My dad — super genius and four-time cancer survivor
I feel very lucky. Every Father’s Day I get to spend with my dad feels like some sort of miracle. Honestly, it is a miracle — I could have lost him 21 years ago. As a four-time cancer survivor, my dad has dodged the malignancy bullet more than one can even imagine. With each diagnosis I prepared myself for the worst… I mean, what are the odds someone would survive one bout of cancer, let alone four? I must remember that my family does not adhere to medical statistics.
My dad is an impressive man despite his ability to survive cancer. At the age of 33, with two young children and a wife to provide for, he decided to take the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) without first completing a bachelor’s degree. He received such high scores on the test and after completing the prerequisite courses he was admitted to the UC Davis Medical School… again without a Baccalaureate degree. He sold his successful plumbing business to his cousin and we moved from San Diego to Davis to help my dad follow his dream of becoming a physician. Today, he is the founder of Kaiser South Sacramento’s Trauma Center, and Assistant Physician in Chief to the entire hospital. Plus, he can still fix my broken sink.
Just like his dream to become a physician, my dad has faced his cancer obstacles with faith, courage and passion. In his second year of medical school, he was diagnosed with squamous cell throat cancer. Treatment would require neck radiation and a radical neck dissection. He was one of the first patients to keep his vocal cords (and the ability to speak) during an improved version of neck dissection surgery. He lost a large portion of his tongue, and required a tracheotomy and tube feedings as part of his recovery. We were all terrified that he wouldn’t survive, but I was so young I didn’t really understood the gravity of the situation. A year later he re-entered his medical school program and graduated three years later at the top of his class.
Ten years after that, he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma skin cancer (the bad one), and in some ways this seems almost a moot point, since it was the least stressful cancer he dealt with. Of course, there were the PET scans and pathology reports to anxiously wait on, but luckily his melanoma was contained within his skin, and an easy surgery to remove the spot was all that was required.
On Valentine’s Day 2006, five months before my wedding day, he was diagnosed with stage 4 squamous cell lung cancer. I was in the middle of my first year of nursing school, and unlike during his throat cancer diagnosis — when I was naïve to what was in store for him — I was well aware of the severity of his diagnosis. I spent most nights laying in bed imagining myself walking down the aisle without him on my wedding day… it was too much for my heart to bear.
Again, my dad maintained a fighting spirit which to this day I still use as an example to my own patients. He golfed and exercised throughout his chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I remember hearing that he was fixing the roof on his houseboat, something which is quite dangerous to do when you’re on blood thinners. Don’t get me wrong, he was miserably ill, but he has always viewed himself as living with cancer, not dying of cancer. Even when he faced serious complications such as pulmonary emboli, he somehow came out alive.
He was there to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day, bald head and all, and I’m forever thankful to God for granting me the wish I prayed for every night.
In October 2007, almost a year after being cancer free, my dad complained of dizziness when picking up his golf ball. His oncologist ordered an MRI, mostly for disability paperwork purposes. My dad was shocked when the radiologist called him back to show him his scans. There it was: a golf ball sized tumor lodged in his brain.
It was a metastasis from the lung cancer, which had been just cell-sized during the previous MRI, and therefore went undetected. Since chemotherapy doesn’t cross the brain-blood barrier, these cells found a safe haven from the chemical warfare nestling inside my dad’s brain. My dad called his neurosurgeon college the same day of the MRI scan, and was admitted that night with a scheduled craniotomy the next morning. I appreciated the promptness of the intervention, but was overwhelmed by what we were all hit with.
As I drove to the hospital that night, my best friend reminded me that the conversations with my dad leading into the surgery may be my last. I couldn’t find many words besides “I love you.” Everything else didn’t really seem to matter.
I prepared my mom for the reality of brain surgery. My dad may be unable to breathe on his own at first, may suffer a stroke, or may have debilitating complications from the surgery.
After all, they were removing a chunk of his brain.
I was floored when the surgery only took an hour, and even more amazed when I found my dad in recovery breathing on his own, high on the drugs, and moving all his limbs. Not just moving his arms and legs… he thought he was surfing. We all laughed with a sense of amazement and relief — truly one of the greatest laughs I’ve ever had in my whole life.
After the surgery, my dad faced months of whole brain radiation. But now, three years later, he remains cancer free. He has some lasting effects, such as esophageal narrowing and minor cognitive impairments, but he’s back to work as a physician. When you’re a super genius, whole brain radiation and a craniotomy can unfortunately take you down a notch to a mediocre “regular” genius.
I’ve watched two friends lose their fathers to long battles with terminal illness and I can’t help but feel like the luckiest daughter in the world. I also feel very guilty — survivor’s guilt. I don’t know why we’ve been so blessed, but I cherish every moment I’ve been granted and I’m especially thankful that my son will know his grandfather.
I share Dad’s story to remind you of the power of the human spirit. No matter the odds against you, you can never give up hope. You can only keep moving forward, one step at a time, knowing that we have very little control in our fate, and rely on your faith to guide you.
I am who I am because of his example. I’ve learned from the best.
I love you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.