A long, strange trip

By Curt Deatherage

For The Creswell Chronicle

Never. Never in a million years did I ever think it could be anything to do with cancer. Even though my mother had survived colon cancer nearly 40 years ago and a nephew survived leukemia that was discovered when he was a baby, it was the farthest thing from my mind.

It all started innocently enough in the spring of 2016 when my back started hurting. Nothing unusual in that; my work required heavy lifting, with a twist and turn thrown in at the most inopportune moment. No big deal, I thought, my back had hurt before but it always got better.

But this time it didn’t get better. It seemed to get worse, so much worse that there were times I could barely move. Then came the month of June and I did the unthinkable; I didn’t go to work. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t work. I went to a chiropractor, but emerged hurting more than when I went in. After one visit it took me nearly 20 minutes to step up into my pickup. I sat in the cab crying for another 15 minutes because it hurt so bad.

Sue took me to the ER in Cottage Grove several times but that did little good. They sent me home with pain pills and told me to see my doctor.

Trouble was that I didn’t have a doctor to see. PeaceHealth had notified me earlier in the year that my doctor had left and they would assign me one as soon as one became available. One still wasn’t available.

Velvet and her family came up in June for a visit, and as only an assertive daughter can do, she told PeaceHealth in no uncertain terms that I was going to see a doctor. Now. After several false starts a doctor visit was arranged and an x-ray showed a “hot spot.” Velvet had a suspicion that it was somehow related to cancer and asked for a referral to an oncologist, but none was forthcoming.

After they returned home to Southern California, Alex began calling oncologists listed in the Eugene-Springfield yellow pages asking if anyone would agree to see me without a referral. Success at last: Alex had found one. That doctor ordered an MRI, and then told me he suspected that I had something that was out of his area of expertise and he couldn’t help me. After a collective heart drop, he offered to refer me to someone he thought could help me, and with referral in hand, I secretly figured – or wished, anyway – that my troubles were over.

As well as I can remember, anyway. My back pain had gotten worse, and it must have shown. On the first visit to the new doctor, he took one, or maybe two looks at me and said he was checking me into the hospital. First, to perform biopsies to determine specifically the source of my pain, and second to develop a pain management strategy.

The biopsies resulted in a diagnosis of advanced stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer (whatever that meant; I only vaguely remember hearing the word cancer) that had spread to my spine and was growing a tumor in an undesirable location. The pain management plan consisted of ingesting 180 mg of morphine a day.

Radiation followed, which had a positive effect on the tumors. Chemotherapy was the next course of treatment. Interspersed with all of that were a number of hospital stays. Except for when I was born in Mercy Hospital, I had only been in the hospital once. Well, I did visit people who were being treated, but my ruptured appendix 20 years ago was my only venture into that world. Until I was diagnosed with cancer, that is.

All of that has changed, and since D-Day I’ve had eight hospital stays. And not just for a runny nose either. Pneumonia, Rhabdomyolysis, and Sepsis are a few that are most memorable. It seems my immune system was so severely compromised that I was a target without much defense. My arms turned a beautiful shade of purple from all the IV injections after several of those visits.

On one doctor visit he told me I looked terrible and he was right. I was anemic, weak, losing weight from lack of appetite and poorly colored. He told me that a change in treatment was needed. Chemotherapy was leaving my blood levels so low that danger might be imminent.

As my mind began to clear after I quit taking morphine and I could understand more of my newly expanded medical vocabulary, I felt confident that I could assist in the course of my treatment. Velvet and I discussed it and chose one of the three treatments he had offered. Opdivo, in the immunotherapy class of drugs that is heavily advertised on television, was our choice. My body reacted favorably to this new treatment and I started to gain strength slowly and weight not so slowly. Hair started to reappear on my nearly bald head and I started to feel like living again.

So as long as the doctor says it’s helping me and the insurance keeps paying, I’m good to go. I go for treatment every two weeks at the cancer center. I’ve survived a trip to Las Vegas, several trips to Southern California, a road trip exploring Southeast Oregon and am looking forward to more. I’ve even survived the literally thousands of what seemed like flirts and come-ons that flooded my post office box, and since I turn 65 this month, I’ve selected my dancing partner for the Medicare party.

I’ve even started working a few hours a day for a few days a week since I don’t want to stop that completely. I have a renewed interest in photography that continues to challenge me to expand my creativity. And I’m going to try to write more than I have in the past year.

The prognosis? Several oncologists have told me that I will never be cured. I accept that. I get a CT scan every three months or so, and so far the results have been good. In fact, the scan I had in August showed about 30 percent shrinkage of the tumor on my lung. No new unexplained growths have appeared, although that could change at any time. The doctors tell me to enjoy life; their job is to make my life as comfortable and long as they can. No guarantees or promises. So I am enjoying life.

Life is pretty darn good right now, but I wouldn’t be here if Velvet and Sue hadn’t been in the right place at the right time to get me to where I needed to be. It went from “you really need to get that looked at” to “you are going to the hospital right now,” and in several instances it saved my life.

I typically don’t write or share much about myself, but since I seem to run into people I know during my daily visits to the post office and around town, there are always questions, I thought I would let folks know how I am doing. I truly appreciate all the concern so many have expressed over the past year. Besides, writing this has been good therapy for me to examine my thoughts and feelings and deal with them, both the good and the bad.

Even though I only like a couple of songs by the Grateful Dead, all through this journey the lyrics to one of their songs keeps coursing through my brain. Indeed, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” But the trip isn’t over yet, not by a long ways. I’ve got people in my life that care for me and I care for them, plus a five-year-old grandson that needs grandpa time for years to come. I’m up for the challenge.