Fed's Testicular Cancer Story: My Fight on Two Fronts
Written by Fed
Before I was diagnosed, I had seen cancer from a different perspective. In 2002, I began a foray into the study of cancer chemical biology, a relatively new field that would employ the tools of chemical synthesis to tinker with cancer cells and see “what makes them tick.” After several years, I had morphed from being a synthetic organic chemist and became a cancer biologist. The field seemed really interesting, and there is potential in the chemical investigation of cancer survival processes. After working in this field for several years now, I keep wondering about life’s little fits of irony, since I knew something was wrong while I was at work… studying cancer cells.
I woke up the day before Thanksgiving in 2006 to a weird pain. It felt low on my back. I pegged it both to an old hockey injury (read: Mexican kid tries to ice skate for the first time) and lugging an 18-month-old kid to Bruins and Red Sox games. I took a couple of Advil and went about my work day. Early in the afternoon, I was poring thorough some data — I was the only one in lab at the time — when the pain returned. I couldn’t figure out exactly where the pain was coming from until “the light bulb lit up” and I figured it out. I ran to the bathroom, did an immediate self exam, and BAM!!! ... righty had shrunk and was as hard as a rock. I immediately rang my best man, who happened to be a chief resident in urology at Sloan-Kettering in New York, to ask for help … but he was stuck in surgery. I went home and called my GP. She called back within minutes, I gave her my symptoms, and she immediately ordered me to the ER. I go back to the medical area and check myself in. I get an ultrasound, and as I’m carted off, I notice that everyone around is staring at me. That’s when I fully realized that something was wrong. The urology consult tells me that “there were 4 masses found inside the right testicle, suggesting the presence of neoplasm.” (I told him I worked at the DFCI next door so he didn’t sugar-coat it.) The testicle had to come out. Further radiology (a CT and a chest X-ray) showed no evidence of spread, and markers were absent. I had a “right radical inguinal orchiectomy,” and several days later found that I had stage I-A seminoma. Lucky for me, I could get treated right at work (my doc’s clinic is in the building next to mine, six floors up from my lab). While seminoma stage I patients have three options for treatment (surveillance, adjuvant radiation or adjuvant chemotherapy), my oncologist strongly recommended surveillance, since the chances of a relapse are low (15-20%), and by following a strict schedule of diagnostic exams, any relapses will be caught promptly and still be cured by chemotherapy. From a physical standpoint, I know this is not the way I’m going down. It makes sense to me. Besides, I have no excuses to miss a follow-up. Every four months I drink my contrast, go up to the clinic to get blood drawn, then go down to the basement for the chest X-ray and the CT scan. A couple of days later, I see my doc. Quite straightforward.
Since starting my surveillance regimen, I have made it past the one-year mark of survivorship. Nonetheless, one must never underestimate the enemy. At the onset of this trek, I figured that knowing how cancer worked (to the extent of what I had learned in the field until then) would help me coast through this. Here’s what you usually don’t hear: getting dealt a bout with cancer will undoubtedly change you mentally. There are bad and good things associated with it. Sometimes you’ll feel anxious (especially close to doctor appointments). There may be some meltdowns along the way. You really feel vulnerable, and it can certainly make you angry. Worst of all, you sometimes feel alone. Despite all of these raw emotions, I have seen a lot of good come out of having had this fight. Work-wise, I am more motivated. I fight this in the lab because it’s now personal, and doing what I do makes me think I am contributing a bit towards finding ways of annihilating this beast.
With life in the lab, you miss out on the personal aspect of the disease. All I see in the lab are cells under the scope, but when you factor in the human component, it makes you put faces to the fight you wage while running assays.
Certainly one of the things I have come to realize in the last few months is that I am not alone. Many are affected by this disease, from patients and their families to the docs, nurses and caregivers. Knowing that you are not alone gives you the strength and motivation to keep the fight going. There are many who have contributed to this, and I am grateful to be part of a community where we have each other’s backs and thrive by knowing we are in good company.
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