Dan Berdahl: Writing the Next Chapter After Bladder and Colon Cancer

“Thanks to Fox Chase, I’m back to doing what I enjoy. My wife and I are planning to head back to Florida for spring training, a year after my diagnosis.”
‐Dan Berdahl

I’ve been blessed with good health my entire life and retired in 2016 from a career in manufacturing and sales management. During my retirement, I went in a different direction and wrote two novels. Then, at age 87, I was diagnosed with bladder and colon cancer.

In February 2023, I was on the auto train with my wife Janice, to whom I’ve been married 62 years. We were heading down to Florida to watch the Phillies at spring training like we have for the last 15 years.

In the middle of the night, I awoke to use our bathroom, which is very unusual for me, and I noticed my urine was cloudy. When we arrived in Florida, I called my urologist back home.

He had been monitoring a mass at the neck of my prostate that he suspected was scar tissue from an old procedure. He referred me to a urologist in Florida, and when an ultrasound showed that the mass was suspect, we cut our trip short.

Back home, my urologist tried to remove the tumor with a minimally invasive procedure. When that didn’t work, he referred me to Dr. Rosalia Viterbo, a urologic surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center who specializes in robotic surgery.

Overcoming Chemo Fears

I met with Dr. Viterbo and Dr. Pooja Ghatalia, a Fox Chase medical oncologist. They ordered an upper body CT scan that confirmed that I had cancer in my bladder near the prostate. It also showed a worrisome dark spot in my colon. We agreed that I should go for three rounds of low-dose chemotherapy followed by surgery.

To be honest, the idea of chemotherapy at this stage of an otherwise very healthy life was a shock. My primary physician even prescribed anti-anxiety medication to help me deal with my emotions.

But when I went in for my first day of chemo, the nurses were very positive and reassuring in getting me settled. And as I looked around the room, I noticed there were many others, all kinds of people, young and old, different races and all sizes.

I had been feeling so scared and alone, thinking, “Why is this happening to me.” But looking around the treatment pod at my fellow patients, I realized I was not alone. It was a spiritual experience, and I still get emotional thinking about it.

Each round of chemo consisted of three days in a row of treatment, followed by a three-week break. The first day of each round was the longest, taking several hours. The second and third days were about an hour and a half each. In the end, it wasn’t that bad. Besides a little fatigue, I had almost no side effects.

Surgery Gets the Cancer

After chemotherapy, Dr. Viterbo recommended a colonoscopy to check out that dark spot in my colon. It turned out I had four polyps, one cancerous and the other three suspicious. So Dr. Viterbo brought in Dr. Jeffrey Farma, a surgical oncologist who specializes in colorectal cancer, to help with my case. The plan was for the two of them to work together in a single minimally invasive robotic surgery that lasted over eight hours.

I lost my bladder, my prostate, my appendix, and about six inches of my colon, but I also lost the cancer. When I woke up, they told me they felt they had removed it all. A subsequent CAT scan confirmed I was cancer free.

The 10 days I spent in the hospital were not easy. I can’t sleep on my back, and I couldn’t turn on my side, so I didn’t sleep well. I was grateful for the prayers of my family members and friends, but I didn’t need them to visit or call. It was an intensely private time.

My wife was there frequently, but I told her it wasn’t necessary for her to be there every day. But one morning, after a sleepless and particularly rough night, I hit my bottom. I called her and she came immediately. All I needed was to hold her hand and look at her face. I knew things would be alright.

Back to Enjoying Life

Dr. Viterbo said it would take about six weeks to fully recover, and she nailed it. Six weeks after surgery, I was up and getting comfortable with my “new normal.” The biggest challenge was getting used to the ostomy bag, an external bag to collect urine. But Pam Jakubek, one of my nurses, was a great help in showing me how to use it. Other than that, my recovery was uneventful.

I’m incredibly grateful to Dr. Viterbo and Dr. Farma for their surgical skill and remarkable stamina in undertaking such a long procedure and for adding years to my life. Everyone I met at Fox Chase, from the receptionists and schedulers to the nurses on the second floor recovery unit, were amazingly positive and reassuring. Even the housekeepers were upbeat and caring. They are truly friends for life.

Thanks to Fox Chase, I’m back to doing what I enjoy. My wife and I are planning to head back to Florida for spring training, a year after my diagnosis. It’s not lost on me that I will be required to return to Fox Chase periodically for reassessment, but I look forward to those opportunities to visit my many new friends.

I’m about 6,000 words into my third novel, the last of my “Little Man, Old Man” trilogy. I love writing fiction, because it’s so absorbing to develop the characters, to give them life. My second book, “Why Not Me,” is about to be published on Amazon. I’ve named three of my characters after chemo nurses with whom I began this journey into recovery at Fox Chase.

Learn more about treatment for bladder cancer and colon cancer at Fox Chase Cancer Center.