The C Word
I wrote this piece because Spiral encouraged me to share my deeply personal story with you in the hopes of inspiring you to care about causes that matter, like cancer research does to me. Spiral is changing the game of banking and helping a lot of people along the way.
Here’s my story.
The C Word…I’m talking about Cancer. Nobody wants to think about cancer. And everyone prays they never get it. And if you’re about to stop reading because I’ve mentioned it twice already, let me just say this. The story I’m about to tell is really about hope, love and the power of the human spirit…as well as death, a fourteen hour long surgery and the super hero everyone knows and loves, Iron Man.
Up until two years ago, when my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, every time I heard the word mentioned on the radio? I turned the volume down. There’s a lot to worry about in life without any real pressing issue. Just navigating one’s inner struggles can be enough to confront on a day-to-day basis.
Truth is, I don’t know when I made the decision to avoid thinking, learning, or even casually hearing about cancer, but that’s just the way I had been living.
That is, until the day my father woke up one morning with a pain in his stomach.
He assumed it was food poisoning. A mildly irritating nauseous feeling that wouldn’t go away. Now excuse this next statement, but there’s no way around it. It was the catalyst for what turned out to be the most dramatic and life-altering day my father, or myself, have ever experienced. (At this point, I wasn’t a father yet. More on that in a minute.) The disclaimer I just gave is in reference to my father’s bowel movements. Folks, he found blood in his stool. And it doesn’t matter how scared you are of hospitals or doctors, if you find blood in your stool? You’re going to make a phone call and head to the emergency room. And that’s exactly what my sixty four year old, energetic, hard working, mostly healthy Cuban immigrant father did. Little did he know, it would be weeks before he returned home.
For doctors to arrive at a cancer diagnosis, they have to perform a long series of really complicated tests. I’ll spare you the details, but what I can say is nothing happened fast, and everything we experienced, every step of the way, was filled with fear, drama and tons of uncertainty. Before I speed you through the next ten months of chemotherapy, surgery and my father’s fortunate cancer survival story, it’s important I mention a couple things for anyone not in the know.
First, what is cancer? If you had asked me then, I would have said something like ‘Um, a disease of like, incurable tumors that spread through your body so you have to get zapped by chemo with like, a laser? And then you lose your hair, get really weak and eventually die?’ And, in some respects, I guess I would have been partially correct. My family and I received a crash course in cancer and cancer treatment, all in the same day that we found out about the tumor on my dad’s pancreas. And we learned there was definitely a lot more to it. Starting with what’s actually happening to your body.
As one doctor casually explained, ‘Cancer is a terrorist. It invades your town, hurts its citizens and doesn’t stop until it’s the last man standing. The difficult part is it’s a terrorist that thinks it’s a superhero. It’s your body’s normal way of protecting and healing itself, but it’s aimed at places where there is nothing to heal, and nothing that needs protection.’ That’s why it’s so difficult to confront, reverse and beat. It’s your system doing what it’s supposed to do. Just in a time, place and manner, that is completely unnecessary.
The second thing we learned is that every form of cancer is different. It isn’t just one blanketed disease. Unfortunately, my father had one of the deadliest and fast spreading forms of the disease. More often than not, people find pancreatic cancer when it’s too late. It also has a high degree of recurrence. More often than not, if you’re lucky enough to catch it early and even luckier that the tumor can be removed, within a two year span, you’ll find that it has grown back. And at that point, there is little doctors and medicine can do for you. Basically, my dad got the ‘Breaking Bad’ conversation. It’s cancer. It’s bad. You may only have months to live.
The doctor that delivered us the news was young, brilliant and perhaps as compassionate as Mother Theresa herself. He spoke bluntly, calmly and simply when he told my father his ailment. He immediately followed up by saying that he had two options in response. One, treat it with an intense regimen of chemotherapy (which, turns out, has nothing to do with lasers, and everything to do with sitting in a lazy boy recliner in a tiny depressed room getting an IV filled with chemo drugs for four to five hours once, sometimes twice a week). Or two, sell your belongings, move to Hawaii and live out the rest of your days drinking rum with your kids and playing with starfish and sand crabs. And he followed all of that up with one of the most incredible things I will ever hear another human being say to another.
He said, ‘Everyone dies. I will die. You will die. Your son here will die. How we meet death is up to us and no one else. There is no wrong answer here. The decision is entirely yours.’
Now, there’s a real helplessness, in every true sense of the word, when a person is diagnosed with cancer. And it extends to a person’s family and friends, as they are forced to watch the person they love have to make a decision of that depth, that soul-searching magnitude. To this day, I don’t know if my dad was just too overwhelmed not to take in the weight of what was happening to him, or if he’s just as strong as I’ve come to realize. But it took him all of thirty seconds to tell his doctor, ‘I’ll fight’. From that moment on, literally because his life depended on it, he fought, and we joined him. And very briefly, here’s what that process looked like.
Three and a half months of chemotherapy. Again, sitting in a row of lazy-boy recliners, hooked up to an IV, talking to a loved one if you’re lucky, or endlessly staring at a wall if you’re not. Then there is a surgery to remove the tumor, and it’s the second most complicated surgery performed in the world next to a liver transplant. And then a month later, three and a half more months of the same, intensive, sometimes incredibly challenging chemotherapy sessions before you get a chance to step away from the hospitals and take a much deserved break. After that you’re monitored with blood tests and CAT scans every three to six months for the next six years. It’s been two years since my father said he’d fight. And in that time, he’s become a grandfather because my wife and I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. We visited the Roman Colosseum and drank Guinness along the west coast of Ireland. We celebrated my father’s mother’s ninetieth birthday. And he has gone back to working full time, almost as if the whole event never actually happened. THE. END…just kidding.
Here’s a small sample of the most challenging facets of what we experienced, as well as the most rewarding gifts the journey has given us.
My father kept his hair! But he was so weak he passed out in the bathroom and hit his head and I was forced to take him to the ER. Fighting cancer is extraordinarily challenging. It requires so much money, medicine, time, heart, knowledge and expertise. But there is a gigantic, amazing, unrecognized world of people who have dedicated every waking moment in life toward learning, treating and ultimately curing cancer. The people showing up to work every day to help people like my father and his family, are nothing short of astounding and their praises should be screamed from every rooftop as often as humanly possible. Every person we met along the way:
Every surgeon, oncologist, ER doctor, nurse, orderly, secretary, insurance representative, and even the late night hospital security guards, displayed a level of empathy, compassion and unwavering caring that I really believed only existed in movies, books and television.
It’s not necessarily important for the purposes of this story, but it is worth mentioning a little bit about our experience with a Health Insurance Company during a trying time such as this. Before the big C word came into my life, I didn’t know the difference between an HMO and a PPO insurance policy. In fact, I only ever paid attention to two things when it came to health insurance. How much it cost me every month, and how much it cost on the rare occasion that I visited a doctor. My father has an HMO. Which, for those of you like me, means it’s essentially a cheaper policy, but it pays a higher percentage of your hospital bills. However, it limits you in terms of what doctors and what type of care you are allowed to receive. The challenge? My father didn’t get to pick which doctors would treat and operate on him. The reward? They were astounding doctors. The hospital he was in was far from ideal. It looked destitute and lacking in so many ways it’s almost too tough to touch on. But the people inside it, nearly all of them, were nothing short of kind-hearted, expert, honest to God, miracle workers.
The biggest challenge we faced in regards to his insurance company and the HMO, and this information came straight from the mouths of our doctors, repeatedly, is this:
Insurance companies know that a diagnosis like my father’s is deadly and that time is of the essence. And they know that the longer they wait, the higher likelihood that someone’s disease becomes incurable, thereby saving them lots of money on treatment.
So they purposely drag their feet in approving the doctor’s orders for chemo, scans, IV fluids or second opinions. It’s a sad and infuriating reality, but it’s totally true. The flip side of this, is that the doctors are very aware of the horrible bureaucracy and they help you navigate it as if they were the ones fighting for their lives.
When I said the journey was uncertain, I maybe should have said that medicine generally is uncertain. The week before the surgery, the surgeon explained to us that they’re not actually sure if they can remove the tumor, or if the cancer has spread, until they open my dad up. All the scans, blood tests and everything else they do to diagnose a person, are actually only educated guesses. It’s a sobering realization to see the limits of even the best technology medicine has to offer. They are capable enough to give someone a new heart, kidney or liver, but the scan they took the day my father walked into the ER with a stomach ache, was only a small blur of a picture indicating the possible existence of a tumor that might be attached to his pancreas.
For anyone who might say, is it possible it wasn’t cancer, and there is no tumor? Yes. But also, no. The real uncertainty lies in the severity of the tumor and how quickly it may be growing. They perform a biopsy to confirm the suspicion.
Now some of you might be wondering, why did this writer mention Iron Man in the beginning of this story without any hint of Tony Stark anywhere yet? Well, here’s where the charismatic, arrogant, show off Avenger becomes a part of my father’s journey. My dad was born in Cuba in the 1950’s. His childhood lacked just about everything a person needs, including food. One of the few things he cherished in life was the occasional movie that a kid in Havana could see once in a blue moon. Ever since, he’s been a huge movie fan. And his favorite character in any movie, from any time, is Iron Man.
And so the day of his surgery, I gave him an Iron Man costume to wear and he literally wore the mask as they wheeled him into the surgical room.
It was hysterical at the time, and it diffused a lot of the anxiety that everyone was feeling.
In case this is all a bit too heavy for you. I’ll remind you that I said challenges and rewards. So if it wasn’t obvious now, the greatest challenge you have with cancer, is, well…Death. And you might think there isn’t a whole lot of upside to that, now would you? But guess what? I’m here to say, there most definitely is. And I say this, without the slightest hint of any sugar on top. When you face death in this wild, shot in the dark, guessing as best you can as to what to do kind of way, the answers you’re looking for can’t always come from the doctors, scans and text books. These questions often become spiritual ones. And so my father, his brother, myself, my brothers, my wife, our friends and anyone we hold dear that became part of this journey with us, found that we were rewarded with something entirely different than what we had hoped.
Which, of course, was for him to beat cancer and live a full and healthy life for as long as possible. But what we learned from all the uncertainty, all the twists and turns that a cancer diagnosis brings to anyone’s life, is this: that you have to stay present, hopeful and loving in life. You have to take your life as it comes. Not as you think it should be. You have to let go of the anger, resentment, fear and sorrow as often and as consistently as you can. You have to stay attuned to the people you love and connected to the time we’re all so lucky to have in this life. Because this experience taught me exactly what that doctor said to be true.
We’re all going to die. And some of us will get cancer. But if you so choose, not even the C word can stop you from living compassionately, fully, and with as much love as is in you to give.
Final note, my dad was one of the lucky ones. If you’re reading this and thinking, I want to help fight cancer. I want to help the 40% of Americans that get diagnosed with cancer during their lifetimes. Here’s how you can take action:
Support cancer treatment research!
Give to the amazing people who are clocking in every day, having some of the toughest conversations you could ever imagine, compassionately helping suffering patients and their heartbroken families, working their butts off to develop better and better treatment for all forms of cancer. You can help them out by donating and aiding everyone that ever spoke the words, ‘I’ll fight’.
Here are a few organizations you can give to:
Why are you reading this on a banking site? GREAT QUESTION. Here’s the unexpected answer.
At Spiral, you can give effortlessly to 1 million+ charities² and build your giving portfolio by exploring amazing new causes to donate to. You can also get your donations matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $150 per year³. It’s an incredible opportunity to make your giving go further to the Cancer research orgs I listed above, or any causes you care about. Thanks for reading my story!