by Bob Brecht
– Part Two
Sometime just prior to this second surgery, I decided to estimate what percentage of each day I must give to the business of being a cancer patient. On the first day out of surgery I was 100% a patient and too groggy and in too much pain to do anything except submit to medical care. But on the second day, I noticed that I was a patient only 95% of the time – the 5% being given to communication with friends and family. I loved doing this.
On the third day, I was released and went home. What a joy it was to be among all my familiar things. I talked with my wife Susan about cancer and non-cancer stuff, read a little, made my own coffee, watched favorite shows on TV and took short, slow walks around the apartment. Sleeping during the day was frequent, but I felt that I had made the leap to being only 80% a patient and 20% a man leading his life. With each day, the percentage changed, and it was always moving in the right direction.
All of that was good, but it didn’t really answer the question of how I was going to deal with the permanent damage and side effects of surgery and subsequent radiation. The visible damage to my face and neck, as well as damage unseen by others, was part of me now, and that would not change. I hated these things. How would I live with them? I learned that if I spent too much time obsessing over this, I would be moving the percentages in the wrong direction.
So I decided that to give cancer treatment, recovery and side effects no more precious time than is absolutely necessary. If I thought too much about the past or the future, I found that my attitude began to deteriorate, and I would be giving more time to cancer than it deserved.
I read a book by Roz Savage called “Rowing the Atlantic.” Reading about her mental and physical struggles as she rowed for 103 days unassisted across the Atlantic Ocean helped me to understand how to accommodate the physical and emotional damage of cancer surgery and radiation. She isolated her most harsh and difficult physical and emotional challenges into a zone in her own mind that she called her discomfort zone.
And once she isolated the elements that made up her discomfort zone, she could greet these things daily as old acquaintances, curse them roundly and get on with the business at hand. Her physical and emotional scars became symbols of her toughness. She made the discomfort zone part of her daily comfort zone. That fire enabled her to avoid a failure of the spirit, and that is what I try to do.
Five months later, in May of 2006, I had a squamous tumor removed from the right side, which was involved with the parotid gland again. The surgeon removed the remainder of the parotid, the tumor and more lymph nodes. More therapy included 31 radiation treatments in August, 2006, mostly just under the surface of the skin.
In between the surgery and radiation, with two friends whom I had taught to sail, I chartered a 40-foot sloop in the British Virgin Islands, and we sailed her for a week. I skippered. What a great experience! We vowed to do it every two years. And we do that.
I had the radiation treatments in August after the charter, but they didn’t do the trick. On Feb. 9, 2007, two more squamous cell tumors were removed from cervical lymph nodes on the right side of the neck by radical neck dissection. Reconstructive surgery was necessary using muscle and tissue from the right side of my chest. Because they wanted to keep the vascular system intact, they moved the whole business up over my collarbone and used it to close the wound in my neck.
One month later, in March, 2007, two nodules thought to be malignant were removed from my right lung. To everyone’s surprise, they were benign. I was mighty pleased. As I was recovering in the early summer of 2007, a friend put me into his rowboat on Toms River and said, “You can do this.” In fair weather I now row 7 or 8 miles a day. It’s like meditation for me.
In 2009 Susan and I organized a sailboat charter on the Croatian coast with two other couples; we sailed through hundreds of offshore islands in the Adriatic and ended our cruise in Dubrovnik. Ulysses had sailed through these islands thousands of years before. We had a fascinating time.
As I write this, I am 71 years old. I have not had a major surgery since 2007. My side effects are numbness and partial paralysis on the right side of my face, swallowing difficulties, dry mouth, disfigurement, nerve damage affecting my right eye and right shoulder and osteoradionecrosis of the right mandible which has given me a broken jaw. I can live with it all. I do live with it all. I have a good life.
Last summer (2012) I was laid low for several months by kidney disease. While rowing and sailing on the Toms River, I had seen people using stand-up paddleboards. I bought one and threw it into the garage, and when I was laid up, I used YouTube to teach me how it is done. What a kick! I feel like a Samoan warrior when I am out on it.
I know I am an optimist; not everyone is. And if one is a pessimist, cancer will not turn him/her into an optimist. So what I have written here may not be for everyone, but maybe it will help someone. That would be a good outcome.
I try to get the best out of every day. Also, I attempt to stay fearless about engaging with new things. And most importantly, I stay devoted to my dear wife of 42 years, Susan. Without her loving help, my passage would have been through much, much stormier seas.
Bob Brecht was born in Glenside in 1941 and graduated from Abington High School in 1959. He graduated from Brown University in 1963 and taught German, Latin and English at schools here and in Puerto Rico. He worked for the Philadelphia Urban Coalition, ran his own live lobster company and helped start the International Technology Exchange Center at the University City Science Center. He is now retired and living with his wife of 42 years on the Toms River in Pine Beach, N.J. Bob’s father, Raymond C. Brecht, was a reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and was Time Magazine’s White House reporter during World War II. You can contact Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.