Only once in my life have I had the experience of being told that I was near to dying. That was nine months ago.
I was 58. I had been getting chemotherapy for nearly a year at a cancer clinic in the Midwest. The cancer was a recurrence of a colon tumor that was operated on six years ago. This time, however, the cancer surfaced in the layer of fat between the skin and the stomach called the omentum. The cancer was stage 4 -- the worst.
After 12 chemo treatments, the oncologist gave me the hard news: It wasn't working. The cancer was still "only" in the abdomen. But growing. If nothing changed, the oncologist told me, I would become deathly ill; death itself would follow, perhaps in a year. He recommended I return to my home area of Pittsburgh. "Go back to the people who will love you and support you and who will take care of you," he advised. "You are going to become very ill. You won't be able to take care of yourself." While in Pittsburgh, he added, go to the Hillman Cancer Center. See if anything can be done.
As a minister, I had to go on disability. No church would hire me in my condition.
I packed everything and moved to Pittsburgh, arriving a few days before Christmas. Getting in to see a specialist at the Hillman Cancer Center was surprisingly easy. I called "cold" -- with no referral from a doctor. Just phoned one day and asked to see a specialist.
Dr. Barry Lembersky met with me. Chemo isn't the only treatment, he said. "We have good options for you. We can take good care of you."
One option was surgery, a procedure called "de-bulking." The abdomen is opened. The tumors lie before the naked eye. They are literally grappled with and pulled out.
The surgeon, I learned, was a specialist in great demand: Dr. David Bartlett.
His reputation has spread such that patients arrive from all over the country -- all over the world! I learned how busy he was when I met with him in January but couldn't get a date for surgery sooner than March 1.
The best I dared hope for was ... could he get out all of the cancer?
But that didn't seem realistic. I was told only nine months previously that the situation was so dire, I had to consider the end.
More likely, I was thinking, maybe enough of the tumors would be removed that it would be like pushing back the tide. I could get some living in for a few years before the cancer returned.
The procedure would take 12 hours and involve an entire team of physicians serving under Dr. Bartlett as well as nurses and technicians. An anesthetic lasting more than 12 hours meant that I would not find out how the operation went until waking up the next afternoon.
The long day of the surgery, my mother drove in from Ellwood City, and my older sister drove down from Rochester, N.Y. They kept vigil in the waiting room at Shadyside hospital. Thus, they were the first to hear the report.
Dr. Bartlett arrived beaming. "We re-set the clock!" he remarked. In other words, the surgical team had given me a new beginning. They had gotten out all of the cancer!
Dr. Bartlett found tumors not only in the abdomen but in the intestines. In the abdomen, the tumors were plentiful, lodged deeply within the layer of fat, the omentum. To remove them, he had to take out the entire intra-abdominal wall. In later weeks when I would try on clothes my pants would simply drop to my ankles!
When a person wakens from radical surgery, you feel like a turtle on its back. You can barely move. When you do move, the pain is blinding. It was all I could do just to stay awake for any length of time. At one point, my mother and sister came to my room. They shared the happy news.
From then on, any pain, any struggle to get out of bed, any encumbrance (I had eight tubes attached to my nose, arms, neck, stomach to drain the incision, give me oxygen, feed me liquids) ... it was all worth it! All of the pain, all of the discomfort -- I supposed that was the price for a new life.
The nurses and nurses' aides escorted me through weeks of recovery. To show how much I admired all they did for me, I got the idea of asking them to autograph a baseball. I'm an umpire for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.
I spent nearly the entire month of March in the hospital. There were so many nurses, nurses' aides and doctors attending to me, one baseball filled up with autographs, then another, then another. "I never autographed anything before," one nurse remarked with a smile.
One evening, a visitor entered my room -- Dr. Bartlett! He apologized, said he wished he could have seen me sooner. I said, "That just shows how much in demand you are."
He asked how I was feeling. I said, "I heard what you said to my mother and sister -- but I have an emotional need to hear it directly from you. I'm told you got out all of the cancer."
He nodded. "You're in remission."
I reached out to the bedside table and picked up a baseball.opinion_commentary
Rev. John Zingaro is living and recovering in East Liberty.