09 September 2013

Cancer Battle

Story first appeared in the Detroit News.

At the same time Diana Nyad, 64, was celebrating her successful 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida, I was with my 65-year-old brother during his five-hour chemotherapy infusion at the University of Michigan Cancer Center.

The New York Times said Nyad’s fifth attempt came “after four years of grueling training, precision planning and single-minded determination.”

I think the same could be said of Peter. Diagnosed in September of 2007 with stage four inoperable prostate cancer, the average survival time back then was 2½years. That was six years ago.

For most people, an infusion room is the least happiest place on Earth. Save the supremely accommodating nurses and staff, no one is expected to be pleasant here. No one is in a good mood. Except my brother.

Escorting us to the infusion room on the upper floor, a nurse asked: “How are you today, Mr. Rich?”

“Wonderful, just wonderful.“

As Peter took his place in the chair he gestured with one arm like a concierge. “So what do you think?” he said. “I call this ‘The Penthouse.” And “How ’bout that view? You should be here when the storms roll in. Magnificent!”

I was there for four hours. The man never shut up. In fact, after three tries, his blood pressure was still too high to start the IV. The nurses had to ask me to leave for a few minutes to get him to stop talking. Later he explained: “Early on, I didn’t want to forge any relationships. I didn’t want to join any cancer club. I was going to get in and get out. I was tough, you know. Then I decided to let my guard down and you know what? I’ve made a whole lot of friends.”

Out of the gate, Peter has been pragmatic. He asked his oncologist: “Will I die from this?” From the moment she said yes, he determined he would do everything in his power to increase his time left, to outlive the statistics. He has.

In all, he’s been through almost two years of hormone therapy, several rounds of chemo and radiation. He is now in his third clinical trial. A diligent researcher, he stays one step ahead of the clinical trials and keeps track of the maze of eligibility requirements.

The challenge in buying time is that each drug is only effective for the length of time it takes for the cancer to outwit the treatment.

With hormone therapy Peter got 22 months, with conventional chemotherapy he got 18 months. With one clinical trial, he got 46 weeks. With another clinical trial, he got nothing. In fact, the cancer advanced.

Then there are the side effects. He gained 32 pounds, only to lose almost twice that. All his hair fell out, including his eyebrows. He’s fought off pneumonia, flus and urinary tract infections. One drug turned him ghost white and blew up his face: He looked like the man in the moon. At one low point, his prostate swelled so much from the cancer he had to have stent put in his ureter.

But he’s also walked a daughter down the aisle. He completed a triathlon. He was there in the labor and delivery room when his first grandchild was born. He and his wife, Carol, welcomed another daughter home after a long absence. And too, this year’s harvest of apples, pears and pumpkins on the several acres of farmland he owns in South Lyon is the most plentiful in years.

He says his job and that of his “team” — meaning the coterie of doctors that a teaching hospital accords him — is to get “as much quality and quantity of life as possible.” Judging from the number of clinical trials being fast-tracked and the advances in gene therapy and molecular biology, he says, “I’m adding more tools to my toolbox all the time.”

Now, more than halfway through a 30-week clinical trial, he’s sick about four days a month. On those days he says he “makes adjustments.” In Peter’s world, that means it may take twice as long to finish painting the barn or he won’t be able to run as fast chasing Sage, his 2-year-old granddaughter. “And that’s just fine with me,” he says, smiling at the very thought of that special little girl.

When Nyad finished her swim on Monday after nearly 53 hours in an ocean brimming with sharks, jelly fish and squalls, she said “I have three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.”

If I didn’t know better, I’d say my brother and this endurance swimmer were reading the same playbook.

From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20130906/LIFESTYLE01/309060015#ixzz2eQtcT6Ps

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