George’s Journal

I learned last Friday that I’m cancer free!  I’ve had two PET-CT scans, June 11th and  August 11th, since my bone marrow transplant, and both showed “no cancer.” It’s hard to describe how relieved and happy I am. As the father of two young daughters (9 and 12), I desperately want them to grow up with their Father around. The good Lord watched over me, filling me with hope and timely solutions, i.e., guided me to the right physicians, at the right facilities, brought me your astounding support. I give all the glory to God! He bolstered my resolve, reversed a bleak situation, and renewed my life free of cancer.  While there is always the possibility of a recurrence or some other type of cancer/ailment, I’m cancer free for the first time in 9 years….yah baby, I like it!

In this special update and next week’s part II, I’ll share 5 key situations/considerations gleaned from my 9 year journey:  my initial diagnosis, who to tell and when, the “miracle,” assembling my team and taking ownership of my health care, and a healthy nutritional blueprint for all. Today I’ll cover my initial diagnosis, how I shared my condition, and the miracle of my dramatic recovery.

FIRST SOME SPECIAL ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

While I’d like to list all of you individually for contributing to my healing, I’ll try to connect with each of you over the next few months. You (family, friends, friends of friends) continuously lifted me up. I feel so blessed and fortunate, thank you all!  For now, I’d like to acknowledge some special contributions to my progress and family’s well being. It starts with my beautiful wife and caregiver, Cheryl. She has gracefully juggled many, often unexpected, trying situations, e.g., ambulance at 3 AM, emotional meetings with physicians, running around getting things for me, staying positive, and keeping the kids informed and “in a good place” emotionally without saying too much. Jacquelyne and Eva have been amazing! They’ve grown up enormously and I’m extremely proud of them.

My brother, John, and parents, John and Sue are the best! They traveled from Michigan to SoCal twice this year to be us; including a 3-week road trip right after my BMT. John orchestrated this website. My sisters Janet and Suzy visited from Colorado to lend their support, while my sister Mary Beth communicated via telephone / letters often. My mother-in-law, Madeline Walsh and partner Tom Perry visited from Florida at Christmas.  A surprising college roommate reunion was organized by Tim and Kelly Blett.  Great friends from Western Michigan University flew in to pump me up.  After a difficult week of chemo (late Jan.), it was fun to spend the weekend with Steve Fuller (Chicago), Bob Sauer, Ron Buermann (Detroit) and Reed Perry (Netherlands!), Tim, and Chris Copps. Another WMU bro, Tommy Mannausa forwarded lyrics to 20 songs he wrote, one of them about me – quite entertaining! My cousin Kathy Tallman (Boston) spent a few days with us, accompanying me to COH for blood transfusions.  Cousin Mark Sutherland (Chicago) joined us for an evening in March. The Bletts and Copps (Saxon) seeded the funding for my treatments at OOH. My Trenton High School tennis partner, Mike McNally, was adamant I’d beat this thing, always providing me a boost. Mike Leoni (Ann Arbor) brought Father Solonas Casey into my life. Don and Claire Eaton (Ann Arbor), owners of a sporting goods & equipment company, www.wolverinesports.com, had a volleyball net and posts made for our backyard.  The girls love it! I’m overwhelmed with all the support!  Collectively, all of you helped save my life!

CANCER DIAGNOSIS…A SCARY ROAD OF UNCERTAINTY

Over 9 years ago (April ‘01), I noticed a lump in right armpit – it was approximately 1” by 1/2”.  I had been so healthy for 10+ years that I rarely visited a medical doctor. I researched my insurance PPO “in-network” physicians, and went to see a MD general practitioner (my primary physician at the time was chiropractor and dear friend, Dr. Boris Del Cid). This new physician (shall remain nameless) dismissed the lump as “nothing to be concerned with,” and told me to run warm water on it in the shower! I pressed for more information, and he referred me to Dr. Barry Gardiner for urine and blood work. I found it odd to be referred to a general surgeon, but walked immediately to Dr. Gardiner’s office in the adjacent building.  He was not available for few weeks.

I was on a very busy work travel schedule, and April drifted into July when I noticed a lump in my upper right thigh/groin area.  It was the size of a small egg. Now I was really concerned.  I contacted Dr. Gardiner’s office for an appointment. Dr. Gardiner specialized in minimally invasive surgery, and was probably a good choice for the biopsy work necessary for an accurate diagnosis. On July 20th, Eva was born!  Cheryl and I were thrilled. We had a growing family, but I had a huge potential health problem.

After a series of tests and biopsies, I had outpatient surgery at San Ramon Regional Medical Center (Bay Area), Tuesday, November 27th. Dr. Gardiner wanted a section of this growth to properly diagnose me.  After regaining consciousness, he said, “I strongly suspect that you have lymphoma, it’s a mess in there.” Cheryl and I met with him a couple days later, and he advised us of the Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma diagnosis. Dr. Gardiner didn’t offer details about what type of NHL, or a prognosis. Rather, he referred me to a local oncologist, Dr. Peter Wong. It was a sobering, frightening moment. We got on Internet and began researching this cancer without knowing which one of the over 20 types of NHL I had.

WHICH IS IT, STAGE 1A OR STAGE 4?

We met with Dr. Wong two days later. He performed a bone marrow biopsy to determine if the cancer was in my marrow.  The biopsy was memorable, mostly because I was not sedated.  He put me on a table, gave me a local anesthesia, and jammed a big needle into my lower back – very old school!  I squirmed like a kid.  It took 3 stabs and some digging for him to get a sample. Apparently, the cancer was limited to my groin area. Dr. Wong diagnosed me as Stage 1A – Follicular Lymphoma – a non-aggressive lymphoma, confined to one area. We were relieved! The cancer was not imminently life threatening and highly treatable. He referred me to a Radiologist at John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek.

I was still trying to sort everything out. That same week, Cheryl and I met with the Radiologist (shall remain nameless).  As I lay on my back, he marked my body for radiation – the proposed treatment.  The doctor’s plan was to radiate and shrink the tumor.  I had an instinct this was not the approach/doctor I felt comfortable with. We met with Dr. Wong again, and advised him I wanted to go to Stanford University Medical Center for a second opinion.  Stanford is one of the top Lymphoma centers in the country.  Dr. Wong thought it prudent, and gave us a contact and number.  We got on the schedule. It was now mid-December, about 8 months after I noticed the lump in my armpit.

I met with a team of oncologists at Stanford, under the direction of Dr. Ronald Levy, perhaps the foremost lymphoma expert in the US.  These skilled physicians gave me a thorough examination, including CT scans.  They diagnosed me with Stage 4 – Follicular Lymphoma.  The main mass was in my right upper thigh/groin, but there were smaller tumors in my abdomen, armpits and neck.  A broader cancer field, but still non-aggressive. After 8 months, multiple physicians, and 4 medical facilities, I finally had a proper diagnosis.

FAST FORWARD TO MAY ‘08….THE ROAD GETS ROCKIER, SEPTEMBER ‘09

Prior to the spring of ‘08, the cancer was in remission for 4 years.  In February ’03, we moved to Orange County.  In February ’07, I transferred my treatment to UC-Irvine Medical Center and Dr. Edward Nelson (Stanford trained). The cancer was still in remission. However, in May ’08, a grapefruit-sized tumor developed in my right abdomen. It required treatment for over a year.  By July ’09, the basic levels of chemo were not effective.  Dr. Nelson advised he was positioning me for a BMT. I chose City of Hope because it’s one of select few comprehensive cancer centers in the US, and pioneer of BMTs, having completed over 9,000! In August, the tumor was growing and painful. In September, Cheryl called an ambulance in the middle of the night to take me to UC-Irvine emergency.  Later that day, I was admitted to COH. The non-aggressive Follicular Lymphoma had transformed into the aggressive Diffused B Cell Lymphoma.  Dr. Robert Chen was my new primary physician.

A VERY PERSONAL DECISION

I told less than a dozen people about my condition, a few close friends, a couple trusted colleagues at work, and my Mom’s brother, Jack Tallman.  My daughters, parents, siblings and family didn’t know. We vacationed in Michigan, Chicago and Lake Geneva, WI in August. Cheryl’s family had a big reunion. Her Mom and few others knew my situation. Just prior to the trip, Cheryl and I sat down with the kids and explained, “Daddy has cancer, but it’s treatable and the doctors say I’m going to be OK…ask any question, anytime. It’s OK.” Jacquelyne and Eva digested this and had some questions, but they were fine with our explanation. It was weird to keep cancer a secret for 8 years, but I didn’t want my kids and parents to worry.  I couldn’t burden my siblings with this secret, and expect them not to tell anyone. I made this decision when I was first diagnosed. I wouldn’t open up about my condition until it worsened.  Uncle Jack, a treasured confidant and licensed family therapist, agreed. I advised my parents and siblings during the week we were in the Detroit area.

Moving ahead to January ‘10, after many hospital stays and several levels of chemo, it was determined the cancer was “refractory” to chemo, i.e., non-responsive.  This was extremely concerning.  If chemo doesn’t shrink the tumor, you don’t have many options.  The tumor keeps growing, starts interfering with your vital organs and you die.  My best remaining option was 20 sessions of radiation. Some good news: While my 4 siblings were not a donor match for me, COH found an unrelated donor!  However, qualifying for the BMT, i.e., reducing the tumor to 5 centimeters was extremely challenging.

After my 14th treatment, I was advised the tumor had barely shrunk – it was still over 10 centimeters.  On Friday, March 12th, Dr. Chen gave Cheryl and I a frightening prognosis based on a poor radiation result:  unless there was a dramatic change, I had 2 months to live! I agreed to double the radiation dosage for the final sessions. There would be a total of18, rather than 20. I completed my 18th session, March 19th.  Radiologist, Dr. Khanh Nguyen, advised that the radiation would percolate in my body for up to more 10 weeks.

On March 16th, “out of the blue,” I received a call from my sister Suzy’s friend, Reagan Dean.  She’s in the wellness business representing Juice Plus, and has a number of cancer survivors as clients. Reagan referred me to 2 cancer centers in Tiajuana and arranged for me to speak with a former patient. The lady was in Spain, so we connected via Skype. God was leading me to a possible solution! Cheryl and I visited the 2 facilities in Tijuana and were especially impressed with the Oasis of Hope, www.oasisofhope.com.  OOH had documented success at putting difficult cancers in remission, or eliminating them altogether. The American Medical Association deems their services, “unconventional treatments.”  After receiving another testimonial from an OOH patient from North Carolina, I checked-in for a 12 – day program, March 31st.

GOD’S MIRACLE…APRIL AND MAY 2010

After 8 days of treatment, Cheryl and I left OOH, and traveled 3 hours north to COH for a PET-CT scan, April 8th.  The following day, Dr. Chen shared miraculous results that the tumor had shrunk considerably! He gave the green light to move forward with my BMT.  In my mind, the OOH treatments made a huge contribution to this dramatic turn of events.

My opportunity to be cured began at COH, April 27th, with May 6th the day I was infused with the donor’s stem cells. What do I know about the donor?  It’s a 40-year old male living in Europe. On May 5th, he entered a local medical facility, had his blood drawn and stem cells harvested. The stem cells were hand carried by courier via medical plane to LAX, and then ushered to COH. Soon after arriving, they were infused into me over a 2-hour period starting at 12:30 AM.  This thoughtful, generous, anonymous, donor saved my life!

We went to COH, Friday, August 13th (good luck day) – 99 days after my BMT – for the big appointment with Dr. Chen. We would find out the results of my second PET-CT scan, taken 2 days earlier. Dr. Chen entered the small room in the hospital’s clinic and handed me a 2-page report, “PET-CT Base of Skull to Thighs, Impression: PET negative. No cancer! It’s astonishing when you connect all the dots that led to this miracle!

My intent is for this information to be insightful, and perhaps have some value to you. I wanted to furnish some context and detail about my battle. For cancer patients, my prayer is to provide you hope. Be specific with God about what you want, and put your trust in Him to take care of you.

Next week, I’ll post “part II.” We greatly appreciate you visiting the site. The Lord has blessed us with your presence in our lives.  I pray for you and family’s well-being. Cheryl and I can never thank those of you enough who have contributed to my fund. Your care and generosity has been unbelievable!

God bless you and yours,

George

…”With God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)


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