It all started after last October's One Design Fleet Championship regatta on Shilshole Bay, a Corinthian Yacht Club of Seattle tradition. It was a windy regatta, as they usually are in Seattle that time of year. Saturday's breeze, from the north, was in the low twenties and had kicked up some big waves for Laser sailing. The Laser is my winter training boat--my primary sailing gig during the past four years has been calling tactics from the pointy end of Dwaine and Deanne Trummert's Thistle, boat 3669. We ended the 2009 season on a high note, with two come-from-behind wins on the last night of racing on Lake Washington to win the night and the fall series. I love racing the Thistle, but when Lake Washington racing ends in September, I get my Laser out of the side yard, throw my drysuit in the back of the Subaru, and head across town to Shilshole Bay for some fall and winter practice with the local Laser regulars. The Fleet Champs regatta, as it's called, is kind of my warmup regatta for winter sailing. I'm not that good on the Laser, I'm a little on the light side for the boat, and have never spent the time needed to learn how to make the boat go fast. No matter, I love getting out there and racing.
That Saturday, it took me a little while to remember how to sail downwind in the big wind, and until I figured it out I was repeatedly and forcefully ejected off the boat as it capsized. But by the second race I had remembered not to let the mainsail out so far and to sail either broad-reach or by-the-lee but not dead downwind, and I managed to stay upright the rest of the day. The upwind legs, against a flood tide, were long and painful, but the downwind legs, surfing down the waves in 25 knots, were pure, scream-for-joy exhilaration. The next day, with the wind even stronger, I'm not ashamed to say that I lasted just one race before I packed it in for the regatta. But I kept the boat upright for Sunday's race and considered the regatta both great practice and great fun.
I woke up that Monday sore all over. My hands were torn up. My arms ached. My legs were jelly from hiking. And I had bumps and bruises all over my body from the capsizes I took. And I discovered a small lump on the left side of my neck. It seemed like a strange spot to get a bruise, and it wasn't black and blue, but I have tough skin that doesn't show a lot of color so I didn't think much of it. The lump didn't hurt when I pressed on it, and it was neither very hard nor very soft. Over the next few days the rest of my regatta bruises started to fade, but the lump on my neck hadn't changed. I did a web search, learned that most neck lumps are cysts or benign, enlarged lymph nodes, and did my best to ignore it.
A couple of weeks later, though, the lump hadn't gone away, and I started to get worried. I went to see my primary care physician. He felt my neck, and noted in my records that I was NAD ("no apparent distress"), which was true. At forty-seven I felt healthy and fit. Other than an occasional cold and some lower back pain, I had no reason to doubt my health. Not to worry, he told me, enlarged lymph nodes are common and in the vast majority of cases, go away on their own. Just in case, he ordered a white blood cell count, which was normal. Come back in a week if it doesn't go away, he said. And it did! Well, it almost went away. Over the next couple of weeks, the lump shrank and got a little harder, like what I imagined a cyst would feel like. In November, still feeling great, my wife, Julie, and my three year old daughter, Skye, and I went to Minneapolis for a family wedding. Putting on my tie on the morning of the ceremony, I noticed that the lump seemed to be getting bigger. I knew it was time to see a specialist.
Oto what? I couldn't even pronounce Dr. C's specialty. O-to-lar-yn-gology. ENT. Ears, nose, and throat. I was in his office at 9 AM on the Tuesday after returning from Minneapolis. He sat me in an exam chair, kind of like a dentist's chair, and felt my neck. He thread a thin, flexible tube into my right nostril and deep into my throat, viewing my vocal cords and whatever else is down there. He was young, a few years out of med school. He seemed a little excited--I was definitely not just another strep throat case, I guess. This is most likely metastatic cancer, he said, I'm just not sure what kind. He continued, telling me it could be lymphoma or even thyroid cancer. He advised me, in the same slightly excited tone, that I "wanted" it to be thyroid cancer, since those are "good cancers" and usually very curable.
I wish I could say that I took what he said in stride. That I took Dr. C's news with a sense of equanimity. That I calmly asked him questions. But his words literally knocked me out of the examination chair. I thought I was going to throw-up. He asked me if I needed a minute. I lay down with my face on the cool tile floor and stayed there until I felt like I could stand up without throwing up. When I was able to sit in the chair again, he did a biopsy of the lump right then and there, a "fine needle aspiration" (FNA) which involved sticking a sizeable needle directly into the lump and wiggling it back and forth to pull out some of the tissue. He got me set up for a CT scan of my neck the next morning and said, recognizing that I was now quite clearly in apparent distress, "Don't worry, we're going to work on this together." DON'T WORRY!?! ARE YOU CRAZY, YOU JUST TOLD ME THAT I HAVE METASTATIC CANCER! I drove home in a panic, called Julie on the cell, crawled into bed, and stayed there until I had to pick Skye up from school a couple of hours later. I decided I wouldn't tell my parents until I had more information, but I found myself dialing their number and crying as I told my father about the morning. I was forty-seven years old and crying into the phone to my father. Cancer will do that to you.
On an otherwise sunny and peaceful day in early December, my life had capsized.