As a little girl, I felt the way most daughters do about their fathers; my dad was the strongest, smartest, most handsom, most invincible man on the planet. Nothing could bring him down. My father could and WOULD come out of everything on top and in one piece. It wasn’t until I was 20 that we found out something which would inevitably bring him down. Cancer.
My father died from invasive metastatic keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma, moderately differentiated. That’s a really fancy way of saying throat cancer. He was prompted to go to the doctor when a persistent cough and sore throat refused to clear up. After quite a few tests, we were first informed of his cancer diagnosis. It appeared he had a small spot growing on his larynx. Not a huge deal, and it could easily be treated with radiation therapy and chemo. At the time, my father was traveling quite a bit between San Francisco and Los Angeles. He worked on the waterfront for the Port of Los Angeles and was in the process of negotiating for the Long Shoreman’s Union. He was kind of a big deal. He was a big Italian who was stubborn, extremely smart, and, most of all, a hell of a negotiator. He was a huge part of these negotiations and couldn’t really spare a lot of time to stop these negotiation proceedings to have chemo. The doctors said he would be okay to skip the chemo portion and just have radiation. So, for a few weeks that’s what he did, and after all his radiation treatments, he was told that he was in the clear. Then the sore throats and coughing started again.
It appeared my father had the type of cancer which ‘jumped’ outside the zones of radiation. After the spot on his larynx had been radiated, his cells metastasized to the right of his larynx, into his carotid artery. This would require immediate surgery with the Head of the Head and Neck Surgery at UCLA. As world renowned doctor, purported expert in the field, we had high hopes that my father would come out of this long and tortuous surgery in top shape and be ready to begin chemo. On September 20, 2003 at 0800 we checked my dad into UCLA hospital for a surgery that would turn out to be the defining moment in his battle with cancer. We were all prepared that this surgery would be long, approx 8-10 hours. There were multiple teams who would be present to assist the surgeon. My mother and I patiently waited, and after 12 hours we received and update that something had gone wrong and he was still in surgery. They didn’t have any other information other then to wait and a doctor would be out to speak with us as soon as one was available. Finally, as we were nearing the 16 hour mark, one of the residents came out to update us and tell us that my father’s carotid artery burst as they were closing him up from the initial surgery. They had to perform an emergency cricothyroidotomy, and open him back up. We were told that his systolic blood pressure jumped to the 260’s which caused the artery to rupture. Luckily they were able to save him but this is where things started going downhill. We needed my dad to be strong after this surgery to get him ready for chemo. Instead of the strong fighter of a man, we had a severely weakened man who could eat properly since there was so much damage and trauma to his neck, esophagus and surrounding areas. He lost weight at a rapid pace, and soon we were informed that his cancer had spread. This time it went everywhere.
Suffice it to say, the months leading up to his death were a blur. I remember him gasping for air as he choked trying to drink a simple cup of water. I remember him pacing the halls of our house in the middle of the night because his pain was so great he couldn’t sleep, regardless of the cocktail of morphine, dilaudid and oxycontin we were giving him. He could no longer speak to us and because of all the drugs we were giving him, he rarely even knew what was going on. Finally on July 5, 2004, I had to take my father to the emergency room since it seemed he had caught a cold he couldn’t shake. I didn’t know that would be the last time my father would ever be in our house. I still thought that somehow, some way, my father would pull through this. MY father was strong enough to overcome this. At 6:19 in the morning on Saturday July 31, 2004, the hospital called us and told us that his BP was dropping and that the end could be near. As we entered the hospital 15 minutes later a nurse stopped us, put her arms around my mother and told us that he has just passed. My invincible superman was gone. We were allowed to sit with him for awhile, and for the entire time I sat there staring at his chest waiting for it to start rising and falling. I waited for him to sit up and laugh and tell me it was just a joke. None of it happened. It was at that time when I changed forever. I became a withdrawn, quiet person who was scared of everything. A lot of which I have yet to get over.
To this day I can still remember what my dad smelled like. What his voice sounded like. How he would rub my forehead whenever I was scared or sick or sad. I can feel his hugs when he would come home from work and call me ‘monster face’. I think about how he wasn’t able to walk me down the aisle or meet my daughter. I miss my father every single day. I think about him constantly and think about how different my life would be if he was still here. It makes me hate cancer and what it does to people and families. What I wouldn’t give to have just 5 more minutes with my dad to tell him I love him. Cancer stripped me of that.