“My Voice” by Steve Schoger

Steve Schoger - 'Survivor'

What it means to me to be a co-survivor?

In my video I said that being a survivor meant conquering the disease.  I didn’t mean to be smug.  All survivors know that cancer can rear its ugly head and bite when we are least expecting it.  And I realize that there are others that may be survivors and are still fighting.  For those I hope and pray that they may continue the fight and win the battle, and that eventually we all win the war against cancer.

My wife, Jody, also a survivor and featured right before me on “Voices of Survivors”, is approaching twelve years since her detection.  Her cancer experience was very eye opening and made my cancer seem like a bout of the flu.  In neither cancer experience did we panic.  We gathered facts.  Saw and talked to the doctors.  Evaluated the treatment options.   Kept moving forward to the end game….survivorship!

My melanoma arguably should have been diagnosed and treated a year or more earlier than it was.  Since my mid-30’s I saw a family doctor or internist yearly.  Having access to a physical, with a reasonable co-pay, increases your odds of an early diagnosis.  Having said that, it’s important for all of us to remember that docs are not omniscient.  For example, when my internist said he was “not worried about ‘it’ “(the mole that was malignant), I should have scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist and had it checked out myself.

Sometimes we like to hear reassuring words from the doc that everything is “ok”.  We should not rely on that above all else, or avoid getting a second opinion from someone with more expertise.   It is just good preventative medicine to have periodical exams by a dermatologist as well as an internist, particularly if you may have risk factors, such as fair skin, a life of sun exposure, or family history of skin cancer.  [This applies to other diseases as well!]

It was July 1, 2003 when a dermatologist took a biopsy of the suspicious looking mole on my left ear, a year and three months after the internist dismissed it.  Things got serious.  I was diagnosed with a   Stage III melanoma (due to its thickness). I did not panic or freak out with the diagnosis.  I was told to call MDACC and make an appointment.  I did.  Tests were run.  Surgery was scheduled.  I did not change my life during the five weeks from the phone call to the operating table.  I remember going to my niece’s wedding in Louisville and having a good time with my family.  I continued with my frequent bike rides.  The cancer cells weren’t going to swarm like fire ants and had probably been growing for many as ten years undetected.

The post- surgery recovery period was worse than the removal.  A silver-dollar sized piece of my ear was excised by the surgical oncologist and reconstructed by a plastic surgeon during a six-hour operation.  The retractors that were holding open the incision in my neck for the removal of the lymph nodes ended up pinching the nerve to my vocal cord.  I did not know that at the time…in fact I gagged on the first drink of water during the post op recovery.  I developed a chronic cough that would not stop.  My biggest fear was that I would be without my speaking voice.  I even ordered a voice amplifier so that I could carry on a conversation.  Fortunately I found that there were solutions.  I hooked up with a very good throat doc who surgically put in a temporary vocal fold implant, and the nerve repatched itself.  My voice returned!   Nerves can repair themselves, but it is a slow process at an inch a year…as slow as the growth of the sequoia cactus!

Two and a half years after diagnosis, during a routine semiannual check-up, my oncologist Dr. Ross noticed something that looked suspicious on the treated ear.  He thought it was a keratosis, but decided to biopsy it.  The report came back ten days later as melanoma.  Dr. Ross wanted to do more radical surgery.  I was not convinced that taking another ear chunk was the only solution.  After consulting with the radiation oncologist, we all agreed to treatment that involved less invasive surgery followed by radiation of the ear and neck area.  I liked treating a larger area than could be reached by surgery only.   What if there were undetectable cancer cells in the lymph nodes?  Today, four years later, I have had no complications from the radiation treatment.
I also if there were clinical trials that I may be eligible for.   I qualified for one testing a melanoma vaccine.  I liked the idea of a vaccine to boost my body’s defense network plus the trial provided additional diagnostic testing and excellent monitoring, including scans (MRI of the brain and CT scans of the internal organs, possible metastatic sites).  My last set of scans will be in January 2010.  If these are negative, no additional scans will be done.   While, I don’t expect to have any issues, I am anxious to hear the results.

As a survivor, you always has to be “listening” for symptoms and “listening” to your body.  I will be getting my third colonoscopy in January, at age 57.  On the first one that I had at age 51, some benign polyps were discovered and removed.  And my father had colon cancer (three times), and he is a survivor at age 86.  Examination for prostate cancer, continued visits to my oncologist and dermatologist will be scheduled at least annually.
I am not afraid of what the doc will find.  Maybe that is partly due to my faith in God.  Maybe it is partly due to everything that my wife, Jody, went through on becoming a survivor of her breast cancer, which I thought was a much tougher battle than what I faced.  Maybe it is also because I have been an analytical person, knowing that testing leads to solutions and answers,  that we can deal with.  And getting answers or information on your disease, helps you understand what you are dealing with.  I believe we need to increase our odds by our own actions.  We need to live a healthy lifestyle,  eat healthy and exercise, until all these things become routine.

In other words, take control of your life. I love the often quoted words of Churchill, “Never. Never.  Never give up!”  Run your body like you would your business.  You wouldn’t ignore your business, and the last thing you should ignore is your health.   While you might be feeling good at the age you are right now, you want to have quality of life in your 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and more!  So start taking control of your life now.  It is never, never, never too late to start!