I truly believe you’re meant to meet the people you’re supposed to meet, but the life circumstances that create the rarest of rare meetings is what I would call, serendipitous.
For those of you following my life with appendix cancer, you know that it’s a rare form of cancer - so rare, there’s approximately 1-2 cases per 1 million individuals.
There’s no genetic, familial or environmental factors associated with this disease and it doesn’t run in families. As a result, there’s little research on it. I’ve mentioned in the past how difficult it is to not be able to talk to someone who’s experiencing the same thing because every cancer and treatment is different. So, imagine if you were the one case per 1 million people, and you find out that the second case is right here in Washington state living next door to you.
One Degree of Separation
To clarify, I’ve been spending some quarantine time in Umtanum Creek in Ellensburg, WA along the Yakima River Canyon. My beloved Bruce has been working on a project at a riverfront resort and except for the neighboring residents, we’re the only two here.
Just the other day, he walks in for lunch and tells me he ran into his long-time friends who live in a cabin next to the property.
*Fred and Sally (names changed for privacy) are husband and wife and both are doctors in Seattle. It was known Sally had cancer, but little did Bruce know that it was . . . wait for it . . . appendiceal cancer.
Here, in a remote area along the Yakima River, are the 2 cases per 1 million individuals living with appendix cancer!
I stood frozen in the kitchen speechless and in shock as Bruce was telling me this. I was overcome with so much emotion, I nearly dropped my wine glass, but I wanted . . . no . . . I needed to meet Sally right away! I knew she would know exactly what I was going through and I was intrigued to pick her brain on what was yet to come in terms of chemotherapy.
Sally’s story runs over the course of 2 years. She was on a train en route to Salem, OR in 2017 to see the solar eclipse when she came down with acute appendicitis. She spent 4 days at Salem General Hospital where the doctors told her that her appendix had perforated and surgery was too risky. Antibiotics were prescribed to dial down the inflammation with hope that the bacteria would die out and surgery could be avoided overall.
Sally healed and remained pain -free for over a year, although she never quite felt the same.
In early 2019, she and her husband were at the Miami airport returning from a trip to Cuba. They ate dinner and both got ill with apparent food poisoning. The only difference was Fred eventually got better, but Sally didn’t. Concerned with some other symptoms, Sally went back to her doctor and found out appendicitis struck again and this time, there was an emergency appendectomy.
Soon after, she gets the news that she had Stage 4 cancer in her appendix and would need to have the right side of her colon removed.
Let’s just recap this fortuitous encounter, shall we?
Sally and I not only have appendix cancer in common, but our misfortune happened the same way:
Initial antibiotic treatment
Second wave of appendicitis (hers within a year, mine within 2 weeks)
Stage 4 tumor
Even Sally’s doctors discussed the HIPEC procedure as a possibility.
Cocktails and Cancer
Practicing our social distancing, we met Fred and Sally for a cocktail at their house and talked. Hell, coronavirus or not, there’s no way we’d have a conversation about cancer without a drink!
What makes this even better is that Sally just completed the exact same chemotherapy treatment I’m about to have. She too, was on an IV infusion + pill based treatment for 6 months.
I asked her questions about side effects, expectations, etc.
Her husband, Fred had a valuable perspective as a partner observing and supporting.
They had a great deal of friends in the medical field that gave them a very good prognosis and just like me, there was a Tumor Board involved in Sally’s treatment plan. The only difference between Sally and I, is that I’m about to go through this at the height of a world pandemic.
Masks Up. Gloves On.
As the threat of coronavirus lessens for most people, it greatly increases for me. Both Sally and Fred recommend I take extra steps to guard my immunity more than usual. Simple things like grocery shopping are Bruce's responsibility for the next 6 months. In addition, since I have to keep my circle very small, Bruce will be the only person able to accompany me to my IV chemotherapy sessions.
Bruce will have his own challenges to endure throughout all of this. Did you know cancer patients can shed chemo to their partners for a small period of time? That means no sharing of drinking glasses, wiping down the toilet after each use, and more. It’s basically partner distancing for the first couple of days into each chemo round.
While everyone reacts to chemo differently, I'll be tired. Really, really tired.
Sally had her chemotherapy treatment from May to October of 2019. I’ll be having mine from May to October 2020.
Even that coincidence is fucking amazing!
I can’t begin to explain the level of relief, comfort, and commiseration between Sally and me. I gained a newer sense of understanding my disease through her experience, perhaps even better than the numerous doctor consultations.
In the middle of the Yakima Canyon, a long ways from Seattle, two one-in-a-million shots came together.
Now that is serendipity defined.