Harry's Story

In February of 2013, at the age of 78, I was diagnosed with stage four terminal cancers of my stomach and esophagus. We looked for local doctors to determine what could be done. I found five amazing doctors. We first looked at surgery, but it was far too extensive. The next option was radiation.

Radiation is a very painful and traumatic solution, but I was willing to do it. However, they had discovered that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and between that and the fact that the main cancers were too far apart, radiation was no longer an option. We looked at a combination, but at the last minute we decided the way to go was full bore chemotherapy.

On May 1st we went into the trial and experimental chemo treatments they had suggested. Before we started, I had sat with my family, my wife of 41 years, and the children and we decided it was OK for me to die. I had had a long life, I wasn’t afraid of it, I had adjusted to the fact, and there was no fear around it (dying) for me. But we also decided to fight. Death was not the preferred choice, but if it happened, if I didn’t make it, then they knew that it was OK. But I was going to fight, damnit.

We began the chemo. I was given a series of chemo treatments. Eight sessions, and every other week was taking a new medication. Mind you, all of this is putting poison in your system; it kills good cells and bad. I had shots every other week, transfusions to re-establish my red cell count –lots of support meds. All of it experimental. We never knew what the new side effects would be.

In August it hit me. Suddenly I had suicidal tendencies. Just like you see on TV – “if you take this drug or that drug, you may experience thoughts of suicide”. It was very difficult. I never saw it coming. A big part of it, given the treatment I was going through was the inertia, sitting, all the time. I had a port in my chest, 3-5 hours to get the chemo in and more days carting the pump around with me carrying the chemo. Too many days with nothing else to do. Suddenly I found myself continually thinking about how to commit suicide. It just slipped right in there, I had no warning. I thought about it continually for three weeks.

In the beginning I thought, “Oh, this is how this particular treatment is, the ‘suicide effect’. This is what I have to go through” – then a minute or two later I was seriously considering it again. I kind of mentioned it to my wife, but I didn’t really bring it out into the open because this isn’t me! I’ve never been depressed, I’m fighting the cancer. The thoughts were the total antithesis of who I was. I was very much inside myself at that point. It just made zero sense. I was waging a war on cancer, had made peace with the fact that if I failed and died, then I would die, and now I was going to jump ship? It was weird. I could not verbalize this, I could not ask for help. I didn’t have the words. None of this fit with what I had been doing for the last several months or who I have always been.

A couple of weeks later I decided that this just couldn’t be me. Something was up. It had to be a side effect, something caused by the last chemo, something.

Every time these thoughts would come in I would say, “This isn’t me” and try to do something else. I would read, write, watch TV, and do anything I could to get my thought processes active in something else. That was the key for me. But every time I would let off the gas pedal those thoughts would come rushing back in.

Above and beyond anything else I wanted one last battle to fight, and I realized that was the cancer. On the one side it is OK to die, but not by suicide. I wasn’t about to give up the battle. I am a veteran and I know how to fight.

Eventually it went away, with the discipline, and a change of medication, it went away. My wife was a huge factor, always there for me, always. But the fight was in me. And it was mine.

When it hit it was subliminal, like a whisper. I didn’t see it coming on, and when it was there I was ashamed of the thoughts. I had the mental disclaimer: THIS IS NOT ME – but it kept coming on.

I am cancer free now. I fought my battle with cancer and won, and I fought my battle with suicide and won. I was blessed with a wife who was always there, always, and a team of amazing doctors. Not everyone has that, but everyone has something else, that is who they are. You have you.

Find a reason to live. Start with something outside of you. Inactivity is not your friend. Maybe get involved with community service, I am a Lion, I am in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, we do search and rescue on the lake. Find something outside yourself that will bring other people to you, make a phone call and start creating a network for you.

Most importantly, make a phone call.

Full speed ahead. Attack it. Just attack it. Head on. It is separate from you, remember that. Don’t attack yourself; attack the demon that is creeping in. Fight. Fight for your life. Then do something to save another life.



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