Richard Dean Campbell
19 years of oral cancer survivorship!
I was born and raised in a small town in Eastern Canada next to the ocean. I sometimes wonder if the numerous factories in my small hometown played any part in my disease (I was back there in 2000 for the first time in 17 years and could not believe the number of residents that had health problems - many with cancer stories). Sports were always a big part of my life, and luckily they kept me on the proper paths, I was growing up in a highly stressed household with an alcoholic father. During the summers, baseball was a daily event until I turned 15. By that time I was a pitcher for a senior men's team. I eventually had to leave baseball when my elbow could no longer take the stress, a toll of too much use. I became interested in basketball, which even to this day is a driving force in my life. I was fortunate enough to play on a few High School Provincial Championship Teams, one in Nova Scotia and one in Alberta. My parents moved to Alberta in 1981, where I finished High School.
Early College Days
In 1982 I moved about 200 miles north to Edmonton and started technical college at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. At the time, my main reason for attending NAIT was to play basketball, and "maybe" get an education in my spare time. Survey Engineering Technology was a rather unusual course, because the first semester started in December. It was a work co-operative program, allowing six months for job experience and six months for education.
However the basketball team started in September. I believed that I had no worries, and could join in December and still be a "force" on the team but something was wrong with me that I couldn't put a finger on. I was always exhausted, I caught every single cold/flu that went around, and if someone would have let me, I could have slept 20 hours a day. I went to a few basketball practices in December where I performed well, but something I felt made me change my mind about pursuing the team. Whatever this demon was, it had zapped my energy, and even my enthusiasm for basketball. I often second guessed my decision to not pursue basketball, after all, four other players from my high school team were all playing college basketball, and I thought I was better than most of them. I took that negative energy and channeled it towards my education. I finished my first two semesters with excellent grades, but there was now a new dilemma, which I could both see and feel.
What I had developed was a sore under the left side of my tongue. I ignorantly put it off as a canker sore, but here is the truly sad part. During my first year at NAIT I relied on public transit every day. Nearly every day on that bus, I would see a sign which read "Know the Seven Signs of Cancer." And sign number three on that list? A sore that doesn't heal! Three or four months passed during which I tried to convince myself that it would heal and go away, but finally the glands in my neck became swollen. I went to my family doctor (hey, I have the mumps again I thought), anticipating some antibiotics and I would be fine. I even put off going back to my doctor for the second visit for an additional two weeks to finish writing my final exams. I had just turned 20, and other than this damn small sore, a slightly swollen neck, and always being tired, I thought that I was fine. I was still running 5 miles every other day, I had never smoked, seldom drank, (and then only in moderation), and could hold my own on the basketball court. But why was this mouth ulcer not getting better? I was far from fine. I began to suspect that something "Big" was the problem.
The Big "C" Not Me
My family doctor sent me to an ENT in Red Deer, where a biopsy confirmed the big "C". My mind raced in a million different directions ..Pinch me wake-up, wake-up what the hell is going on here? I cannot have cancer your tests are wrong I'm dying I'll just travel and enjoy life until I die cancer is for old sick people "bring it on" I'm invincible why me? just another opponent Hey Cancer, I hope you brought your best game, cause I hate losing! what do I tell my girl friend it's OK mom, I'll be fine this pisses me off yes, I'm going to die I'm not going to die, just watch!
Within days I was scheduled for a radical neck dissection to remove the tumor and lymph nodes. I stared in the mirror the night before for two hours, thinking about how I would never look the same and that is tough on a 20-year-old kid. On July 7, 1983, the doctors surgically pulled up a left pectoral flap, and used it to re-build the floor of my mouth and the 1/3 of my tongue that had to be removed. I had tubes in everywhere tracheotomy, fluid drains, catheter, feeding tube, I.V., and God knows what else. I remember that first glass of apple juice 2 days after the operation. It took an hour to drink, and more came out my nose than went into my stomach. But I felt the worst was over, and I was on my way. I was mad as hell at whatever caused this, and the whole process had generated more "fight" in me than ever before in my life. I had my high school friends supporting me (they even brought me a Playboy magazine to hospital). In seven days I was out of the hospital and ready to travel the "Road to Recovery"
Road Block Ahead
The "Road to Recovery" had a few bumps in it, but for the most part I was headed in the direction I wanted at a record pace. My weight was up to 160 lbs, and I was eating solid food, although never quite as efficiently as before the operation. I was back running almost every day, lifting some weights to strengthen what little bit of a chest muscle I had left, and feeling good both physically and mentally. I had a hard time with the disfigured/swollen face that looked back at me from the mirror each day, but I thanked God that the worst was behind me all I had left was some simple radiation thing. Wrong! Talk about a Road Block! I was not mentally ready for what was about to happen. The first shock was the removal of my wisdom teeth that had not come through yet, and then they removed my 12 year molars as well. (At the time I thought just for the hell of it.) Because of some pain still around from the prior neck surgery, I was on a rather frequent dosage of Tylenol 3. After the removal of eight teeth, that prescription for only Tylenol 3 wasn't coming close to handling what I was going through. A trip back to the oral surgeon for something stronger that would help was in order.
The radiation therapy was Hell, mainly because I wasn't prepared for what was involved. I was now in Edmonton, away from friends and family, and going to a clinic where I was just a number. Initially, I didn't take the effects of the radiation seriously. I was more worried about the fact that they actually wanted to tattoo marks on my face so they could ensure proper alignment for each treatment. (Hey, I was 20 ) The black felt pen marks were bad enough while riding the bus almost two hours each day, and then there was the hair loss in the treated areas. But after about two weeks, the real effects of the treatment, the burning in the throat and the nauseous feelings, were really getting me down. Eating required a little technique. I would take one Tylenol 3, which would hurt my throat like crazy, then wait for it to kick in so I could handle the pain of taking four more. When they finally kicked in, I would then drink a protein milk shake. It was a workable system, except for the part about throwing it up ten minutes later. My weight went down to 124 lbs. I lost my taste and my saliva dried up. I had to soak my teeth in fluoride trays for 10 minutes each night which was extremely uncomfortable with my gums raw and tender. The tissue inside my mouth burned like hell, and on the outside my skin looked and felt like toast. I was taking up to 25 Tylenol 3's a day. Surprisingly at the end of it all, I was able to stop taking them "cold turkey" one day. Somehow I got through this radiation obstacle in the road but, what an underestimation of the process on my behalf. I often thought back to my basketball days when I was a hell of a competitor on the floor, but now I had to be even more of a competitor, this time in life because losing this game was serious.
What Do You Mean Something Doesn't Look Right?
I was back at NAIT in early September the next year continuing on with my education. During a regular check-up my doctor noticed something that looked "odd" near my tongue and I was scheduled for a biopsy. The few days of uncertainty waiting for the results were tough to take. I thought, after all I had gone through, don't tell me there is more! Fortunately, everything was O.K., and it was on with my life. These kinds of insecurities and scares gradually diminished as the years from my ordeal passed.
Terry Fox Run:
Up here in Canada we have a National Hero by the name of Terry Fox. Terry lost a leg to cancer and decided to run across our country to raise awareness and money to help people affected with cancer. Terry completed about half of his journey but was overcome by the disease, before it's final completion. In his memory, the Terry Fox Run occurs every September with donations going to the Canadian Cancer society. I was determined to do the 6-mile run, (which I completed in 48 minutes!) and the support was overwhelming. For my participation in the run my sponsors raised over $800. It was at this point in time that my philosophy about what had happened was instilled in me. I began to understand that the "tough hands" are often dealt to those that can handle them.
Finishing College and Beyond
I had two more years at college in order to graduate. I was extremely conscious about my speech, swollen face, concave chest, and droopy shoulder. But I simply hung in there. On days when I was feeling particularly down, my old friend basketball helped me out. I remember that in those days, a turtleneck seemed to be an everyday piece of clothing to "cover-up" the big gash on my neck. I even wore it on summer days when it was 80 degrees out. I graduated from college in 1985 and started working for an engineering consulting firm that specialized in land development and municipal engineering. My duties were to help the surveyors, including calculations, and also do some drafting and paper shuffling. I approached my career in the same manner I approached my battle with cancer and was determined not to be held back because of anything. When other people didn't work I did. When other people did work I worked harder. I quickly climbed the ladder up into project management. One day the office sent a "Draftswoman" out to the jobsite (not the usual a place for a woman) to help me survey. But I didn't mind, she was a good person and became a good friend then my best friend ... and eventually my wife.
Many times I had thought my chances of finding anyone to spend my life with would be slim. My high school sweetheart "dropped" me as I was going through my radiation treatments, and I wasn't too keen on being hurt like that again. Meeting Maria, my new partner on the job site, was just a beginning. Now my wife, she has helped with everything else in my life as well. It took a remarkable woman to say "I DO" knowing that the other shoe could have dropped at any time. Oral cancers have a nasty rate of recurrence. We have three beautiful children of our own and are also presently Foster Parents of three other great children (that number does have a tendency to change frequently). At times fostering is very challenging, but the "tough hands" are often dealt to those that can handle them!
My daily life still has some obstacles, but I manage. My restricted esophagus has worsened over time, and probably affects my day-to-day life the most. Each night I soak a Synthroid tablet (thyroid supplement required due to the radiation damage to the thyroid gland) in water so I can mush it up and take it the next morning. I soak my breakfast toast in coffee or simply "hot water" so it goes down more easily. I usually avoid business lunches during the day, even if soup is on the menu, lots of times it is too chunky to eat comfortably or gracefully. My main food staples include mashed potatoes and gravy, clear soups/crackers, bean burritos (thanks Taco Bell), deviled ham, eggs, yogurt, and some vegetables if I boil the goodness out of them.
19 years have now passed since my diagnosis, and the other shoe has never dropped. I remain healthy and enjoy a full, happy, and wonderfully productive life. There are a few more "everyday adjustments" that I live with, and I'll just list them:
- Speaking is at times a challenge. I have a hard time with the hard "c" or "k" sound (sounds more like "t") G's are also very tough to pronounce.
- My esophagus has slowly restricted over the years. I had it stretched about 10 years ago but the result didn't seem to be worth the hassle at the time. I get something caught in my throat almost on a daily basis toast, potato chip, a chunk of egg, are the common ones. They normally dissolve, or I can rinse them down, but it is frustrating.
- Here in Canada the winters can get REALLY cold. I really must keep my face & neck covered up because with no feeling, I can freeze the flesh there without even knowing it.
- I have a bit of "dry-mouth" in the morning, but my biggest problem now is excessive saliva during the day. With a bit of a "numb" lower lip I have to be careful not to spit on people as I speak to them.
- I'm sure I have paid for my dentist's new house, his boat and his trips to Hawaii each year. The radiation really does a job on your teeth, and I don't want to even think about dentures. I've had four root canals to date, numerous fillings, but at least I don't have a denture in my mouth (I think I would have a hard time controlling it).
All in all, that's a pretty short list, and the compromises to my life are few and tolerable. Given the alternative, that I might not be here at all, they seem pretty inconsequential.
I try to give my wife as much support as I can with fostering she handles the brunt of it and I admire her dearly. And of course, I continue with basketball. In fact just recently, I coached my son's 10 & under team to a provincial championship. I also took five days off and started try-outs for my oldest son's "Club Team" that will play until mid-summer.
In hindsight, I'm not sure if I would change a thing I'm one of the fortunate ones. I often tell my players, "If something comes easy, it's probably not worth having".
Rick Campbell survivor!!!
Other non-cancer thoughts
My Best Friend Basketball
As a kid I never received much support from my Dad, (usually just criticism when he was in a "drunken stupor"). I used sports as an outlet, and a way to receive positive feedback for my efforts. Basketball was a game I could play and practice by myself basically anytime. There were Friday nights I would stay out until 3:00am shooting hoops at the local playground under a street lamp because I didn't want to be home when my Dad got back from a night of boozing. I was never athletic, but had a "drive" to be the best I could possibly be and I worked hard at it. I fell in love with the game a game (and a true friend) that has always been there for me, and that has helped me through every "hard time" in my life. I feel indebted to basketball, and as long as I can continue to coach and utilize my passion for this game, I will. Early on in my coaching days, I had dreams of coaching college basketball. I was an assistant for one year at the college level, but was in a situation where it would be a long time before I would ever be given a chance to run the team, so I went back to coaching my son's teams. If a local school team needed some one last minute, I would always say "yes". I've come to grips with the fact that I will probably never be given a chance to coach college basketball, I simply live with the comfort of knowing that maybe I'm needed elsewhere
My Greatest Basketball Memory
As a player, I was fortunate enough to play with some good people on Championship teams. As a coach, my teams have been very successful at developing "great players," and more importantly "great people". I have numerous success stories but my greatest basketball moment is as follows:
I was coaching a Jr. High team and had picked one player that year (Paul, a foster child) that had low self-esteem, virtually no skill, and no athletic ability, but worked very hard, continuing to improve throughout the year. He had a hard time fitting in with the other kids, but his confidence and pride started to develop during the season.
We were playing in our last game of the season for a bronze medal. Late in the second half, we were down by a few points and I was working in playing time for the kids that didn't get to play as much during the season, especially Paul. I remember some kids from behind our bench saying, "What is the coach doing? Why isn't he trying to win?" With under a minute left in the game a rebound came off of the rim and landed in Paul's hands. He handled it like a "hot potato" but somehow managed to shoot it back at the net and made his first basket of the season! When he turned around to get back on defense, the look on his face brought tears to my eyes he looked as if he had won the NCAA championship. We lost the game on the scoreboard that day, but I won a much more important game thank-you basketball.