Saturday, April 7, 2012

CANCER WALK -- Wilmington writer Verne Strickland's battle with bone cancer.


By Verne Strickland
March 14, 2012

My walk with cancer actually began when I found that I was losing the ability to walk. This was only about three months ago. Pain froze my hips, hobbled my legs, and forced me to shuffle along, barely lifting my feet. I was suddenly old and infirm.

I turned 75 this year, but have enjoyed very good health most of my life. I've tried to watch my diet, curb cholesterol, stay in shape with light weight training, and stay off the smokes, which I quit over thirty years ago.

But then this "thing" happened. I had to curtail all my activities. I was grounded. My energy plummeted. I had no appetite, and my weight dropped markedly. Before I knew it, I was down to within five pounds of what I scaled in at when I was in boot camp at Fort Jackson fifty years ago.

I dropped out of sight. Could not function. Early onset of Alzheimer's worsened, and I was often confused and inarticulate. I couldn't think. To my family the change was evident, and alarming. We were all concerned. I didn't announce to friends until later what was going on. I didn't know.

Foolishly, I cut down on and then stopped altogether the dozen or more prescription meds which glued me together, regulating my heart, breathing, digestive and circulatory systems, and my brain. As a result, I crashed, and dove into a depression so deep I didn't think I would get out. I questioned how long I could survive it. It was a desperate time.

I didn't know I would talk about this, but it's a part of the story I need to tell. I entered a recommended mental rehab facility, which helped me get emotionally stable again. I needed that. While there for a brief period, I lived with unfortunates more desperately ill than I.

It was a profound experience. We had nothing but the staff and each other. They all befriended and helped me. In turn, I helped them. They were all good people with bad problems. I'm sure many of them are still there. I will never forget them.

There is no shame in this for me. Quite the contrary. It was a priceless and touching opportunity to see the other side. Even to be on the other side for a time. It broadened my horizons, deepened my compassion. I can even liken the experience in a way to the crushing emotional burden and depression that many combat veterans suffer, although to liken my own sickness to theirs would be disrespectful.

Far too many lost their battle.

I learned of their searing saga mainly through my personal relationship with conservative congressional candidate Ilario Patano, who in two tours of combat had his own encounters with shock, loss, fear, and the soul sickness known as PTSD. 

My fleeting passage through that dark world fed the kinship I feel with our soldiers and Marines like Ilario, whose campaign I take pride in supporting. He has talked about the horrors of PTSD, which has beset so many veterans, and talks frankly about his own bout with these demons. I think perhaps I may understand that a bit better now.

So I've been told 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 and long hallways 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 and I know it. The cancer which has gnawed silently at my bones has not had much of a head start.

With my mind somewhat fixed, I undertook the next step -- to find out what was physically wrong with me. My loving, caring family gathered around me. This was so important. We prayed for direction, courage and resolve. It all came, of course. Faith is wonderful when you have it, and a lifesaver when you need it.

We gave God the reins of our lives. He guided us to the man who took charge of our medical dilemma -- Dr. William McNulty, a board-certified Wilmington oncologist and internist of national reputation, a brilliant and cheerful physician who changed my life and gave me a new sense of hope. He is a founding partner of Hanover Medical Specialists.

I surrendered myself to a procession of tests and probes -- biopsies, CT scans, MRIs. The problems seemed to have originated in my pelvic structure, which seemed reasonable, because my ability to walk had been most seriously compromised.

Dr. McNulty early on suspected multiple myeloma, a type of cancer which starts in plasma cells. It's the most common type of plasma cell cancer -- intimidating, but treatable with what my oncologist described as "modern medicine" -- radiation, and chemotherapy -- utilizing an "old" drug enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to new creative techniques in IV usage.

It was after two weeks of radiation treatment that I entered the world of modern chemotherapy -- just half a click short of surgery in the arsenal we can employ against deadly cancer. This is where we'll go next in this series -- my personal saga I call "CANCER WALK."