Why cancer hates warriors like me

So, here I was… Finally going to my general practitioner to get him to look at my swollen lymph nodes. I feel great and figure my never-ending allergies are simply acting up again, but I go to the doctor anyway just to make everyone feel better. Give me antihistamines or a shot, and I’ll be good as new, I think to myself.

A week later, I am at the ear, nose and throat specialist as he looks me over and orders a biopsy. Whatever, it’s still just allergies, I keep telling myself. The word “cancer” is not on my mind. Go ahead, poke my neck, tell me I’m fine and let me get back to work.

That’s when the whirlwind of the next nine months began.

“Get rid of this cancer stuff — quick!”

I was diagnosed with cancer on the base of my tongue and in my lymph nodes. The cancer masses were almost 4 cm in diameter and would have eventually caused much more damage to my health if I had not gone in to get my “allergies” checked. Surprisingly, hearing “treatable squamous cell cancer” didn’t scare me all that much. Neither did “radiation and chemo treatments.”

I knew that my cancer fight was going to be tough, but I knew that I could get through it because of my faith, my friends and my work ethic (thanks, Dad!).

But getting a call to set up appointments for swallow therapy? What? Why? It turns out the radiation I needed would also damage my ability to swallow. This was my first reality check. Now, this is getting real — you know, I gotta be able to swallow, right?

Unfortunately, so many people deal with cancer that is much more traumatic and devastating than mine. I knew that my cancer fight was going to be tough, but I knew that I could get through it because of my faith, my friends and my work ethic (thanks, Dad!). At first, maybe my attitude was a bit of denial, but I knew that my trust in God to provide great doctors and a support team would get me through. And the Lord provided me with outstanding friends and teams at Baylor Scott & White McClinton Cancer Center – Waco.

“Get rid of this cancer stuff — quick!” was the attitude I took into my first meeting with my nurse navigator and oncologists as we set the schedule of radiation and chemotherapy for the next three months.

The meetings and introductions were fast but thorough and delivered with sincere concern. There were so many wonderful people on my team, from the radiation team (they were Awesome with a capital “A”) to my nurse navigator to-the-rescue Andrea, who even went above and beyond to reschedule my appointments so that I could spend time with the therapy dogs during my chemo treatments.

At my first radiation appointment, I got fitted for a plastic mask that would help the specialists aim the x-rays in the correct spot. Fun! I’m not claustrophobic so it was no big deal — and attitude is everything.

I remember telling my doctor, “Do what you gotta do to make me better, and start today if you can.” 

Chemotherapy? Won’t radiation be enough?  Nope, but I had the same attitude of positivity and just getting to work. I actually remember saying, “Sounds good, let’s go.” Who in their right mind says “sounds good” when they are about to have chemo?

(Photo by Shannon Faulk)

I just knew in my heart and mind that I could completely trust the infusion team to make me better, and they did. Little things like hand-drawn hearts on Band-Aids showed me that they cared. (These simple hearts meant so much to me that I actually saved each heart decorated Band-Aid from my chemo infusions. Weird? Maybe.)

I tried to make those first radiation experiences entertaining by trying to figure out what each machine does and how the rays were working through my neck. I knew there would be skin burns and a sore throat, but I was not quite prepared for the level of radiation damage, especially months after treatment. 

Andrea would call and check on me to make sure I had adequate treatment and pain management. This is when my feeding tube and swallow therapy came in because guess what, I couldn’t swallow! But as I progressed through therapy sessions, I could see progress every day. It was a long process and re-learning how to swallow was a challenge but the swallow therapists and staff were amazing.

I lost 50 pounds during this experience. But no, you do not want this diet! However, I quit eating junk food and sodas and now I feel great. In March, I finished my swallow therapy and started eating almost normally again. Some foods still don’t taste quite right and I have to avoid spicy foods. However, my better diet has helped keep me at a stable, healthy weight.

Finding my inspiration to fight

Throughout this experience, I would set goals and milestones for myself to help get through each day, week and month. Some were easy and others were lofty and realistically unattainable. Communicating those goals to my family, friends and team was important. They all helped me set realistic goals and eventually reach them.

Talking to my family, friends and co-workers, and being honest with my medical team was instrumental in my mental and physical progress.

My two biggest goals were to follow instructions and share my experiences as much as possible. If my nurse said, “Drink six glasses of water to help flush chemo out of your system,” I drank eight. If my nutritionist said, “No more weight loss,” I ate more.

Sharing my story has helped me a ton! Talking to my family, friends and co-workers, and being honest with my medical team was instrumental in my mental and physical progress. The more I shared, the more I found out that there were (way too many) others who had or have experienced the exact same thing. Hearing the details of how they got through it made it so much easier.

I hope sharing my story can do the same for someone else.

Unfortunately, we are all affected by cancer in some way. Now when I look back at older pictures, I realize that what I thought was just getting old and flabby was actually the growths in my neck. I would always tell my music students, “If it sounds wrong, it probably is.” I guess I should have listened to myself more.

Related: How my cancer diagnosis taught me to live in the present

Cancer didn’t hurt but I should have seen the physical changes. I cannot stress enough how important it is to get those little things checked. One of my educational and life philosophies is to learn something every day. I learned that cancer can affect anyone at any time and that attitude, faith and the people around you truly do make a difference.

This blog post was written by Darrell Umhoefer, cancer survivor and fine arts director for Midway ISD.

Cancer hates warriors like Darrell — because they’re tough. And so are we. Discover more reasons why Cancer Hates Us.

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Why cancer hates warriors like me