Living with Head and Neck Cancer

I was ready to post a thoughtful entry entitled “My Cancerversary” that included a review of the new widely-discussed book The Emperor of Maladies.  That post was written by Ed Steger, the author of the blog Living with Head and Neck Cancer.  Reading over the Profile paragraph, I saw a reference to the blogger’s “favorite post.”  This turned out to be about a much earlier cancerversary.  I liked the reaffirming irony.  So I am publishing this earlier post first.  I will follow with the later one on Thursday

December 13 2007

Hi. I’ve been waiting to write about this day for the past 2 – 3 months. It has special significance to me. One year ago today I had a follow up visit with my surgeon to review the results of my latest CT scan w/contrast. The scan showed five cancer hot spots; they were all in areas which my surgeon felt were inoperable. I thought to myself, “how the hell did I get here?” Five months and one day earlier on 7/12/06 I had gone though an incredibly difficult surgery. To review the bidding, the surgery took twelve hours, removed body parts, took body parts from two places and put them in other places, put me in the ICU for 2 days where I was sure I was going to die, then another 7 days in the hospital. I had a tracheotomy for about 4 weeks (that was torture) not to mention a number of other tubes. My family and friends were incredible during my slow recuperation. Fast forward to 12/13/06, I showed no evidence of disease for five months and 1 day following that surgery. Now, here I was again! I was back in my surgeon’s office with five friggin cancerous hot spots. I asked him the question that many, although not all, cancer patients ask their doctors. What’s my prognosis? If you think about it, it’s not really the question that’s tough, it’s the answer. He said I should be thinking in months, not years. I guess that’s an easier way than saying soon. He said he had an obligation to mention the potential use of the palliatative care unit at my cancer center. I’ve written about this before, but to revisit it, that’s the unit that tries to make you as comfortable as possible until death. Cure is not their goal. My surgeon also suggested a visit with my chemo doctor. At this point in my life on 12/13/06, I had just begun getting my life back together. My speech was coming back strongly, my strength was back due to an aggressive workout program, my golf game was beginning to improve, and I was considering going back to work in early January. I deluded myself into thinking that I was actually going to escape and leave Cancer World behind. Good bye and good riddance. I had been told once before that I had a few months to live. That was in June 2006 when my surgeon said that without the surgery, I would die before yearend. By our conversation, I could tell that he believed it would be significantly before yearend 2006. With the surgery, there was a 15% chance of a cure. I left my surgeon office on 12/13/06. Given the odds, I was disappointed, but not surprised. I then met with my chemo doctor that same day. It seemed like a better choice than the palliative care unit. On 12/20/06, I began my third cycle of chemo. Chemo continued for almost 9 months until 9/12/07. One might think that I have to look these dates up, but I don’t, they are etched firmly in my mind. The chemo was brutal during about 50% of this time. Fatigue was the primary culprit. Limb numbness was also high on the list of why one tries to stay healthy and avoid chemo. I had six different cycles of chemo during this timeframe (dozens of rounds) and they were successful for the most part. In June and in October 2007 I had two more surgeries to remove new cancer growths (they were not part of the original 5 hot spots that were on the scan on 12/06). The surgeries weren’t trivial, but certainly not on the scale of the one on July 12 2006. It’s been a rough 12 months. I’ve tried putting my energy into being a good father, being more generous, and keeping myself healthy. Some of these goals have been more successful for me than others. I’m glad I’m still here a year later. I’m happy for the family, friends, doctors, care givers, and researchers that have stuck by me. THANK YOU again and again and again, I couldn’t do it without all of you. I’m hoping this new chemo regimen that I began yesterday will result in a cure. On paper it shows promise for my specific disease. Hope is key to cancer patients that haven’t given up. I hope this coming year is a bit easier than the past 12 months and I hope I’m here and feeling well on December 13 2008 so that I can write this story all over again one more time.

About Dennis Pyritz

Dennis W. Pyritz, RN, BA, BSN, has been a cancer nurse since 1987 and a cancer and bone marrow transplant survivor since 2004. In December 2001 he was diagnosed with t-cell prolymphocytic leukemia (T-PLL), a rare aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Dennis was treated with the then new monoclonal antibody, alemtuzumab (Campath) as this disease has a median survival of 7.5 months. He achieved a 26 month remission but relapsed in February 2004. He was retreated with Campath and went into a second remission. In August 2004 he underwent an allogeneic peripheral blood stem cell transplant with his brother, Mark, as donor. Dennis has remained in remission since - a near miracle. Throughout his career as cancer nurse and patient, Dennis has had the opportunity to speal to both lay and professional groups. Dennis has spoken on cancer topics and survival issues across the country as well as in the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria, Portugal, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Trinidad, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Cyrpus, Israel, and India.

Leave a Reply