Learning to Accept the Extremes of Cancer
Lindsey Best Andrew Youssef
[Editor's Note: Longtime concert photographer Andrew Youssef found out almost two years ago that he had Stage IV Colon Cancer. In that time, he has continued to shoot tons of music events for our sister paper OC Weekly on top of other freelance work and working a day job at a hospital, of all places. As he continues to fight for his life, this series allows him to tell his story in his own words.]
Roller coasters used to be so much fun. It took me a while to enjoy the intense speeds and astounding high climbs and plummeting lows. I remember being proud to have survived Magic Mountain's Viper roller coaster and actually enjoying it. Having been physically beaten up from surgery and continual chemotherapy, the thought of going on a roller coaster now is just as nauseating as some of my chemotherapy.
My battle against cancer is a roller coaster that I ride daily. I make sure to not let the highs get me too excited so that when the lows hit, I won't bottom out. One of the first things I did when I was diagnosed was keep a spreadsheet on my Ipad that contains all my lab values, so I can track my prognosis. After two years and four months it is a rather lengthy document, but an invaluable informational tool that helps my doctors and nurses.
When I was released from the hospital, I was still anemic and weak. Every time I get chemotherapy, they check my hemoglobin and hematocrit levels which determine if I am anemic. According to my iPad, my hemoglobin fluctuated nine times between below normal and normal levels in a seven month period before finally leveling off to normalcy. Every time my blood was drawn, I would immediately pester the nurses for my lab results so I could track my progress. I even based my trip out to Chicago to see Hum as a reward for my labs returning to normal.
My tumor levels (CEA and CA 19-9) are a completely different story. From April 6, 2011 to October 26, 2011, my CEA and CA 19-9 dropped, continuously reaching normal values. I was ecstatic. At that point, the word remission could almost have been thrown around as I thought I may have beaten the disease. This is the point were cancer showed its toughness and my levels started to creep back up.
Coincidentally, my tumor levels crept up right before my PET scan showed that I had developed a metastasis to the spine. In this last six months, my levels increased four times and decreased six times. In the beginning of this journey, my mood and happiness were tied very closely to what my tumor levels were doing. Only later did I realize that this was a folly.
My overall outlook has improved since I've let go of the idea that my levels were the be-all and end-all of my well-being. Cancer is like a roller coaster in that you will go up and down and get thrown for many loops along the way, but I try to hang on as much as possible. Hopefully if my cancer is ever cured, I will attempt to ride a real roller coaster once more. In the meantime though, I'm already literally hanging on for my dear life every day.