Filtering by Category: cancer

Cancer Sucks: A Powerful, Must Read Rant

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

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A friend of mine wrote and sent this to me to get this off of his chest. It's hard-hitting, raw and very well written.  Understandably, he wants to be "Anonymous". Enjoy.

Cancer Sucks.

It's hard to fathom that it's been 22 months since we first noticed something was majorly wrong (even with the misdiagnoses, we saw what turned out to be colon cancer the week leading up to the 4th of July). Since then, after the 'official diagnosis' that I was stage IV and had non-operable metastases to my liver, everything I read and saw told me the same scary thing... I had somewhere between a 5-15% chance of even making it this far.

I joined the support groups on facebook and online... read about every medication I may be on a hundred times... studied up enough that I felt I could say what the doctors would before they could go into their spiel before each procedure.

I saw people left and right in the support groups dropping like flies... so and so's loved one died within weeks or months, often not even in stage 4, but in 2 or 3. I saw internet trolls invading to peddle bad science, homeopathic cures, or push marijuana legislation promising all of us undergoing 'traditional' medicine that we were only killing ourselves to make 'the man' rich, or that it was our diet/sedentary lifestyle/sinful lifestyle/alcoholism/government/GMO/Vaccines that caused it. I saw people seemingly getting better and feeling good only to be struck down a few weeks later. I saw people giving up after one round of chemo because they couldn't deal with side effects, as well as people moving ahead with their 5th different type of medication because nothing seemed to work for them... Yet here I was, going through cycle after cycle of chemo, radiation, surgery, lather, rinse, and repeat.

I've been called everything from an 'inspiration' to 'another leech off the system'. I've met doctors who genuinely care for and want to do everything they can for their patients, and I've had doctors who I'd push in front of traffic for the way they've talked down to me and my wife. I've been scolded by doctors for not noticing or being as concerned about every little pinch or pain that may signal potential problems. I've seen the best and worst of military medicine (some great docs, some really bad ones, which led to my Army oncologist signing off any and everything he could to get me into the Johns Hopkins system so I wouldn't have to ever see any of the really bad docs ever again) as well as what is supposedly among the best possible medicine available in the civilian world. My current oncologist was shocked, but elated to hear me constantly asking about lowering my pain med dosages (which came in handy when I wound up in the ER and a doc tried to write me off as a 'frequent flyer' looking for pain meds... I genuinely avoid everything and have a pretty high tolerance for pain. He gave her a courtesy call when I showed up and she made him admit me immediately, because she knew if I was acknowledging it was bad enough to come in, she knew it was serious). 

Every time I figured life was as tough as it could get, fate laughed and said "Hold my beer..." What started as one cancerous sigmoid mass within two months of diagnosis progressed to invade my bladder and prostate and start to squeeze up against my spine. My liver tumors grew to the sizes of golf balls and baseballs. The tumor invading my bladder opened a fistula, leading to blood, bacteria and feces invading my bladder, leading to a never-ending UTI and peeing out chunks of blood and solid crap; which feels like passing a three foot long kidney stone/removing a catheter as slowly as possible. During my radiation therapy, I literally pooped out a fist sized tumor; which is as gross and painful as it sounds, especially since it came with lots of clotted blood. It was also very strange, because I thought it was going to be a 'phantom poop' (I had a colostomy, and frequently felt urges to sit on a toilet the old fashioned way, even though it was very rare for anything to come out save a tiny bit of mucous).

Cancer Sucks.

Surgically? having a port put in is child's play. I got to start with a temporary (9 months) colostomy. Learned about different bag styles, changing my diet and meds based on how my poop came out. My boys thought it was awesome, hilarious, grossly fascinating, and unfair of me to be able to loudly pass gas and have a 'poop bag' hanging off of my stomach randomly start bulging. If I got sick, or worse had to do a 'bowel cleanse' for scans, diarrhea could take the bag from empty to a dangerously explosive water balloon of the foulest kind and ready to burst and send it EVERYWHERE in a matter of seconds. When they reversed it, they also removed half of my large intestine, my bladder, my prostate, and most of the seminal vesicles as one fully tumored-up and inseparable, useless mass. I now had a permanent Urostomy... and got to learn about THAT baggage system, noticing much more frequent leaks and need to empty the bags (or risk being soaked with and reeking of urine). 

Not to be dismayed, when my colostomy had been reversed, a small nick had opened up in the intestine where it had been reattached and was unnoticed. This led to a new 'pocket of poo' that began to grow and fill the new void where the organs and tumors had been. I thought the pain and pressure I felt were a normal part of the healing process, considering I hadn't gone 'number two' the old fashioned way for nine months and the muscles were justifiably atrophied. Two months later, I had a stomachache. Thinking a hot shower might help, I screamed in pain as a searing river of liqui-poo inexplicably began gushing out of my no-longer peeing penis.

After another week and a half in the hospital, I left with a new 'temporary' ileostomy opposite the urostomy. (double the baggage, emotional or otherwise!) Again, I relearned all about ostomies (please don't tell me there's a fourth kind of 'ostomy'... or I'm sure I'll wind up with one of those too, just out of spite) and the worst one of all to have leak, different care and much much more attention to detail required than the prior colostomy.

In January of this year, the scans looked good enough that I had the best news I could've hoped for... my liver looked operable! Fate smiled, the angels/valkyries sang, and everything was peachy keen as the world appeared to be righting itself and in my favor again, finally.

Just kidding... when they opened me up to resect my liver, they saw small new masses and again declared it inoperable. It was like a bad cartoon where the main character is wrongfully imprisoned, and tunnels their way to freedom, only to find that the tunnel opened up into another prison cell.

Now, just for laughs, we found out today I've also got blood clots in my lungs that need to be addressed. It's not another knife in the back, but it definitely feels like a little bit of salt on the already opened wounds.

Cancer sucks.

I'm not a complainer. You'd never know talking face to face with me how much literal 'shit' I've been through because of cancer. I feel that I'm lucky my side effects haven't been 'THAT bad'. 

Yeah, I've got peripheral neuropathy in my hands and feet that leave them constantly numb and tingling. I get inexplicably angry and frustrated from time to time and have occasional insomnia because of the steroids. Some days, I have no control over my inability to keep myself awake, and can get winded from even having a simple conversation before I suddenly wake up and am told I fell asleep mid-sentence twenty minutes prior. Thankfully, I rarely ever get nauseous. I can count on one hand the number of times I've actually thrown up in the past two years. I can still (usually) stomach all the same foods I loved before (even though I've definitely noticed massive changes in my taste buds, and definitely have to wait until the 'day of' to know if I'll want to eat something specific).

Again, though... I see people dropping left and right from this shitty shitty disease, often with far fewer 'speed bumps'. Am I lucky? Am I cursed? Am I somehow predestined to survive all of this to die in some comedic fashion, or am I living the dreamed, slow, painful death of a nihilistic goth teen's deranged fantasy?

Cancer sucks.

I think my family suffers from it worse than I do... or maybe it just seems that way because I'm not the kind of person who suffers, but instead finds a new angle to attack and charge ahead.

My kids went from seeing super-dad who never ran out of energy with them, coached their sports teams, played any and everything with them, threw them around in the air and wrestled them to the point of exhaustion every day to seeing him become yoda; a slow moving old guy who just knows everything, sleeps a lot, and tells them to be good and not give in to the dark side.

My wife lost her husband. I used to be the 24-hour, solid and reliable everything. I was the 'first out of bed, run 5 miles, do PT, come home, get everyone up, make everyone breakfast, get kids ready for school, kiss her, go do awesome Army things all day, come home, make dinner, clean up, play with/coach/homework/boy scout with the kids, get them ready for bed, read to them, and still have time to play ultimate househusband/best friend/binge-watch netflix or hulu shows while I'd rub her feet, shoulders, or just run my fingers through her hair until we were both ready to go to bed, and then get up and do it all again the next day guy.' Now, I still get up first, but barely have the energy to get the kids up, fed, and on their buses before I'm ready for a nap. I still do most of the cooking and cleaning, but at a muuuuuuch slower pace; often (again) with interspersed naps. By the time the kids are out cold in bed, I'm counting down the minutes before I'm probably ready to join them in peaceful slumber. Every bit of news leads to a growing list of concerns for her, as she tries desperately to plan for the day when suddenly she not only can't rely on me to even help. She needs to do it all on her own. Additionally, she needs to stay just as up to date with all of my meds, appointments, issues, and concerns as my brain frequently enters the fog of chemo residue and seems to no longer function; often in the presence of doctors or family members trying to offer their support or find out more information. I'm the guy who wakes up three minutes before his alarm ever goes off and turns it off, while she needs 4 or 5 hits of the 'snooze' button and can't remember to take her own meds if I don't have them already organized and pieced out in the container next to her bed when she wakes up in the morning. 

When I was diagnosed, we had been trying for a third kid for nearly 4 years. Suddenly, we realized that there would be no more trying.

I lost myself. I did awesome and amazing (mostly classified, unfortunately) Army things. I was in the best shape of my life. I was the picture of the ideal Soldier. I literally did the work of 8 people/job titles and had a 'hall of fame' worthy resume less than five years here. I essentially ran a marathon for fun with a full combat load just to see if I could do it. I taught combatives (think MMA) and combat lifesaving classes for my joes as well as developed and taught courses (and literally wrote the book on how to develop training courses) for the entire US Intelligence Community. I served on committees as the subject matter expert on things nobody with as little rank or pay as I had should have ever gotten away with, and I did it with passion... loving every minute of it. The government civilians I worked with already refer to the time I worked there as the 'glory days'. I had enough "street cred" with my unit that from the initial diagnosis to even today, they've supported any and every request I've made, have shielded me from virtually all responsibility (my literal duty is to stay home and recover and call them if I need anything or have to go to the hospital for anything), the leadership have half-joked about creating a black ops mission and 'harvesting' anyone I choose for transplant organs at any time before I decide I'm ready to let the Army medically retire me. Now, I get winded after walking up a small flight of stairs, walking my dog halfway around the block, or standing for more than 5 minutes. I feel like a shell of myself.

Cancer sucks.

That two year mark is fast approaching. I'm apparently one of the 5-15%. I don't know if I should be happy, grateful, scared shitless, or some combination of all three. I don't know if tomorrow holds anything better. I don't know if things will get worse. I don't know when my time will finally come and I'll join the countless others I see dropping left and right in this un-winnable battle. I don't know anything more than this... Cancer sucks.

**Important note: This was written last year. He's finally been retired, the ileostomy has been reversed, and he's still kicking and with us

The Cancer Comic You Need to Know Exists (and it's for sale)!

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

I'm thrilled to tell you that Cancer Owl isn't the only comic addressing the unique experience that is being diagnosed with cancer. And this particular comic, Perry Winkle, is the comic you need to know is out there.  While Cancer Owl pulls more from humorous webcomic inspiration, Perry Winkle is a straight-up comic book, and a beautiful one at that.  

Perry Winkle was created by English artist and Hodgkins Lymphoma survivor, Susie Gander.  Like me, she created her comic in the middle of treatment as a way to cope with her experience.  She's used her comic and artistic skills to run several cancer-based charities. She's a stand-up human being and her can-do spirit is completely reflected through her comic character.

Perry Winkle is an inspired take on her own true-life story.  In the comic, she is diagnosed with cancer, and in the middle of devastation is visited by a tough, beautiful, vivacious and bald superhero named Perry Winkle who's determined to give cancer the ass-kicking it deserves.   She is, obviously, the hero that lives inside Susie-inside all of us-that faces life's most notorious monsters with courage and gusto.  

What I love about Perry Winkle is that besides being a fantastic cancer ass-kicker, she's fun, sexy and positive. And of course it goes without saying that the artwork is stunning, exciting and fun. When you're diagnosed with cancer, especially at a young age, you're left with the choice of how you wish to approach it.  Susie Gander invites you to consider that there is a hero inside of you to remind you of what you're made of in the darkest of times...and you're made of more than what you think. 

And it's for sale!

The comic book is, unfortunately, not currently available in print in the United States. If you don't live in the UK, like me, the comic will be available for download this Saturday, October 14th by clicking here! Also I highly encourage you to "like" Perry Winkle on her facebook page.  I'm so glad this comic exists.  Please consider purchasing this work and supporting Susie in continuing to do great things in the cancer world. 

Empathy Fail! Heather Duff's Story About Her Manger's Awkward Attempt to Understand

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

I love this story by Heather Duff about how her line manager attempts to relate to her pain in incredibly awkward ways. Check it out:

I was 27 when the doctors diagnosed me with a rare and aggressive form of cervical cancer. At the time I had recently completed my first marathon and was playing national league hockey. Being a non smoker, who rarely drank with an exemplary diet I thought I was immune to cancer. I was wrong!

The lasting effects of treatment has catapulted me into early menopause and left me infertile. A bitter pill to swallow but it could be worse. When I returned to work I chose to confide in my line manager. The conversation went like this...

Manager: How are you?
Me: Honestly? The life I know has gone - I think it'll take a while for things to settle.
Manager: It must be awful. I imagine it's like when you find out Santa's not real.

After an awkward silence I continued the conversation and assumed her response was a nervous one. We got onto the topic of colleagues, several of whom were pregnant at the time:

Me: I find it a little difficult. I'm still coming to terms with infertility and I can't help but feel that is something I'll never have.
Manager: I know what you mean. I can't take a tan. It's like when people come back from their holidays all bronzed showing off their tans. It's so tough!

I stopped talking to my line manager from then on!

Check out Heather's awesome blog, FU Cancer at http://fucancer.co.uk/ 

Milking the Cancer Card: Turning Pain into Opportunity, by Minnow Nguyen

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

Should you use your cancer diagnosis to your advantage? Cancer survivor and Physician Assistant, Minnow Nguyen thinks so (and I happen to agree with her). Here's her story:

I was diagnosed with leukemia at age 16. Prior to that i was a pretty good honor student in high school with a close to 4.0 GPA. I missed half of my Junior year in High School and had to learn at home and take many make up tests. I was mostly upset that I couldn't be with my friends daily, couldn't participate in sports or clubs, basically be a normal teenager.

After 6 months of chemo, I was back to school with a bald head. Junior year is when kids start applying to colleges. With my grades and extracurricular activities I was pretty competitive to begin with. As a cancer survivor, I TOTALLY believe in milking the cancer card. Why the fuck not?! as long as i'm not trampling over anyone else - I should be able to play the cancer card to my heart's content! So of course, my college admission essay was about surviving leukemia.

I got into all of the colleges I applied for: UCLA, Berkeley, UCSB, UCI, UCSD. After hearing the news, one girl in my class said those exact words "I wish I had cancer too!". She wasn't an AP/Honors student, she wasn't the worst student either and I was horrified to hear her say that at all. I know as teenagers we say a lot of dumb things without thinking, but it really struck a nerve. If I had the chance to get into college without having to go through cancer.... trust me, i would have. 

My Friend Linda on How She Used Humor in the Thick of Cancer Treatment

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

This is my friend, Linda.  She's been a devoted reader and encourager of me for almost the entire duration of Cancer Owl. I can almost always count on a great thought or comment from her whenever I post something new.  Linda also has a great perspective on life about dealing with a challenge like cancer.

And it's my pleasure to share this brief but funny story that she submitted to me awhile back!

The last radiation series I had last April landed me in the hospital for 6 days. So all docs, techs, nurses, phlebotomists, pharmacy personnel, radiologist tech etc., have become a very close family to me. I have a great rapport with my radiologist techs and call them The **MES ~~Mike, Emily, Suzanne and the "T" in they is Tammy who now works behind the scenes.

Many times I get Mike for my prepper and all four of these wonderful medical staffers are all very professional in their work and concerns for their patients. Radiation requires always minimal changes~~in the dressing room, prior to the radiation room you remove your jacket or coat if it is cool weather, your top & bra and put on a gown opened down the front. And then in the radiation room for my routine was take off your glasses, your shoes, take off your wig if you are donning one at that time.

One time when I got Mike for radiation in the hip & pelvis area for breast cancer in the bone, I gowned up as they have to use markings they tattoo on your body to line you up. I took off glasses, shoes, sweater, and then got to hop up on the lowered table, and lie down. Then they have to shuffle you up & down ~ left and right to get you aligned just right. Once on the table, to view the area to be radiated and because I was being radiated in the hips & pelvis, the pants come down to your knees. Once set up, he steps outside to start my radiation which doesn't take too long. The arm of the big machine radiates from the top and then swings underneath to complete my radiation ~ less than 5 - 8 minutes. Mike stepped back in to lower the table so I can safely get down, looked at me and said, "I'm all done with you now~ you can pull you pants back up! I looked at him almost laughing and asked him, "Are you sure you are done with me Mike?" His face turned beet red from the top of his head all the way down to his neck ~ We both laughed as to what he had said and I reminded him of how important humor is during cancer. 

**I am sure names cannot be used, but I like that I call them "The MES." They are like family!

Patient Stories: Barista or Bucket List? Belinda on Her Cancer Diagnosis and Living Life on Her Terms

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

This is Belinda not brewing coffee.

So you're told you might not even live through the next year. What do you do? Learn how to make lattes and take it easy, or jump out of a plane?  Belinda Weihen was faced with this, and she's an inspiration. Here's her story: 

Back story. So I'm 26. I had been diagnosed with metastatic bowel cancer incidentally (no fhx of anything like this). Told i had to have my abdominal lining stripped as i had peritoneal (plus ovarian and liver- go hard or go home!) secondaries which is apparently pretty nasty. I had to see the oncologist that works with the surgeon who does this procedure (he's the only surgeon in my state that can do this op and he can only do 72 cases a year so you've got to be up shit creek but still operable).**

This oncologist sits me down and tells me that without this operation I will have 6-12 months. More than likely closer to 6 given the spread (later discovered that when they opened me up i was technically past their "operable" pci limit and my bowel was days away from exploding and killing me. So i was really up shit creek). 

I ask if he sees any issue with me going skydiving prior. He gives me this horrified look. "Do you know how dangerous that is??". I replied while gesturing my hands like scales "risk of me dying from jumping out of a plane with a parachute" *lowers hand* "and this cancer killing me" raises other hand. So then he looks at me, still with some confusion. "Why don't you do a barista course? That is safe. Much safer than skydiving. Thats so dangerous!." 
 

"Okay. So i have this surgery, i do a barista course.. which isn't a bucketlist item.. with no bowel can i drink coffee?" I asked.  "Probably not.. you'd have to see" 

Wtf? You can't tell a young person they're going to die within a year without surgery (5yrs with surgery). Then tell them to do a "sensible, safe" course that means they will be taunted by what they can't have. I think skydiving was one of the tamer and safer ideas a dying person can have. Could've decided to take up sword swallowing or dabble in hard drugs. 

Ps. Went to Hawaii before i was booked for surgery. Didn't die.
I had 14 hour surgery. Had a internal bleed (close to 7L over 5 days of blood/fluid).. and sepsis. Skydiving was definitely safer, more enjoyable and cheaper!

Read more from Belinda and her bucket list at https://www.facebook.com/belindasbucketlist/

Howard Katz's Light-Hearted Colonoscopy Story

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

One thing I believe cancer patients and survivors must learn to do is find a sense of humor in the midst of suffering.  I was encouraged by Howard Katz's ability to somehow make jokes about prepping for a colonoscopy, which is no easy feat!

Take it away Mr. Katz!

This is the light-hearted story of my first Colonoscopy. Let’s start with what happened after the test…

After my Colonoscopy was finished they had to wake me up from the anesthesia. At the time of the test I had been up for over 24 hours, and the anesthesia was a welcome deep sleep for me. They asked me if I could dress myself, and I said sure. I’m still not sure how I managed to do that without injuring myself, because after the nurse guided me out to the car where my girlfriend (now wife) waited, I couldn’t even fasten my own seatbelt. I tried to buckle up, flailing away. After more than a few misses, my girlfriend gently reached over and buckled me up. She then asked me what the Dr. said. I told her I remember him saying that they were sending a biopsy of a tumor out to a pathologist. She asked why no one had told her. I had foolishly (quite foolishly) told the Dr there was no one else to tell the results to. In my defense for this we weren’t expecting a tumor- and we had only been together for a few months- so why would she need to be told? Just a tip to anyone out there- if you’re in a relationship with someone, let the Dr. tell them what’s going on- for the rest of your health. As you may or may not know, they don’t release you after the Colonoscopy until you’ve passed gas. I don’t remember doing this, but my girlfriend tells me that I told her (which I also don’t remember) I was “blowing the place up” right after they finished, which I emphasized by verbally making the noises for her. Ah dignity, why hast thou forsaken me?

At this point I was famished so we decided to go get something to eat. We went to a diner I know, because I wanted corned beef hash and eggs. I lost 7 pounds during the prep for the Colonoscopy- time to get some of it back! Most of the diners there were senior citizens. In I walk with my girlfriend- who is several years younger than me. As we’re being seated, still feeling pretty happy from the anesthesia, I leaned down and whisper to my girlfriend, “How does it feel to lower the average age in here to breathing?” My girlfriend has since told me that I was not whispering at all, that I said it in a Christian Bale inspired Batman voice- that carried. She says that more than one of the older ladies in the restaurant gave me death glares.

We order, and as we’re waiting for our food, I realize I have to urinate. So I get up and somehow manage to get myself to the bathroom. At this point I don’t trust myself to do that standing up, so I use one of the stalls. I then return to our table. After eating my first meal in 36 hours, I find that I have to urinate again- go figure. So back I go into the bathroom- I still don’t trust myself not to pee everywhere so I sit in a stall again. It’s when I’m done and washing my hands that I look around and see there are no urinals in the bathroom. That’s when it hits me- I’m in the Ladies Room- for the 2nd time. Amazingly there were no women in either time, and no one came in while I was there. After we pay the check my girlfriend drives me home where I relax for the rest of the day.

This all started when my Primary Care Physician told me to get a Colonoscopy after I was having problems with constipation. So, I went to my Gastroenterologist to have a consultation and we made an appointment for the procedure the next week at 7:30AM. At this point my biggest fear was the preparation for the Colonoscopy. We’ve all heard (and some have experienced) horror stories about the prep for a Colonoscopy. Drinking a gallon of foul tasting liquid, and then spending hours on the toilet while your body cleans itself out. Well, I got lucky. My Dr. prescribed Prepopik. And while I’m not saying I want to drink this regularly, it is much easier than the older, more standard prep. Basically after you’ve been on a clear liquid diet for 24 hours (just like all other preps) you mix the Prepopik powder with 5 ounces of water and drink it at 5 PM. It tastes like stale Tang. You are then instructed to drink 5 8-ounce glasses of water in the next 5 hours. At 10PM you drink another 5 ounces of Prepopik, and have to drink 3 more 8-ounce glasses of water in the next three hours.


I didn’t know how long it would take for the Prepopik to kick in, so after about 45 minutes with just a bit of a grumbly stomach, I called the Dr. Before he could call back saying it takes about an hour for it to start, I had my first hint of the cleansing to come. If you haven’t done it, just think of it as someone turning on a faucet that comes out your ass. And it proceeded to do that off and on- but mostly on- until about 5:30 the next morning. Without getting too graphic, it was not a pleasant experience. Of course the tumor they would find during the test didn’t make things any easier. I’ve been told I’m full of shit, but after that long night, no more!

Want to read more from Howard? Read his blog at http://semicolonnotes.blogspot.com/

Patient Stories: Cancer Survivor's Struggle With Mother Over Life After Cancer

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

An anonymous cancer survivor sent me this story about her and her mother, and the kinds of things her mother just doesn't get:

I was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer during my last year of graduate school. The number of times I heard "your too young for breast cancer" was unreal but surprisingly that isn't what this story is about. I went through chemo and then surgery and then radiation. My husband had to keep working full time but went to all the chemo stuff. He just didn't have the time off available to him when I had surgery so my mom came down to help out.

I learned to cope with cancer (or get away from it for a while) by playing boardgames. We played through long hours at the infusion center and in the evenings after I had a really shitty day. Once I was up and moving around a bit from surgery, we decided to teach my mom to play a game. It was a cooperative game and things got really intense. We were so close to winning but we were about to trigger nearly all of the lose conditions. I was getting really animated and involved in the game.

At some point, I grabbed some snakes and casually made a joke that I was "stress eating" because of the game. My mom turned to me and said "you get really into this". My response was "well, I don't have a lot going for me right now". She turned her nose up at me and responded with "you just beat Stage II breast cancer,".

Well, yea, but that doesn't change the fact that it sucked. I was 28 with cancer. I had to put my life and my career on hold. All of my classmates had graduated and gotten jobs and moved on. I lost my hair, my breasts, and a year of my life. I hear this a lot in various forms. I should be "happy" that I get to live.

I AM happy. I'm thankful. I want to believe I'm living my life to the fullest and appreciating every second BUT that doesn't mean I'm not angry and sad and scared. That doesn't mean that I don't get to have negative feelings about what happened. Cancer changes you, for better or worse, and telling someone going through treatment (especially when you have no experience with it) how they should feel is just wrong.

Where the Owl Flies Next

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

I'm not going to lie. Doing a webcomic for free while having a full time career (therapist) and being a husband and father is very hard.

The reality is that making a single Cancer Owl comic takes a lot of time, and it costs me money. There's no regrets because I love the craft and love the impact my comic has.  This comic has already given me so much, and I credit much of my recovery on creating it during cancer treatments. But saying yes to the comic means I say no to other things. And I did some very deep soul searching as to if it was time to say goodbye to my feathered friend. But Cancer Owl is not ready to fly away. It's not time. I feel that there is more yet to try and to be done. My wife helped me see this. 

And one thing I have not really attempted is set up a merchandise shop. I've been asked by fans so often to do this. And I feel it's been unfair to all of you to not provide for you a great way to have a piece of Cancer Owl that you can have at home or in the hospital.  I have been selling Cancer Owl cards, but I've had to arrange all the printing, packaging and shipping. It takes a BUTTLOAD OF TIME! Time that I just don't have. And the thought of expanding the store is exhausting to think about. I also set up a Patreon account for donated funds, but was overall unhappy with the whole thing. 

Which leads me to....

 

 I am setting up shop....which will be launched very, very soon. I've decided to go with Threadless, who will take a fair chunk of my sales but save me all the headaches of resourcing, packaging, shipping, etc.  I will be selling shirts, hoodies, throw pillows, mugs and more. I create the products and the company does the rest. I'm really excited about these products, and the fact that they can serve as a tangible purpose for those who are going through cancer treatments. The thing I'most excited about are the pillows, which give you a chance to give the Owl a hug or punch Cancer right in the face. There is simply not a lot of cool products out there for cancer patients...especially patients under 40 years old. 

Pillows to hug and pillows for punching! Plus a pillow to take with you on chemo days!

So besides being able to further support what I do (and at this point, I need to start doing that) I feel like I'm getting started on filling a void.  

I will continue my goal of creating a comic a week (with occasional breaks like this week) and 2 comics for I Had Cancer every month.  I will continue to illustrate true stories from patients, survivors, ostomates, and caregivers.  And setting up shop is the newest chapter.

So stay tuned.  I'm thrilled to finally offer ways that Cancer Owl can be right in your home or with you during cancer treatments.  

Patient Stories: Tamara's Mom

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

I get stories in my email almost every day, and while the purpose of submissions is to hopefully turn them into a comic, not every submission works well in a comic format (at least my comic format). So I have determined that I will try to share the story submissions that moved me and share them in text (and in this case, also picture) form.

So please enjoy Tamara Cryderman's story, and get a tissue. 

This story is not mine, it's my mother's.

November 2015, my mother finally broke the news to her children that she had been diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer.  And she was declining treatment.  My mother was always the type to face something head-on, never sugar coat things and do the best with what you have.  She faced every day of her life with a level of wit and badassery that carried her through many a dark year. From a lifetime of abuse and bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts, times of mental instability and days where she went hungry to feed her own children, she's been a fighter with an ever broken mask of humanity and a warm, inviting heart.   But I know it was also hard.  Especially after this.  She told me she wasn't surprised at all.  She told the Doctor, "Well, I guess it's about that time." And she got to work. Sadly, I lived almost 1000 KM away and didn't have the funds to make frequent trips.  I called her often and depended on my local family to take care of her.

We talked about options, treatments and outcomes.  We talked openly, and I appreciated that about her. She told me, "Honey, this isn't my first rodeo.  I've been at the bedside and put too many friends and family members into the ground from cancer.  Doctor says even with chemo and radiation, I've barely got a chance. (I think it was 12-20% total, but my memory is fuzzy) If I've only got so much time, I want to LIVE it, not being sick all the time. I'm doing this on my own terms."  We respected that choice and we treated every day as another only a little different.  The cancer was a constant back of the mind item, but it stayed there unless discussion was needed, and then the doors were pulled wide open.  No secrets.  No hiding.   We hadn't had a family Christmas in many years, but we made it happen that year.  It was joyful and very hard.  And of course, full of laughter.

On February 12th, the day before her 64th birthday, she went into the ER.  Her lung had collapsed completely flat.  We almost lost her the day she went in.  They thought the lung was full of fluid and a young, impatient doctor tried to insert the wrong type of tube and failed, almost puncturing her heart. Instead, the tube came up and almost out her shoulder. All she wanted to do was get out of that damned hospital, but they kept her there a week.  She told me about the horrible food and the lumpy bed.  It makes me laugh to picture my mother raising hell as she was good at doing.  "Eggs," she told me.  "How do you screw up eggs? I told the nutritionist if you want me to eat, then bring be REAL food, not POWDERED eggs.  Then the one day it was spaghetti and meatballs.  It tasted good for the first couple bites.  I thought, finally, some real food!  Then, as I got down the container a bit, there was a half inch of water in the bottom. Gross." The first chance she got, she had my brother pick her up some fish and chips from a local restaurant.  It was her favorite treat and she was going to indulge every chance she got.   "And the bed!  There's a sagging hole in it and it hurts my back so much the only way I can sleep is to curl up on the bottom half like a cat." 

She went into palliative care after that, living with my Aunt and Uncle who were both retired. I'm happy to say we didn't respect one of her wishes, and she was also happy I defied her.  My now husband and I had had a quick discussion and there was a unanimous decision. You see, 5 years ago, we lost my sister-in-law to stage 4 cancer.  Treatment extended her life, but she didn't make it to her daughter's wedding. I didn't want the same outcome. We told her we were engaged on Valentine's Day and she was over the moon happy, shouting it throughout her hospital room, but she wasn't a fool and tried calling us out on our plans. Thankfully, I had had time to practice lying.  It wasn't easy with her.  Over the course of 4 days with the help of family and friends, we planned a small wedding 1000 km away.  Someone let it slip and it was an interesting phone call.  "Your godmother told me she would be coming back for the wedding in a few weeks.  What wedding?"    "Uuuhhh... Surprise!"   I could hear the twisted cone of emotion rise up in her throat.  The tears and joy barely held in by that wall of masks.  "I told you not to do that.  Don't do it because of me.   Have your special day the way you want it.  I'll be there in spirit.  Don't--" At that point I broke in.  "We are doing what we want.  We're doing this because WE want you there.  THAT is what we want. So frankly mom, it has nothing to do with what YOU want, we're selfish. We're doing this all because of us, just like you wanted."  That finally make her crack.  She laughed with her tears.  Then she gave us the OK. We booked the "VIP Room" off the bar of the local small town Motel and decorated it with items we found mere hours before at the next door second hand store.  I found a dress on my lunch break and pulled together everything else I could.  We dined on platters of bar food; pizza, wings, mozza sticks, fries and had a cake from the local grocery store.  My husband's immediate family hopped on a plane without a second thought and all my immediate family was in the area. My husband, his best man and my maid of honor made the long, early morning drive through a blizzard.  My brothers walked me down the aisle (my father, as well as most of the world, at this time knew nothing of mom's condition as per her wishes). And mom was there, smiling.   It was everything we wanted.    

As a side note, my Godmother didn't make it to the wedding because her own husband was fighting cancer in his neck.  He had been a survivor, but then it came back and there was no stopping it. We lost him a few weeks later. They were only the beginning of it all.  2016 has been a rough year. 

My mother had an incredible amount of strength, and that strength was in her tears as much as her smiles.  While discussing final arrangements, she told us, and I directly quote, "Don't you fucking DARE waste the money on a funeral.  What you can do is go out to your brothers acreage and have one last party on me."  When I asked her what she wanted done with her body, I could hear the 'don't worry about it' shrug over the phone.  "I've already taken care of it," she said.  "I went in and pre paid for my cremation.  You guys don't have to worry about a thing." Then she started laughing before coughing, then chuckled.  "He asked me if I wanted an urn and I said, no way! Haha. Don't spend the money on that. Put me in a cardboard box on the corner of the desk and someone will be around to collect me at some point."  We laughed.  "Spread my ashes on your brother's acreage, that's all I know for sure."   "Oh, I don't know, mom," I told her.  "I was thinking of sending your ashes to that company that presses you into a synthetic diamond."    "Oh my god, no! I don't think so!"   "Yeah, picture it mom.  You'd be the new family heirloom.  And there I would be, trying to shove you through the mail slot at my brothers saying,  'No, it's your turn to take her for Christmas!'" We laughed more.

At the beginning of June, my family said if I wanted that one last visit that I better get there soon.  I asked them how she was, what she looked like, as I had only talked to her on the phone and her voice was still the same to me, if not more tired.  They told me how she was skin and bones.  She looked horrible, couldn't get out of bed and could only talk for a bit at a time and slept most of the time.  I told them that my mother and I had already discussed that possibility.  I wouldn't be coming back.  I will remember my mom as she was at the wedding; smiling, laughing and full of dignity and pride.  I could pick up the phone and hear her voice, that's all I needed.  I talked to my mother again that day, asked her if she wanted me there.  She told me no, not to come on her account.  She completely supported my decision.

The week before the wedding, I flew down by myself to spend time with her and it was the hardest thing I've ever done.  There were masks everywhere and I found myself wearing my own.  There was a dedicated amount of love and patience that drained me.  When my mother got tired or didn't put her oxygen on it was like watching a rapid onset of dementia.  She got agitated and angry, forgetting conversations mere hours before, mixing up details.  Get her settled again and she was emotional but smiling and cracking jokes. She would remember clearly and apologize.  You're right.  It's hard.  It's so hard.  And as hard as it was for me, I knew it was a million times harder for her, so I smiled and gave her all my strength. I had to keep reminding myself; it's the cancer. It's the cancer.  That look, those harsh words aren't my mother.  They're the cancer.  Then she would laugh, and I would be so happy, I wanted to cry.  

I never did say goodbye to my mother.  I refused to.  When she told me she was canceling her cell phone because she couldn'toperate it anymore, I knew the time was drawing near.  I cast off all the veils that day and I told my mother everything I ever needed or wanted to.  We had laughed.  We had cried.  But never as much as we did that day.  She told me, and this will stick with me forever, "I love you to death." And then we laughed.  Then we cried.  I told her I'd talk to her later.  The next day, I talked to her, but she couldn't really talk back.  She was so up on pain medication at the moment that she could listen, smile and nod and mutter a few things while my Aunt held the phone.  I told her again, "I'll talk to you later.  Until next time, mom.  I love you."  The next day, my phone rang and I knew she was gone. 

I came across your comics via Imgur after seeing your Hollywood Superstar comic.  I've since started at the beginning and read through every comic and message that comes with them.  They made me smile.  They made me cry.  I know your comic's existence is to bring light to the silent struggle of the various cancer fighters and survivors. To tell the world that it's not a simple cut and dry topic, not black and while, life and death, and I couldn't help finding my mother between the lines.  Because although her body didn't make it, her spirit survived.  Her voice, her laughter and wit has stayed with everyone she ever knew. She faced every day with a smile and a laugh. She would say, "It is what it is" and "Sometimes, all you can do is laugh". 

Years ago, before her cancer, she had hurt her back badly trying to rip up an old hardwood floor by herself.  She was on heavy duty muscle relaxants but it was canning season and there was a huge garden to contend with or else we wouldn't eat that winter.  I was in my room, and I heard CRASH! SPLASH! ... giggle giggle giggle.  I came out to find my mother leaning against the counter giggling her face off with the pressure canning pot empty on the floor and all the water around it and her.  She could barely tell me she had tried to lift it out of the sink and her muscles gave out. I asked her if she was ok and she nodded, saying, "Yes, I just... I just can't stop laughing because what else am I supposed to do?" I laughed with her, got some towels and helped her with the canning.

 

I had intended to share a short story reflecting the idea of talking openly about cancer, but it's gotten a bit long winded, I'm sorry. (I guess that's the writer in me coming out. It is, after all, my mother's story. Haha.)  Seeing your comics and comments, I was happy to see that people are breaking down the walls and changing out the DEATH SENTENCE labels for declarations of WE LIVE!

We see cancer as this thing lurking in the shadows and as long as we don't look, it's not there, or we don't have to deal with it or think of it, even if it's not our room it's in.  It's time we shed light on it and bring ourselves out of the darkness. It should cower in our presence, not the other way around.  No matter what, there is always a level of 'out of sight, out of mind' for everyone involved and that is part of the survival.  You can't live in constant dread nor can we pretend nothing's going on.  You can only live. 

My mother's life and time with cancer was not glorious.  It's not the victory story people expect to hear. While she was strong, she was not the ideal statue of stalwart composure under the eyes of the beast you read about in books or see in the movies.  Cancer may have taken her body, but it never ended her life.  She may not be so in the eyes of the world, but she's my hero. And so are you, and every other person who is or has fought the beast.

All in all, I wanted to say thank you for what you're doing. Keep up the good work, and please, don't stop.

Best regards,

Wendy's Daughter,

Tara

Cancer and the 40 Hour Workweek...

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

The old people at the cancer center always look at me funny.

"Why the hell are you here?" they seem to ask. And it it's a fair question. How the hell did I ever get cancer? I was 35 when diagnosed with a child not quite 2 years old.

In the waiting room, I'm always a third of the age of the other patients, many of whom stare off into into space watching Fox News on the wall. When they leave, they will go back home, encouraged by their doctors to take up gardening or something relaxing to make them happy.

After I received my treatment, I had to go back to work. And my work day would look like this:

Chemo is a hell of a drug!

Being a therapist while receiving chemotherapy, an ostomy bag, and radiation at the same time seems like a practical joke, but it's totally been my life.  My poor patients...this is what they've had to put up with:

 

Young adults, or at least this young adult with cancer, worry more about money than dying. We wonder if we'll be leaving our family with this huge financial burden. If I could have quit work for awhile so I could meditate, find myself, and just do my cancer comics all day long, I totally would have. But no such luck.  The benefits of working while fighting cancer is that keeping busy keeps you positive and goal focused. And sometimes it just sucks. And this is assuming a young adult with cancer can work. Many have to quit their jobs due to advanced staging and intense treatments. 

Want to help a young adult with cancer?  Money's certainly nice. Or hook them up with fantastic organizations like Stupid Cancer and Critical Mass. Their whole goal is to connect young adults to resources and organizations that address medical and financial issues. I just had a month's rent paid for because of an organization Stupid Cancer helped me find.

Cancer isn't just an old person thing. It's a very real young person-who-has-small children-a full time job-and all kinds of bills thing.  

Society just isn't ready for so many young people getting cancer, so we kind of have to find our own way in it all.  As for me? Maybe I can make some money doing cancer comics! That'd be nice!

 

 

 

Cancer Super Power: What Cancer Patients Gain That Others Don't

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

Read the rest of this comic here.

You know, for all of the crap us cancer people go through, there is some serious silver lining in the whole deal.

A blessing, if you will.

Or perhaps, a curse?

In my latest comic this week, I share what must look like utter madness to most people. The idea of being blasted with so many different emotions must seem like a kind of a hell.  And well, sometimes it is.

But sometimes...

Well, let me put it this way: My therapist shared with me that all human beings, from birth to death, will experience a wide spectrum of experiences and all the emotions that come with it. But people facing chronic or life threatening illnesses, experience an entire life's worth of these emotions in a much smaller window.

This means that those who stare death in the face in the way cancer patients do, are given a sort of foresight into a perspective that is normally only granted to those in old age who look back on an entire lifetime of experience. 

So young adults who are faced with the very real reality of our lives coming to an end much sooner than planned, are given the previous revelation that so many yearn to aquire: the knowledge about how to truly live life without regret at the end of it. 

That's right, I'm saying that we cancer patients learn the meaning of life...or at least get a real taste of it.  

So yeah, we can be basket-cases sometimes...passionate one moment and a blubbering mess the next. But that's because we're hit all at once with the kind of perspectives that takes a normal human being a lifetime to achieve if they're lucky.

So yeah, we're kind of awesome like that.

Now excuse me while I laugh/cry myself to sleep.

Going There...

Published on by Matthew Mewhorter.

Putting up my comics sometimes takes a lot of courage. Take my last comic for instance (that you can read here), which involves a scenario that is hilarious to people with ostomy bags but could be horrifying to anyone else.

 Don't be drinking anything while reading this...trust me.

Don't be drinking anything while reading this...trust me.

But "going there", and putting out stuff that risks offending (or grossing out) some people is the exact kind of tension that Cancer Owl lives in. To do any less is cheating fellow cancer patients, cancer survivors, caretakers and ostomates out of the opportunity to experience and tell the truth about the challenges we face every day. Because the realities of cancer are offensive sometimes, and gross.

Yesterday, I received this humbling message:

Hi, I am a 23 year old redditor with cancer. I just wanted to say that nothing else I've read or seen has resonated with me on the issue of cancer like your comics have. It's tough to put into words how this whole thing makes me feel sometimes, but when I read through your comics I find myself saying "oh yeah, that's EXACTLY what that's like!" (especially about the different types of people you meet when you have cancer). I love the humor you bring to the situation, it feels really good to laugh at something that people approach with such grave seriousness.
I went to school for music, and am an active composer. I know what it can be like to create something and put it out to the world and be wondering if your ideas are reaching anyone or making a difference in someone's life. I wanted you to know that your ideas reached me, and brought a huge smile to my face during a difficult time smile emoticon so thank you!

Had I censored myself at all in any of my comics, I would have cheated this wonderful person out of the chance to be comforted, to have someone out there that can say what is so difficult to voice...and in the process create a smile. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that telling the truth takes guts I don't always feel like I have. I sometimes wonder if my next comic will be the one to turn away readers for good. But I found that the more truthful and bold I am, the more I have my fellow cancer patients and survivors thanking me for doing it. And really, they are who I do this for.

So, dear reader, I implore you: tell your story, and tell it truthfully. It's scary, but a hell of a ride. And for every one person you offend, there are ten out there who needed to hear what you had to say.

Freedom, joy, and connection always accompany truth, as well as the occasional turbulence. Go ahead. Go there.