it is not to be taken literal, but I don’t think that removing part of my lung makes the rest of my lung more fruitful. It just doesn’t feel like something that God would do. Cancer follows statistics. A certain number of people will get it and I don’t think that God decides who that is. I know people will disagree with me but I’m the one in the hot seat right now and this is how I feel. I believe in God, but I don’t believe that he gave me cancer as part of some larger plan. If people want to argue that, then explain to me why baby Haley down the street from me got kidney cancer at nine months old. We went through chemo together. She did a lot better than I did. According to the Bible, God gave us a perfect world which the first two humans screwed up. Now in this imperfect world, we have disease, sin, and bad things that happen to good people. First Peter says we are citizens of Heaven, exiled to earth. We have a lot to look forward to in a perfect Heaven.
My spirit is not broken; just beaten up a bit so please keep me in your prayers. Please also pray for baby Haley and for Mark, a friend of ours in Boerne who has a rare brain cancer. He recently had chemo, surgery, and radiation but the cancer is not gone. In fact, it has spread to lymph nodes in his chest. He’s only 31 years old with a wonderful wife and two small kids.