Tomorrow, Saturday, June 27, is a monumental day in my world.
Specifically, a year ago to the day my wife and I received a gut punch by having a doctor tell us that I had cancer. This diagnosis was simply the result of a routine colonoscopy at age 51. It had nothing to do about the way I had been feeling.
That diagnosis set in motion what would be one helluva year for me, my wife, Carley, and my oldest son, Thomas (24). We also have 7-year-old Camden and 4-year-old (she runs the house) Kendall at home. We chose not to discuss cancer with them. They were just too little and all they knew was daddy had a lot of doctor appointments.
It all started with blood tests, CT scans, MRIs – things that determined I had Stage 3 colorectal cancer, which meant the cancer had also spread beyond the colon, but fortunately to just one lymph node.
Chemotherapy started on July 23 (Kendall’s birthday) and FINALLY ended in November. It was a total of eight infusions, spaced out every two weeks, consisting of an awful concoction of drugs appropriately called 5FU. I was able to get my regular dose of chemo every other Tuesday except for two times when my white blood cell counts were too low. They just sent me home and hoped my blood work would be adequate by the time of the next infusion.
Chemo was largely tolerable. Oh, the marvels of modern-day medicine. Each infusion, given through a port in my chest, consisted of a bag of vitamins, followed by a bag of steroids, followed by a bag of long-lasting anti-nausea medicine. Next up were the bags that were clearly marked as hazardous, toxic, complete with the skull and crossbones on the outside. Yes, essentially poisoning me.
I felt great for a couple days after each chemo session ended, with the pre-infusion medicine doing its intended purpose. It was crash time when I hit the weekend. I typically spent the entire weekend in bed, barely able to walk or function – taking time to keep watching Vikings football games, which many of you know might be comparable to having cancer.
I kept working at the Register as much as I could through the whole ordeal. I left many days early because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. This place can run without me. There are tremendous people in all departments here, and they know what to do. I give special thanks to my good friend and colleague Tracy Jonas, who handled most of my specific workload while I was out.
Once chemo was completed, I was given a three-week break to build my blood counts back up before I started radiation in late November. Radiation was 28 straight days (weekends excluded) that lasted until Jan. 10. It honestly was a piece of cake. Each session lasted about three minutes, and there were slight side effects which I was able to manage easily.
The last part was the surgery on March 5. The specific surgery performed on me is called an abdominal perineal resection and is one doozy of a surgery. I spent six days in the hospital, and it left me with a permanent ostomy bag, which I view as a badge of honor.
Post-surgery, the recovery went great. Being home and immunocompromised when COVID-19 hit meant that my house was under strict quarantine. We rarely left our house. That allowed me to heal and start building my strength back. I lost a lot of muscle mass through the journey. Simply walking around the block was impossible without stopping multiple times.
But here I am in June, fully healed from surgery, cancer in remission, walking about 10,000 steps a day and even playing (term used very loosely) on an age 38 and over amateur baseball team in Renner.
The journey was life-changing for me. I have told many people that this cancer was a blessing for me, as dumb as that may sound. I’m a better husband, dad, friend and Christian than I ever was pre-cancer.
I’m thankful for the support I received from everyone. I couldn’t have made it to the other side without all the cards, gifts, texts, meals, support, well wishes and the list goes on and on. This community is UNREAL.
But I’m one of the lucky ones. Plain and simple. It could have turned out differently.
A look at the Register obituaries this week tells you that. A couple of people who are close to my age both succumbed to cancer this week, and my heart breaks for their families. They fought the good fight but didn’t get the ending they wanted and deserved. God bless them.
I’ll be at a lake in Minnesota with my family this week celebrating my journey, but at the same time reflecting on those who weren’t as fortunate as me, and praying for those who are currently dealing with cancer – it’s an awful disease.
Ahead for me will be the anxiety of dealing with scans and blood tests every three months for five years. Once I hit the five-year mark with “clean” scans and blood tests, I can at last be declared cancer free. There’s a big party when that happens. You’re all invited.
And I can’t close without preaching once again – if you are 50 or older and have not had a colonoscopy, please get it scheduled. It could save your life like it did mine.
Billy McMacken is the publisher at the Register. You can email him at [email protected], but don’t expect a reply real soon as he’ll be out on the water most of the time on vacation, frustrated by his poor fishing skills.