My cancer story begins in the Fall of 1997 when I donated blood at a Red Cross Blood Drive in Kalamazoo, MI. Like everyone else who donates, we do it to help save the lives of others. Little did I know it would not save anyone but me.
January 28, 1997, I boarded a plane for a journey that I thought that would change my life forever. In fact, it did in more ways than I would have ever hope or expected. The plane landed in San Diego, CA, home of MCRD San Diego, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, aka Boot Camp. As my journey continued, I found myself in the land of the rising sun, Japan. Okinawa, Japan to be specific. Remember that blood donation I did? This is when I would finally receive the letter that told me my blood would not go towards saving another person’s life. As disappointed as I was, I would later realize that I should have been grateful, because that letter may be the single item that could have extended my life. I took that letter to my doctor on base, which began months of testing. February 1997, is when I would be diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC). The Gastroenterologist that diagnosed me said I would likely need to have a liver transplant in 10 years.
Let’s fast forward 20 years and 2 months into the future. Wait… didn’t the Doctor say something about needing a transplant in 10 years? Yes, he did, apparently, I surpassed his expectations. In fact, early into my diagnoses I did a lot of reading into PSC and found that 10 years was fairly accurate. Now, according to NCBI the average is 20-25 years. As I was saying, 20 years and 2 months… April 2017. My Gastroenterologist called me and asked to come in for some tests, to include a new test they finally were able to get at Walter Reed. I did some labwork as well as an MRCP, DEXA, and Fibroscan. A week later she calls me and tells me that she wants to refer me to the Liver Transplant Team to start building my case for a transplant in the future, her expectation was in 3-5 years.
My first encounter with the transplant team was on June 5, 2017. We met, discussed everything you can imagine we would discuss, then I was off to get labwork done… 23 vials of blood, and I didn’t even get a cookie and orange juice… pity. June 14, 2017 my case manager calls me and gives me what would be the end of my old life and become the beginning of my new life, a much shorter life than I would have had before. My CA 19-9 cancer marker test was over 1160. What’s the normal? 0-37. I asked if we can redo the test to ensure it wasn’t a lab error. In return, she asked for me to schedule another MRCP as soon as possible, so I did, June 17, 2017. The lab work came back a little higher than before, and was even tested at a different facility. So much for it being a lab error, one error may be possible, but two errors, from two different laboratories, very unlikely. Keeping my promise, I did the MRCP. June 20, 2017 she calls me again. What she tells me was slightly overwhelming, yet, it doesn’t quite hit me as you would expect it would. I left work early that day. The drive home seemed longer than usual. As I took that slow drive home, I couldn’t quite grasp how I would come home and tell my family what I had just been told.
When I walked in the door and saw my wife sitting on the couch, she turns with a smile and said, “Your home early”. Yes, I am, but you won’t be as happy about me being home early when you find out what I am going to tell you, I thought to myself. Eventually, I told her that they think I have Cholangiocarcinoma. June 20th, a day we both will never forget.
Blah, blah, blah… that is the next couple weeks summed up. Of those couple weeks, we decided that a liver resection would be THE plan. THE PLAN! We’ll just cut out the cancer and do a bit of chemo, live happily ever after, right? No! Otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you the story about the cancer I am currently dealing with, now would I. So, on June 6, 2017 I went in for the surgery and as planned, he started with a diagnostic laparoscopy to see if there were any indications of the cancer spreading outside of the liver or bile ducts, as well as the condition of the liver being well enough to sustain functionality after having losing 65% of itself. An hour later I wake up, in a recovery room, not the ICU. I knew at that point I was screwed. A couple hours later the liver surgeon showed up and explains that he didn’t feel it was safe to continue the resection due to the severity of the cirrhosis of the liver, if he would have proceeded, he felt it would have guaranteed liver failure. He said my liver appears to be Stage 4 cirrhosis.
July 12th I had a biopsy done on the tumor and then on July 19, 2017 the biopsy report comes back. Pathology determines the cancer to be adenocarcinoma which is the tumor most commonly associated with cholangiocarcinoma. July 19th… the day I was diagnosed with pathology stage 2 and clinical stage 4 cholangiocarcinoma. Remember how I had said, “… I boarded a plane for a journey that I thought that would change my life forever. In fact, it did in more ways than I would have ever hope or expected.” This is where everything comes together and I start to realize what exactly the Marines did for me. Yes, they taught me discipline, self-respect, honor, respect towards others, among MANY other things, things that only another Marine would or could know. I think I just recently identified one of the most important traits they gave me.
I have read stories, met people, and heard stories about cancer. How people dealt with it. How people took it. How some lost and how some won. This is the day, August 10, 2017. This is the day it all hit me. Everything. My whole life. The end of my life. Yes, I do see the end coming. Do I know when? No. Do I ‘feel’ when it may happen? Still, no. What I can tell you is that it WILL NOT BE TODAY. WILL NOT BE TOMMORROW. WILL NOT BE NEXT MONTH. WILL NOT BE NEXT YEAR. I will be damned to hell first before I let this cancer beat me. It will not beat me. I am in it for the long fight. I will come out victorious on each battle. Will I ultimately lose the war? Possible. But, as god and everyone here as my witness, I will not let it determine when. If someone or something has to make that determination, it will be me that makes that determination. This right here. This is exactly the most important part that the Marine Corps gave me. They taught me how to fight, how to kill, and how to survive. Not just physically, but more importantly MENTALLY. I have been given crappy news, shitty news, and super shitty news. Thanks to my life’s lessons, I have maintained the most positive attitude in the face of adversity. Since I have been diagnosed with cancer I have been told, “You know you don’t want to go through chemo, it’s a horrible experience and it will make you feel like shit. Don’t let the chemo determine how you live the rest of your life in misery. Don’t do the chemo and live the rest of your life the way you want to live it, even though you won’t live as long.” I have also been told, “Do the damn chemo, but don’t do this for your wife, do it for yourself, you need to fight for yourself.” Respectfully, I disagree with almost everything. I do however agree with not letting chemo determine how I live the rest of my life. I also do agree with living my life the way I want to. The context of my agreement is different than their statement though. I WILL do chemo and I WILL NOT let it run my life, I am my own person, and I alone control how my life will be lived, and therefore I will live my life the way I want to. So, I am fighting for myself, but not selfishly. I am fighting for myself because I have a wife who is fighting with me, for me, and for herself as well. I have four kids that needs their dad around, needs to know their dad, and needs to learn things that only a dad can teach them. My wife and kids, they can’t actually fight the cancer for me. They are my care takers, biggest supporters, and my pedestal of hope, life, and love. So, yes, I am fighting for myself, for them. I am fighting FOR them. I will win FOR them. I will survive FOR them.