Part 1 of 5: Our cancer journey begins – first diagnosis and treatments

Photo by Zooey (courtesy of Flickr and Creative Commons)

Photo by Zooey (courtesy of Flickr and Creative Commons)

From reading I now know that the seeds for my wife’s breast cancer were planted years before. Maybe from her diet of rich food; she worked as a pastry cook in a local hotel for many years, Or maybe it was the stress of working in a hotel kitchen with a very lean staff and constant deadlines to meet, Or maybe it was the lack of exercise. Maybe there was a genetic cause–although she’s the first in her family to have any kind of cancer. It was probably a combination of things.

But the cause of her late diagnosis comes down to two words: too busy. Too busy working and raising a family to get her yearly mammogram.

A few days after my mother died and she was buried in October 2009, I started a new job. About a month later I received the call from my wife at my job one afternoon in November. Just by the tone of her voice I instantly felt that something was not right. She nervously told me that the clinic had found a spot on her mammogram and she had to go to a local radiology company to get another x-ray to confirm there was a problem.

I was uneasy but confident that it was probably nothing. After all “the big C” only happens to other people. (I guess I forgot that my father had died of prostate cancer.)

A few days later results from her second x-ray came back. There was definitely something suspicious–a spot–in her breast. They took a tissue sample and mailed it off to a lab in Hawaii for testing. Again, I was uneasy but confident. It only happens to other people.

While we waited for the results my wife started to complain of a dull pain and a small growing lump in her left breast. I began to panic and went to see her doctor and asked for his advice. After all it’s not everyday I’ve found myself waiting for the results of a test for cancer. He gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten:”Mr. Nelson, no matter what the results are, you’re going to want a second opinion. Don’t wait. If you want to go off island start preparing to leave right now.”

So I did. I had let both of our passports expire so I hustled to get them renewed, along with three of our kid’s passports in case they might need to travel if things went badly.

Before we left, test results came back. It was cancer and it was malignant.

We flew to the Philippines where we stayed in a small condotel at Garden Heights, which rented to so many patients from Guam that it was nicknamed “Guam Heights”. Ironically across from the old St. Luke’s Hospital. We had chosen to have my wife tested and treated at the competing Medical City because St. Lukes was the hospital of choice for so many, and therefore we assumed busier, and we were in a hurry. My wife said she could feel the tumor growing bigger each day.

The day after we arrived we had our first appointment. They quickly ran tests and confirmed that it was a malignant tumor. The next day we moved into a room in the hospital and that evening my wife had her mastectomy done. I recall that I felt the anesthesiologist had done a remarkable job because I vividly remember after her surgery, my wife being wheeled down a hallway on a gurney and greeting me with remarkable exuberance. She was so energetic that I was briefly confused if she was going into surgery or coming out. A few years earlier when she had her gall bladder removed at the local hospital she said it felt like she had a stack of bricks on her chest after surgery.

After eleven days at The Medical City we returned to Guam and began her chemo sessions. At that point I still didn’t have confidence in local medicine so we only had two chemo sessions done locally then chose to fly back to the Philippines every 21 days for the remaining four sessions.

After that we and three of our children flew to the Philippines. The two daughters returned after a brief stay and me, my wife and my son and I stayed for fifty-six days so my she could get thirty-three radiation sessions.

Because I had a feeling this was just the beginning of a very long battle I chose to do things as economically as possible to stretch out our resources as far as we could. Looking back maybe it wasn’t the wisest choice. My memories of our time there are a blur of daily wading through a sea of people in the dusty, hot streets of Manila, enduring suicidal driving by taxi drivers (some of whom surely must have had sideline jobs as stunt drivers in Filipino action flicks), sitting tightly crammed into jeepneys often filled with way too many people. Oh yes and there was the occasional tightly packed train ride. We would often arrive at TMC hot, sweaty and somewhat dusty.

Our treatment odyssey ended mid July 2010. Her cancer had gone into remission.

And it was then that I made a critical error in judgement. I went back to work confident that if her cancer did come back it would be several years down the road. My wife went back to her job of high stress and rich foods. We settled back into as much of a normal life as we could, given the journey we’d just been on.

(To be continued in the next post)

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