My Personal Battle with Pancreatic Cancer [Part 1]

Monday November 21, 2011; sometime around 5:15pm ET

My wife, Lisa Marie, was sitting in a quiet room on a conference call with my surgeon who had just stepped out of surgery. My dad was next to her taking notes. “Lisa, the cancer was as big as a basketball. This was one of the most complicated surgeries I have ever done. However, I want you to know we got it all out,” Dr. Walsh explained to my wife.

“I had to take out Josh’s entire stomach, his gall bladder, his spleen, 75% of his pancreas, and 25% of his liver. Lisa, he lost a lot of blood.  We had to take an artery out of his leg and put it into his liver. Josh is going to be in a lot of pain. But, I want you to know we got it all out; that’s what’s most important. Right now he’s in ICU on a breathing tube. He probably won’t wake up until tomorrow.”

The surgery was 9 hours long and my surgeon was exhausted. Dr. Walsh would later show us the bruises on his hands from removing my basketball-sized mass of cancer.

This all took place exactly 9 weeks and 2 days ago - three days before Thanksgiving.

Before I tell you the story of how I’ve battled pancreatic cancer over the past 9 months, I want you to know why I’m finally telling you what happened.

As I sit and write this, I keep thinking just how blessed I am. I’m not upset that I got cancer. I’m not mad that I was chosen for this. I’m not looking for sympathy.

I ALWAYS look for the positive lesson in everything. I have a lot of great things going on in my life for which I am very grateful. This fight has taught me a number of new lessons and reminded me of some lessons I’ve forgotten. Over the next few days I’ll tell you about the lessons I’ve learned as I put my life in the hands of strangers who save people’s lives for a living.

Today, I’m cancer free. I’m recovering and doing better every day. I’m more humble now than I’ve been in my entire life. I’ve been brought to my knees. Without the help of so many people, many of them strangers, I may not have made it.

Over the next couple of days, as I tell you about the doctors and the surgery that saved my life, I hope you realize how fortunate and blessed you are even when things don’t go your way. Sometimes it’s hard to see just how much so until we are put to the test.

I’ve been put to the test. Maybe you’ve been put to the test.

I believe it’s the lessons we learn along the way that make the experience worth going through. Getting cancer, having major surgery, battling an infection, sleeping in pools of sweat, getting the chills nearly hourly, having dozens of sleepless nights, and losing 40 lbs was all worth the experience because of the lessons I’ve learned over the past 9 months.

I’m a completely different man. I’m more patient and more humble. I move slower and I do less. But the things I do, I do very well. My relationship with my wife has never been better. I appreciate her more than ever. I realized how much I need my family and friends and how important they are to me.

With the support of my amazing wife, Lisa Marie, my parents, my family and friends, today I am cancer free. I do not have any chemo, radiation or additional treatments scheduled. I am already nearly 100% recovered. I’m back to work as of this week.

Still, I feel overwhelmed by this entire experience.

Now if you’d like to hear how this unfolded I’m going to back up a little bit so I can try to put this into perspective.

Sometime in late July/ early August, 2011

I was at home playing with my two girls - tackling them, tickling them, playing Superman and airplane. It’s one of my favorite things to do. When we’re done playing and I’m lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling fan, I have my hands crossed over my stomach. I’m in good shape – I’ve lost 20 lbs. over the past 2 years – so my stomach collapses in when I lay down. I feel the right side of my stomach and it’s flat. PROBLEM – the left side isn’t. There is a lump and it feels hard as a rock. It’s about the size of my fist.

I call out to Lisa Marie. “Hey Honey, check this out. I feel a lump or something in my stomach.” Lisa walks over, looks and says, “Oh god, what is that?” I don’t know, but it’s not supposed to be there. I did know that it couldn’t be good.

We knew that I should get this thing checked out as soon as possible. BUT, we immediately agreed that it would have to wait. You see, Lisa Marie was 8 ½ months pregnant with our third child and first son. My son, Dominic, was going to be born in a few weeks. We already knew that he was going to have serious complications on the day of his birth.

Dominic’s doctor had discovered a “black mass” in his neck during Lisa’s 18 week ultrasound back in May, 2011. They didn’t know what it was exactly – maybe a cyst, maybe a tumor. Maybe it would go away. It didn’t. Each time we went for an ultrasound throughout the summer, the mass was bigger. Lisa’s doctor had been a high-risk OB-GYN for 35 years and had never seen this before. Dominic’s due Sept. 10.

The diagnosis for Dominic was our first priority. Lisa and I talk about this “thing” in my stomach over and over – several times a day, every night. There was no way I was putting myself in front of my wife’s pregnancy and my son’s birth. We decided to wait until after he was born to address my health issue.

Dominic was born via an emergency C-section August 17th, and after several days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit we brought him home.

September 7th 2011

A couple of weeks later, he was struggling to breath in the middle of the night. The cyst had gotten bigger almost overnight. We could see the cyst bulging out of the side of his neck. We rushed him back to where he was born at the Cleveland Clinic. It was 1am. He had emergency neck surgery to remove the cyst and half of his thyroid. He had a 4-inch incision in his neck, but would be fine.

Monday, Sept. 19th, 2011

I received a call at 8:30am. The woman on the other end of the phone said I had to come to the hospital immediately. She wouldn’t tell me why, other than something showed up on the CT scan that I had on Saturday September 17th. But what? I got ready to leave the house and told Lisa I had to get to the hospital now. She started crying.

I walked in to my doctor’s office at 9:15, nervous about what I would hear. As I sat down to wait I thought, “What could be wrong?” It was obviously something serious; otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here.

My doctor walked in and immediately said. “I need to show you something. He pulled up my CT scan on his computer screen. “Mr. Cantwell, do you see this large grey area here? This isn’t supposed to be here. This is a mass and it’s really big. I’m sorry to tell you, Mr. Cantwell, but you have PANCREATIC CANCER.”

My heart sank. My head fell between my hands. My thoughts immediately turned to my son who was in the ICU at the Cleveland Clinic, and my wife who was recovering from her emergency C-section and home alone with my two baby girls. Dominic was three weeks old and on a breathing tube. He had just had the mass in his neck removed 6 days prior.

What was I going to tell Lisa?

My son is in the hospital recovering from surgery. My wife is home recovering from surgery. Now I had just been told I have pancreatic cancer.

This would be anyone’s worst nightmare. It was my real life.

Over the next few days I’ll fill in the blanks on how my battle with pancreatic cancer was won and how the doctors saved my life. I’ll also continue to reveal to you the lessons I’ve learned along the way. Maybe some of them will help you along your journey.

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