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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Ringing the bell

by Mike Masterson | September 10, 2022 at 3:26 a.m.


A month that seemed more like six finally ended by ringing a bell that said that day was at hand, a morning I'd believed would never arrive.

Some 50 well-wishers were on hand last Tuesday as I completed my 35th and final radiation treatment at the Claude Parrish Cancer Center in Harrison. It arrived a week after the last of seven chemotherapy sessions.

And as those valued readers who have followed my account know, what an ordeal it has been. Radiation therapist Kim Coker put it best one afternoon: "This treatment will be the toughest thing you will ever go through." She didn't exaggerate.

And just think, all this (with recovery to come) because a single squamous cell became trapped in one of my lymph nodes.

The overflow of smiling friends and well-wishers waiting to greet me in the large waiting room at the Parrish Center seemed genuinely glad to see me upright and ready to yank the bell three times for emphasis.

I tried my best to share my gratitude in a hoarse and barely audible voice simmered over weeks inside and out by radiation.

More than anything, this was a deeply moving personal moment frozen in my mind that I'll hold closely through my last breath. Here was a roomful of people who had come to watch me do something as simple as ring a brass bell. There were no egos involved or expectations, just love flowing through the room.

These folks had freely given their energy and time on this appointed day at 11:30 a.m. when they surely would have had much more to invest on their own behalf than showing up simply to support me.

Yet these good people, some from as distant as Little Rock, Springfield, Mountain Home and Joplin, had come just to spend these few minutes sharing my personal victory.

Picture for a moment what that means, especially in a world increasingly preoccupied with self. I know how much it meant to me.

When this lifetime is done and all that remains of each of us in those final moments are memories, which of those will have been more important than those we have shared with others? It certainly it won't be everything we acquired or achieved to benefit or aggrandize ourselves. At that moment those might seem to have been almost futile.

In recent weeks I've described much of what those facing this therapy for cancer in the head and neck can expect, wherever they choose to have it done.

From the day a patient arrives, preparations begin to fashion an individual plastic, cage-like mask that radiation therapists strap tightly to their head beneath the radiation gantry.

It's critical one remains perfectly still as the machine twirls, shifts and pauses to emit its beam 360 degrees above your head for several minutes.

The process itself is painless. Just lay there, close your eyes and pretend to take a nap. It's not until afterwards that one's throat, tongue, the sensitive inside of your mouth and outer neck began to show the effects.

And you do this five days a week for seven weeks.

You lose your sense of taste and appetite and likely reach the point of no longer being able to swallow enough food to avoid losing more than 10 percent of your body weight, since that could lessen the effects of the therapy. Sleep becomes relegated to an hour here and there.

For me, and perhaps as many as half of the other patients, that means surgically installing a feeding tube that's filled multiple times daily with a liquid diet (in my case, being diabetic, therapeutic-level Glucerna) to hopefully achieve that goal.

Also, as with me, you might have a port inserted beneath the skin on your chest so chemotherapists will have ready and regular access to complete their work.

To do otherwise for most of us would mean trying to achieve those goals through one's veins. Unlike many others, I was fortunate enough not to have the predictable side effects from my chemo.

Believe me, the continual bombardment of radiation provided all I could tolerate, right up until even today as I write this, the day after ringing the bell, when the outside of my neck on either side stings worse than ever and is even blistering as a send off.

And that damnable continual flow of thick mucus persists day and night.

My oncologist, Dr. Arnold Smith, says I can expect these effects to last about week before slowly subsiding. In other words, about as long as it takes for a bad sunburn to heal. I can only hope he is right.

And so the process went, much of which I've described for readers since late July. Early on, it seemed it would last the rest of my life. Now that it's officially completed, in some ways it still does.

Still speaking philosophically and honestly, I have other thoughts about an almost 76-year-old man in the winter of his lifetime choosing to undergo this therapy to remain alive.

For someone like myself, the ordeal to remain for loved ones was worthwhile, as it would have been had I faced the decision years before. They are the driving force in my quality of life.

Yet I also believe there comes a time with enough decades under our belts and the certainty that without question some malady is going to claim us in the not-too-distant future, to accept the end.

Gosh knows we have plenty of maladies under various names waiting out there to steal our quality of life and physical bodies.

And so we each must come face-to-face with ourselves. Accept reality or not, life allows no other choice but at some point to leave this strange place we've come to consider familiar.

As a result of my ongoing experience into lengthy recovery, which six months ago I never expected (and will continue to tell you about), I have become stronger spiritually and altered in subtle ways that are difficult to explain. The overall quality of life I have known certainly will be changed in various ways from what it was last summer.

I continue to hope that sharing my experiences with the beast within has benefited your own perspectives.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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