TERRE HAUTE —
My small family had big plans for 2009.
In early February 2009, my wife Lisa wanted to celebrate her 40th birthday with a nice dinner and a fun night out with friends in Terre Haute.
Being more outgoing than Lisa, I intended to have a huge party for my 50th birthday in mid-May. Much to Lisa’s amusement, she started calling it an “over the hill” party.
We reserved the upstairs section of the Copper Bar, with free food and drinks for guests, and we coaxed commitments from one friend in California, one in Florida and one in North Carolina to attend on the date we selected.
It was going to be a blast.
I also was determined to work out harder than ever in the gym and emerge as “Terre Haute’s best-in-shape 50-year-old” when my birthday arrived.
More importantly, though, Lisa and I were excited to make 2009 the year we seriously attempted to adopt a child, even at our relatively advanced ages. Although we loved our cats, we were ready to welcome our first baby into our home.
Unfortunately, only the birthday outing for Lisa actually happened.
What followed was a series of events that I would not wish on my worst enemy.
• • •
In mid-February 2009, one day after I covered a Terre Haute North Vigo High School boys basketball game in Evansville, sent my story to the Tribune-Star and gambled away more money than I’d care to admit at Casino Aztar afterward, I started feeling abdominal pain.
Figuring it was a simple stomach flu, I waited that Sunday, then Monday, then Tuesday, for the pain to subside. It didn’t. It got much worse by Tuesday night, so Lisa drove me to a nearby medical facility Wednesday morning.
The doctor on duty asked a few questions and suggested I admit myself to one of the Terre Haute hospitals, which I did. After undergoing a few tests, I originally was told that a cyst existed in my abdominal cavity. That cyst turned out to be a good-sized tumor.
Freakin’ wonderful, I thought.
After examining all the results, Dr. Suresh Kunapareddy said I had a rare form of cancer known as Pseudomyxoma Peritonei (PMP).
So much for most of our big plans. Little did I know, so much for my life as I knew it.
I stayed four days in the local hospital during that stint as my pain temporarily faded with the help of intravenous medication. Then I returned home to research this killer cancer — aka “jelly belly” because of how the abdomen gradually becomes bloated with mucinous ascites — on the Internet.
Dr. Kunapareddy had recommended that I choose a highly skilled, specialized surgeon to remove this tumor, which most likely had been growing in my abdominal cavity for years. So I frantically e-mailed several of the nation’s top surgeons in this field, then I considered using a highly respected PMP specialist in Pittsburgh.
After much deliberation, I selected Dr. Syed Ahmad at the Barrett Cancer Center in Cincinnati. Dr. Ahmad also was highly respected, plus the driving distance to Cincinnati was roughly half of what it would have been to Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, I was able to return to work for a few weeks, covering several games in the Class 3A South Vermillion Sectional boys basketball tournament in what ended up being my final full work week of 2009.
Midway through the next week, which was regional time for high school teams still left in the state tournament, I started feeling feverish with abdominal discomfort. On March 11, 2009, I left work early. On March 14, with my condition deteriorating rapidly, Lisa drove me to a Terre Haute hospital to be admitted.
The grotesque “jelly belly” effect was becoming increasingly noticeable.
“You looked awful,” Lisa reminded me recently.
As usual, my wife was right.
All of a sudden, I wondered if all those years of grueling workouts in the gym (plus weekly sets of stomach crunches at home at 2 or 3 a.m. and semi-regular jogs), all those years I refused to take steroids when some of my weightlifting buddies offered them, all those years I didn’t smoke cigarettes and all those years I didn’t eat hot dogs or bacon were worth the effort.
Succumbing to the side effects of high-powered medications while in the hospital, I started losing track of days and imagined seeing the faces of dead patients, who may have occupied the same room before me, in curtain wrinkles and shadows on the wall.
One miserable day, I convinced myself that our cat Winston was jumping on and off furniture in my room, even ordering him to “get down from there” at least once.
A few days later, Lisa informed me that Winston didn’t really visit me in the hospital. I’m guessing that would have been a serious violation of hospital regulations.
Because my condition was not improving, doctors Kunapareddy and Ahmad agreed to have me transported by ambulance to the University of Cincinnati Hospital, where Ahmad would perform a washout procedure to provide temporary relief.
The washout procedure, although effective, weakened me so much that Dr. Ahmad said I should return home to recover, begin a regular walking routine (I was no longer allowed to lift or jog) and build my endurance back up to prepare for the cytoreduction (debulking) surgery as soon as reasonably possible. This surgery, which I needed to maintain any hopes of beating PMP and staying alive, ideally would remove all the tumor cells from my abdomen and it would be combined with hyperthermic intraoperative peritoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) to maximize effectiveness.
A fitness enthusiast my entire adult life, I realized I was facing a life-or-death surgery expected to last about eight hours. Providing a sense of optimism were reminders from doctors, nurses and friends that my dedication to exercise over the previous 32 years increased my chances for survival.
• • •
Even after I returned home in late March 2009, my mind continued to travel to dark, strange places, probably because of the powerful medications I needed. Many nights, I was afraid to lie down in my own bed and close my eyes.
Why so much fear?
To this day, I have no idea.
Sometime in the middle of this mess, my mother-in-law — Norma Gillespie — suggested to Lisa that she move from California to live with us. We accepted her generous offer to help take care of me so that Lisa wouldn’t miss so much time from work.
Norma’s arrival seemed like a gift from God.
Over the next several months, she would change the dressings on my not-so-pretty surgical wounds and attach complicated devices to my body. Among them were a Wound VAC, which used negative pressure to promote healing by sucking the drainage out and putting new tissue to the top of my wounds, and a TPN bag, which provided liquid protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients intravenously when I couldn’t eat solid food.
When I felt slightly better, I followed doctors’ orders and started walking around my neighborhood near Woodrow Wilson Middle School, gradually increasing the distance each time. Before my cancer diagnosis, I had never considered walking as “real exercise” because it was too easy for me. At this point in my life, however, I learned to appreciate its benefits.
Slowly but surely, I built my endurance back to a respectable level — not like the old David, but high enough that Dr. Ahmad thought I could handle the big surgery — so we made an appointment to have it performed June 19, a Friday morning.
That week ended up being the worst of my life by a large margin. Four days before this super-scary surgery, my mother died unexpectedly from natural causes in her home. She was 83.
Fighting a wide range of emotions, I knew I couldn’t postpone my surgery because I already had waited too long to suit me. Yet I needed to make quick decisions because I was my mother’s only halfway-young survivor. So I arranged for her to be cremated and reached an agreement with the funeral home to conduct her memorial services whenever I recovered from my surgery, IF I would ever recover from it.
My mother deserved better, but what could I do?
• • •
Leading up to my big surgery, even though the Tribune-Star did not make a big deal out of my condition in the paper (per my wishes), enough people knew about it to send plenty of get-well cards and offer phone calls of encouragement. That picked up my spirits at a time when I wasn’t smiling too often.
I also drew motivation from my years as a powerlifter when I competed against several guys who looked stronger and more muscular in my weight class. But in powerlifting, you don’t win by showing off flashy beach muscles; you win by lifting more combined weight than your opponents in the squat, bench press and deadlift.
Oh, there were times when a stranger might have picked me to finish last just by looking at the four or five competitors in my class, yet I frequently found ways to win.
I decided to use this underdog strategy in my new competition against a faceless foe known as cancer. Going by reputation and appearance, cancer was probably favored to whip me, but I was determined not to let that happen.
What I tried not to think about were those powerlifting meets when someone entered who was too genetically gifted and/or took too many steroids for me to overcome.
In other words, if the cancer was bad enough, I would not win no matter how much determination I had.
Like I said, I tried not to think about that possibility. For the most part, I stayed positive.
On surgery day, Lisa drove me from Cincinnati’s Hope Lodge free housing facility (sponsored by the American Cancer Society for cancer patients and their families) to the hospital at 6 a.m. I don’t remember much after that — thank God — but I was told my surgery lasted nine hours, not the expected eight.
The good news was that Dr. Ahmad believed he removed all the cancer.
The bad news was that he needed to rearrange and remove a sizable chunk of my digestive system to get the cancer out. That would lead to more health problems later in the year.
• • •
My summer hospital stay in Cincinnati lasted from June 19 to July 21, more than a month. But that would not be my final hospital visit of 2009 or 2010. Eight more, if I remember correctly, followed. Excruciatingly painful bowel blockages, probably caused by scar tissue from my June surgery, forced me into emergency rooms and eventually into hospital beds the last six times.
Each time, I received my favorite high-powered pain medicine and my blockage eventually passed without needing emergency surgery. But Dr. Ahmad concluded in December that surgery would be necessary if I didn’t want to deal with bowel obstructions for the rest of my life.
This surgery, which focused on the removal of scar tissue from the inside of my intestines, was scheduled for Jan. 5. Because of my final blockage attack, however, it got pushed back to Jan. 7. Fortunately, I was already staying in Cincinnati when this attack occurred.
The three-hour surgery came and went without a hitch, although I now possess only 40 percent of my original colon. I felt miserable again for a while, but at least there was no new cancer and there would be no more blockages (so far).
All last year, my bodyweight fluctuated. It dropped from 235 pounds (before my cancer diagnosis in February) to 175 (when I was released from the Cincinnati hospital in mid-July). After my latest surgery, it was 190. But now it’s about 200.
I dreaded almost every day of my existence from March 2009 through February 2010, but I was frequently reminded — either on television or in person — about people who suffered from worse health problems than I had. Victims of all ages force me to remember that I should never, ever feel sorry for myself.
• • •
Now here I am, relatively healthy and back at the Tribune-Star, where I’ve worked since November 1978. My first day back was Monday, although I worked from home. My first day in the office was Tuesday. I covered a high school softball game Thursday and a high school baseball game Friday.
So far, so good.
As for my mother’s remains, we were finally able to conduct her memorial services and bury her urn with my father’s urn in the Rosedale Cemetery in November.
Turning to the present, I hesitate to describe my return as a victory over cancer because there’s always a possibility that new tumors could wreak havoc in my abdomen someday. I’m also still taking blood-thinning medication to help dissolve a blood clot that was discovered in my lungs in early September.
But at least I’m not a goner, not yet anyway.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got sports to cover.
Finally, David Hughes can be reached by phone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at (812) 231-4224 after 4 p.m.; by e-mail at email@example.com; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.