Sometimes in life, people need a change but they don't know it. I realized I was one of those people the day I was diagnosed with cancer. It was fall 2012, I had just embarked on a journey to lose weight and become healthier, and I hadn't been married a full year yet; I married the love of my life, Dunia, on Nov. 11, 2011. When the diagnosis came, I thought, "This has to happen right now? I'm not ready. This isn't a good time."
As an imaging specialist at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center for more than 20 years, I know when something doesn't look right, and the nodule my wife and I could both feel in my neck definitely wasn't right. An MRI, CT scan and biopsy confirmed it: I had squamous cell carcinoma and a tumor that was nearly 3 centimeters large.
When I saw it on the screen, I knew what I was looking at and it was scary. My two daughters were very worried. My dad died from pancreatic cancer when he was the same age I was at the time, so there was some fear, but I also felt at ease because I knew what I was facing. I believe that things are much harder to deal with when you don't understand them.
I had all of my cancer treatment at Sharp Chula Vista not because it's where I work, but because I know the great care that is provided there. I see it every day. My primary care doctor, Dr. Martha Lozano, referred me to Dr. Marilyn Norton, hematologist/oncologist, and Dr. Phillip Zentner, radiation oncologist. I had radiation therapy at the Douglas & Nancy Barnhart Cancer Center five days a week for seven weeks, and chemotherapy twice.
I was amazed by my radiation treatments. I knew about the side effects, such as dry mouth — and even burns — that can come with older forms of head and neck cancer treatment. With the advanced technology at the Barnhart Cancer Center, my treatments were so carefully planned and accurate that I was largely spared from these aftereffects. As an added bonus, the beauty of the facility helped calm me when I came for appointments.
I didn't take time off work while I received treatment because I love what I do and it gave me purpose to continue doing it. I'm a goal-setter — I set a goal to continue working, another to avoid nausea from the chemotherapy to protect my throat that was being radiated, and the ultimate goal: to buy a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle when I received the all-clear. I've loved riding motorcycles ever since I was in high school. I think people have choices in everything that comes their way. When faced with cancer, I chose a positive outlook. To me, there are no bad days, just some which are better than others.
In April 2013, a CT scan showed I tested negative for cancer. Before I began treatment, I told myself I was going to find the good in all of this. There ended up being a lot of good. I had to re-learn how to swallow and I've lost some of my sense of taste, but it's coming back. Treatment decreased my appetite, which helped me lose 50 pounds and set me on a healthy living path that includes exercising, watching what I eat and limiting my sugar and meat consumption.
I have the energy of a 10-year-old child now. As for my work, my experience has helped me better connect to patients. Now I can say, "I didn't just learn this somewhere, I really know it," and it comforts them.
I bought that Harley and rode it all the way to Sturgis, South Dakota, for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The 20 days it took me to ride there and back allowed me plenty of time to celebrate beating cancer.