For some people, it seems that certain themes define and guide their lives. I feel that is true for me with two major elements – faith and helping others - seem to run as common threads throughout what I’ve lived so far. I hope that by sharing my story, you the reader, may gain insights or inspiration to help with your own journey.
For a long time, I have felt as if I should be helping others through sharing life experiences – hopefully, helping others have faith and strength. There is a saying that cats have nine lives. Well, this cat has probably burned through seven of those nine lives and I feel an overwhelming purpose in my life to share with others.
My colon cancer was probably the tipping point for me. A disclaimer – the majority of this story was written during treatment and chemo when emotions were very raw and at times confusing. So the abbreviated story begins:
My Formative Years
Ever since I can remember I have felt like I had a story to tell. I grew up the youngest of three boys - the others four and five years ahead of me. We lived on a small horse ranch on the edge of town. Looking back, I think of my childhood as “Huck Finn on horseback.”
As a child I had asthma. At times, this caused confusion since I couldn’t always enjoy the outdoors and I didn’t truly understand why. But as a child I would think of the song "Jesus loves me this I know, because the bible tells me so," and my impulse would be to live my life fully and not worry since I just knew I was loved and would be okay. So, out the door I would run to play with no further thought. So what if the neighbor was haying, harvesting corn, cutting weeds, mowing the yard? I was simply able to focus on my belief and faith so I learned early that it would sustain me.
That same steadfast belief continued to endure through other childhood events as well.
At the age of 5, I almost drowned when I dove into the pool and hit my head. To this day I can still feel the rush of water into my sinus cavity and I could see myself floating into the deep end of the pool. Next thing I knew I was being resuscitated and I could see the guards and paramedics surrounding me on the pool deck as they worked on me. But when I awoke the next morning in the hospital and was as healthy as any normal day.
When I was 7, my oldest brother was racing a tractor down a dirt road with me sitting on the small fender. When we hit what we kids called a “washboard” of bumps I was vaulted in front of the rear tire and was run over by the large wheel. I jumped up off the ground with a large tire track running across the back of my white t-shirt. I was crying but trying to act tough in front of the older kids who saw the whole thing. They raced me to the farm house where their father washed me up only to discover only a small scrape on my chin. He was a large man of men with a gentle hand who held me and said "you are a lucky boy son."
When I got to be 9 years of age (what was it about those odd-numbered years?), I was riding my horse on a gravel road. We were just about at the crest of a small ridge with the horse and I down in the ditch at the edge of the road, when a very old truck fully loaded with gravel approached, traveling at a fairly fast rate of speed. Suddenly, my horse jumped into the middle of the road. I remember seeing the look on the driver's face. He was a friend of my fathers. Hearing the tires sliding in the gravel I struggled to stay on the horse. We were both surprised when the driver successfully stopped the truck within a very short distance, but not before it jolted the horse and me 3 or 4 feet. I darted home as fast as I could on that horse. Later on my father asked me if I was aware of what had happened. (I wasn't). His friend had contacted him and was very shaken and wondered if I was okay. My father’s friend stated there was no reason that truck was capable of getting stopped other than “There was someone upstairs watching over that boy.”
Next, at 12 years of age, with my father at the window doing dishes, I wandered out of the house to ride my motocross bike. I raced down the gravel road to my favorite hay field for just another day of summer fun. Once in the hay field, I raced faster and faster (45 mph) towards the opening which was guarded by trees. I hadn't jumped the road lately, but... BOOM... the world suddenly went silent. Incoherent on the ground, I heard the frantic voice of my neighbor telling me, "Kirk we will be at the doctor’s office soon." From the doctor’s office, we went to the local hospital, then on to the Des Moines hospital, not knowing if I would make it. The next morning I awoke to find my father sleeping in a chair next to me. I had monitors all over my body. I began poking the device on my chest to watch the monitor rise and fall with each tap. Nurses ran into the room, my father woke up, and I sat there in bed wondering what all the fuss was, since I felt fine with no notable bumps or bruises.
When I was 14, I was in a car accident when my friend and I were riding home from a basketball game. At 70 mph, the friend passed a car and swerved to miss an oncoming car. We began to slide sideways down the road, hit the edge of the road and went airborne. I was thrown from the car. When I awoke I was laying on my back with my right armed pinned under me. The car was on its top, with the engine roaring, wheels spinning, radio playing, and gas pouring out. I was in the path of the car, but it had missed me. Three days in the hospital resting with a sore back and broken arm, maybe you think it was just my youth, but my life was good and I attributed it to my faith and belief system.
In my thirties several of my colleagues and I endured an armed hostile takeover at the bank I managed. At the age of 43, I underwent shoulder reconstruction and repair of a blown Achilles tendon. In my mid-forties with two healthy kids, many years under my belt, and living what I felt was a normal mid-western life and I felt my adult life was settled and I couldn’t envision any complications. I had been to two cardiologists within the past 5 years to examine what I thought was stress but they found nothing. I was healthy. I had just completed a health screening at work by our insurance provider and everything seemed fine. Still, in the summer of 2009 I was feeling really stressed with tension in my chest (INSERT - just found out I’m GLUTEN intolerant May 2014. Colon cancer may have had an ally all these years). The only time it would calm down was when I was in a full body workout – just taxing my body to its full potential. This type of workout became my therapy. So the summer progressed with work, kid’s ball games, water skiing, etc.. All was great, except I was still hurting with tension. My sister-in-law is a doctor. She felt I was stressed due to work. She and I discussed my condition throughout the summer, so by October when I called her one morning from the parking lot of work, she had heard enough. She called a doctor friend and asked that I have a full workup of tests. The day came loaded with anxiety. I had no symptoms of anything other than chest tension. The doctor first drew blood to find I was anemic. During the exam, I mentioned that I had a tender spot on the right side of my abdomen. She gently pressed with one finger in a manner only a doctor can do. I almost jumped off the table. She left the room immediately and said I needed to see a specialist for further internal exam and she asked if I had a preference. My ex-wife has Crohn's disease so I already knew a great doctor. My doctor knew her as well and my exam was scheduled within a day or two. I went home full of anxiety. In a day or two my father and I went back to Des Moines for the upper and lower tests. The colonoscopy found the mass. All I remember is waking up and hearing, "Kirk we found a mass". The rest of the details about the day are a blur due to medicine and pure fear. It was close to Thanksgiving, so my mind was about family and mainly about my two children.
We didn't know much and were waiting to talk with my sister-in-law when she arrived on Thanksgiving Day to tell us more. I wasn't asking questions. Part of me didn't want to know. My sister-in-law arrived to tell me in a doctor’s tone that I did have cancer and that it was the size of a racquetball. The mass was smooth and apparently had been growing for approximately ten years. I still thought I was going to be fine. I went through the day as if I was a rock, but inside, I was full of fear. By late afternoon I was a wreck. My kids had left with their mother to attend their other grandparent’s events for the evening. I held it together until I felt it was time to go home.
As I was ready to walk out the door, I burst into tears and darted to my truck. I wanted to get home to be by myself and soak all this in. I spent the next week or so reading the bible at night and crying by myself. Each time I opened the children’s bible I had received as a kid, I would read a scripture that referred to this statement, "believe in me and you will be saved." I was somewhat comforted by this process.
After Thanksgiving, I proceeded through the medical system, met a surgeon, and was told he would do the procedure laproscopically. All was well until I heard “3 weeks till surgery.” We left the appointment with me determined I was not going to wait. At first, nothing worked. The system was full and the holidays were approaching. A childhood friend called me. She heard about my cancer and my struggle with waiting. She happened to be on the Board of Directors for a cancer center and thought I could use some comfort. She asked if I wanted a second opinion and I said yes. I requested my records be sent to the cancer center. He was a lead surgeon and very busy, but he agreed to look at my case. He called me on a Thursday evening on his way home from work. I was at a university basketball game and it was loud, so I went behind the bleachers to talk. He had reviewed my records and was surprised with my age and diagnosis. He stated that this should not be happening because I was “too young,” but suggested that if we got aggressive he thought he could give me a great shot at beating the cancer. He wanted to do it the “old-fashioned” way and reach in to see what he could find to remove any and all areas of concern. I liked what I heard and asked when we could start. This was on Thursday December 3. He said be in my office Monday for tests and we'll operate Tuesday December 8, 2009.
Then, it felt like time stood still. I was reeling with anxiety, searching for answers and comfort. I have faith and live it, but I am not scholarly about it. Despite my long history of believing, my faith was being challenged. Didn’t all the early years of examples mean something? Was this a wake-up call? Should I be sharing the story of my faith? In desperation and full of panic, I searched through the bible night after night looking for help that I would be okay. Then, late one night, just days before surgery, I opened the children’s bible again, and got nothing. NOTHING! Nothing on the page made any sense! I was devastated. The kids were just down the hall asleep and I began to silently cry. How would I continue? What was I going to do? I didn't want to die. Just a couple nights before when the kids were at their mom’s I sat up in bed in the middle of the night, sobbing, and said, "God I don't want to die!" Well, here I was lying in bed, bible not making any sense and I needed to be quiet so the kids didn't hear my fear. I lay back in bed and began to close the bible, fearing the worst, when all of a sudden, WHAM, it hit me!!! At the top of the page – a page full of words that I could not make any sense or association with – were five words. On the very page that had sent me reeling with fear, in the far upper corner of page 688, were the words, "Tell others God saved you." Calm came over me at that very moment. I was going to be okay and I truly believed it. After all, every accident I had as a child had demonstrated my unshakeable faith. I just needed to draw on those experiences from my youth to provide me with proof and reassurance as an adult.
But this wasn’t childhood and I was about to be more challenged than ever before. Surgery was approaching and my father was anxious. The weather forecast was threatening and he was determined I not miss this surgery. After all, he had lost his oldest son to testicular cancer in 1995 and he was not about to lose his youngest. He booked a hotel room in Des Moines for the night before surgery. That day, the storm arrived and it snowed and snowed. We checked into the room, put away our things and my father drifted off to sleep. I couldn't sleep, but I didn't want to wake him. I had the urge to document my story, but it was late. Still, I couldn't shake the urge. I got out of bed and wandered around the dark hotel room looking for paper and a pen by cell phone light. Once I found them I climbed back into bed, got under the blankets, and proceeded to write seven pages of notes by cell phone light about my experiences to date – I suppose, trying to make sense out of my story. My last page of notes read as follows: This is being written the night before surgery. I feel a strong sense that I am to share my story, to give others strength. Tell others God saved you page 688. This message at 11:05 p.m. Monday 12/7/2009 is being written in Des Moines, Iowa, Chase Suites, Room 812 by cell phone light. I believe, I have faith. I will sleep peacefully tonight and awake ready for the day. My ministry begins tonight. Kirk :-) P.S. Dad is snoring so loud I may not sleep, but it's a beautiful sound!!! (These notes lay dormant in my home until December 31, 2010 when Vanessa Smith called me to encourage me to speak).
Tuesday morning: We traveled to the hospital not speaking much, but did make some small talk with me being positive by saying, “I will be okay.” We checked in, family members said their love things, and then I was wheeled off to surgery. My impressions were about bright lights, cold, and people everywhere. Upon waking from surgery, I was in severe pain. My stomach was convulsing every five seconds and all I could do was moan with this excruciating noise. I remember being asked to be silent in respect for the other recovery patients, but I couldn't help it. My stomach was being turned inside out and I didn’t like it. Later I was wheeled to my room with family waiting. I itched, hurt, and dozed in and out of consciousness. The surgeon came up and said surgery went well and appeared successful. He had taken out a large section of my colon and 25 lymph nodes. Further tests would show that two of these were showing signs of cancer – Stage 3B or C, I believe. Lymph nodes being detected meant the need for chemo. Evening came and the nurses were persistent that I get up and walk so my system would begin functioning again. We walked what seemed like forever, but I'm sure it wasn’t more than thirty feet. I don't remember much about that first night other than having a roommate who had the same procedure. He was up all night on his cell phone trying to help a renter get his furnace back on in the severe snow storm. What a night that was!
By early morning I was raw from itching all night. I was reacting to the pain medicine and all the anti-everything. I was on pain meds, anti-itch, anti-this and anti-that... The next thing I knew I was being injected with another anti medicine that turned out to be the beginning of the end of meds. Whatever just went in me was not good, I remember. I went numb and my heart began racing. Nurses were scrambling in and out of my room. At one point a nurse darts into the room to say she called the pharmacy and what I was given was irreversible. I boldly let out a half coherent directive of "That's it!" "No more meds!" "I'm done!" "I will not take another thing!" This did not go over well with the nurses, but after convincing them that I was in control of the pain pump and that all would be well, they sent my surgeon to see me and he and I agreed that if I could take the pain I could cease all pain meds. So, the morning after surgery I went off all pain meds other than a pill now and then to take the edge off. Under these circumstances, life was better. I hurt, but my head was clear. I spent the remaining 5 days laying in bed during the day and sleeping in a wooden chair at night. I walked and walked and walked as much as I could take. My determination was returning and I was going to beat this. If the goal was to walk I would walk. Each day there was a goal. Walk, use the restroom, remove catheters... each day had a goal and I worked hard to meet or exceed that goal.
Six days after surgery I was released and sent home to recover. I spent weeks recovering and spent Christmas with my family and enjoyed every minute of it (so I repeatedly said, though still in lots of pain).
I was referred to an Oncologist who had worked with my step-mother twice for breast cancer. He was the best. We scheduled surgery for the port, and then chemo began every two weeks.
I don't remember the names of all the chemicals. I approached this phase with, “The less I know the less I stress.” Plus, that’s what the medical team was trained to do. My regimen was to be three hours of chemo followed by 48 hours of a pump every two weeks. The first treatment went well for the first 2.5 hours. Then the gates broke loose and I began to vomit over and over. I didn't bother moving. I just grabbed the trash can and sat on the edge of the bed. The nurses stopped the chemo to try and let me recover, and then summoned the doctor. I can still hear him today as he walked down the hall and the nurses told him they had stopped the chemo. "You did what?" "You pour all that XXXX to that young man he can take!" He walked in my room and asked if I could take it and I said, “Yes let's proceed.” I spent the night in the hospital and was released the next morning.
Every time after I was given a large amount of anti-this and that. As soon as the chemo was done I would take more anti items in the restroom and race down for the pump. My driver would race to get the car and meet me at the front door. Why hurry so much? I had a bucket waiting for me in the car where I proceeded to vomit for the next 2 hours, but as long as I got out of the hospital they wouldn't know and wouldn't keep me.
My treatments were cut to 5 months. It was never easy and I ended up in the hospital two separate times for dehydration – once for a week and another time for 3 days. I did get to watch all four rounds of the Master's. Plus, thanks to BlackBerry, email and Facebook, I was still very much connected to the world.
Four years later and I can look back and smile at the journey. This has been a life changing experience for me and has made me a better person and much more compassionate. I am very thankful for the love of my children and family and we focus on finding the good in each day. Submitting my story as it was written years ago has been a challenge for me. Opening up to the raw emotion and re-reading the details exposes an area of my life that I kept private. I share my story in hopes that others can gain strength. Go get tested!! I am passionate about our health and the food we eat. I recently found out that I cannot eat GLUTEN and it makes me question if all those years of inflammation played a role with my health.