"Same Shit Homie"

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Despite everything, I'm absolutely lucky. lucky may not even be it. maybe i mean blessed. It's a blessing to have so many loving friends and family and to have never felt alone when my cancer announced itself. all the phone calls, the food, the visits, gifts, letters, flowers, prayers, well wishes, and on and on -- like i said, I believe I'm blessed.
but one thing that has made this experience so much easier is a friend of mine from back in the day who has gone through literally the same thing. the two of us now ride to the left side, if you get what I'm saying.
About a month before i graduated from high school (ten years ago), my friend Adrian Bravo discovered he had testicular cancer. he walked with us at graduation, despite having already started chemo. I remember when he ascended, unaided, the stairs of main hall at Loyola to receive his diploma. our entire class stood and cheered him on. he was the only one to receive a standing ovation from students, faculty and staff. people outside the immediate Loyola community didn't understand why the bald kid with sunglasses was getting the attention and support he did. but Adrian was everyone's friend. he is one those type of cats. and even rarer is his honesty and ability to relate and laugh with anyone. even peter cho.
so when my cancer arrived, Adrian and I talked a lot. even before the doctors made it official we were talking. And when I got the news this afternoon that chemo seemed upon me, we instant messaged each other.
as short and quick as that form of communication is, he explained much to me: what to expect from the first week (fatigue), the second week (sickness and fatigue) and the third (like the second but worse...) he was familiar with my drug treatment -- etoposide aka VP-16, cisPlatin, and Bleomycin. "Same shit homie," he responded. he wrote me about the physical reaction -- skin rash, hair loss, IV burn, throat blisters, temporary loss of taste, touch, blurry vision, and disorientation -- and the psychological trauma as well. how despite the 95 percent survival rate you nonetheless question...he wrote that he wasn't trying to scare me. I understood that. i just needed to know what I'm about to enter from someone who has come out the other side.
of which, Adrian is healthy, hearty, and if you met him today for the first time, you'd never guess he's a survivor. in fact, he celebrated ten years of remission this year.
you can read about his experience at: www.myspace.com/bravoentertainment

"Here We Go"

Dr. Ahmann, my oncologist, has a way of foreshadowing each visit. his first comment when he sees me usually gives me a heads up, like the time he walked in and asked why I was making things difficult for him. at the time the tumor markers were going up and down and inconclusive. so, I walk in today and see him at the front counter where he says he thinks he knows what we need to do. and what we need to do is consider his recommendation that I begin three courses of chemotherapy, to begin either this Monday or next.
my sick sense of humor -- in the back of my mind, way behind all the talk of cancer and tumor markers and chemotherapy and time off work and physical side effects and everything, the old bouncing souls tune "here we go" is playing. just ask Brendan -- I'm sure he can sing it word for word, but all I could remember was the chorus which is: "here we go here we go here we go/here we go here we go here we goooooo/here we go here we go here we go/here we goooo/gooooo/goooo/gooo" it's really reminiscent of Shakespeare, isn't it.
here we go.

No News is No News

Friday, July 27, 2007

No word back on my CT Scan. Whats that mean -- I don't know. Is it a good sign? I suppose. I mean, if things were really bad, like if the nurses looked at the images and said "oh my god," then I'd have heard from somebody by now. Does that mean everything is fine? I'm not going to jump to any conclusions. Besides, I see my oncologist on Tuesday. and I'm sure he'll say something again about my cancer being a difficult case for him.
People call and ask all the time -- how are you feeling, how did the tests go -- that sort of thing. and I appreciate it. It reminds me I'm not alone and for all my friends inquiries and all my family's questions, I'm grateful. but i don't have the answer people want. I don't have the answer I want. that's why I had the CT scan -- because my blood tests didn't yield any definitive results.
back when I covered crime for the Salinas Californian, every morning I made calls to all the local law enforcement agencies and fire departments. my conversations went like this (and my friend Nadia used to do a great impression): "Morning (insert official title and name here). anything new to report from last night or this morning?" my question was usually followed by small talk, some sort of insult directed towards "the media" and ultimately a "no, nothing to report," to which I respond: "No news is good news, right."
then we'd agree on something. I'd hang up and go down the list of people to call.
but today no news is just that -- no news.

Metal mouth and the giant donut

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

had my second CT scan today. you see, the weekly round of blood tests -- HCG, AFP and something else -- hasn't resulted in anything more than confusion. so it was the giant donut for me. we hope a scan will tell us if the cancer has spread, whether new tumors are forming, or not.
My first CT scan was just a few days after my surgery in May. I was still loaded on pain killers so I don't remember all that much. We (mom, dad, "grandpa" and I) arrived to a small clinic on the northside and they gave me two red dixie cups full of contrast. a regular cancer keg party.
the contrast does what it says -- contrasts, or highlights, my bowels, which makes it easier for the nurses and doctors to look at photos of my insides.
I had 45 minutes to drink and digest two cups full of a liquid that smelled and tasted like rancid Gatorade.
today's CT scan was at UMC. When I arrived and checked in, the nurses gave me a bottle of contrast. the top of the label said berry smoothie. quarter of an inch below was the actual name of the contrast -- barium sulfate
this time I had 45 minutes to drink something that tasted and smelled like horchata mixed with chalk.
you never think it'll take that long to suck down all the juice. but it does. you can't shotgun this stuff.
after waiting the 45 minutes, they brought me into a dressing room where I got out of my work clothes and into two gowns. but I was allowed to keep on my boxers, black plaid socks and black and white docs. sexy time.
since Monday's blood test was in my right arm, they put the IV in my left arm and took me back to the giant donut -- the CT machine.
the machine is a bit taller then me -- which means it's 5'8" or so. It looks like a giant glazed donut (about 18 inches wide) standing on its side. at the base of the donut and about a foot and a half off the ground there is a tray that's about six feet long or so. you lay back on the tray and then they hook up the IV to a machine that administers iodine dye. the tray raises up to the height of the donut hole -- about two feet off the ground --, the nurses leave the room and the tray mechanically inserts itself in the donut hole. a recorded voice tells you when to breathe and when to hold your breathe.
after I'm deposited in the hole, the iodine starts to flow.
you can tell because your mouth gets hot and the slight whiff of iodine floats into your nostrils. then your saliva tastes metallic. before you know it, you can feel a warmth at the IV and the sensation shoots through your body. last time I remember feeling it gather near my groin. but I was on drugs then. this time I could feel the dye race to my feet, which became very warm.
the whole process lasts less than ten minutes.
the lab results should be ready this afternoon, said the nurses. depending on what they show, I'll know within a few hours or a few days.
and by the way, this cost me $200. lets see what the total cost amounts to when my requisite health care paper work arrives to 838 e. 9Th street.

song of the day: "Thrash Unreal" -- Against Me!

Part 2

Friday, July 20, 2007

Those days, those long days and even longer nights now blend together into a single event…P-days, or processing days are meant to easy the transition in to Navy life easier.

I spent more time trying to stay wake then I did learning anything. Now at this point in my life training ive pulled all nighters and gone a few days without sleep. Easy right? HA!! For those 10 or 12 days, I averaged 3 hours of sleep. See, all my life ive had the honor…no, the privilege of always being grouped up with some of the most stupid mother fuckers to have ever walked this earth. Why should the Navy be any different. I was grouped with some really stupid people. P-days should only take 5 days or so. But, seeing how I never had any good luck, it took 10 or so. Yet those days with Division 426 were some of the happiest days of my life. They had names that read like a WWII roster. There was an instant bond…black, white, Asian, Mexican, Guatemalans (haha), all walks of life, rich, poor, the middle class…no one cared. They main goal was getting to the fleet. If that meant bunking with a black guy…so be it. Its one of things when people ask me if I would go back into the Navy. My answer is yes. People ask why. And my response is one that I can with god’s honest truth…you wouldn’t understand.

When I look back at those days, I cant help to smile a little. They were days were it was so hot, the base was closed to all physical activity. There was rain…no, it was more like biblical rain, snow tears, and nights we went to bed wet. Easily I would have done anything for those guys. To this day, if I would run into them on the street…they would be welcome into my home.

My luck would kick in the balls by my 4th week. At some point, whether it was in my head or not, I was getting sick. I was getting Colds, coughing up lung butter on an almost daily basis. There was a few of that developed Pneumonia, making us LLD for almost a week. But in an interesting twist of fate, they Corpsmen at Medical decided to give me a chest Xray.
And so the story can begin…

Top 5 Things I learned in the Navy

1. How to walk
2. How to fold clothes
3. The Navy doesn't have a word for pockets
4. Always carry stuff on your left hand. Your right is for saluting
5. Everyday is an easy day

how are you

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Paul called last night. He asked me how I respond when people ask 'how are you?' I asked him why the question: Paul wanted to know if 'I'm well' was grammatically correct. I don't know. I think it is. but i don't know grammar rules very well, nor newspaper style for that matter. go figure.
but it reminded me of an incident last week when a colleague at the paper asked how I was. I said I was in between. She said what do you mean and I told her we're still trying to figure what is going on with my body and what treatment option to pursue. She was staring at me and I realized she didn't know I have cancer.
this can be awkward. and it happens more often then not. fact of the matter is, it's constantly on my mind and I just assume that's what folks are asking when they inquire as to my general being. most conversations with friends inevitably end up down this path and there have been a few times where I consciously withhold an honest response to the question of 'how are you?' sometimes I just don't feel like talking about it.

add it up

Saturday, July 14, 2007

I just received another bill related to my cancer treatment. It is the ninth since my surgery. I'm lucky to have health insurance. I'd say I have good health coverage, but since this is really the first time I'm cognizant to my coverage and insurance costs, I have nothing to notably compare it to. it's worth noting the coverage plan is the cheapest under Gannett, the media company that brought you USA Today (though they're not my boss, there's a JOA here in Tucson -- but that's another conversation)
so, by my own count, I've personally paid about $725 for my cancer care since May 10th -- that includes visits to surgeons, surgery, my oncologist, weekly blood tests, and my CT scan.
lets look closely so we all have an understanding how expensive cancer treatment is:
Appointment with my surgeon: total cost - I'm not sure, but I paid $50. I've seen two surgeons and paid for both visits.
Orchiectomy (outpatient surgery, mind you, and the last time righty and lefty were together): total cost - $1,097. I paid $46.91
Cost of hospital stay: total cost - I don't know, but I paid $400.
Anesthesia for surgery: Total cost - $715. I paid $71.50
Every visit to my oncologist: Total cost - $335. I pay $50 each time. I've seen Dr. Ahmann three times -- I think.
CT scan of my pelvis: total cost - $813. I paid $25.
Weekly blood test: total cost - $53. I don't pay for these. However, I've had my blood drawn eight times since surgery and will continue to have blood drawn until we decide on the next step of treatment. by my math, that's $424.
a statement from my insurance company dated May 18, 2007, and likely non-reflective of any cancer treatment costs, shows my health care provider had spent a total of $821.47 on me. That's alot, but then again i had pneumonia this winter and some weird skin infection on my right ring finger that no one has been able to figure out.
My most recent statement from Health Net, my health care provider, shows a bill of $6,297.50.
That's a lot.
I brought this up because a friend of my wrote about a local charity in Tucson that pays for terminal cancer patients to get their one last wish -- family reunions, a trip to Disneyland and in one case, a recliner. It was prompted by a family that recognized the cost to treat one of their own members and worried how other people with less money were getting by. check out the story. I've included a link to the story and the foundation.

"A Legacy of Kindness Endures" by Mariana Alvarado Avalos

en espanol

Fuente de Suenos Chiquita

"Mine are Brass"

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I came across a t-shirt in the gift shop at the cancer center today. the t-shirt was the only item for sale that referenced my cancer. And it was a subtle reference. "Mine are Brass." it made me smile and laugh. Like I was in on a inside joke. And for a brief moment i contemplated purchasing it. But i made the decision to not get a prosthetic testicle. so i don't want folks to think otherwise.
I understand why someone would want a prosthetic "nut." a few friends even suggested I get one. but that's not me. honestly, i don't think there are that many people, outside of the medical profession, who will be taking a look down there anyway. And you know what, if it bothers someone that I've only got one nut, then that person doesn't need to be in my life.
But the t-shirt brings me to two separate thoughts: the first being that there is a gift shop at the cancer center. The second being that, once again, I found little that specifically addressed my cancer.
Who would've thought there would be a gift shop at a cancer center. What's for sale at the cancer shop, you ask. Well, the first thing you'll notice is a basket of those cheap plastic bracelets that have become popular lately. It's at the counter and they're unavoidable as you enter or leave. The stores sells more than a dozen of different colors with different messages. Each bracelet represents one cancer or another: prostate, lung, skin, colon, breast, liver, etc. I searched but found no testicular cancer.
I also noticed the shop seemed to mostly cater to women -- there were dresses, wigs, bras, hats, and shampoos for those losing their hair. I'd say women cancer "apparel" took up about three quarters of the shop.
I found lollipops that help settle a nauseated stomach. I can understand how those are helpful. A woman asked for those as I was leaving. They come in all sorts of flavors.
There were t-shirts with slogans of hope and promise.
There was also an irreverent one -- "cancer sucks." I've thought about buying that one too -- but I can't escape an underlying sense of victimization to that one.
i found a handful of books: cancer survivor testimonials, cancer diets and medical explanations about what's happening to our bodies. Most of the literature addressed the more common cancers: prostate, lung and breast. Again, nothing on testicular cancer.

My story...part 1

Sunday, July 8, 2007

So...Ive been think all this week and all weekend on how to go about this...how to go about telling a story thats been a blur for almost 5 years. I'm still not now sure, but, i guess there's no better place to start then the beginning...

Where were you 9-11? I, like most days back then i was asleep. My mom came in and woke me up. She was said, Paul we're under attack! For the next days, weeks, and months, my eyes where glued to the TV. Like most people, i felt helpless to do anything. So i did the only thing i could do...go back to my everyday. I had a weekly radio show back then and the following week after 9-11, i went back in the air to play music...did what i did.

Around that time, i was chasing after this girl by the name of Belle. She was very attractive, smart, USC educated, and pretty much everything i was looking for in a girl at that time. We'd hang, talk, share stories, go places, and just have fun. Everyone that i worked with knew how interested i was in her...i think she knew too. So, as I went on Belle made a comment to me that shook me to the core...in fact, it sent in motion everything that has happen till now. We were talking one day about people we would like to date...She started to rattle off this list that made me turn white. Drive, ambition, goals, going to college, a career, a car, and on and on. What she meant was...not me. I had none of that, nor did have the faintest idea of how to get it. It was one of those kick in the balls that made you take a few steps back. I didn't know what to do but continue on.

But what Belle said, got me thinking. What the fuck was i doing with my life? I mean, by that point in my life i should have graduated with some sort of degree, been on my way to a career, a new car, a house, everything that Belle was looking for, i wanted to be...and i wasn't. I was hopping from school to school, from job to job, with zero ambition to do anything but float. I need to do something with my life.

So, I decided to join the Navy. Not for patriotic duty...no. But for me. To get the fuck out of LA, live a life that Ive only read about. And so I did. And in the Summer of 04, i said goodbye to my life at the point, and i left for new one.

Just the Facts Ma'am

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Just sat through my first black out in Tucson tonight. The monsoon season has arrived. Anyway, a bit of information about my cancer. Two days after my surgery, on May 17, I got a call from my surgeon, Dr. Jennifer Peters. I'm told she takes great humor in the fact that she's a urologist with the last name peters. Anyway, she called to confirm the tumor in my right testicle was in fact cancerous. We caught it early though. It was about two centimeters -- the size of a thumbnail -- and was in what they called stage T1. That means early, I'm told. The tumor was comprised of two cancers: 80 percent Embryonal and 20 percent teratoma. the only sense that made to me was the tumor was in fact cancer. Since then I've learned from two surgeons and two oncologists that i have very aggressive and "stealthy" types of cancer. I've also since been told that my options are three: a) observation: regular blood tests and CT scans to monitor whether or not the cancer spreads b) preventative surgery: requires the removal of about 80 lymph nodes from my lower abdomen. Heavy duty surgery -- "invasive" as the docs like to call it. c) chemo: controlled poisoning of my body. From what I can tell, I prefer chemo to the surgery, given all the unintended side effects, like damage to my ejaculatory muscle.
Right now my oncologist and I are observing and trying to get enough information to plot a data line. Which means every Monday since surgery I've had my blood drawn to monitor tumor markers (Alpha Fetaprotein and HCG).

el Primero

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

I was at a small party last Saturday. While I was sitting on the back porch, shooting the shit with the boys, one of 'em, who I hadn't seen in quite a while, said he heard I had a cold and asked how I was. I looked up and straight into his eyes and said I was alright and thanks for asking. One of his friends chimed in and said he was recently in Mexico and was recovering from a cold he picked up while he was there. I turned to the guy and said "I don't have a cold. I have cancer. That's what he was asking me about."
Every one's head picked up when they heard me. We all began to discuss cancer, my cancer and all the young people we've known that have experienced this.
I know my friend didn't want to openly ask me how I was doing. It was understandable as I was in the company of people I'd never met before. But I've also decided I want to be open about my cancer and not repeat the attitudes of the generations before us. We need to openly discuss this disease. In all our languages. And not shy away from a discussion because health is individual or because, in my case, the disease first showed itself in my genitalia.
This blog is Paul's idea.
A little background on Paul and I. We've known each other for at least 13 years now. We met in high school at a retreat for catholic teenagers. We remained friends since.
A few years back (he can tell you his story better than I can) Paul joined the navy. It was not only post 9/11 but he joined during the build up to the invasion of Iraq. We argued about it. No one wants to see their friend join the military in a time of war. At least i didn't. But he enlisted and during boot camp they discovered he had cancer. In hindsight, I can smile because joining the Navy was probably the best thing he could have done. As a member of the armed forces, Paul received some of the best medical treatment available.
So when I found out I had cancer in May 2007, he and I have been able to talk about this like few others can. Because he's a part of this new world I've just entered.
When he created this blog a few days ago, I was hesitant for a moment. I've never been into personal blogs because, in my opinion, they're selfish, boring and factually inaccurate. I also wasn't sure if this was the platform I wanted to take in discussing my cancer. After all, once you post something to the web, it takes on a life of its own. however, I have been steadily writing about this experience on my own. My personal journal is now nearly 50 pages. But I came to my senses and realized it can't hurt to initiate this discussion publicly on the web. When I agreed to it, I wrote Paul and said I'd like to discuss our cancer within the confines of our culture. for all I know our experience is no different than anyone Else's. But, we're both Latino. And health awareness and prevention within our culture -- be it pochos, first-generation or recently arrived -- is embarrassingly dismal. We have a tendency to wait until things become obvious and apparent before we consult our family and eventually a doctor. I'm also interested in discussing this within the confines of our culture because while the cannon of cancer literature is mostly survivor testimony, I haven't come across anything that I see myself in -- be that as a Latino or a young man. And the literature that I have come across isn't about testicular cancer, which is how my cancer has initially manifested itself.
So the invitation is out there for all to comment and write -- cancer survivor or not, Latino or not -- but I'd like to especially encourage Latina/os to join this blog to create something new.