Cancer, My Brother, and Me

My brother Michael many years ago

My brother Michael many years ago

One year ago, December 14, 2012, my younger brother died of squamous cell oral cancer. He had a sore on the top left side of his tongue about half the size of a pencil eraser that wouldn’t go away. He had it diagnosed early. Michael didn’t smoke or chew. He drank lightly. He died one and one-half years later. He was 50 when he was diagnosed. His wife Amy and their two sons, my parents, my sister, me, my wife and son, the extended family, and all his friends still miss him.

This will be our first Thanksgiving without him. And his killer-dog mashed potatoes.

In the fall of 2006, I was 48. My wife, a nurse, noticed a ‘funny looking thing’ just in front of my left tragus; the nubby part of one’s ear. It was about 0.5 cm across. Diagnosed as melanoma in situ, I had it removed without incident. It returned, one year later, as Stage II melanoma. After six hours of biopsy, and one four hour surgery, the tumor was gone. I spent hours and hours during my twenties in the sun.  I was not shocked to learn I had skin cancer. I became very nervous when I learned it was melanoma.

Here I sit, my brother’s Boswell. Two men. Two lesions. Both smaller in diameter than a pencil eraser. We lose my brother. I survived. I tell the story.

Michael lost most of his tongue in his first surgery at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. He had several muscles in his neck and his lymph nodes removed. His tongue was rebuilt with muscle and skin from his forearm. A tube was threaded through his abdominal wall and embedded in his stomach for feeding. He would later need electrolysis on his re-built tongue to kill off his arm hair. This amused him greatly.

Michael underwent chemotherapy. He had his head bolted to a table and underwent 30 radiation treatments. Michael attended physical therapy. He learned to use his new tongue and began to speak in a high-pitched voice which his youngest son Max learned to imitate. This amused Michael greatly.

He went back to work. A few hours, as he was easily exhausted.  He attended school events again. He watched his elder son Sam’s baseball games. It seemed that life was heading towards normalcy. He discovered another lesion; larger and much more painfully aggressive than the first.

His surgery was terrifying. His mandible was removed and a custom machined titanium duplicate was installed. The prosthesis was anchored with bolts and with bone ‘harvested’ from his fibula. His newly rebuilt tongue was removed. Much of the musculature in his mouth was removed. Surgeons also removed muscles in his chest wall, neck, and shoulder. He remained in intensive care for weeks, slowly healing from this nineteen hour procedure.

He was in pain. He was scared. He was willing to do anything to stay alive for the sake of Amy and his boys. Lacking a tongue to manipulate saliva and mucus towards his throat, he could go nowhere without his suction machine. Michael had no tongue.

Our tongues. We tell people we love them with it. We kiss with it. We express disgust with it. We taste with it. We talk with it. Through therapy, my brother Michael was learning to make his way without such a primal organ. A good athlete, Michael drove himself so hard in therapy that he would return home soaked in sweat, ready for a lengthy nap.

Michael nearly died from a bleed in his mouth several months later. The mucosa of his mouth was severely damaged by the radiation therapy and he was bleeding uncontrollably. We hustled him to a local Flint hospital. They chose to chopper him to Detroit so his surgical team at Henry Ford Hospital would be in charge. A fog bank blew in and grounded the helo. Michael texted me. “I damn near bleed to death and I don’t even get to ride in a chopper. Crap.”

The bleed was a harbinger. A new, massive tumor had begun to grow on the ‘good side’ of Michael’s mouth. The tumor forced its way through the paper thin mucosa lining his lower jaw. Another biopsy was performed, although we all knew the outcome. I drove him to the biopsy. I held his hand in the car on the way home.

Michael died at home, on his couch, at 6:15 am, on a Friday morning. He was surrounded by family.  His dog Sadie lay on the floor at his side. Sadie stayed with Michael after his passing until the men from the funeral home arrived.

My brother was courageous, even when he was scared. He found humor everywhere, even when overcome with the grief in the knowledge that he would not see his sons grow up. He was filled with love and optimism, even when he and Amy spoke of her raising their sons without him.

Six years earlier, I underwent ten hours of procedures and surgery. Surgeons removed four square inches of my face; from skin down to the bone, to clear out all the traces of my melanoma.

And here I sit, my brother’s Boswell. Two men. Two lesions. Both smaller in diameter than a pencil eraser. We lose my brother. I survived. I tell the story.

 

My brother was courageous and strong, powerful and graceful, gentle and warm.

Mikey loved the work of John Irving. One of his favorites was A Prayer for Owen Meany; “If you care about something you have to protect it – If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” Michael did everything he could, until he could do no more, to protect those he loved most- Amy, Sam, and Max.

As I think about my brother, I remember Last Night in Twisted River-“Thus we try to keep our heroes alive; hence we remember them.”

And here I sit, my brother’s Boswell. I choose to remember my hero.

 

I tell my melanoma story on my blog Rants & Mutters. . Just search for “Melanoma; It Started with a Freckle.”

There are too many posts about Michael to list them all. Search for “Brother”. Please, take a moment to read the eulogy I delivered. You can find it here.

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The Beginning
About David Stanley

Teacher & science guy, writer, musician, coach, skier and bike racer, I am interested… in everything; your story, food & spirits and music and everything in the natural world, spirit & sport. My son is 22 and still needs his Dad. I am 56 and so do I.
I blog on life and death, cancer and sports, kids and education at http://dstan58.blogspot.com/

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