Preface: This is a follow-up to the piece I wrote on Huffington Post March 12, 2015.
My preface still holds: My intention is to tell my story so that others might learn from it and avoid the fix that I am in. Grandstanding and beating my chest about Stage IV Cancer (aka, Big Nasty) is not something I am interested in at all. But, if I can change the course of one life for the better, that will be my reward and this piece will be worth the effort.
"I used to have a sign pinned up on my wall that read: Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us...It was all about letting go of everything."
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Leading up to my last post on this subject, the alarm bells were ringing loudly. I had been diagnosed with Stage IV Prostate Cancer and all bets were off. In my mind I was preparing for the worst. My bone scans looked like that of a zebra (lots of black, not good.). PSA numbers approaching 800 and other key indicators all off the charts in the wrong direction. I sat. I prayed. I read. I listened to music. I connected with family and friends. I did an inventory of my life and tried to get my arms around the legacy I was leaving my kids and others, if, in fact, I was leaving. And I surrendered to my doctors.
On tap was my bout with Big Nasty and it was set for six rounds (every three weeks), six rounds of chemotherapy and more. So it began, February 27, GO TIME! I had great trainers in my corner for each of these sessions. My sister Virginia Hartnett Frankenthal and my brother Michael Hartnett were there for each round. 5 am wake-ups; at the hospital by 7 for prep work; and then on to the chemo suite by 10 for two to three hours. It became a ritual over the next 6 months.
After a treatment or two I thought, no problem. I can handle this. As the months wore on that attitude shifted. As I waded into my 4th and 5th chemo sessions, in boxing parlance, I was taking a beating. Side effects took over and reminded me in each moment the duress my body was under. It sucked. But I had to keep reminding myself to keep my eye on the end goal. This is going to buy you time. It's going to help you get back to a place where you can hopefully take control and manage this like you always have (until I was side-tracked) with lifestyle choices that have served me well over the years.
Chemotherapy and other therapies did their job. All the metrics that needed to fall, fell quickly. My PSA numbers fell from 800 to 15 over the course of treatment. The cancer that spread to the bone had cleared, too -- those numbers went from 3,300 to 204. It's not gone but it's manageable. People live full and productive lives in this state.
Chemotherapy quietly kills most everything in its path. It's a price one must pay. It's the "heavy artillery" of medicine, as my brother put it. I am grateful and thankful I had the opportunity to have had access to this treatment. Without it I would not be here today.
Along with the nasty physical side effects of chemo, there are the spiritual side effects, too. During the peak times of treatment any enthusiasm for life is quietly sucked out of you. Sleep is your best friend. You lay for hours and the days mingle together. You lose concept of time and your purpose. During extended periods of the battle I would not be seen for a few days. My brother would knock on the door to check-in hoping for the best, and making sure there was still life in there.
I can't imagine not having a support network to help one battle through this. There was one chemo session where I shared a room with an elderly woman with the drape half drawn between us. I had my brother and sister with me. She was alone. We were together for a few hours. Her disease seemed more advanced and circumstances dire. She just laid there alone and said little. We began to include her in our conversations. My sister went so far as to buy her lunch. The hospital staff saw this behavior and they all seemed to brighten up. One of the staffers said it was "awesome" what we did for her. The little acts of random kindness can do so much for those who really need it.
I want to thank Dr. David Vanderweele and his staff as well as Dr. Scott Eggener and his team at the University of Chicago. They have given me new life. I am forever grateful. My brother and sister, Michael and Virginia and their families for their unwavering support during this period. The same to my daughter and son, Alison and Tyson, I love you. Extended family, friends and loved ones. You know who you are. Thank you for your love and support, it was and continues to be a great healer. And to my personal Facebook community. You are an amazing group. The healing power in your messaging and communication kept me going. Thank you!
I also want to say thank you to the management team at Flite.com. They took a pretty significant risk picking me up on the waiver wire. They took me in as a consultant during the darkest days in my life. Really, who does that? Flite did. Needless to say, I am profoundly grateful to the team there and just finished my first full week as a full time employee. I plan on giving them a full return on their investment in me, and more.
Finally, the spiritual impact of the last 8 months has been profound. I considered myself a very spiritual person before all of this. This experience has been like "gas on the fire" when it comes to spiritual growth. I am now experiencing life through an enhanced and clearer prism. Each moment and day is a gift. The teachings of the great ones resonate more fully. Meditation and prayer have been a cornerstone for healing and will continue to be. Getting back into the kitchen and cooking the macrobiotic way is helping immensely, too.
My re-entry into "civilian life" was a road trip at the end of July with a lifetime best buddy, brother and teacher. He is a resident of http://misericordia.org/. His existence from birth has been centered around and contending with developmental disabilities. He is an amazing soul. We traveled from Chicago to New York City and Philadelphia by car with stops along the way with loved ones, friends and special stops we will never forget. The final act was a run up the art museum steps, Rocky-style, in Philadelphia.
So life goes on. In the schema of life, nothing will ever be routine again. Make an extra effort to love those close to you each day, quietly and peacefully, no matter what the circumstances. You will not regret. Ever onward! Peace to you my friends.