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Cancer 5 Years Later: A Parents Journey

Michael Therapy

In September 2009, Mike was holding a chemo bag.

“Cancer”, a long silence and whimpering, “Michael has tumors all over.”

The day was 09-09-09. Our family was residing in North Carolina, but I was working in Colorado, when I got the infamous call. I was fifteen hundred (1,500) miles away from my son and my brain felt like it was boiling inside my head. My buddy Kraig arranged a flight out of Denver and immediately drove me to the airport. As I waited in the terminal for my departure, I could not control my weeping or breathing. I kept sweating profusely and my heart was racing; I could not be still. The other passengers around me were staring because of my unintended, tearful outburst. I approached the service desk to explain my situation in case another traveler reported me as a “passenger with a problem.” I could not imagine being detained by TSA if I were mistaken as a security threat. I finally arrived at the Raleigh/Durham Airport and was rushed to the hospital to be with Michael. When I walked in and saw his face — looked into his eyes — my heart melted like wax.

Two days later, on Friday, 09-11-09, the morning began with the doctor diagnosing our son with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Stage 4 (four). As my wife Dena and I sat and listened to the doctor, neither of us heard one word after he said stage four (4) cancer. We were told that chemotherapy would begin that evening and were handed a very large binder containing the names of thirteen (13) drugs that would be administered to combat the disease.

The day was a blur. I remember that the hospital and waiting room was packed with friends from Apex Elementary School. Kids were lining up getting their heads buzzed to near baldness, showing love and support for Mike’s battle. It was a beautiful time for everyone. The kids were all smiling, joking around, and having fun. Just what the doctor ordered.

As the day grew late, and all visiting family and friends had gone home, our lives changed even more. The inner most part of my being was about to descend to a place the human heart should rarely sample. My wife too, is experiencing her own descriptions of the horror.

When the chemotherapy drugs were delivered, all who made contact or had involvement with the drugs were fully dressed in a protective wardrobe, including eye glasses. After the nurse hooked the bag up, the red fluid began to enter the port in his chest. In an instant he sat straight up and turned red from not being able to breathe. Alarms were going off as my wife and I watched in horror. He turned white, then blue. Everyone was running around. The head nurse yelled at one of the orderly’s to get the right size oxygen mask. I yelled as firmly as I could for her to run instead of walk! She returned with the wrong size and had to run out to retrieve the right mask.

The seconds are like hours when your kid is dying in front of you. Paula, Michael’s nurse, kept her head and saved my son’s life. She is our hero and we will never forget her. It was an hour-and-a-half of pure hell, and afterward we were all like zombies. My wife eventually passed out on the hide-a-bed next to Michael, and I knelt down and prayed at his feet the rest of the night.

I’ve had many long nights in my life related to our children’s health issues, but this night would be the longest, so I thought. I was struggling with one glaring question: If the chemotherapy does not work, what chance of survival does our son have?   The doctor’s said that they were going to try again in the morning. I wasn’t sure if my heart could handle the stress if he responded the same way again. All I could think was that our son was so brave.

The morning arrived with a team of doctors huddled outside of my son’s room. The next chemo treatment was about to begin. The hospital staff was very professional and on alert to prevent anything from going wrong. Before the treatment, the doctor pulled us aside and confessed something that actually made me happy. He said, “The Pharmacist accidentally mislabeled the bag last night; the chemo cocktail your son received was for a woman with breast cancer.” They were confident that the life and death drama only hours before was very unlikely to happen again, but pointed out that their ‘team’ was present to help if they had another incident. They took full responsibility and we were not angry at the moment. We just needed hope that the treatment would work!

We re-entered Michael’s room with smiles of love and confidence. As the red fluid began to travel down the tube I prayed fervently, begging God for mercy, even wanting to give my life in exchange for my son’s life. I was desperate. The morning passed and the day went much smoother for Michael (besides the normal side effects). After a month of being in the hospital, he was able to return home. I needed to return to work in Colorado and had to physically leave my son’s presence. This was so painful for me, a literal tearing of my heart. For the next three months my wife and eldest son Nico drove him back and forth to the chemo lab. Nico was to begin community college in Denver, but placed his plans on hold to be with his brother.

Besides the throwing up, loss of weight and baldness, Michael would drop to the ground from severe headaches that came on with ‘ice pick’ sharpness. This would go on for months. The pharmaceutical pain medication did nothing to relieve my son’s suffering.

Fifteen hundred miles away from my sick child I was reeling. My nights were filled with fear. I could not sleep or eat very much, knowing that my son was in constant pain. I would pull my hair out as I combed through the three inch binder, searching to see if the headaches were a side effect of chemo treatments. Reading all the potential side effects of chemotherapy did not help me sleep any better; it drove me deeper into fear.

I was becoming a different person. My body chemistry had changed. Food no longer tasted the same and my hair was turning grey. Knowing that my son’s pain was chronic was the most difficult and grueling part in my mind. My soul was being provoked on a level I had never experienced before. I was on the phone constantly, speaking with the doctors and trying to get my son help. In the innermost part of my being, I knew faith was all I had. I just needed to keep breathing and be strong for the rest of the family, especially my wife.

It’s now six months after Michael’s initial diagnosis. We are visiting the oncologist to follow up on his scheduled scans and blood work, and review his progress. She told us Michael had another issue going on, separate from the cancer. The scan had revealed a ‘chiari’ brain malformation. This explained all the symptoms that were unrelated to his chemotherapy treatments. Then came the hammer. “Michael will need brain surgery immediately to relieve the pressure off his spinal cord to allow the spinal fluid to flow freely again,” said his doctor.

Again, when you hear the phrase brain surgery, as a parent, the words disconnect you from reality. You begin to float, sounds echo, and fear floods your veins. All we could do was look indirectly at my sons’ nearly bald head to think that they were going to cut into his brain. Eight weeks ago he had just completed six (6) rounds of chemotherapy, four (4) blood transfusions and three (3) surgical procedures related to the cancer. Now this!

I was paralyzed in thought and speech, and remember standing in the elevator on the way down, staring at the back of Michael’s head. Boiling tears were rolling down my cheeks into my mouth. I wiped the tears before we exited the elevator so that Michael didn’t see me struggling so desperately. Also tough was watching my wife’s spirit atrophy even more –after already enduring six (6) months of cancer treatment.

Michael’s health challenges impacted our entire family, including aunts, uncles, cousins, classmates, teachers and coaches. When he was able to get out in public, his baseball team held a pizza party for him at the local hangout to encourage him. One of the coaches called me outside and started bawling because he loved my son so much. Michael was the starting shortstop and lead-off hitter for his team and they missed him very much. I only went to the baseball field one time after his diagnosis. It was tough being there without him on the field and not seeing him in the batter’s box.

Cancer really sucks, but there were profound lessons to be learned for all involved. For me personally, it was a crossing over to an entire new realm in my relationship with the divine.   I could not easily toss away my deep spiritual connection to God or His mysterious ways, but I was struggling big time. Jesus himself cried out in Psalms 22 “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me.”

This all had to add up to some significant value, and I had questions. What do you want with me God!? Am I being punished for my past sins? What am I supposed to learn and pass on to others? Am I no longer protected by your love and grace? What do I need to change?


Bitter or Better?

1- Diagnosed with cancer just a couple weeks before his thirteenth (13) birthday and needed brain surgery eight (8) weeks after chemo treatments.

2- My son was misdiagnosed nine (9) months earlier by the ENT doctor.

3- He was given the wrong prescription and almost died.

3- The orderly’s were walking instead of running to help my son.

4- I had to be separated from him due to work.

5- Chronic emotional pain due to my son’s physical pain.

6- Feeling the emotional burden and responsibility to help my wife and other two sons.

7- No more sports for a while, especially baseball.

Turning bitterness into something better.

1- My son is alive and survived cancer! His brain surgery completely cured him of his ice pick headaches and other symptoms.

2- I send positive thoughts in thinking of the ENT who misdiagnosed him. The feelings I transmit are diligence and sharp awareness.

3- Again, I send positive thoughts to the orderly’s. May they be more urgent to act with compassion when others are in need.

4-The hospital staff reported to us that they did indeed change their protocol on administering chemotherapy, which prevents other families from going through the same horror.

5-My son is a very grateful young man and has a great perspective on life. He says, “Cancer made me a better person with a purpose.”

6-My three sons are best friends, and going through this difficult time has bonded them together forever.

7- Our extended family rose to the level of helping us with everything- always serving, giving and encouraging. We are so grateful to all the special people that came into our lives during our transformation.

Honestly, I’ve been bitter and better with the hope of getting better all the time. This month, marks Michael’s full recovery from HL-4 and for this we rejoice! Even more special, is that Mike will celebrate his 18th birthday on September 27th with his family and friends! Our hearts go out to all families and parents who face the chronic emotional pain and fear/faith inducing transformation. Over time, we saw that it was extremely instrumental in finding peace and harmony between the mind, body and spirit, for this we are grateful.Michael 5 Year Photo

Today, Michael is a healthy Junior at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, Colorado. HUGE HUGS to ALL those affected by cancer! Grace and Peace…Michael J Sanicola [reprinted from the book “Big Data @ Church, Calculating the Will of God]

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