Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: There Goes my Golf Game
I gave notice of my intention to retire in May, 2019, effective June, 2020. I began that year making two lists, one of the things I would need to do to complete my retirement, and one of the things I planned on doing in my retirement. At the top of the second list was “Play golf!” I had been away from the game for about 12 years and couldn’t wait to be able to play whenever I felt like it. Things seemed to go well until mid-December.
I started having an upset, urpy stomach, something unusual for me. I figured I had a flu bug or something and didn’t worry about it until one night, looking in the mirror, I noticed my eyes and skin were turning yellow! A trip to my doctor in the morning detected a blockage in my gall bladder. Tests were run, and among other things, cancer seemed to be ruled out.
The fix for the blockage was a trip to Sioux Falls and admission to the hospital. By that time my whole body was yellow and my hair went from reddish grey to a dark mahogany. The stomach upset had become a dull steady pain. The procedure involved a camera and tools inserted down my throat and the removal of the gall bladder blockage, assumed to be gall stones. A biopsy and photo was also part of the procedure.
When I woke up from the operation, the doctor said the gall bladder was full of sludge, not stones, and the opening to drain the bladder was blocked by a tumor at the head of the pancreas. He had inserted a stent in the gall bladder that allowed it to drain, and it would be a permanent fixture, but was unable to get a picture or a biopsy of the tumor. I asked, since the word pancreas scared me, if it could be cancerous. He said it probably was. Believe it or not, one of the first thoughts racing through my mind was, ‘there goes my golf game’. I would have to come back in a week to do the biopsy at the outpatient facility. I was scared. All the things I had thought of as being important in my life suddenly were whittled down to family. I worried about what would happen to Patti, and when would I be able to see my kids who lived all over the Rocky Mountain range. I wanted to tell them all how much I loved them.
Driving between snow storms, we made it back to Sioux Falls for the biopsy, hoping against hope that the tumor was benign. The procedure ended quickly with no results. The stent had to be replaced with a different type, and that was going to involve another trip to Sioux Falls. I still didn’t know if I had cancer or not. A comment made by the doctor that gave me some hope was that the tumor appeared small and quite soft, whereas typical pancreas tumors are larger and hard. I hoped that was a good sign.
The third trip was successful, the stent replaced, the photos taken and a biopsy done. The doctor didn’t hesitate in telling me it was cancer. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion to him. The next step was an appointment with the oncologist in Pierre. He wanted a pet scan done before we visited, so we again traveled between storms to Sioux Falls to do the scan which normally could be done in Pierre but a mechanical breakdown delayed the Pierre scan for a month, and we sure didn’t want to wait that long in order to start a treatment plan.
The initial visit with the doctor was a positive experience. He was excited because the pet scan showed that I had stage 1 pancreatic cancer, which, he said could be cured. That was great news. The cure didn’t sound so great. 5 months of chemotherapy, followed by major surgery, called the Whipple Procedure, that removed the gall bladder, part of the pancreas, and a portion of intestine. I read up on the procedure, finding it was only successful in preventing the recurrence of the cancer about 70% of the time, and that was based on a cure of five years. I was not impressed and had much hesitation about the whole process, mainly the surgery.
I started the chemo therapy in March, and didn’t handle it well at all. By the third treatment, my hair was falling out and I was retaining fluids, mainly in my legs and feet. I had a bunion on one foot, and the fluid seemed to settle around it, accumulating until it burst like a water balloon. Because of the infection involved, we stopped the chemo momentarily. My hesitation about the treatment plan became stronger by the day until I told my doctor I didn’t want to continue with it, considering all my other health problems, and end up enduring much discomfort for a possible short period of time that gave me any quality of life. I was adamant that quality of life was what I wanted, no matter whether it meant sacrificing longevity. He understood my concern and went back to the drawing board, consulting with the panel of doctors in Sioux Falls about my case, and presented an alternative treatment program of oral chemo and radiation. Blood work showed the three chemo treatments had helped a lot, bringing my numbers to almost normal readings, so the new treatment hopefully would continue to work.
I felt at peace for the first time since the cancer diagnosis was given. Prayer has been a part of my life for a long time, and I prayed for confirmation that I had made the right decision to avoid the chemo and the surgery. Whenever I prayed, I felt calm, unafraid, and confident that I was doing the right thing. I was sure my prayers were being answered.
I took oral chemo and had radiation treatments five days a week for five weeks. My radiologist and I became good friends and he was positive about the results of the treatment, saying the gall bladder stent served as a target for aligning the radiation doses he was giving me. My biggest concern was the numbness in my hands that came from the radiation. It put my guitar playing on hold for quite awhile. I continued to pray every day during the radiation treatment, giving thanks for all the blessings in my life, for my family and friends, for my talents and my work, and even for my health, which has given my many problems in my long life. I gave thanks for patience and understanding and for the comfort I have been given. I quit thinking about having cancer. In my mind I was cured.
My doctor agreed with me. The last day of radiation he told me I was not the typical pancreatic cancer patient. I didn’t fit any profile they used to gauge the cancer, mainly because they very seldom see stage 1 patients. He felt strongly I had been cured. All the technicians and nurses joined in clapping and cheering, and my friends stood outside the window celebrating while social distancing as I rang the bell signifying I had run the race and completed the program.
A nurse calls me a miracle man, and I agree. My cure was a miracle, one that I felt would come true from the moment I made the decision to change course in my treatment. A follow -up pet scan confirmed the results; no evidence of cancer. I was blessed with modern day medical knowledge, talented, caring doctors and technicians, and faith in a Supreme Being that performs miracles such as mine every day, if we only ask for that blessing.
The numbness in my hands is going away slowly, and the guitar playing is improving bit by bit. I am playing golf and enjoying every hit and mishit, just happy to be out there. I sometimes imagine the golf ball is my cancer, and I can hit it and enjoy watching it fly away from me, growing smaller and smaller until I can’t see it anymore.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 16, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News