The night of my diagnosis, my D-Day as some Cancer patients call it, was Tuesday night, January 14th, 2014, almost 2 months ago today. My mass/tumor in my right lung was 3.8cm long, it was at Stage 4, the highest and worst stage of Cancer. In an instant my life had changed. I was told that surgery was not an option. The best option to get rid of cancer was gone. Basically I had 2-3 years to live. While I listened to my Doctor give more details of the diagnosis, my mind drifted to a far off place. Was this it? Was is it all going to end in just a few years? Just when I felt it was really starting to come together? This was not my story, there was more to do and I still had time to do it. My career was blossoming, all of my friends I had worked with for years were becoming VP’s, SVP’s and CEO’s of startups and major companies, and I was hopefully on a similar path. I still had a dream that I would fall in love with the right girl, get married, have kids, retire early, travel the world and grow old with someone beside me on a rocking chair while we watched our grandkids play. I was grateful for what I had in life and what I had experienced, the wonderful people I had met and befriended along the way, the family I was born into, but I wanted more. I wanted my own family, I wanted the next part of my life to start. I wanted another 40 years.
After multiple conversations with friends who had gathered at my house that night, I settled into a chair next to one of the guys, Doug Triconi. Doug is not a man of few words. He is, some might say, the Vince Vaughn of our crew. We don’t always understand him, but whatever he is spewing is usually very funny and quotable. On this night, he did not have much to say. Sitting near my fireplace, he turned to me, looked me in the eye, and admitted that he was in shock. He didn’t understand how or why this had happened to me and that he frankly did not know what to say. I told him it was ok, that he didn’t have to say anything, that I was just happy to have him there. But I did tell him that all I wanted right now was a chance to get my life back as it was before it had changed so suddenly. All I was asking for was a chance and if given my chance I would dedicate my life to saving it as well as helping others.
A few minutes later Doug ran up to me, he had an idea “I got it, I know what you need. You need to get your ticket. Your ticket to Elysium.”, I immediately knew exactly what he was talking about. He was referencing the movie, ‘Elysium’, a film that came out in 2013 and is set in a futuristic world where the wealthy live on a man-made space station and the poor suffer on Earth. Matt Damon’s character has fallen ill and his only cure is a ticket to Elysium. That next day I got the call from my Doctor that I was a genetic match for this targeted drug called Tarceva. Only 1 in 7 patients are genetically eligible for this drug and only 60-70% of these patients see successful results. I got my ticket, I found my Elysium, I was ready to get to work.
I got back from Europe last Wednesday and though the trip was everything I had hoped, I had some problems with sleep and stress along the way. I came back feeling enlightened by the people I had met, the things I had seen and the perspective I had gained but also felt physically and mentally drained as I touched down at LAX. I had felt a tightness in my chest and was not sure what it was. On the advice of my parents, we called my doctor (dr. dan) who wanted to see me right away the next day. He took some tests and all looked good, but he was still concerned. Even though scans are not usually done for 2-3 months after treatment starts (mine had started 6 weeks ago), my doctor wanted to run a scan on my lung right away to make sure all was ok. We scheduled a Cat Scan for that next day, Friday morning. The problem with taking a scan too early is that you need to give the drug time to work, and after 6 weeks you might not see the improvement the patient wants or the doctor expects. But I had no choice, the doctor was concerned that we might have reversed our progress and, honestly, so was I.
I’ve become a professional as of late at getting blood drawn, sitting inside odd contraptions for Chest X rays, CT scans, Pet Scans, Brain Scans……..Name a blood test or scan and I’ve done it these past 3 months. When the technician, Russ, asked me if I had done a Cat Scan with an Iodine intake before, I told him yes, about a month ago and it went fine. His response was ‘Good, because I have not’. I looked at him and quickly figured out he was joking. The last thing a patient with a serious diagnosis like this needs is someone who does not know what they are doing. I liked this guy, my kind of guy. Russ. I had known 2 Russ’s in my life. One was my first friend and best friend growing up, we’ll call him NY Russ. NY Russ and I met when we were about 4 years old, growing up on the same floor in a 23 story apartment building in Brooklyn. He was 6 months older than me, a seniority at that age which is an eternity. He taught me a lot about life, sports, girls, etc. The 2nd Russ is LA Russ, a former NYer like myself, a Yankee fan, and a pretty good basketball player (we went at it under the boards for years). He’s as good as it gets, a great father and husband, and has become a great friend to me over the past few years in Los Angeles. He has been there for me, even though he recently lost his father, after a long battle with cancer, late last year. I’ve had good experience with Russ’s and though I would not know Russ the technician for very long, he was in good standing already.
The Scan started and Russ the Technician shot the Iodine into the the IV. He told me I would feel a warm sensation and to let me know if I felt anything else. Everything was going fine until the scan was over and I stood up. Russ looked at me and said:
Russ the Technician: Are you ok? You are turning very red
Me: Hmmm yeah, I don’t feel so great. I feel very hot, about 1,000 degrees
Russ the Technician: Your eyeballs are red, they look they’re on fire
Me: Yeah. I can’t breathe.
We were both calm, there was no panic but there was obviously something wrong. Somehow over the past month I had developed an allergy to Iodine and that allergy had kicked in. This was an imaging center not a Dr’s office so they were not fully equipped or prepared for an emergency. They rushed me into another room where 2 nurses followed and the radiologist joined us. Through the IV, they pumped some Benadryl into my arm and slowly, after about 5-10 minutes I started to breathe normally again, my color came back and all was ok. My parents were in the waiting room this whole time wondering what was going on and when a nurse asked me if they could come in, I said no. They had already seen enough and did not need to see this. When I finally came to, I asked the nurse to bring them in. I told them what happened but that I was ok, and it was only an allergic reaction. The nurse told me that she had only seen someone break out in hives and had not seen this reaction; and that I had turned as red as a beet.
When the radiologist came back in to the room to check on me I told him I was ok and I asked if the scans had come back yet. He had said that he usually confers with the doctor first but considering what I had just gone through he would give me a sneak preview.
Radiologist: Your scans look very good
Me: How good?
Radioligist: Very good. We’re talking 75% good.
Me: What does 75% good mean?
Radiologist: The mass/tumor in your lung has shrunk 75%
My Mom: (Said nothing but smiled ear to ear and slowly turned her head toward me)
My Dad: Wow!
I had lunch with my friend Nicole Butte this week. Not only is she one of the most accomplished women in the world of Digital Marketing having been a director and VP at Sony Pictures, New Line Cinema and Focus Features, but she is also a recent breast cancer survivor. As I am new to this game, Nicole was nice enough to meet me for lunch, tell me her story, offer advice, and be a friend. She has a blog as well, it’s excellent and is called ‘I will Be Fierce’. Of the many amazing things I took away from lunch with Nicole was an expression that she advised me to heed during this process……’Small Victories’ . Small victories will not happen often in this battle but when they do, see them for what they are and let them in.
I should have jumped in the air like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods after a game winning shot or 30 foot putt, but I did not. I knew the drug was working but had not idea how well. The last few weeks had taught me more than ever to take things in stride and to not expect too much from anything or anyone…..a lesson I sometimes get right but still get wrong more often than I should. I did not expect this news and honestly, as grateful as I knew I should be, I did not trust it. Though I was happy and wanted to return that wide eyed smile right back to my mother, I could not look her in the eye without the fear of welling up. How was this was happening? To go from the news of a few weeks ago: that my lung was infested with cancer, surgery was not an option, and it had spread to my hip and tailbone to now having it reduced by 75% after 6 weeks of being on this wonder drug was hard for me to believe.
But this was great news. Better than we had expected. This was not just a small victory but a strong, early victory. When my oncologist called me later to double confirm this, he said….’This is dramatic, dramatic improvement’. We asked what this meant? Could we get to 100%? He had told us that it could get to 100%, NED as they call it (No Evidence of Disease), but that is rare and there is a good chance that at some point, could be years down the road, that the Tarceva will stop working on me and the Cancer will come back. Until that day, if it ever comes, I have a plan. It’s around nutrition, positive thinking and enjoying my life. Because the truth is, as my good friend Marina Levin said to me today, we all have our day.
I’ve been back at work for 2 weeks now and I’m enjoying it. I’m working out, walking my dog, socializing with friends and living about as normal as I ever was. With one exception, I continue to feel more ‘alive’ every day as I head right back into the fray of normal life. Though my life has been a 10 as of late and at times in the past, I’m trying to keep it at 5 right now (thank you Christina Reisenweber).
I head to NY next week to visit Memorial Sloan Kettering and meet with the head of the Lung Cancer department, as I will continue to seek out the best medical advice and opinions I can. I’m looking forward to seeing my family in NY and attending my niece Gabby’s 1st birthday. I’m looking forward to working out of my company’s NY office and seeing friends for a Happy Hour fundraiser in NY that will raise money for a foundation we are starting, to fund cancer research. I’m looking forward to going to my good friend Josh’s wedding up in Bear Mountain and breakdancing like it’s 2014.
I’m looking forward and I Got This.