Is Patient #1 finally cancer-free?

After writing forty-some blog posts, the one that REALLY matters should be a breeze, right?  Just tell everyone if PD-1 worked, or if it is on to Plan C – easy, huh?  As with everything during this almost-yearlong odyssey, things aren’t always as easy as they seem.

Friday morning, we got the CT scans, and pestered just about everyone at Holy Cross to have them read before the weekend (sorry, valet guy, I thought you might have some pull).  We even stopped on the way home from lunch to request the scan CDs, and were told they had not been “read” yet.  The difference between a small cancer center and a world-class one like Moffitt is that scans are done and reported on in a few hours at Moffitt, as there are multiple resources that spend all day reading and reporting scan results. 

For those of you who don’t spend a lot of time in the radiation wing of your local hospital, scans are fairly involved.  Between the prep work (no eating, drinking a white Barium cocktail that needs a lot more “cocktail” and a lot less Barium), the actual scans, and then getting the images to a radiologist who reads them and compares them with prior scans, THEN sends them to your doctor who also reviews them… it’s not like you just hold up a picture of a couple of x-rays side by side.  Even at Moffitt, where they process dozens of these a day, this takes time.  Besides, this isn’t something you really want them to rush.

So when my phone rang just as we left Holy Cross, I was a bit stunned to be getting preliminary results by 3 p.m.  Of course, the damn iPhone can’t hold a charge and my battery died, but I got enough to know that the scans were "good."  We were able to pick up a copy of the report a couple hours later, and while there was no comparison numbers on the report, I played amateur radiologist and successfully matched up the tumors with their numbers from before.  Some quick math showed that, across the board, tumor size shrunk by at least 30%, and more than half the tumors from the last report were not even listed. 

We need to verify Monday, especially the ones that were not on the report, but all major tumors had taken a beating in the last three months.  Round 2 goes to Patient #1 (and PD-1, and/or the cancer diet, and/or the supplements, and/or the prayers…).  It was not a miracle cure, but that wasn’t expected.  The stories of waking up and cancer being gone are akin to winning the lottery.  For almost everyone, slow and steady, and lots of ups and downs, is what gets them from “cancer patient” to “cancer survivor."

So everyone flipped out with excitement at the news, right?  Well, not entirely.  Of course we were extremely happy to hear the results and exhale a bit.  Honestly, though?  Not much changes.  I don’t know if it is because we expected good results, or … well, OK, it is pretty much because we expected good result.  I feel like I am the least-excited person about this, and that’s OK.  I reminded many people, including myself, that this is a looooong way from being finished.  I am extremely grateful and relieved that, after 10+ months, we finally got good news.  The feeling, more than anything, was resolve.  We know something is working.  Now is not the time to relax; it’s the time to renew the vow to beat this thing.  If anything described my initial emotions, determined might be the best fit.  I knew deep down I could conquer melanoma, and the scans confirmed that was more than just a remote possibility.

I did let myself have a bit of a good time Friday, which these days amounts to a cocktail before dinner, some wine during, and a couple of Yuenglings afterwards.  At least I am a cheap date and can drive everyone home, too.  Being out with friends on a dinner boat ride let the determination fade, so we could savor the moment for the evening.  The reality of this keeps the feeling of overwhelming joy at bay, though.  I told someone over the weekend – this thing is still likely to kill me; it’s just a matter of when.  I’m battling to make “when” be “a long bleepin’ time from now.”  But of course, putting it in that perspective can dampen the mood a bit.

The good thing is I don’t dwell on bad news, nor overreact to positive news.  I’m simultaneously attempting to get life out of my years AND add years to my life.  The paradox of enjoying and extending is a pretty delicate balance; how do you beat this without giving up living, at least as you’ve always known it?  

A good friend put it well when he questioned my cancer diet: “So, is the cure worse than the disease?” Sometimes it feels that way, but Jen and I are settling into the right mix of family life and cancer-fighting sacrifices that will hopefully maximize the years and the life they contain.

Being a bit balanced emotionally helps weather the many lows, and keeps me grounded when the good news finally hit.  I have a long way to go; it’s still salmon and salads and supplements a majority of the time.  On the other hand, I do need to ensure these years aren’t just about beating cancer.  So Monday night, I’ll be sitting down to a pretty large plate of meatballs at Café Martorano’s and getting a little life into the year I started to beat cancer.  As Grandmom Josephine would say, “Mange!”  Then, after finishing off the best Italian food in South Florida (and maybe a little dessert, too), it’s back to finishing off melanoma.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »