What a Difference Some Months Make

My wife and I were at the Stanford Cancer Center today for my monthly follow-up appointment – this month with my radiologist.  In the elevator down after the appointment, I noticed that another man was wearing a shirt with the collar cut out of it and that his neck was bright red from radiation treatments.

I asked him how he was feeling.  When he looked confused about why I would be asking that question, I told him that four months ago I was wearing shirts that had a similar neck-line (as a way to tell him that I went through the same treatments for cancer not long ago).  He picked up the underlying message and asked if I had throat cancer related to HPV.  I said yes, treated with surgery, chemo and radiation.  Very quickly I learned that he had the same robotic surgical procedure as me, the same surgeon as me, and had (unfortunately) experienced the same unwanted finding that the cancer had spread enough that he needed chemo and radiation in addition to his surgery.  In fact, it appeared that his treatment protocol and mine seemed to match exactly.

He quietly asked if I was able to swallow yet – and the way he asked it brought back all the memories of how difficult eating was for a while, and how wonderful it was when I could eat the same meals that the rest of the family ate.  I was very glad to be able to assure him that the ability to swallow does come back about a month after radiation ends.

This experience helped me realize one thing that my wonderful treated lacked – peer counseling.  All of the doctors, the nurses, the therapists, etc. are wonderful people and very, very good at what they do.  But not one of them has ever been a cancer patient.  Only someone who had been a patient, someone a few months further along in the process can really share that no matter how difficult it might be on a particular day, it does get better.

There were days when the most solid food that I was able to eat was soft-scrambled eggs.  I wondered if that would be the firmest food that I would ever eat for the rest of my life.  It would have been great to talk with someone with the credibility of having been through exactly the experiences I was having – to have that person say “it does get better, and in the near future.”

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