It’s been a long couple of months. People keep asking me for updates and it is a long story and I am lazy and not up for telling it multiple times. So I’m going to tell it once. Here. Read it or not.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that my father has been battling cancer for the second time in his life. In 2008 he was diagnosed with stage three esophageal cancer. Following chemotherapy, radiation, and an esophojectomy, he was doing well and had bought himself a motorcycle. He had been given a 15% chance to survive the next three years and by all accounts, he had survived. His tests were coming back clear, he was gaining weight, and we just continued to pray for his health.
Last summer, however, he started not to feel well. Following a series of doctors visits and one trip to the ER, we found ourselves back at Vanderbilt, where his esophojectomy took place, and were told, on the day that my great-grandmother passed away, that my Dad had rectal cancer.
They decided that it wasn’t a return of his previous cancer, which would have been fatal, but a new one, so maybe we’re lucky, but what kind of luck is that? This time the survival rate on his stage two cancer is 80%. Last fall he underwent another round of chemotherapy and radiation and was slated to have the tumor removed next week, but he simply wasn’t getting better. He wasn’t recovering from the treatment, which is needed to proceed with surgery, and, in fact, he was getting worse. When Dad went back to Vanderbilt to have his pre-op meeting with his surgeon, we got some bad news. The surgeon believes that Dad’s cancer has spread to the lining of his stomach, and if that’s the case, the surgery wouldn’t proceed. So the doctor ordered more tests and scans.
Dad had another CT and PET scan, and while we waited on those results, he continued to get worse. He couldn’t hold down any food and became jaundiced, turning a lovely shade of yellow. Two Mondays ago we went back to the oncologist for the results of his scans and were relieved when they told us that they had come back clear. The PET scan, which tends to be an oversensitive test, didn’t light up at all; no live cancers were shown. But the oncologist wanted to hospitalize Dad because of the jaundice, which was believed to be the result of either too much painkillers or an obstruction in his gallbladder by the appearance of the CT scan.
Dad was admitted into the hospital that afternoon in Bristol, TN, after receiving some IVs at the doctors office. Because of my Dad’s medical history and his failure to really improve, it was decided that he would be transferred to Vanderbilt last Thursday. He made it there at 3am due to having to wait for a bed. On Friday we were told that his symptoms were typical of a metastasized cancer in his abdomen and that they were going to do some more scans, including an MRI.
The MRI showed fluid in his belly and an obstruction to the bile ducts of his liver, causing a back up and therefore the jaundice. It was decided on that on Monday they would go in and do an ERCP to place a stint in his bile duct to relieve the blockage. That weekend we waited, Dad was put on TPN, nutrition through his IV, and he seemed to be doing pretty good. He ate well on Sunday and we even had ice cream just before midnight because he was placed on MPO orders, nothing by mouth.
On Monday he was taken down for the procedure in the early afternoon. The procedure took two hours and was unsuccessful; they weren’t able to place the stint. When the surgical team took Dad up to his room he was shivering uncontrollably despite the four blankets piled up on him, and they weren’t able to get his vitals under control. The Rapid Response Team was called in and the decision was made to transfer Dad to SICU. Once in SICU, as they were putting him in the bed, Dad crashed and was placed on life support.
We weren’t really aware of what was going on until a doctor came out and took us into a private waiting room. The doctor told us that Dad had aspirated on stomach acid during the procedure and had been placed on life support. He also asked us if he had a living will and would he want to be recesitated. At no point are these things you want to hear. After a while, and a period of freaking out, we were allowed to go back and see him. Dad was sedated, tied down to the bed, and would freak out if we touched him.
After finally calming down, I went to the hotel to get mom some clothes to stay in. I had been staying with Dad the whole weekend, but given the circumstances, neither of us were going to leave him for the night. While I was gone Mom texted me to let me know that Dad had started to initialize his own breaths and that the ventilator was now only helping him by inflating his lungs. He had only been on life support two hours.
When I made it back to the hospital, Dad was no longer sedated and was trying to write notes on his leg. He wanted to know how we were. The next couple of days were a whirlwind of doctors telling us any number of things, that Dad has 6 months if he does have cancer and they can’t get his liver alleviated. That he could live three years if they can treat the liver and then the cancer. That they can pull the tubes and send him home to die. Palliative care was sent in, a pre-hospice care, if you will, and Dad’s doctor is named Dr. Coffin. And while we tried to hold out hope, most of his doctors are doom and gloom.
We have been told that there are essentially a few various causes for my father’s conditions, but the doctors have all defaulted to terminal cancer. Other possible options are an infection in his liver, the result of his altered anatomy and radiation or something endocrinological. The fluid in his belly could be backed up bile from his liver, broken down blood that’s the result of malnutrition, or cancer. None of the scans have shown any tumors in his abdomen, and nothing really indicates cancer besides the syptomology itself.
On Wednesday Dad went in for a second ERCP which was successful, giving us a chance of fighting this if it is cancer. He recovered just fine from this second procedure, besides being sore. The fluid was drawn off from his abdomen, an astonishing 5 pounds worth for a man who tips the scales not too far above 100. That fluid is being tested for cancer, and we should know the results sometime in the next months or year. They said it could be Monday, or it could take a week. Thanks for making us wait on finding out how the rest of our lives will be played out.
Dad has recovered remarkably well from all of this. He was able to eat some yesterday and sent me home last night. This morning he was discharged from the hospital, and any continuing treatment will be done at home in Virginia unless he’s able to have surgery to remove the rectal tumor. That will only happen if his cancer has not spread. So now I get to spend my days waiting to see how much time I have left with my Daddy. We’ve had some hard conversations, are talking about trips we should take, and the hardest question i’ve ever been asked was my Dad asking me if i thought he’s been a good father. There have been way too many ups and downs to this ride and I want to get off the roller coaster now.