“My life is full. Every day is a gift, every month is a gift, and if it turns into years, that will be a gift. I’m grateful to Dr. Chen and Fox Chase for all of that time.”
Nineteen years ago, just after I turned 60, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. I had noticed some blood in my urine, and the first doctor I talked to told me not to worry about it. Then over the next few months it got worse, and I decided to go to Fox Chase Cancer Center.
I saw Dr. David Chen, a urologic oncologist. When he told me I had bladder cancer, I told him, “Just take it out.” I wanted it gone. But he told me that removing the bladder is life changing. It’s a major surgery, and you have to wear a bag that collects your urine for the rest of your life. “We might get there, but we’re not there yet,” he said.
A Conservative Approach
He recommended first treating the cancer with an immunotherapy drug called Bacillus Calmette Guerin, also known as BCG, which comes from the bacteria that was originally used to make the tuberculosis vaccine. They insert a catheter into your urethra and inject the drug directly into your bladder, where it triggers your immune system to attack the cancer cells. It can put bladder cancer into remission.
I went in for treatment at regular intervals, every three months and then every six months, for several years, and it worked. It got rid of the bladder cancer, and I didn’t have any side effects from the treatment. I’m so grateful to Dr. Chen, and I’m glad I listened to him about not going straight to bladder removal.
A year or two later, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. They wouldn’t have discovered it if I hadn’t been going in for regular checkups on the status of the bladder cancer. After the initial biopsy they said we could just monitor the prostate cancer, which is a common practice.
But when I went back a few months later for a follow up, they found that seven of 10 biopsy samples had signs of more aggressive prostate cancer, so Dr. Chen said we should take my prostate out. He made a small incision and removed it. “We got it all,” he told me.
Round Three: Ureteral Cancer
After that I went many years without any sign of cancer. I was working, traveling, living my life. Then about two years ago, I was having some problems urinating, and I went back to see Dr. Chen. They did a CT scan and noticed a mass in my pelvis. He did some more tests and found that I had a new cancer in one of my ureters, the tube that moves urine from the kidney to the bladder.
Dr. Chen sent me to see Dr. Matthew Zibelman, a hematologist/oncologist at Fox Chase. He started me on chemotherapy, but it wasn’t as effective as he had hoped, so the next step was surgery. Dr. Chen went in and took out the ureter and kidney, since this type of cancer often involves several locations in the urinary system.
Then I had radiation therapy to target the remaining cancer in my pelvis, as well as cancerous cells in lymph nodes in my upper body. After that they tried immunotherapy, but it wasn’t working, so they switched to chemotherapy. “It’s not going to cure you, but it will slow it down and give you a better quality of life,” they told me.
That was last summer, and so far it’s working. I continue to receive the chemotherapy at regular intervals, three weeks on and one week off, and the cancer seems to have stabilized. I haven’t had many side effects.
The main one is fatigue, because my blood count is low, so I get iron infusions for that. I get a little tired sometimes, but that’s not too unusual. I am now 80 after all! Overall I feel good, and I’m enjoying my life.
Making the Most of Every Year
I have a history of cancer in my family — my grandfather, mother, and my sister all had cancer. When I was younger, I worked with chemicals that may have increased my risk. So it’s not a shock to me that I’ve had cancer three times.
Mainly, I’m just extremely grateful. The treatment I got at Fox Chase gave me 19 wonderful years. In that time, I continued working as a teacher for many more years, I had the chance to see my children get married, and meet my grandchildren and watch them grow up.
I joined a choir. I took up writing and wrote a memoir about my adventurous life. I volunteered building and maintaining hiking trails. My wife and I traveled all over the world — Borneo, Africa, Croatia, Montenegro. The life that Fox Chase gave me is incredible!
And it’s still going. For our next trip, we’re going to Norway. And I’ve taken on a new project, replacing invasive weeds with native plants and wildflowers in a creek area near our home.
My life is full. Every day is a gift, every month is a gift, and if it turns into years, that will be a gift. I’m grateful to Dr. Chen and Fox Chase for all of that time.