Cancer & My Dad

For all these years that I’ve had my blog, I’ve never been that blogger that shares her daily activities or shares much of her personal life and struggles really much at all. My blog has always been more about sharing the best of the best when it comes to natural health and beauty. But in recent months, the past 20 months to be exact, my absence in the blogosphere has been due to my dad’s health struggles and my own resulting struggle with relentless anxiety and stress.

In August 2014, my dad got diagnosed with stage IV esophageal cancer that had spread to his liver.  The past year and a half I thought about blogging about my experience with my dad’s cancer diagnosis, but it just never happened. Now that he has passed (December 24, 2015), I hope it might be helpful to share his experience and my experience with the ever evolving world of cancer treatment.

As a holistic health counselor, I was my dad’s “Doctor Annie” or “Nurse Annie” on a daily basis whether it was via several phone calls per day or monthly trips to take care of him in Florida.  It came natural to me to try to help him, but trying to guide him on his health choices when it came to cancer was extremely overwhelming and intimidating.  From the start, he opted for radiation and chemo. Both scared me immensely, but the tumor in his esophagus was so bad that he was literally not able to eat or even drink water, EVERYTHING was coming up. He had to get a feeding tube put in within days of his cancer diagnosis. Giving him multiple feedings per day through the feeding tube was thankfully not as scary or weird as I had expected, but he was in very, very bad shape. When he started chemo (at first it was 6 hours per day weekly), it was one of the hardest and saddest days of my life. I didn’t let myself cry in front of him somehow and he was stoic as usual. Thirty four years as a detective, he had seen and experienced so much, but I could tell by the look on his face that day that it also was one of his hardest days in 78 years.

On top of the weekly chemo, he added on 21 treatments of radiation (21 days in a row) in November – December 2015. If chemo wasn’t enough and radiation wasn’t enough on top of that, he also had developed an infection in his feeding tube.  For over 45 days (in a row), he had to go to a center for disease control where they gave him a drip of antibiotics for 3-4 hours at a time.  Some days he was doing hours of a chemo drip, hours of an antibiotic drip PLUS radiation all in the same day! It was insane. He would be completely wiped out and would sleep as much as he could and keep on fighting… In retrospect, it’s truly incredible we had him here for another year after that.

To make things even worse and scarier, the infection in the feeding tube wasn’t improving and he was going in and out of the hospital on a weekly basis.  FINALLY, they realized they weren’t giving him the right antibiotic (SERIOUSLY?!) and eventually he got the right one.  The infection did eventually get better and the feeding tube came out after a month plus. Such a relief.

Thankfully he was able to eat again, but of course had to be careful with his food choices. A lot of common foods still weren’t going down easily. Plus, he was also trying to fight his cancer with his diet. From the start of his diagnosis, he was listening to me quite impressively on how he needed to change his diet and he did a lot of great anti-cancer protocols (like juicing fresh vegetables, turmeric, no sugar, etc). I was doing as much research as I could. The thing was that it was often such a catch-22 for me because I wanted to help him in every way possible, but I reasonably and spiritually knew from the start that his fight against cancer would so much have to do with his own thoughts, his faith, his daily choices from doctors to medicine to supplements to snacks to meals. I knew I could not save him, but I truly tried to do all I could possibly do to help him on a daily basis.

To make a really long story somewhat less long, the tumor in his esophagus shrunk by December 2015 and was COMPLETELY gone by February of 2015. Awesome. So, so, so awesome. But not according to his cancer/chemo doctor. I happened to be in Florida and at that appointment when we got the great news. I was in the room as the doctor showed the images and reports that showed my dad no longer had a tumor in his esophagus – the most major and deadly health problem he had been dealing with for months. To my and my husband’s complete dismay, the doctor told my dad that the tumor was gone like it had been a hang nail.  What the doctor did make a big deal about and emphasize to the upmost degree was that there were more “cancerous” spots in my dad’s liver. I say “cancerous” because they never did a biopsy. AND Mayo Clinic as well as many other respectable, mainstream health experts even says that PET scans must be interpreted carefully because noncancerous conditions can look like cancer, and many types of cancer do not appear on PET scans. There is also a list of the cancers that are most likely to show up on PET scans. The liver is not on the list. I wasn’t and I’m still not trying to be in denial about his liver. Maybe it was cancer. But MAYBE it wasn’t? I so wish he had gotten a biopsy to be absolutely sure. If those were cancerous spots in his liver then on the very positive side, during those 16 months from when my dad got diagnosed to when he passed, the cancer never came back in his esophagus and there was never cancer found anywhere else in his body. That was SO huge and prayers answered.

Back to this doctor and the results. It gets better – and by better, I mean worse – my dad asked the doctor “what should I do now?”  The doctor’s response: my dad could have a break from chemo. Ok. He added… “Go get a margarita! Go get some hookers and cocaine!”  I’m not joking.  This “doctor” (so not deserving of the title by any stretch) was telling my father who had just beat esophageal cancer and supposedly still had some cancerous spots in his liver that he should go drink alcohol and get some prostitutes. We’re from New York, we joke a lot, but this just wasn’t funny on so many levels.  1. My dad was completely discouraged by the way the doctor had presented the results. Like getting rid of an esophageal cancerous tumor was no big deal.  2.  My dad had his young daughter in the room who was clearly beyond concerned for her dad’s health. This doctor was just being a weirdo and totally disrespectful.  3.  We were completely surrounded by framed pictures of this doctor’s young children. If they could have only heard how daddy talks to his patients. 4.  This doctor looked like the cheshire cat as he talked about booze and babes, but barely grinned when he delivered the best possible news.  5. On a serious health note, alcohol and sugar are two of the last things you want to have when you’re fighting cancer.

Hands down, one of the worst doctor experiences of my life. I found my dad a new doctor pretty much the next day. Of course at the time I’m thinking “how am I not blogging about this and letting people know what goes on?” I just couldn’t then. Plus, I would say then and I’ll say now, that of course, there are doctors out there that treat cancer conventionally, but also have a much better emotional IQ and hopefully also have real knowledge of cancer’s roots and are also very knowledgable of the scientifically proven natural treatments. I said “of course” in that sentence because I assume cancer doctors like this must exist. Unfortunately, we never came across any of them.

The thing about chemo is that there is currently a lot of guess work going on in this country. Multiple oncologists told my dad multiple times that they didn’t know if it was the right chemo for him aka if it would even work. Chemo is no joke. Doing chemo when you don’t even know if it will have any positive effects – you’re REALLY  rolling the dice.  Like with my dad, who ended up opting for more chemo for those liver spots.  He went through months and months of additional chemo only to have the scans keep coming back with more and more bad spots. Sooo if those spots were cancer then the chemo treatments were making them worse. Yep.  If the spots weren’t cancer and were damage, then again, the chemo was only doing more damage. Either way, what a shitty way to treat a serious and possibly deadly illness – by guessing.

The thing with chemo (and I just can’t stomach getting into all of the side effects right now, but you can easily google and find them) is that even when it does kill the cancer cells, it also kills all the good bacteria (think probiotics) in your body too. The chemo was absolutely devastating to my dad’s entire system.  He had side effect after side effect and it went on and on and on and on…even 6 months plus after stopping chemo, they just kept going on…until he passed.

Rewind a bit. My husband and I (and our golden lab puppy, Mable) moved in with my dad on November 3, 2015. He wasn’t doing well at all, but were hopeful that all of our prayers, healthy cooking, love, help and attention IN PERSON would really help. Plus, Mable’s animal therapy. He met her and loved her just as expected. Day after day, we were doing everything and anything we could think of to help dad get out of his funk – to reboot himself both physically and mentally. But nothing seemed to have a lasting effect.

After a week or two of being in Florida with him, we found out that he had randomly gotten a call from his radiation doctor (who he hadn’t seen in a year) and he went to see him. I’m sure my dad complained to him – justifiably he had a lot to complain about – but this doctor hadn’t seen my dad in over a year, hadn’t been following my dad’s case, didn’t know my dad as the larger than life resilient character that he was, and he certainly wasn’t God. But apparently this guy knew that my dad had 3 months left, tops.  Thanks grim reaper.

A few weeks later, my dad had a check up with his heart doctor. I definitely just said heart doctor, not oncologist. Well this doctor immediately jumped on the grim reaper band wagon. My dad said how he felt so crummy. The doctor tapped my dad’s liver area and said there was nothing my dad could do to feel better, it was just the cancer taking its course. Fuming inside is beyond an understatement. I can only imagine how I glared at this doctor from two feet away. I told my dad in the car afterwards that this doctor couldn’t possibly KNOW how bad my dad was doing. Just like the radiation doctor didn’t know.  They weren’t treating him currently for cancer and they by no means had the full picture.

Of course, my dad’s spirits were low and these doctors probably played off of that. And it was up to my dad to buy what they were selling, or not.  But when my dad passed on December 24th one of the main contributing factors was not the cancer per se, but a rapid and extreme downhill spiral that began with that same heart doctor prescribing a blood thinner to my dad that resulted in his blood being so thin when we brought him to the hospital December 5th that the doctors said he would have bled out and died if he had taken the slightest fall!  And a fall was not unlikely with how weak he was.

My dad had been sharp as a tack his entire life. He remembered the license plates of bad guys up until he started taking that blood thinner. Even through the chemo, I was so grateful that his mind had stayed in tact. But after those blood thinners – suddenly he didn’t know who his family was, what was going on, or anything. I so feel for anyone dealing with a loved one who has dementia. Just 3 weeks of that experience was so incredibly devastating and hard.

So that blood thinner his heart doctor had put him on… One doctor at the hospital said aspirin was a much smarter choice with a lot less scary side effects….Another doctor said that “no one with half a brain” would have put my dad on that blood thinner when he was in such weak cheap.  Oh, I almost forgot – when my dad first started taking the blood thinner (around December 1st) and seeming not himself, I called the heart doctor’s office and got one of the nurses. I told her nicely that I was concerned at my dad’s changes and that we were worried about the side effects of the blood thinner. Not only was the tone of her voice unpleasant, but she actually screamed at me “that’s why we don’t tell people to read the side effects!!! They would never take the prescriptions.”  (My mind: WHAT?!!?!?) I replied to her “EXACTLY. Because the side effects are TERRIFYING!” That was the end of that call.

I wrote letters to all of these doctors I’ve mentioned since my dad passed. I don’t hold them responsible for my dad’s death because none of them are God and it was always up to my dad to make his own decisions. I try to remember what my dad always said “when it’s your time, it’s your time.” However, I do hold them accountable for their terrible misguidance and disgusting discouragement. I really hope they don’t continue to treat patients the way they treated my dad.

In addition to having bad experiences with modern medicine, my dad also had an unpleasant experience with an alternative cancer doctor. (Sidenote: my point in writing this is not just to bash conventional cancer treatment) This doctor sounded great – classically trained, but with expertise in all the best, natural cancer treatments. He wasn’t nearly as bad as the other doctors, but he was still so disappointing. After one pleasant first visit, my dad would go in the office for his vitamin C drips and the doctor wouldn’t even come out to say hi. On top of that, he had sold my dad hundreds of dollars of supplements, a lot of which were in horse pill form. One of the things that likely contributed to my dad’s esophageal issues and that really bothered him once the tumor got really bad was taking supplements in capsule or tablet form, especially the huge, hard tablets. So this doctor really didn’t listen my dad’s concerns or think about what he was doing and just insisted on selling him all of these supplements. He also never offered him any additional support or advice after the first appointment. He sure did make a lot of money though.

So yeah, that guy wasn’t so great either, but thankfully the last doctor that my dad was seeing for natural cancer treatment was awesome.  The first day I had a chance to go with my dad to one of these appointments was this past November and I cried with happiness afterwards. This doctor’s office was sunny and bright just like his personality. The staff treated my dad like family and were so genuinely uplifting. The doctor would chat with my dad about his health (and a few police stories) for 30 minutes or more, like there was no shortage of time. It was SUCH a beautiful thing, especially after all he had been through. I’m so grateful to that doctor and his staff.

My dad had also been a diabetic since his 50s and had a massive heart attack 6 years earlier (a day after getting hip surgery) where he literally came back from being dead. Somehow even with all the pretests they hadn’t caught all the blockages in his heart. It turned out he was only working on 50% of a heart!  I had never thought his health situation was going to get scarier than that experience in 2009. I was definitely wrong. It was definitely going to get even scarier and more complicated. But for me, the bright spots throughout my dad’s health issues were and will always be his incredible spirit and resiliency, his faith, how close him and I were during those experiences and for my entire life.  And of course, all the love and prayers of friends, family, neighbors, and strangers. Thank you to all of you so, so, so much.

Thankfully, he died really peacefully while doing physical therapy. The nurse said that his heart just stopped. His last week or so, he was still pretty out of it, but he came back around enough to know who we were, make a few jokes and recall some old memories. He actually looked pretty great too. Nurses were guessing he was 60, not 79. He loved that.

My main purpose in writing this post is that I hope if you or someone you love is ever diagnosed with cancer, you might be able to learn something from my dad’s experience. On the negative side, that doctors won’t always be helpful and you shouldn’t just automatically trust and listen to every person in a white coat. Don’t be afraid to switch doctors or even treatment plans as needed! Remember that there are so, so, so many options for treatment when it comes to cancer. Don’t assume you MUST do anything before you do your research and give it some good thought. As hard as it is, try not to base your decisions on fear. Many people die from cancer, but many people also survive.  My dad was able to get rid of his tumor with a mix of conventional and alternative treatments, but the after effects combined with his other ongoing health issues were too much for him. But he did not die of cancer per se.

On the positive side, I think that being there with love, hope and faith for yourself or someone you care about is by far, the most important thing when it comes to any and every health issue. It’s so easy to feel alone when you’re dealing with a serious health issue like cancer. It’s even easy to feel alone when you’re trying to support someone who is dealing with cancer. But we are never alone in our struggles and there is always, always much to gain from even the worst times and losses of our lives.

Anyone who knew my dad knows how memorable he was, what a character he was, what a force he was, how loving and giving he was, how much he tried to help those he loved and strangers, a legendary detective for 34 years… I could go on and on. He was truly larger than life. This post is also to honor him and remember all that he overcame in his 79 years. I miss him more than I could ever explain, but he will live on in so many ways. 

In the navy, Cuba 1956
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My dance recital, 1985
A glass of merlot at our favorite winery in Virginia
Me & Dad aka “Lawman” working hard at the robbery squad, Mineola, NY 1988
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1975 award for catching the most successful bank robbers in history
His favorite quote from his favorite movie, Unbroken
The Ron-ster (self-given nickname)
His resting place. The Gulf of Mexico, Anna Maria Island, December 31, 2015. Love you Dad.