Saturday, October 16, 2021

Blessings Recognized

I am one of the lucky ones.

That statement may seem odd coming from a cancer patient, especially one who hasn’t yet received an “all clear.” But it’s nonetheless true.

A little background before I proceed – In the spring, I learned that I have a form of skin cancer, invasive squamous cell carcinoma, early stage, of the right vocal cord. An early November check-up with my oncologist will reveal whether a recently completed, grueling regimen of 35, 15-minute long, radiation sessions have achieved their goal.

One could say luck was involved in my being found. It was diagnosed as the result of another physical problem.

In May, severe shoulder pain caused by a pulled muscle led me to seek relief at the Marco Urgent Care Center. During the exam, I let loose with the deep rattling cough I’d been experiencing for a while. The doctor was alarmed, especially when I told him I’d sometimes been coughing up some blood.

Long story short, that led to visit with a pulmonologist who ordered tests that showed I have COPD. He also prescribed photos of the inside of my throat to pinpoint the source of the blood. Those photos showed three white dots on my right vocal cord.

A biopsy of those anomalies revealed malignancies, but fortunately the cancer was early stage. When I got the diagnosis, I was numb. The pulmonologist offered up two treatment approaches: removing the vocal cord and severely limiting my ability to speak or radiation.

The choice was obvious.

From the outset, my oncologist couldn’t have been more encouraging. He said I had an excellent shot. As he put it, “If I’m a pessimist, I’d say you have a 98 percent chance of beating this.”

So I at least had that reassurance as I stepped into the unknown.

You see, I’d never been close to anyone as they went through radiation. So hearing the oncologist say I’d likely experience fatigue and neck pain, to some degree during the course of treatment, didn’t really register. It was too abstract. I couldn’t really grasp the immensity of what lay ahead. I just knew it was something that I had to do, a challenge that I had to surmount.

Not many people knew about my illness – just a few close relatives and friends. Dropping that bomb on people was awkward and I felt guilty delivering such dismal news. But I always stressed the fact that I was blessed to have an excellent prognosis. Maintaining a focus on that prognosis was a key to being able to maintain a positive attitude.

The sessions at 21st Century Oncology were Monday through Friday. Within the first few, I found out the oncologist wasn’t kidding about the fatigue factor. It was indeed real. I could feel relatively energetic and mentally sharp before a treatment only to feel like I’d been drugged and needed a long nap afterward. It made working downright impossible.

I made it through the first two weeks without any major issues. But by beginning of the third week, I began experiencing crippling pain in the area that was being radiated, which made swallowing agonizing. I was also having difficulty breathing and simply felt horrible.

The situation got so bad that I ended up back at the Marco Urgent Care Center. After a quick exam, a physician there recommended an ambulance transport me the Regional Medical Center – Collier Boulevard emergency room. There, it was determined I had pneumonia, which led to a week-long stay and the suspension of the radiation treatments.

While at the urgent care, waiting for the paramedics to arrive, unshakable fear set in for the first time. I felt so weak that the possibility of death began bouncing around my brain. So did panic about how I’d pay for the ambulance ride, a hospital stay and everything if this wasn’t the end.

It was then that I decided to say yes to something I’d been resisting, letting Stephanie Simon create the GoFundMe account that she’d suggested.

Stephanie is the daughter of Coastal Breeze publisher Val Simon and she has been an angel during this time, as has her mother. Shortly after I informed Val of my diagnosis, she told me Stephanie wanted to start a GoFundMe account for me, to which I said, “We’ll see.” I’d planned to just make payments on whatever my insurance didn’t cover. But while lying on that urgent care bed, IV jammed into an arm and machinery monitoring my vital signs, the enormity of that financial burden began to overwhelm me.

Neither Stephanie nor I had great expectations for the amount of money that would come in. I thought that if a couple hundred dollars came in, I’d be grateful for the help. I figured it was a shot in the dark and I wasn’t going to complain if there were no donations.

Thanks to social media and word of mouth awareness about the account spread throughout Marco and far beyond its borders to include people I grew up with, high school and college classmates, former co-workers, friends and people I’d met along the way, family members and more. And that “more” includes the many, many people from here on the island whose generosity and kindness have been beyond anything that I can describe with mere words.

I came here in February of 2010 simply to fill in for awhile at the now defunct Marco Island Sun Times, which had been without a reporter for months. I was then living in Ft. Myers, where I worked for the News-Press. At that time, my relationship was ending and I was in the process of moving and on a whim, I decided to simply transfer to Marco and see what life was like here.

Because of the people I’ve met here, it’s a move that I haven’t regretted.

People welcomed me with open arms from the very beginning and have been incredibly supportive of my professional endeavors, both with the Sun Times and today, with the Coastal Breeze. The same applies to the acceptance I’ve found on Marco as a human being. I’m proud to say that I formed friendships here with some of the finest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I actually feel part of this community, which is something unusual for someone who’s moved around as much as I have.

And the incredibly kind sentiments that people expressed on the GoFundMe page, on social media, in emails and in person have left me speechless and yes, feeling lucky to know you all and to be living in this place of splendor.

In these all-to-often rancorous times, the people of this island consistently come together like champions should an emergency arises or if they know of someone who needs help. I’m humbled that you all would do that for me.

There were a couple more hospital stays after the first one and some other difficulties, but I’ve come through the other side and I expect to receive good news from the oncologist. I’ve been thinking about how, if at all, this experience has changed me. I certainly know that I have a greater appreciation for the gift of life. And I know that I’m even more appreciative of the wonderful people I’ve known over years and that list includes many of the people here on Marco Island.

Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones.

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