Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lucky Me

As you know, I am too frequently given to bouts of self pity over the residual effects of my winning battle with tongue cancer: the loss of my salivary glands and the subsequent inability to taste food properly, to swallow a single bite without washing it down with liquid, etc. I had often thought of how devastating it must be for someone whose life revolves around their ability to eat, chew, swallow, and taste.

The most recent issue of People Magazine has an article on a rising star in the culinary world...young, talented, handsome (the kind of guy Dorien responds to by automatically though facetiously saying “We hate him”) who has been diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer. My heart goes out to him. He has just begun his course of treatment which involves the same chemo-and-radiation treatment I went through. He is entering the radiation phase: the one that destroys the salivary glands.

The article made it sound as though the treatment were new, but in fact it apparently is a result and extension of the experimental protocol I chose to join when offered to me as part of my own treatment. The article implied that the standard treatment for tongue cancer still involved surgically removing up to 2/3 of the tongue,which could result in an inability to swallow and a loss of speech. My speech is impaired (amazing how many things saliva influences), but I can both speak and swallow most things…though not pills.

He will, undoubtedly, have to undergo surgery to remove his lymph glands, as I did. But from what I understand from my oncologists at Mayo, drastic surgery is in fact becoming less and less used as an option, and progress is being made in many areas.

The story contained some interesting facts and encouraging news: tongue cancer, as I knew, is a rare disease, with only 9,800 cases reported each year. Most are the result of smoking, though neither I nor the young chef ever smoked. He apparently had his for an astounding two years before they figured out that it was indeed tongue cancer, and by that time it had reached Stage 4 and spread to the lymph glands in his neck. (It took six months for them to diagnose mine—also Stage 4—though it, thank God, never spread beyond the original site.)

I wish the young chef well, as I do anyone going through any major illness. The survival rate for tongue cancer is going up steadily—currently as high as 70 percent—and though his life will change dramatically, chances are good that he will still be alive at the end of his battle. I’m sure he will find some way to continue his career as a chef on some level, but it will not be the same. He is lucky to be sufficiently wealthy to simply turn to managing his several restaurants rather than actual food-preparation, though he will undoubtedly have periods of wondering what he had done in his life to deserve what has happened to him. And he’ll realize, as I have, that he did nothing wrong; that fate is simply capricious and what matters most is how one responds to being dealt a rotten hand. And hopefully he will realize, as I do, just how lucky he will have been just to survive.

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