That’s Life: One of the lucky ones

Tony Bender

Cancer. There's a word that'll get your attention. It got mine last fall when I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. 

I suppose a cancer diagnosis shouldn't shock anyone. It's almost the norm in America. Statistically, 1 in 3 men and 1 in 2 women will develop cancer, and if you check the statistics on esophageal cancer, it's intimidating. But I'm not a statistic, and if you have cancer, neither are you.

I consider myself lucky. As you read this, I'm either in surgery or recovery at Mayo Clinic. “You're fortunate,” my Bismarck oncologist told me. The cancer hadn't spread. “You have options. Not everybody does.” He's one of five doctors who've independently volunteered the word “cure” in my case.

I'm a typical North Dakota stoic. I was inclined to keep this to myself but a friend advised me to tell my story and I realized he was right. For one thing, people might wonder why they hadn't seen a new column in a while. 

More importantly, though, was awareness. Did you know acid-reflux can cause cancer? “Nobody knows!” my surgeon said during my consultation last week at Mayo. She's a proponent of a national awareness campaign because if treated early and monitored, acid reflux doesn’t have to turn into cancer. If you've had acid reflux for five years, she told me, get an endoscopy. Make that call today, and if the solution is an esophagectomy have it done where they handle a high volume of cases. 

The procedure involves removing some or all of the esophagus and rebuilding it with a portion of the stomach. My long-term prognosis is encouraging. I expect to live a long, productive life. Short-term, well, there's the recovery. “The hardest thing you'll ever do,” my oncologist said. If it's not, I'm going to be ticked. But I'm one of the lucky ones. 

I didn't want to tell my family and friends about the diagnosis until I knew what the treatment plan was. Why subject them to the interminable waiting game as you undergo scans and tests and wait for results? However, each time the results indicated that the cancer was localized I felt like I'd cleared another hurdle. Then doctors started using the word “cure.” I've always had angels on my shoulders and enough close calls in this life to believe that if I'm reincarnated, it should be as a cat—nine lives and all.

As I went through a (successful) chemotherapy and radiation regimen, I saw people I knew and people who recognized me. So much for keeping it to myself. “Are you going to write about this,” my neighbor in the chemo chair asked one day. I guess so. It's funny how some people understood the importance of doing so now better than I did. You see, I wanted this story to have a tidy happy ending, and I think we'll get there, however, I understand now that you need your friends and family and all those prayers and positive vibrations throughout the journey. 

I've got the support of my kids, my mother, and siblings, especially my sister, an RN who'll steer me through my recovery, and I've got many of you. I'm one of the lucky ones. 

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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