Roy Exum: A Tale Of Three Brothers

Monday, July 15, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There is a story of three brothers who, after growing up through a lively childhood with one another, were each besieged by cancer during adulthood. The first brother, after being told initially he was terminally ill and had only three months to live at the most, was a fighter and stretched his death sentence into 10 more years of having fun.

The second was told he had cancer one morning and died the very next day. Earlier he had been sprayed repeatedly with Agent Orange as a two-tour Marine in the jungles of Vietnam. But years later, just 30 hours after he learned he cancer, he slipped away the next afternoon in such a peaceful way he never needed the first pain pill.

How about that? One brother – told he was terminal -- lives life large for another 10 years, the other brother dies in less than two days. That’s the way life goes, funny with its twists and turns, and, boy, I’ve have thought about that a lot lately. That is because I am the third brother.

A follow-up MRI study last week – simply routine after my recent Mayo visit -- showed I have some suspicious and abnormal lesions on several of my ribs since my last chest scan. Further, I have pronounced and hyperintense bone marrow in “multiple right hemithorax bones.” It also appears that a good number of my lymph nodes are now questionable and even the soft tissue “indicates aggressive pathology despite negative biopsies.” I’ll bet I have read that radiologist report a dozen times.

We won’t know anything for sure until a thoracic surgeon can perform an open biopsy on the most inflamed rib, but I’ll admit I’ve been awfully sick ever since my arm broke in my sleep seven weeks ago. The only thing worse is that I’m not getting a bit better. I still can’t go for four hours without a pain pill and some anti-nausea medicine. Let’s face it, as far as I am concerned, the third brother now has cancer, too.

My younger brother, Franklin, found out he had a vicious cancer during a routine insurance physical. He had a mass wrapped around his heart’s aorta and was told it was inoperable. A surgical genius at Emory in Atlanta disagreed, shrunk the tumor with chemo and radiation, and took out one lung. Ten years later Franklin died on Oct. 21, 2001, at age 45.

Three years after that funeral my older brother, Kinch, was admitted to a Florida hospital in the late spring with pain in his lungs. His lungs were clear but an accompanying scan showed cancer was literally everywhere else. He was told the next day. That was on a Thursday morning. Word traveled fast to his fishing buddies in north Florida and that very night they had a big fish fry in the hospital parking lot. They all told funny stories and drank beer. The next day Kinch died, this on the afternoon of May 21, 2004, at the age of 56.

I am now 64 and when I woke one morning seven weeks ago I thought I had a “crick” in my shoulder. As the morning went by, it hurt worse so I dropped by the doctor’s office. That afternoon I was shocked when the doctor called and said my arm was broken in two places. A subsequent CT scan revealed I had also broken other bones in recent weeks but, curiously, they never seemed to hurt. Doctors at Erlanger Hospital were stymied when every conceivable test came back negative during the long days that followed.

I then spent two weeks at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, this just last month, and based on every test and biopsy you can imagine, was told that, well, maybe my osteomyelitis was flaring up, or that maybe I had a “burst” of some type where my body went into shock after I “probably rolled over in my sleep” and the arm popped. But then came the shoulder. Then rib No. 1, then ribs 7 and 9. Everybody agreed something was real wrong but what could it be? At least it wasn’t cancer, thank goodness.

I would never, ever, blame any those who promised me, both at Erlanger and at Mayo, “We know one thing for sure. You do not have cancer.” Yet no one could ever explain why the pain, the pathological fractures, the unquenchable thirst, the fatigue and the ever-present nausea – all classic symptoms of Multiple Myeloma – were so relentless, not ebbing so much as an inch over these last seven weeks.

So as I declare “if it looks like a duck and waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” the very worst thing we can do is moan and wail and wear sack cloth. My philosophy hasn’t wavered since I was told last Wednesday the MRI was pretty bad – let’s deal with it and move on. As I have said often, I don’t need hand-wringing or sympathy cards or dour faces. Tell me jokes instead. Pour me some more iced tea. Laugh with me.

The truth is most cancers are no longer fatal diseases – they are now called “chronic” diseases and people can live with them for a long time. Another fact is we don’t even know what kind I’ve got and the biggest thing I’ve heard this summer is that no cancer case is ever the same. Mayo Clinic’s cancer website should be a “must read” for every patient because it is chock-full of hope, dramatic new treatments, and one success story after another.

Not long ago – again this after I had been roundly assured I did not have cancer – I wrote a story saying I felt like I had won the lottery, but also wondering, in my public way, about what I might have done if I did. What decisions you would have to make? Well, looks like I am getting ready to walk down that road but with my family and friends, my doctors and the gracious Lord above, I’m pretty confident we will make the right turns.

Remember, not until they do an open biopsy will any of us really know what is going on and, to be perfectly honest, I could have scurvy or beriberi or worms. But let’s take a new tact: rather than promising me I don’t, let’s take the view that I do … and then let’s meet the dragon head-on with a firm-set jaw.

I’ve had well over a hundred people in the last few weeks tell me or write how happy they are that all the tests and biopsies were negative. I was, too, believe me how thankful I was, but, since Wednesday, I’ve thought about what Coach Bryant used to say, “In a crisis, don’t hide behind anything or anybody. They’re going to find you anyway.”

While I’ve been hesitant to share this latest down-turn, along with the fact I ain’t had a lick of relief from whatever it is that has had such a strangle-grip on me, there is no sense hiding from it or acting like the elephant in my room isn’t there. I fully expect my doctors to confirm by the end of this week or maybe the next that what we thought at the very beginning is now coming true. People’s bones don’t just break in their sleep. And I’ve never been as thirsty or felt so sick.

That said, when the diagnosis finally comes, the third brother will obviously wonder, “Do I have two days or 10 years?” Or, maybe instead, “By gumbo, why don’t I try to set a family record!”

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