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Feeling grateful: My cancer survival story

A man takes a picture of himself in a mirror in a medical center.

Nicholas Pilch, 60th Air Mobility Wing public affairs photographer, takes a picture of himself in the mirror, March 31, 2020, at the Hematology/Oncology Clinic in David Grant USAF Medical Center, Travis Air Force Base, California. While the world was grappling with COVID-19, Pilch underwent chemotherapy for testicular cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

A nurse in blue scrubs cleans a man's chemo-port located on his chest.

U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Kylee Bolinder, 60th Inpatient Squadron registered nurse, cleans a Power Port with an alcohol pad on Nicholas Pilch, 60th Air Mobility Wing public affairs photographer, in preparation for an infusion during chemotherapy treatment, May 12, 2020, at the Hematology/Oncology Clinic in David Grant USAF Medical Center, Travis Air Force Base, California. While the world was grappling with COVID-19, Pilch underwent chemotherapy for testicular cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

A man lays on his couch and watches a cooking show on TV.

Nicholas Pilch, 60th Air Mobility Wing public affairs photographer, rests on his couch while watching TV, March 31, 2020, at his residence in Vacaville, California. While the world was grappling with COVID-19, Pilch underwent chemotherapy for testicular cancer. Pilch watched cooking shows to try and get an appetite after chemo treatments. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

A man sits in a chair with tubes connected to his body while he receives chemotherapy.

Nicholas Pilch, 60th Air Mobility Wing public affairs photographer, receives a transfusion of chemotherapy, May 12, 2020, at the Hematology/Oncology Clinic in David Grant USAF Medical Center, Travis Air Force Base, California. While the world was grappling with COVID-19, Pilch underwent chemotherapy for testicular cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

A man creates a meal in his kitchen.

Nicholas Pilch, 60th Air Mobility Wing public affairs photographer, prepares a snack, April 21, 2020, at his residence in Vacaville, California. While the world was grappling with COVID-19, Pilch underwent chemotherapy for testicular cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

A man sitting in a chair looking out of the frame.

Nicholas Pilch, 60th Air Mobility Wing public affairs photographer, receives a transfusion of chemotherapy, May 15, 2020, at the Hematology/Oncology Clinic in David Grant USAF Medical Center, Travis Air Force Base, California. While the world was grappling with COVID-19, Pilch underwent chemotherapy for testicular cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

A man presses a button on a bell in a medical center.

Nicholas Pilch, 60th Air Mobility Wing public affairs photographer, rings the bell after completing chemotherapy, May 15, 2020, at the Hematology/Oncology Clinic in David Grant USAF Medical Center, Travis Air Force Base, California. Ringing the bell after cancer treatment is a significant milestone after completing a treatment cycle. (U.S. Air Force photo by Nicholas Pilch)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Cancer is scary, treatment is chilling and nothing about cancer is fun. Every November is Men’s Health Awareness Month, but this “Movember,” it hit so much closer to home.

 

Thanksgiving, we’re told, is a time to take inventory of what we have in life, to give thanks and be grateful. I am grateful for my family, friends, and co-workers, but most importantly, my health.

 

In 2011, I discovered a lump on one of my testicles. The doctor treated it as an infection, and I was given antibiotics. It wasn’t until eight years later that I was sent to get an ultrasound.

 

Jan. 9, 2020 when I had my first CT scan, my urologist wanted to remove the tumor immediately. A few days later, on Jan. 16, 2020 my doctor at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Martinez, California, removed the tumor via orchiectomy. This felt like I was losing a part of me, though I was happy to have the tumor removed.

 

For what felt like an eternity, I waited for the call that delivered my biopsy results.

 

The call came. It was a germ cell tumor that came with a diagnosis of stage IIIA testicular cancer. For nine years, from 2011 to the time it was removed in January 2020, cancer was spreading through my body. Being fraught with anxiety and worry about so many other things in my life this added stress — turned my life upside down.

 

I had swollen lymph nodes everywhere, and the cancer spread from my groin to my neck, but thankfully it hadn’t spread to my brain. The first thing I did was Google my chance of survival which was just under 70% with a 10-year survival rate. This put me in a terrible place, a place my mind goes still, even after all this time.

 

I never thought I would find myself in an oncologists’ office wondering what stage of cancer I had or having to determine potential treatment plans.

 

I had two chemotherapy treatment options. Option one was a cocktail of three drugs over nine weeks — one week on, two weeks off, rinse and repeat — and I’d be in the Hematology/Oncology clinic Monday through Friday. A side effect for this option was the possibility of long-term lung damage, and though I’ve never had the desire to skydive or scuba-dive, I didn’t want to take those experiences off the table.

 

I decided on option two, which was two drugs, etoposide and cisplatin. I’d have to undergo 12 weeks of chemo — one week on, two off, rinse and repeat — for four cycles. This was still a stressful decision because I was adding an extra treatment cycle; I had to get a chemo-port installed in my jugular vein, in my chest — which made me feel part robot. Additionally, I’d still have a slew of side-effects to manage to include a decrease in appetite.

 

This was one of the worst side effects, and because I wasn’t hungry, eating wasn’t on my to-do list. My diet was no more than broth, the occasional craving for a grilled cheese or nachos, and a ton of ice cream — I lost almost 20 pounds.

 

The anxiety about impending hair loss wasn’t something I was excited about, so I thought I would be proactive and shave my head. I wanted to be in control of something. After my first treatment, I shaved all my hair off, but it didn’t start falling out until about halfway through my second treatment. It fell out so quickly, too. I still remember lying in bed while short little pricks of hair stabbed me all over.

 

This was a scary time for me, and the rest of the world, because I started chemo the second week of March, just as COVID-19 shut down everything and forced people into quarantine.

 

My oncologist, U.S. Air Force Maj. Matthew Shupe, 60th Medical Group hematology/oncology physician, cautioned me on the dangers of gathering with others. My white blood cell count was so low that even the smallest infection could result in a disastrous threat to my health.

 

Chemotherapy was rough, but the nurses who were with me throughout my treatments were rock stars. My treatment days would start at 7:30 a.m. at the Hematology/Oncology clinic inside David Grant USAF Medical Center . We’d start my drip, or transfusions, and I was given four transfusions for about four hours each visit.

 

To keep me hydrated, they gave me a bag of saline before each chemo transfusion. This always went right through me — so many bathroom trips. I always tried to get a chair as close as I could to the restroom.

 

The encouragement from family, friends and co-workers made soldiering through nausea and exhaustion bearable. I couldn’t be more grateful for the 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs team at Travis AFB. Everyone was a huge cheerleader during my treatment and wanted to know how they could help. They offered meals, assistance with cleaning my home and a lot of encouragement. Everyone’s support was something that helped me get through these hard times.

 

The status of my health is not the worst news of 2020, and I feel mostly good about it. I am currently going in for regular check-ups to analyze my cancer markers, which have all been low. Every eight weeks I get my port flushed and my doctor reviews my labs. I also have scans twice a year to ensure the cancer is still being kept at bay; my next scan is in January 2021. My lymph nodes have mostly rescinded to their normal size. I still get easily fatigued, but I think that’s just part of recovering from chemotherapy. I hope with time I will feel 100% normal again.

 

“Movember” is more than just another observance month and a reason to grow a ‘sick’ mustache. I encourage you to get checked regularly by health professionals any time you feel something that is even just a little off. My lump never went away, but I assumed things were good to go and it was just a part of my body. Things aren’t good to go unless you get an all clear. I don’t have a 100% all clear, yet, but I hope within a couple years I will. If you’re good, then be thankful for that.

 

For more information about the different forms of cancer, as well as signs and symptoms, visit www.cancer.org.

 

If you have a similar story, I want to hear from you. Send me an email at nicholas.pilch.1@us.af.mil

 

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