October 29, 2003

Wayward Parotid Gland, Part 3

I've turned off comments for this post. If you do have something to say or a similar experience, my e-mail is Part One is located here.
Part Two is located here.

Gilda Radner once said that there isn't a thing funny about cancer. Or something like that. She would later die from the disease.

Not all forms of cancer are a death sentence, of course. Some are mere hindrances, and others give a person a life extension of sorts - five years, ten years, six months. Children get cancer; athletes get cancer, and grandmothers get cancer. It seems that often there's no rhyme or reason to most cases. Environment and heredity play parts as well.

But, if you had told me that at 19, even after such a rare surgery for a large tumor, that I would have to also be among those who "got cancer," I still wouldn't have believed you. It did not sink in immediately, really. I went to dinner with my parents since my father was at the appointment and the hospital/doctor's office was pretty much adjacent to my parents' home.

Dr. Wolfe had recommended a follow-up visit with a cancer clinic, MD Anderson in Houston, TX. We made plans to visit in mid December and did. Houston is Texas' largest city, but it seemed a large blur, like everything that preceded it, because of the trip's reason. I don't remember much of Houston but the cancer clinic and the Olive Garden in which we ate. The trip was scheduled for three days, I believe, but the visit at the clinic lasted only one, and a course of treatment was set - radiation therapy.

Dr. Wolfe and these follow-up physicians all agreed that it was likely that all of the cancer was removed with the surgery. The radiation is an extra measure to ensure that nothing, if anything remains, spreads. The cancer was encapsulated within the tumor, so that was an especially good thing. In order to administer radiation to a patient's head and neck, though, there must be little risk to future serious problems with his or her teeth. Radiation kills healthy cells along with cancer cells, and radiation to the teeth will diminish or kill the possibility of bone regeneration to protect against infection. Basically, if you lose a tooth, glands called osteoblasts will produce bone cell material to seal off the area and reduce risk of infection. If I lose a tooth, then it's a bit of a crap shoot all the way to the worst case, which is osteoradionecrosis. So, there was some debate about two or four of my back teeth - whether or not they should be pulled because of their proximity to each other, I believe. Also, one doctor recommended a mouth stint to cover the teeth on the right-hand side and shield them from as many harmful rays as was possible.

My wisdom teeth were still in place - hadn't come in yet. So, one of the first items of business was to schedule a removal date for them, which would be immediately after Christmas of 1991. Radiation would last a total of 6 weeks, 5 treatments a week with weekends off. This would total 30 treatments. There would, of course be side effects. The list was fairly comprehensive of what could go wrong, temporarily or permanently. And then, of course, there was a risk of a second cancer later in life CAUSED by the radiation because I was so young. But, the incidence of return of the cancer was just too high to gamble and NOT do the radiation.

After the appointments, or in between some (I can't remember), we sat in the treatment facility's cafeteria to eat a light meal. This afforded some good people watching, though it's not quite the same as at the airport or watching strollers around a city's downtown.

I saw a man who had no remaining nose. I saw other people, varying ages but mostly older, accompanied by friends and mostly relatives. The notable aspects of the disease in various stages and severity.

Treatment in Houston was an option, but my parents and I felt that Springfield, MO, which is where I lived and attended school, was large enough to provide good treatment, and we opted to return home and commence treatment there a few weeks after the wisdom teeth incisions had healed. It was at this point that I was faced with a decision. Would the course of treatment be so much that it would affect my ability to continue in school that semester? Should I take a reduced class schedule, or should I take the semester completely off, thus taking off that additional possible pressure and stress. So much facing me for the short term was unknown.


Posted by hln at October 29, 2003 08:19 AM | Anecdote