Journey by Robert Garcia- Copyright 2015
This May will mark three years since I underwent major cancer surgery; a 7-hour operation that resulted in the removal of more than half my stomach, about 10% of my liver and my gall bladder. Five months earlier I had suffered a perforated ulcer, a dangerous situation in which I was within an hour or two of going into full-fledged septic shock, which would have been fatal. The ulcer saved my life because it was a follow-up endoscopy a few months later that found the cancer that would later be removed.
All’s well that ends well and I have been cancer-free ever since. The smaller stomach has allowed me to maintain my girlish figure. The liver regenerates, so no loss at all really. With no offense to God’s design, the gall bladder, whose main function seems to be processing fatty foods, I have not missed for a single moment.
After a combined 15 weeks of recovery from the two operations- I returned to work and got back into the swing of life, and I wrote the song, Journey. My Producer, Jeff Severson, says he thinks it’s the first time anyone has ever rhymed the words “journey” and “gurney.” One would hope it doesn’t happen too often.
The inspiration for the song actually came after the first operation when a friend of mine drove me home from the hospital and it felt in some strange way like I’d just been let out of prison. I’d been in there for a very long 7 days and I was just grateful to be alive. As the beginning of the song notes, the leaves were starting to change- Fall had arrived. The colors were beautiful. The cold nip in the air was refreshing. Like the tune says- “so much better than being dead.” And that’s the story I try to impart in Journey– the appreciation for a second chance at life.
Half way through the project, I decided to drop the song from the album. Musically, Jeff and I were not really connecting on it. It also seemed like a totally self-absorbed story. Lots of people go through stuff like this- what makes me so special and why should anyone give a crap what I have to say on the subject? But Jeff convinced me to put the tune back in. He pointed out that several hundred people had supported me and went along through my little health odyssey with me, following the thing on my blog and on Facebook; they might be interested in my take on all this.
I decided to make the song brief and to produce it as basically as humanly possible. No separate vocal and guitar tracks. No other instrumentation of any kind. I asked Jeff to just set me up like I was playing at a café or something. A mic on my voice, a mic on the acoustic guitar- and we’d record what amounts to a live performance.
So we did the first take. The song ended, and the last drop of sound from the harmonic that closed the tune faded into silence. Jeff turned and said, “That’s it.”
One take. First take. Bam.
I swear I could play Journey a hundred times over and it will never sound as spot-on as the version we recorded that day. It would be the very last thing we recorded for the album.
By Robert Garcia
Somewhere along a tree-lined road
I lost a heavy load
The leaves were turning orange and yellow and red
I was thinking to myself
This so much better than being dead
It’s been a journey
It’s been a long, long trail
I was lying on a gurney
Just an hour or two from heaven or hell
You learn to take things a day at a time
Sometimes an hour at a time
Sometimes, well, there’s no time at all
Sometimes, time flies- next thing you know it’s the fall
It’s been a Journey
It’s been a long, long trail
But it’s really kind of lucky
To have yourself another chance to prevail
I ain’t ready to say goodbye now
I ain’t ready to say farewell
Taking off into the deep, blue sky
Climbing back onto the carousel
It’s been a Journey
It’s been a long, long trail
And it occurs to me
It’s time to unfurl that sail
And so it goes
And here we go
Wherever the wind will blow
Robert Garcia- Copyright 2015
Dylan’s Ghost- Songs of a Lifetime is available for digital download at I-Tunes, CD Baby, and Amazon Music. Purists who would like a hard copy of the CD can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll make arrangements to ship it out to you.
There’s nothing like a good, sensational Ebola scare. Sure, Americans have virtually zero chance of contracting the disease. But that doesn’t keep 40% of the public from calling it a serious or moderate health threat. ISIS scares the bejesus out of us too. Some 70% of Americans in a CNN poll says ISIS has the capability of attacking the United States, even though you’d be hard pressed to find a single military analyst who would agree with the notion they’re anything more than a regional threat.
Here, the facts- the things you are way more likely to die of than Ebola or ISIS:
Being in a car: 30,000 people die every year in car accidents. If that many people were killed every year by terrorism, we would have built a gigantic moat around the entire nation and invaded 73 more countries. According to the National Safety Council, what are the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident in the United States? It’s 1 in 112.
Being legally executed: What are the odds you’ll be convicted of a felony and then be put to death? Way more probable than getting Ebola. The National Safety Council says there is a 1 in 96,203 chance you will die from legal execution.
The Flu: Though safer than driving in a car, 23,000 Americans die every year from the Flu. But- Oh My God…where can I get a vaccine for that? Anywhere and for free, if you have a health insurance card.
Falling Down: Yup- there’s a 1 in 152 chance you will die by falling down. About 2 million times the chance of getting killed in a terrorist act or by Ebola.
Unintentional poisoning by and exposure to noxious substances: Chances of dying this way are 1 in 119. Right up there with car accidents.
Intentional Self-harm: 1 in 103.
Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease: It’s the second largest killer in the country- there’s a 1 in 29 chance you will die of lung disease.
Heart Disease and Cancer: The #1 killers in America. One in 7 will die from heart disease or cancer.
In an excellent article in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki, summarizes the odd, but quite common psychology we all fall victim to:
At work here is the curiously divergent and inconsistent way most of us think about risk. As a myriad of studies have shown, we tend to underestimate the risk of common perils and overestimate the risk of novel events. We fret about dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash, but don’t spend much time worrying about dying in a car accident. We pay more attention to the danger of Ebola than to the far more relevant danger of flu, or of obesity or heart disease. It’s as if, in certain circumstances, the more frequently something kills, the less anxiety-producing we find it.
Facts, are, indeed, stubborn things. Fear, however, is both stubborn and widespread.
I still find it hard to believe I received a cancer diagnosis almost a year ago. The tumor that was discovered in the stomach was surgically removed last May and there are no signs of any return of the disease though I suppose you’re never really certain enough to declare victory over such a thing, pretty much ever.
One of the courses of treatment you take to prevent the return of cancer via the bloodstream is chemo therapy in pill form- a much more civilized, seriously less horrible alternative than the kind of chemo you get intravenously. It’s called Xeloda and it’s a rather amazing drug. When used to actually attack tumors, it has an excellent track record of shrinking if not annihilating them. And for preventive purposes, as I used them, there is strong statistical evidence they do the job as well.
They are no picnic. Extreme fatigue is one of the effects, along with nausea and uncomfortable things that can happen to your hands and feet. I started taking them July 1st and they gave me weekends off to recover.
I take the last of the pills tonight and I’m done which is worth celebrating- but also kind of scary. As long as you take them, you feel like you’re doing something proactively to keep cancer from coming back. When you’re done with them, it is apparently quite normal to feel like you’re operating without a safety net.
Except you‘re not. My doctors at Georgetown tell me there is new research that indicates that minimal, regular exercise, to the tune of 45 minutes a day of even casual walking, has just as strong a statistical correlation for cancer prevention as chemo-therapy. About a week after they told me this, there it was in the Washington Post- same research-same conclusion.
This is good news for me as I don’t own a car and I actually already walk 36 minutes a day back and forth to the subway. Hopefully, the weekends I was using to physically recover from the effects of the chemo drugs will now be filled with more energy and a little less couch potato action.
This is the last time I intend to blog about this whole thing. It was, honestly, very helpful to me to write about this journey from fear to good health. It’s been a long path, but one that need not be revisited. I continue to be incredibly grateful to my friends, family and colleagues for the tremendous support, love and prayers, all of which worked remarkably well. Thank you all.
And now on to the business of living.
It’s been an interesting journey to say the least but I am officially back at work at NPR today. So far so good. My colleagues have been so very kind and welcoming. I did not wilt in the heat. I did not get hit by cars in the street. My Dr. Seuss imitation will not be beat.
It’s been 7 weeks since the big cancer surgery. It feels like it’s my very first day at school. I went through the checklist before I left the apartment in the morning. Metro card- check. Reading glasses without which I would be blind- check. Cash- check. Sharpened #2 pencils- not necessary but you know what I mean.
My son, Charlie came up from Nashville and visited me over the weekend. “So how do you feel about going back to work, Dad?” The appropriate, manly, puritan work-ethic response would be, “Can’t wait!” The reality is that it’s another transition in a series of them.
First, a day before surgery you prepare yourself as best you can for uncertainty and what will be a long period of recovery. Psychologically, it’s like you get in the fetal position, let them do what they need to do and then just deal with it. I got through my 7 days of indignity at the hospital. The nurses and docs were all great, but it is just not possible to lie in bed with a tube attached to your nose that goes into your stomach or wear flimsy little hospital gowns and maintain any sense of decorum.
Then there’s the transition home and recovery. It’s a tricky business. You need to rest and sleep. You also need to walk and stay active. Too much rest and you just turn into a tub of Jell-O and your aches and pains get worse not better. Too much activity, and you get ashen-faced and literally hope you didn’t just bust a stitch.
A big transition, frankly, is when they take those stitches out. It’s hard to feel normal when you look down and see 36 metal staples holding your stomach together. After those puppies are gone, you start feeling a little less like Frankenstein.
And what did you do with all that time off, Robert? Well, I’d like to say I did research into the mating habits of Bonobo monkees or wrote a paper that helped to further define Einstein’s theory of general relativity. But, no. I read some great books. I watched three entire seasons of the Walking Dead (because who doesn’t enjoy eviscerating zombies) and two seasons of the Sopranos (which explains why I was overly distraught about the demise of James Gandolfini last week). I walked just about every day. Took in a couple of Nats games because, really, what an honor to be able to watch the worst offense in baseball in the past 30 years. And I completed a 5K walk in memory of my late colleague, Brenda Box, and in the process, raised a little money to fight pancreatic cancer.
And mostly, I attempted to accustom myself to the new rebuilt me. I call it Garcia 3.0. They took out a whole lot of my stomach so eating is a different kind of thing now. I can pretty much consume whatever I want, just smaller quantities, more often. I’m sometimes on the edge of nausea but it never lasts long. It happens if I don’t eat enough, eat too much and this is really interesting- when people get repetitive and annoying, particularly people on cable TV.
Next week, I start taking these chemotherapy pills. Hugely better than having to get infusions. The strategy as I understand it from my doctor, is to take 2 pills in the morning, 2 pills at night, Monday through Friday and do the best you can. You get weekends off to recover. On Fridays, they tell me, I’ll be beat and worn to a nub. But this particular regimen rarely results in either nausea or hair loss. Should I be the rare exception and lose my hair however, I’m telling you right now- I’m getting an earring.
So you take as much of this as you can for a minimum of four months, preferably six. Japanese doctors have their stomach cancer patients take the pills for a year. And when completed, presto! Cancer stays gone and 5-year survivability rates increase from 50 to 70%.
Next transition- getting home from work!
I am so psyched and happy to say that I’ve signed up to participate in a 5K Walk, June 15th, benefiting Purple Stride, an organization dedicated to fighting pancreatic cancer, which claimed a much beloved colleague and friend earlier this year.
Brenda Box was the afternoon editor with NPR’s Newscast unit. A kinder, warmer, funnier, sharper, smarter journalist-human will never be found. Here is a tribute to Brenda from a few months back. Accomplishing this 5K for her and in her memory is going to be very special to me. As Brenda’s health deteriorated last year, I developed a few complications of my own. It bonded us a bit more than most, I think. The very day I had an endoscopy this year that would find the cancer in my tummy that I’ve had to deal with, was also the day of Brenda’s memorial service which I proudly, if woozily, attended (they put you out for an endoscopy).
I walk about a mile a day now. Basically, to complete a 5K you take about 4,800 to 5,000 steps. I can easily handle about 2,400 currently. But I’ve got two weeks to build up to it. I can do this. It’s one hour of walking, for Christ’s sake.
One of the reasons for 5K walks like this, of course, is to raise money for the cause. Here’s a link if you would like to sponsor my walk. The group I’m with at Purple Stride is called the Boxtops. I would be very proud to raise money for any organization dedicated to the fight against any cancer.
I’m doing this for Brenda because I will always love her. And I’m doing it for me so I can prove to myself that I can take 5,000 steps six weeks after major cancer surgery. In some silly way, I feel like I’m taking the torch from Brenda, and having been given the gift of a curable cancer, that I am literally finishing the race for her. That will be her gentle push at my back. And her prankster foot I dodge in her ill-fated attempt to trip me. I’m on to you, Brenda.
The following account includes details of human biology that could make normal people a little queasy. It’s an honest account and, I might add, a therapeutic one for the author.
Last time somebody opened up my stomach and took a gander it was all quite spontaneous. You see, the stomach is supposed to be a sterile environment. But in my case last October, an undiagnosed ulcer perforated. It was a mess. Suffice to say I was en route to getting numerous rapid and intense infections that would make me, if left unattended- a dead man by morning. But waking up that day not knowing I would later be taking an ambulance ride to the ER had its advantages. At least I had no idea what was about to take place.
Now, some six months later, after an endoscopy performed to check on my progress from the perforated ulcer operation discovered- oops- a tumor- they’re going to open me up again. Only this time I know exactly when; 8am, ET, Thursday, May 2nd, 2013. They’ve blocked off 6 and half hours of operating room time to get a 1 to 2 centimeter superficial carcinoma out of my body and cure me. I’m grateful for that. It was caught early. Stomach cancer is not curable in later stages. And, of course, to be on the safe side, cancer-fighting doctors are using an AK-47 to wipe out a gnat, so they’re also going to remove 60 to 70% of my stomach.
I am likely to be going from being an overweight former smoker, to being a perpetually slender and much healthier former smoker. God works in mysterious ways.
But the knowing is not fun. I am sentimentally enjoying meals I know I am not going to be having again for six months. Even sipping from a water bottle is a luxury. In less than 24 hours, I will be lying in a Georgetown University hospital bed with a tube running from my nose into my stomach while an IV pushes saline solution, antibiotics and painkillers into my bloodstream. No water or even crushed ice for at least 2 to 3 days. You get nothing but a moist tooth brush type thing to keep your mouth sort of hydrated. You know it’s bad when you start salivating at the mere thought of green Jell-O. Forget solid food for 3 to 4 weeks. Welcome to the wonderful world of nutritionists teaching you how to eat six small meals a day.
I generally have a very good attitude about these health things. But only because I suspect I’m going to live to laugh about it. I would not be this sanguine if the situation were dire. Still, dark thoughts enter the mind from time to time. Will this be the 5% of operations that have complications? What happens if they mess up the anesthesia and you have a massive coronary or something? Do you see the white light and the tunnel and everything if you’re knocked out on heavy drugs? Who do I bitch to about a bad outcome if I’m, like, dead? Will they get all of it so I can avoid post-operative chemotherapy? What if it’s worse than they thought and I awake from the operation and they tell me the whole stomach or some other organ is gone?
But then I remember they have done about 3 bazillion tests on me so they have a pretty good idea of what they’re dealing with. I have Dr. Waddah Al-Refaie, Surgeon-in-Chief (that’s his actual title) of the Vince Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University performing the operation. I also realize how fortunate I am to be alive in this day and time when there is so much knowledge about these terrible diseases that used to be death sentences. Perhaps most importantly, I remember there are so many folks so worse off than me and my stupid stomach.
I have a health directive in place. Finances are in order. My peeps know who to call if stuff goes south.
To my many wonderful family, friends and co-workers with whom I have shared the cancer news in recent weeks and who have been so sweet and supportive- THANK YOU! But just because it’s early stage cancer and an operation may cure me, doesn’t mean you can stop praying. No siree. Keep those going please. Especially from 8am-2pm on Thursday, May 2nd.
Speaking of prayers- here’s an Irish joke somewhat appropriate for the occasion:
An Irishman is flustered not being able to find a parking space in a large mall’s parking lot.
“Lord,” he prays,” I can’t stand this. If you open a space up for me, I swear I’ll give up drinking me whiskey, and I promise to go to church every single Sunday.”
Suddenly, the clouds part and the sun shines on an empty parking spot. Without hesitation, the man says, “Never mind, found one!”
Well, this sucks. Yet, it could be so much worse! I’ve been diagnosed with what appears to be early stage stomach cancer. It sounds awful, I know, but it doesn’t feel that awful on this end.
The immediate big freak-out when a doctor suggests you have the Big C is primal: Oh jeez, how much time? So getting a pretty substantial hint that what I have is actually curable is just fine, thank you very much. I’ll get through surgery, maybe a little chemo, have a real crappy 6 to 8 weeks and then get on with it.
That’s the plan anyway, though no one ever knows what unintended crap lies out there. For example, my very excellent doctor suggests there is a possibility that treatment for a cancer I beat 14 years ago, may be the culprit today. I got a lot of radiation for a bout with testicular cancer back in 1999. The tiny little, 2cm tumor currently residing in my tummy may be the price paid for a cure nearly two decades ago.
But fight, I must! I really do love life a lot.
Unlike Japan, by the way, stomach cancer sufferers in the United States don’t get diagnosed until its too late most of the time. In Japan, stomach cancer is more prevalent so they screen the general population and nip the cancers in the bud as soon as the first signs show up. Some Japanese surgeons are so talented, experienced and meticulous that they can narrow in on and remove specific numbers of tiny, individual lymph nodes without damaging surrounding areas. They are the rock stars of the kind of gastric surgery I’m facing here.
Fortunately and ironically, I had an operation just last Fall for a perforated ulcer that introduced me to the wonderful world of intubation, liquid diets (terrific for weight loss) and Dilaudid (best pain killer ever). When they did an endoscopy to check things out a few months later, they found that little 2cm bump. Just like the Japanese would do in a regular screening.
So if we’re keeping score here, I get radiation treatment for a cancer I beat 14 years ago and it turns out to have potentially given me a cancer that was found last week because I was lucky enough to have developed an ulcer that nearly killed me last year. I knew God had a sense of humor- but that’s kind of dark even by Tim Burton standards.
Anyway, the only thing keeping me from taking a trip to Tokyo is Georgetown University’s Vince Lombardi Cancer Center and Dr. Thomas Butler, my kind, funny, smart, wise physician with the Virginia Cancer Specialists group. I trust these guys to fix me up in a way that preserves both my dignity and my health. They’re smart and they get it.
Let’s do this.