The Journey Back
I have started writing this article a hundred times and spent countless hours trying to decide how to convey my thoughts and feelings into a hunting themed article that would appeal to our readers. My final thought on the issue is to write this from the heart and bare my soul. I hope that it will inspire, encourage, give hope, and possibly, just possibly save someone’s life.
In the spring of 2008 I was on top of the world. I had been married only a few months earlier in late August at the age of 37, I was in my 8th year as a professional firefighter, I had a side job as a safety instructor at U.S. Steel where I taught many OSHA classes and was making great money, Bowhunting.Net had me writing articles and product testing some of the industries newest and greatest, I was Hunting Pro Staff for Bowtech and my wife and I had just purchased our first home. I was working 120 hours a week, but it had become routine and I had drive and ambition to keep me going.
Then came May of 2008. My wife of under a year and I had traveled to Indianapolis for the Indy 500 race where we met with friends every year to enjoy a few days away from it all. It was the second day camping when I had horrible stomach pain and ran to the restroom where I lost about a quart of blood. Of course being a guy I attributed it to drinking, hemorrhoids, bad food, whatever I could think of. After all, I had stomach issues for years and doctors had told me that it could be lingering effects from dysentery I got in the military or the giardia parasites I’d had twice from drinking out of unclean streams in Montana during college.
Fast forward to August 14th, 2008 after much what I called nagging by my wife, I was in for my first colonoscopy and wasn’t looking forward to it at all. I made all the gerbil jokes I could think of on my way into the changing room and had the nursing staff and other patients smiling and enjoying my antics. Hey, it was just an internal hemorrhoid right? Wrong. I was still groggy from the twilight medication when the doctor came in and placed a Polaroid photo of a tumor on my chest and told me that he wouldn’t know until the biopsy was done, but he was sure I had cancer. CANCER! If I had been standing, I would have collapsed. How could I have colon cancer? It didn’t run in my family, I don’t smoke, I was in relatively good shape! My world imploded.
On August 25th, 2008, my one year wedding anniversary, my wife and I sat holding hands in a doctor’s office at Rush Hospital in Chicago waiting for a surgeon to stage my cancer. Staging is when they determine how far along your cancer is spread and what they can do for you. After an ultrasound I was told that I had late Stage 3 cancer which means it had already spread to the lymph nodes. I was given between a 30% and 50% chance of living 5 years. I was immediately told that it had to be removed as soon as possible and that I would need to start chemotherapy and radiation immediately prior to surgery.
The surgery would dissect my colon and lymph nodes and I would need an ileostomy bag while the colon healed together. The hour and a half drive home was full of tears and fear. Nothing in my life could have prepared me for any of this. Your entire body goes numb and you lose all color. It feels like someone reached inside of me and in one split second reversed my blood flow. Everything felt surreal and unnatural. This isn’t a fight like in a war or the street. You can’t punch it, kick it or shoot it. It is just there and your life is now in God’s and the doctors hands entirely. It is a total and complete loss of control of your life, in every way, shape, and form.
One of the worst and probably least realistic fears you have immediately is how will you pay for all of this? Will my job allow me to stay employed? Will I lose my career, my house, my vehicles? Sounds funny when you think about the possibility that you won’t be here to worry about it, but those are tangible fears. One’s you can focus on, and that feel real right away. You find yourself not making plans for the future anymore which is also an unnatural act. Nothing can be put off anymore. Immediacy is paramount in your life and now how do you tell your friends and family? It is physically, emotionally, and spiritually devastating to you and everyone around you. The fire department thank God put me on light duty where I could do office work through my illness which kept me employed. I thank my city, my fire chief, my mayor, and God for that blessing.
That first fall I started chemo and radiation prior to surgery, I was warned not to go out in the cold as the chemo drugs they were giving me could shock my lungs into stopping. I had to wear gloves to open the refrigerator and even to drink tap water, I had to either pour it warm or leave it out to room temperature before I could drink it. I had a 5 hour chemo session each week followed by wearing a chemo booster pump in a fanny pack for a few days after. I planned on losing my hair, but it didn’t happen. I had big funny wigs from Halloween that I wore to chemo anyway just for fun. It brought a bit of light into a dismal place and a few smiles to go with it. Hunting was not in the cards that year. I longed to be outside, to feel good, to be sitting up above the earth with all my senses tingling as I dream of big bucks walking by. It just wasn’t to be.
My first surgery was at the end of December that year. I spent 12 days in the hospital and when I got home I had a few weeks to recover before another 6 months of chemo. I had an ileostomy which is when they cut a hole in your stomach which your small intestine protrudes from and you have to wear a bag or pouch on your side to go to the bathroom in. I had the ileostomy for 6 months before I had the surgery to put me back together. That surgery didn’t go well. I was in extreme pain afterward. I had 13 procedures to open my lower colon using balloons, they put a plastic stent in to hold it open, I had sepsis twice and finally, after 8 months they told me I would need a permanent colostomy. This meant another massive surgery.
During all this time, I did my best to keep my spirits up. I spent much of my time initially on BowhuntingTalk.com forums and so many of them helped me keep my chin up with encouraging words and prayers. The members of the forum knew my situation and without hesitation or thought, a collection was raised for my wife and I. I received everyone’s checks in the mail that were gathered by Zano and I can’t tell you how much help and relief it provided. Our bow hunting community is full of the most generous, spiritual, loving people I’ve ever had the pleasure to get to know. To provide a perfect stranger with their trust, love, and prayers meant the world to us.
Those 8 months waiting to see if I would heal and not recovering was the most pain and isolation I’ve ever endured. I couldn’t lay down flat, I had to go to the bathroom between 40 and 100 times a day and many times couldn’t make it, I slept sitting up on the couch by propping pillows behind my head and now have 5 bulging discs to prove it. By the end of those 6 months, I had dropped to 170 pounds, a weight I hadn’t been since probably second grade. I was almost unable to walk anymore and had to wear diapers by this point. So one day in late October I got up and put my camo on. I picked up my bow and tried to draw it back. After a few minutes of struggling, I managed to pull it back one time and hold it for a few seconds. My strength was completely gone by now. I got to my truck somehow and drove myself out to a deer stand I knew was fairly close to the road and half walked, half crawled out to my stand. It took everything I had to get up that ladder, but I made it. I sat there feeling absolutely horrible, in a diaper, weak, and cold, but I was out there!
I heard noise to my right and as I turned my head, a small button buck came into view. This was going to most likely be my only chance, and as far as I knew, could have been my last hunt on earth. I fought the string with every ounce of strength I had and arrowed the little fellow at 20 yards, where he laid right down and never moved again. I crawled backward dragging the little guy back to my vehicle after calling someone for help. By the time they got there, I had him gutted and pulled to the road myself. I can’t tell you how blessed I felt that day. For the one more opportunity to do something I love so much. Not to mention putting some needed meat in our freezer even if it were only about 60 pounds.
Last year I managed to get back to work for the better part of the year after the surgery for a permanent colostomy. Tom Newman from the BowhuntingTalk forums after having gone through his own massive battle with cancer kept in touch with me through prayers, emails, and phone the entire time I was sick and last October I had the chance to visit him in Ohio and spend a week as his guest hunting bucks on his fantastic property. I had an amazing time and feel blessed to have met another survivor with the same will and determination that I have had. I learned much from Tom while I was out there. The biggest hunting tip I learned was that Sticks-N-Limbs really works. I have had much more luck since Tom told me to put it on and for that I thank him! It might not look that great to us, but deer seem to look right through it.
That brings us to this year doesn’t it? Well, I’m happy to say that I’m still in remission. In two more years I will be a survivor God willing. Only a few days ago was the 3 year anniversary of finding my tumor. Thanks to a loving wife it was found in time. I probably wouldn’t have gone in for another year had it been left up to me. I lost almost all the property I had to hunt while I was sick, but thanks to friends, I have a small 14 acre patch of urban deer property that holds a ton of deer for some reason. We have put in our stands, tossed in a couple of food plots, cleared the trails, mowed down scrub and brush, and are now leaving it alone for a month, when on the morning of September 15th, Indiana’s urban deer archery season will open. In addition, I was chosen to hunt with Tom Ackerman who is hosting the new television series, “Brotherhood Outdoors.”
I spent a week in Montana on a rifle hunt which I will write about in my next article. I’m once again planning for my future and I plan to be in the woods opening day with a huge smile on my face and a bow in my hands. If God decides to take me early, I will go with dignity and I am doing my best to enjoy each and every day that I have left doing the things I love to do. We can plan for tomorrow, but we should never live for it and the five words that got me through the worst days imaginable were, “It can always be worse.”
Please, men especially, if you think there is something wrong, there may be. It’s time that we talked more openly about illnesses and it’s definitely time we go in for check-ups. If you have blood on the outside of your body, it’s probably not a good thing. If something runs in your family, tell your kids.
Good luck in the woods this year. Be SAFE, wear a harness, and God Bless.