OPINION

Bender: 'That's life' I'm doing great, thank-you

Tony Bender
Hospital stock photo.

Hey friends, well, it's been two months since I announced my cancer diagnosis on the eve of major surgery at Mayo Clinic. Since then, I've received a steady stream of cards, well-wishes, and prayers, and they're working because I'm doing great. Thank you!

I don't plan to spend a lot of time in the future doing play-by-play on my recovery, but since we've shared this space for years—in some cases 30 years!—it seems only fair to get you up to speed. First of all, for those who missed my initial announcement in late February, I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer caused by acid reflux. If you have acid reflux, get that checked!

The cancer involved the lower part of my esophagus and the top of the stomach. After chemo and radiation and some recovery time, it was off to Mayo for an esophagectomy, a major surgery in which the cancerous tissue is removed and a new esophagus is created from the healthy stomach tissue. I went to Mayo because I believe they're the best in the world, and my experience there certainly hasn't changed my mind.

Remarkably, I was walking the halls the next day albeit connected to a whole bunch of tubes. I've seen less complicated plates of spaghetti. But slowly, one-by-one, with therapy and the angels on earth they call nurses at Mayo, the tubes came out and ten days after surgery I was discharged to recover at home under the care of my sister Sherry, a recently retired RN, and my daughter India, a trained CPA. I'm not sure I could have done it without them.

You know, I'm a typical prairie dweller—independent, the kind of guy who helps others but never really expects to need help himself. It's quite a revelation to suddenly need nurses to situate you in bed, to get you to the bathroom... to see cards and texts rolling in, to have prayers said on your behalf. It's been humbling and healing.

My oncologist told me that this would be the hardest thing I've ever done. Oh, it's been hard but I haven't done it alone. My team from Ashley Medical Center, Mid-Dakota Clinic, Bismarck Cancer Center, and Mayo has been remarkable.

One of the hardest things about the recovery was not eating or drinking for about six weeks as I healed. I got nutrition through a tube into my upper intestine. After about two weeks, every cooking smell teased me. For the first time in my life I dreamed about food.

That began to change with a recent follow-up visit to Mayo when I was given the green light to introduce broth and soft foods into my diet. Coffee never tasted so good! Two weeks ago, my feeding tube literally fell out—no big deal since I was instructed on how to remove it when the time came,

anyway. Well, that settled that. The last tube was gone. I was no longer bionic.

I'm enjoying food again although in small, more frequent meals, and though I lost some weight during all of this (I don't recommend the diet plan), I'm holding at my high school football playing weight. Don't fret, I was a 215-pound lineman.

I had a very positive check-up at Mayo. A specialist explained that a nerve in my throat was stretched leaving me with a raspy voice, but that is improving and I should get most, if not all, of my voice back in time.

My last appointment was with my surgeon in a room with my sister and three other nurses. As we wrapped up the visit, I looked my surgeon in the eye. “I want to tell you something... the last thing I remember was we were waiting for anesthesia.”

There were 10 people bustling about in the room under bright lights.

“And I remember you rested your hand on my shoulder for a very long time,” I continued. “ I knew then—and I knew before—how invested you were in my outcome. I think that's the moment I began healing.”

“You were all alone,” she replied. “No one should go to sleep alone.”

There were tears in the room