Monday, March 26, 2012

I'm Verne Strickland. I have bone cancer. It will not take my life."

By Verne Strickland / March 27, 2012

I have bone cancer. Multiple Myeloma.

“But,” my doctor says, “it probably won’t kill you.”

He is smiling.

My wife Durrene and eldest son Martin are there with me. We have come for “the report”. They are smiling too. I’m sure I am as well. 

In years not too far behind us, the news likely would have not been so cheery.
“We owe much to modern medicine,” observes Wilmington oncologist Dr. William McNulty. “It is exciting, it is at our disposable, and we apply it gratefully.”

The past month has been a roller coaster ride of ups and down -- biopsies, CT scans, x-rays, MRIs, blood tests, counseling, radiation treatments, trips to hospitals, visits with an impressive array of medical specialists, and the opportunity to meet dozens of cancer patients like myself. 

Through it all, I am impressed and reassured by the one constant that clearly runs through all the waiting rooms, operating rooms, and recovery rooms I pass through.

That unexpected constant element is calm. Serenity. Stoicism. Resilience. The irrepressible human spirit .

What is the source of this confidence, or, should I say, this optimism, or better yet – faith that what we patients share is not a sentence, or even a burden, but an opportunity to interact with others who labor gamely, even joyously, to see this experience through, profit from it, use it to grow in strength and in an appreciation of life.

Some of those I met are at the beginning of this journey. Others near the end of it. But there is a dignity here that I did not expect to encounter. It has meant much to me.

Whereas I am a writer, my tendency here has been to hold the subject – cancer – at arm’s length, and describe what I see. But I am daily brought back to the realization that I observe this from inside the bubble. I too have cancer. I have an uncertain future. And I am suffering.

Let me delay no longer to cut to the chase. I have been given a reprieve. The cancer which has gnawed secretly at my bones has not had much of a head start.

Signs of a real problem came in the form of a mighty pain which slammed into my hips and legs. I soon became almost unable to walk. I had no energy. My appetite vanished. I quickly lost weight, and within a short period was down to within five pounds of my weight when I was a 145-pound soldier in basic training at Fort Jackson. Then I was running my butt off, so to speak. Now, I was simply losing it. No way this was right.

There is a wonderful medical community here in the Cape Fear Region, and I was swept quickly into it. We who live here – in particular the seniors (I am 75) – are fortunate to have such an asset at our doorstep – world-class hospitals, clinics, laboratories, and a cadre of high-caliber physicians – many board-certified -- who guard our quality of life. I have seen it in action, benefited from it, and am proud of what I know and see.

In future columns I will write more about this personal journey seeking escape from cancer. I know that I am a stronger, more compassionate man for the experience.

Although I am a survivor, I am not one who has “escaped” from cancer. Radiation has struck a blow at this malignancy in my bones, but it continues to visit many parts of my body, where it lurks and will become problematic.

My oncologist today shared treatment options which are capable of detecting and killing the cancer cells, hopefully keeping them in check while I succumb eventually to some other malady which will do the same job in a different way.

Sound spooky? To me that sounds great. I may not know the identity of what will eventually claim me. But it won’t be Multiple Myeloma. We live to fight another day. 

The main weapon in the medical arsenal being readied for me will be IV chemotherapy using a new “Wow” drug which specifically targets multiple myeloma, is very dependable and efficient, but has few troubling side effects. I signed up. Treatment starts within a week. 

From the outset of this experience, I have seen God – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ -- in the midst of it all. He hears our prayers, and he answers them. I’m grateful to friends who have sent up many of those prayers. They matter. They have been a comfort. 

It is through the campaign of my dear friend Ilario Pantano that I have come to know so many of you. This is my real community, and I love and feel close to every one of you. I lean on you at this time.

Ilario Pantano reminded me when he learned of my illness: “Oftentimes the answers from on high are not of our own choosing. But they do come from God. And that is awesome.”
That it is, Ilario. That it is.