The surely epic bucket list item I won’t get the chance to check off today has finally lost enough pain for me to talk about it. Tonight I would have stood on hallowed concert ground in Morrison, CO with all four of our sons and Michael’s wife, Janice Rice Venable, one of my dearest childhood friends, Craig Hospital Occupational Therapist Perry Ann Williams, and her husband retired landscape architect, Keith Gartin; Principal Architect and Senior Partner Sam Andras, of 2WR Architects, his spouse, educator Victoria Andras, and a host of their friends, band mates, lighting and sound professionals and advisors.
Today we all would have watched our son, Adam Venable/Obeah, perform with Daily Bread as they open for Pretty Lights on the Red Rocks stage. If you know about Red Rocks, you can likely conjure my deep loss for having to miss it tonight. If you don’t know Red Rocks, think Carnegie Hall and and I’ll conjure my deep loss for having to miss this tonight. I’ve had to unwind a 12-day walkabout while in the midst of enduring 2 surgeries, a CT scan, an MRI, some sweet Jesus pain and chronic nausea and vomiting. Thanks to my medical team, everything on that list has been fixed or alleviated. But without time on my side and the sensibility of putting the importance of my health first, tonight, my best hope is to be able to live stream the show, if they can figure how to send it.
Adam, I hope you leave a raw, bloody piece of your soul on that important stage tonight. That it comes from a place so deep that it shocks people to know you kept things like that in there. You have worked hard for this and you deserve your hard work and dedication to make an audience swoon. I will be joined with your spirit in the Colorado breeze. I could not possibly be prouder of you, son, and your brothers and that sold out show will watch the virtual walls come down in the foothills tonight. Now go out there and kill!
This post is a stream of consciousness update. Please excuse the lack of my usual attention to the conventions of acceptable language and grammar. I’m banging this one out. Dr. Pippas walked into our exam room this afternoon at about a quarter ’til 6 and we got down to business. I think today was our longest clinical conversation of the entire 8 years of our doctor patient relationship. This brilliant, good man has never disappointed me. He called us late last night with the sole purpose of giving us a night of good rest in advance of our meeting today. He knew a word from him and the better-than-we-thought-it-would-be news about my latest wrasslin’ match with kidney cancer.
We talked for over 40 minutes, not rushed, open to our questions about what we’re dealing with, what courses of action we could see coming, how to beat it again. His usual greeting, a pitch-ascending, “Michael” then he tips his head back, engaging his bifocals to get a sharp look into my eyes. He gets right in there, knowing the eyes are the window to one’s soul. I answered back, “Andrew,” and thanked him for being the kind of physician who calls a worried patient after a brutal day at the office seeing no telling how many other worried people.
I know we’re special to him, too. We have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds together, to date avoiding life-altering, permanent physical debilitation. I’ve had multiple surgeries (left kidney radical nephrectomy, lymph nodes, corpectomy of L2 spinal vertebra, laminectomy (8 weeks later) from L2-L5, thyroidectomy, knee scope, 32 grays of radiation beams and countless hundreds of needle sticks, claustrophobic rides in giant metal tubes, gallons of barium, bucketsful of pharmaceuticals. Yep. I knew early that my job was to stay alive until something that can cure me comes along. Already there are many more drugs than were available in mid-May, 2009. We have choices, based on my case.
I made a decision on June 9, 2009 to write our way through this. Last time I tried to measure my writing output, I was north of 300,000 words. I tried to tell the story the way it went down. From December 5, 2010: “Back From the Snake Pit.”
I wanted to leave electronic breadcrumbs for the ones coming behind me. Kidney Cancer is a tough diagnosis. Faith in God, trust in your medical team, support from your friends, understanding creditors, a rock-solid marriage, children who tested us as parents, but who are always present, and loving, and engaged in our familyness. Those four sons possess characteristics that indicate our every prayer for them to be smart, kind men has been granted. What a blessing it has been to have spent relatively few hours of our lifetime as parents worrying that one of them had gone off the rails and were going down a bad road. Today I realized with complete clarity how much more difficult these last 8 years would have been if one or more of them had gone bad.
“Make good choices.”
My spine is being attacked by an aggressive, fast-growing renal cell carcinoma metastasis in my L1 vertebra. The screw that Dr. Michael Gorum put there on August 19, 2011 during spinal fusion surgery is now embedded in this new tumor. Regardless of what procedure/medication is used to kill the tumor, I will imminently require another spine surgery with longer hardware that can bridge up into my thoracic vertebrae in search of solid bone that will hold a screw. We haven’t met with Dr. Gorum yet, so this is our and Dr. Pippas’ discussion about what will be needed. The tumor has broken through the outer lining of the vertebra and my spine is dangerously unstable at the moment. No horseback riding he says. Don’t fall he says. Some quick decisions need to be made and we need them to be the right decisions. No pressure.
Tomorrow I’ll send several packets of information to several kidney cancer specialists for an independent review and some remarks on how they’d recommend we proceed. Thank you Dena Battle and KCCure. At this moment, I’m not sure where treatment will take place. If we can do it here, we’ll be at Midtown Medical and the John B. Amos Cancer Center. If we need to travel anywhere but outer space, we’ll be traveling. We’ll be praying for the right people to be placed in our path. At this moment, more so than at any other crossroads of my medical life, we will be in a state of complete faith, untethered, but not unhinged. Enveloped in God’s arms with an army behind us.
We’ll see Dr. P in 10 days. The plan will be in place by then. We left Andy’s office today encouraged by his soothing words, his sincere grief for our plight and his heartfelt hope, conveyed in looks, hugs and purposeful touch. I love him for what he has done for me and for our family. I still have both of my parents and I hate cancer for flipping our lives upside down. Jill’s mom, Betty Owens has had to live with losing a son, and because we have sons, I can imagine the emotions that our parents are living with. This isn’t the way it should ever be. It hurts too much. I want to live so that my when my parents leave this world, they will leave it without ever having known what losing a son feels like.
I want this post to speak to Ann and John: Thank you for giving me everything I needed to make it to today. You have given Eric and me a good name, a joyful home, the gift of your strong marriage and spiritual, financial and emotional support in good times and bad times. There will more good times. I’m sure of it.
Jill is by my side. Always. When she grabs my hand will her thumb or mine be on the outside?
Let’s go write our next chapter.
After my last Thursday meeting with Dr. Pippas, we’ve circled back around now and I’m on the full 800mg daily dose of Votrient. As I suspected, my quality of life has taken a noticeable hit. The superficial — and easiest to handle — change is that my eyebrows went stark-white within three weeks on Votrient.
My new hair is snow white as it grows in and white is winning the battle over light brown. Right now, I look like I’ve been coloring my hair, but have decided to give up and stop. There is a one-inch band of pure white hair coming out of my scalp and each successive haircut will reveal more of the white. My women (if you know me, you’re aware of the passel of sister wives it takes to run my life) say they like it. That it gives me a distinctive look. I think it makes me look like Father Time, but it is what it is.
The side effects of the medication that are anything but superficial and are very difficult to manage are the gastrointestinal issues. Nausea and diarrhea are a constant stealthy threat. Stealthy isn’t what you really want with these guys. I’d much rather see them coming so I can be prepared. But no, they just jump right up and bitch slap me at a moment’s notice. Not fun right now. Not fun.
I still can’t taste, although using plastic utensils and taking zinc have made my tastebuds more intermittent than a total loss. There are some things that I still can taste. I’m thankful for that.
Thanks to my brother, Eric, I got to ride along on my first quail hunt last Sunday down in Albany. I went with a borrowed shotgun that I had never fired and I was nervous as hell about what I was supposed to do. We got the safety talk and because of my weakened legs, I was allowed to get out of the buggy and be ready for the first covey rise.
Here’s the scenario: I have determined that my left eye is my master eye. This is probably why I haven’t ever been able to hit anything shooting a right-handed gun. So, I went with a borrowed over and under shotgun, which I shouldered on the left side. The first covey got up and I picked a bird and dropped it with my first shot. I got so excited and nervous, the next four shots were all attempted with the safety on. Let me tell you, that almost never works. You can’t shoot a bird when the gun won’t go off!
I was over-thinking all the safety concerns (if that is possible…I don’t think it is.). Worried about shooting that expensive, beautiful bird dog. Worried about pulling a Dick Cheney and shooting somebody. Worried about looking like a dumb ass in front of my brother and his friends. (I’m pretty sure I blew that one, though, with the four consecutive attempts to fire the gun with the safety on.) I got tired really fast and decided that I’d go out while I was ahead and take my place back in the bird buggy. I think I hit every bird I shot at. One. Technically, the safety-on misfires were called strikes, so I can’t claim I batted a thousand. Let’s just put it this way: I got a quail. I got to experience what a luxury, high-end quail hunts looks and feels like. I got to spend some good time with my brother and some of his best friends. And, If I had had a trunk full of Japanese toilet seats, I could have made some money that day.
I have been wanting to tell this story for months, but have been worried about how it would be taken by the male readers of this blog. So, Sunday, I tried out this story on a dozen or so of the manliest guys I know. They’re all rugged outdoorsmen. They like to cuss, drink, lie about women, shoot guns and grill large chunks of meat. I’m thinking this is the perfect crowd to test drive the Japanese toilet seat story. So I let it fly.
Some background first: I have given my sons some serious advice about how to keep a relationship fresh. There are a couple of bodily functions that should NEVER be shared with your mate. If it is possible to have your toilet in a separate room with a door, than that is what you should always shoot for. Anything that you’d do or any sound that you’d make while sitting on a toilet should be kept there behind that door. As long as you keep this to yourself, your relationship will always have a sense of mystery and have a better chance of being kept fresh for the long haul. This has been my philosophy and my sons will attest to the fact that I’ve counseled them in this regard.
So, let’s move on to the days after my back-to-back back surgeries. I had the excruciatingly embarrassing need for hospital techs to clean me in the bathroom on several occasions while I was still in the hospital recuperating from major back surgery. I couldn’t bend and reach like before the surgery. All I could think about was that someone was going to have to do this for me after I got home. By the time I got home, thankfully, I was able to take care of myself, but the horror that one day I might not be able to just stayed on my mind.
I started investigating Japanese toilets several years ago. They were unbelievably expensive when they first hit my radar. A couple of thousand dollars was the going rate and they were generally a modified, electronic entire toilet. Now, they have been engineered to be an electronic toilet seat that will simply replace the seat on most types of toilets in use today.
Okay, we’re back to Sunday in south Georgia. On a quail buggy with a dozen cussing men. I described in very vivid detail about my Coco toilet seat, what it does, how it does it and how it makes my life more comfortable and more easy and private. I swear if I had had a dozen of them, I would have sold out that day. I don’t know when I’ve been more uncomfortable at the start of a story to have it go so well. The Sunday story at the quail hunt was my warm up for this blog post.
I ordered the Coco 9500R a few months ago and despite my rather unhandiness, I was able to completely install it by myself, including retrofitting the electric wall plug to a GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) plug. It took only about a half-hour to do the wiring and replace the seat on our Toto elongated toilet. I can easily say that this incredible piece of electronic equipment has changed my life. Now, I’m prepared for whatever life throws at me and I can be confident that I’ll be able to maintain my dignity in the bathroom and the mystery in my marriage.
I wasn’t able to find anyone who sells these locally, but if someone steps up and confirms that they sell this seat locally, I’ll give them a special advertising deal in Columbus and the Valley magazine so they can let people know about it.
Please accept my apologies about these blog posts being sparse. This medication has, among other things, rendered me unable to write, at least write to my satisfaction. I’m hoping it’ll begin to turn me loose as my body adjusts to the dosage. I miss writing and from the encouragement I get when I see my great readers, many of you are missing these posts, too.
We are here in Durham, NC at a Springhill Suites hotel waiting to leave for our first Duke lab work and an appointment with medical oncologist and kidney cancer specialist, Dr. Dan George. One of our sons, Nicholas, is keeping the home fires burning. Callie Sprague (and, of course, Marquette McKnight) are taking care of things at the office, so we can fully and calmly (or, as calmly I can get — which isn’t too calm, let’s be honest) evaluate the things we’ll be told after blood work and a couple of pulmonary function tests.
Here’s what I want to hear: “Mr. Venable, the cancer that has recurred in your adrenal gland and in your right kidney is not growing fast. You are a candidate for HD-IL2 therapy and we’ll start your therapy either Monday or Tuesday of next week.”
As I sit here writing this post, I’m reminded of how I felt late in May, 2009 when I was first diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. I had a 5% chance of surviving for 5 years, according to the 10-year-old data I was reading on the internet. I was on edge, scared to death and terrified about what my future was going to be like.
Here, three and one-half years later, after some very painful and temporarily debilitating back surgery, we have great hope in the therapy that I’ll find out tomorrow whether I’ll be able to take. There are also other tyrosine kinase inhibitor drugs that have come online that weren’t there when my diagnosis first occurred. This cancer is one of the ones where your goal is to survive long enough to live your way into new therapy options that might be able to afford a cure. I’m working on that as gracefully as I know how.
Despite the gruesome few months we have ahead if we’re fortunate to be able to challenge HD-IL2, I am not afraid and I am somewhat morbidly curious to personally experience what I’ve spent so much time reading about. Damn, how I’d love to be one of those lucky people who will post videos and write stories about the fact that they were a “complete responder.” I’ve already crafted a few turns of phrase to describe symptoms of the treatment. I visualize myself being there on the other side of this therapy, with a broken body but with the spirit of a warrior.
I can see myself on my front porch in Seale, with a still beautiful wife, an old dog and a gathering of children at my feet, all jockeying for a space to put a hand on Dixie’s graying head. I’m hearing he sounds of little boy and girl giggles at the prospect of a tractor ride through the woods. We’ll cut a cold watermelon when we get back to the house.
These images and more are at the forefront of my mind. They are not on the back burner. I don’t have time for any back-burner thought. We are willing this to happen in the most intense sort of way. As I prepare to leave the hotel and start the next phase of this journey, please see what I have just described in your mind for a few moments. Wish that for us and maybe, just maybe, it will be so.
Some of the posts that are to come are going to be technical, if we get accepted into the HD-IL2 therapy. If I get to do this like I plan, there may be multiple posts on some days. They will likely be short, so if you’re a subscriber, I hope I won’t bug you with multiple emails during the day. But that is why you subscribed, to get notifications of posts.
It is time to shower and put on my game face. We’re outta here!
Sitting in the afterglow of a beautiful day. Headphones on listening to Evening Kitchen by Band of Horses. I can hear our sons Michael and Adam singing this like they did at our last family trip to Splendor Mountain. I’m scanning friends’ photos on facebook with the music in my ears. Families smiling, football games, glasses of wine, empty places in honor of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines lost in battle or lost to the holidays while deployed, prayers, plates of food, family pets and people napping. Vignettes of other people’s lives. Snippets in others’ time.
Our Thanksgiving prayer today was a circle of 22 people holding hands in our great room, a little churchy for this Episcopalian, but I was just feeling it today. I usually fret over my prayer, but today I just busted it out, sort of in Rick McKnight style. Don’t know if it is what I’m going through with my health or if I just got a drift from my muse or the first ever gathering of all four of our sons for our Thanksgiving meal. This day was good. Thank you God for this day.