Mark Barkawitz

29 AGAIN & OTHER CANCER-FIGHTING STORIES

What would you do with your own Fountain of Youth?

A book about cancer that isn’t a bummer!

 

29 Again & Other Cancer-Fighting StoriesIt’s a pleasant, Sunday morning, mid-January, in sunny Southern California.  You’re breezing-along the streets on a training run for a half-marathon you’ve entered in two weeks—confident in your conditioning—when you suddenly hear a pop in your back and feel as if you’ve been shot!  The broken vertebra in your spine is misdiagnosed by your orthopedist as the result of “a birth defect.”

Nine months and seven doctors later, you’ve traded-in your surfboard for a four-wheeled walker with hand brakes, when your general practitioner instead informs you that you have an incurable blood and bone cancer and may die in as little as two days without treatment.  And even with treatment, your doctor advises: “Better make plans—just in case.” You survive the weekend.  On Monday, your just-referred oncologist further diagnoses your cancer as Stage-3, informing you: “And with multiple myeloma, there is no stage-four—you’re already dead.”

Such was the diagnosis author Mark Barkawitz received in October of 2010.   Fear and anger were the orders of the day.  He soon found himself immersed as a patient in the rapidly changing/improving world of 21st century cancer treatment, stem cell transplant and all.  Buoyed by an indomitable spirit and the determination of an athlete, hope rose from the depths of depression.  His quest for survival—for his family and himself—is inimitably-narrated with self-described “gallows humor.”

We all have family or friends, who’ve been diagnosed with one form of cancer or another.  This inspirational book is a must-read for anyone who has been affected by this life-threatening disease.

50% of all proceeds from this book will be donated to City of Hope.

 

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Excerpt

I got my stem cell transplant on June 6, 2011 at City of Hope Hospital.  As Helena the nurse hung the IV bag with my reconditioned stem cells—autologous; self-donated—she said to me:

“Congratulations, today is your new birthday.” She spoke behind a paper breather-mask and wore blue, nitrile gloves for my protection.  “Happy birthday, Marathon Man.”

“Thanks, Helena.”

The staff in the hospital had already taken to calling me Marathon Man because I usually wore one of my L.A. Marathon T-shirts on my daily walk around the corridors of our wing.  I likewise had to wear nitrile gloves and a paper breather-mask when I left my environmentally-controlled room, so my face was partially-obscured to the nurses and doctors at their stations and other patients in their rooms with their doors and curtains sometimes opened like neighbors.  Thus my T-shirt—with its stickman personification of runners under a palm tree—was my most prominent feature; that and my full head of hair, the roots of which had somehow held snugly—unlike most of the other male patients in this wing—throughout my cancer treatments thus far.  The trek around our wing was 1/8th of a mile—I tried to do a-mile-a-day—so most saw me repeatedly on my laps, often giving me the thumbs-up signal, sometimes cheering me on: “Go, Marathon Man!”

It was a hopeful day for me all right but far from happy.  95% of the cancer in my system had been obliterated by six months of chemo, two massive doses of which they’d IVed into me two days prior.  And I still had a broken back from the blood and bone cancer—multiple myeloma—that had spawned in and deteriorated my marrow, so I was in a lot of pain.  But there was hope now that I could actually beat this thing.  I decided to give myself a birthday present and took the day off from my walk.  I threw-up instead.

 

When I awoke the morning after my new birthday, my pillowcase was covered with hair.  Damn.  I didn’t know if it was the result of the double-dose of chemo—the strongest my system had yet endured—or the stem cell transplant.  Didn’t matter.  I brushed it carefully in the mirror but my hair collected in the bristles.   And in the shower drain.   And on my bath towel.

I held out a couple more days, then asked Helena the nurse to shave my head like the others.  It looked okay in the mirror, but my naked noggin was freezing cold!  The knitted cap they’d supplied me made my scalp and forehead itch.  So I took a T-shirt and stuck the neck hole over my head down to my ears, wearing it like a pharaoh’s headdress until my bald head acclimated itself to the coolness of the room’s controlled climate.  Who knew?

 

To harvest my stem cells and because the entire transplant process required so much intravenous work, my new oncologist Dr. Htut (pronounced “Tut” like the long-ago Egyptian king) at City of Hope had prescribed a Hickman catheter for my treatment.  As such, I’d had tubes surgically-implanted just below my neck, attached to my subclavian vein and some artery down in my chest.  Sort of like a bolo tie with an insie and an outsie hose.  I hated it at first—having to clean it daily so the incision wouldn’t get infected, the way it hung out of my chest like a symbol of my infirmity—but it sure was useful in here.  During my entire incarceration (that’s what it felt like), I never got stuck with a single needle!  The nurses just hung an IV bag with whatever Dr. Htut wanted to put inside of me and screwed it into my Hickman catheter.  Voila!  So unlike most of the other patients who likewise walked the halls, I was one of the few who didn’t have to drag along my IV bag (or bags) on a stainless-steel, me-and-my-shadow IV stand on wheels.  The nurses just unscrewed me each day around noon for my daily walks—the best part of my days.  So even with my broken back, I usually lapped the other patients.   Go, Marathon Man!  Go!

 

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