The year was 2005. By all accounts my life was going amazingly well. I had just turned 30. The business I had opened 2 years earlier (my bar Carbon) in defiance of all logic and probability, especially given the economy at the time, was a rousing success. I was preparing to ask my longtime girlfriend at the time to marry me, and after struggling since I moved to Los Angeles, I finally had just started getting acting auditions that didn’t involve “deferred pay”. Everything was pretty awesome.
Now in the summer of 2004 my nose started running. This in itself is nothing new for me; I have had hay fever and pollen allergies all my life, they were always bad on the East coast, but hadn’t bothered me since moving to L.A. My Dr. told me that sometimes you can develop allergies over time and gave me Allegra. I didn’t think too much about it at the time. Over the summer it got worse and worse. It got to the point that I was coming home after working in my bar with my pockets stuffed full of cocktail napkins that I would grab to wipe my nose as it would spontaneously start running from the right side with no warning. Again I chalked it up to allergies. Finally, my girlfriend told me one day I should go get checked out because my nose was running at night, and what was coming out was making the pillows smell terrible, a sinus infection was the logical problem (I know, I know, pretty gross). I wasn’t aware as I have never had the most sensitive of noses, and she literally could smell everything. I made an appointment; no sense of urgency, I didn’t feel sick.
The first appointment I had was with my primary care Dr. (I had a very crappy HMO). I got a physical, nothing out of the ordinary. He looked up my nose. Then he asked me if I had jammed anything in my nose, to which I responded laughing, “do I look four years old? “ He said it looked like something was stuck up there, and proceeded to try and flush it out with high pressure water foreshadowing what my mornings would be like for the rest of my life. This obviously did not work as unfortunately I had not jammed a penny or a crayon up there. His response was go see an ENT (ear, nose, throat specialist). This took a couple months for the HMO to approve.
I finally get my appointment to see the ENT in December 2004 if I remember correctly. I showed up early, and then proceeded to wait 3 hours past my appointment time in order to be seen for all of 2 min. wherein the ENT looked up my nose with a flashlight, said “looks like nasal polyps, pretty common for someone with allergies, go get a CAT scan.”
Took another six weeks or so to get my HMO to approve a CAT scan, and another couple to schedule another appointment with the ENT, who showed up 4 hours late this time (do I sound bitter hahaha). Another 2 min session where he looked at the scan with the same flashlight and said, “Yep, nasal polyps, schedule a surgery, takes about 15 minutes, no big deal.”
Surgery for nasal polyps really is no big deal Show up, knock you out snip snip, stuff a bunch of waxy gauze up your nose, wake you up and send you on your way to lay low for three days and then pull out the gauze at a follow up appointment. Of course in keeping with his precedent, my ENT showed up for my surgery SIX, yes SIX hours late!
Cut to my follow up appointment (which I weirdly remember was right by the Hustler casino for some reason). After pulling the gauze out of my nose, he proceeded to say and this I remember in absolute clarity, “Hey man, we need to talk. You have cancer. The polyps were small cell carcinoma and that is usually fatal. This might not be right but we are getting a second opinion on the pathology.” I next remember calling my mom while being stuck in horrible traffic and telling her,”Well Mom, I am really fucked this time” (a lifetime of extreme sports has steeled her to my calls after Dr. visits).
(Yep, still have cross sections of the tumor, had to di a bit to find them)
It is standard procedure to get second opinions from more extensive pathology departments when something comes back that can’t be readily identified. My Dad is a surgeon, and there are a number of close family friends in medicine, so before I even got the HMO’s official second opinion, a head of Pathology in Boston had reviewed my slides and concluded that it was, olfactory neuroblastoma (aka esthesio neuroblastoma). This is an incredibly rare tumor. Depending on the literature you read there have only been between 1000 and 1500 cases diagnosed since they classified it in 1924, and it is aggressive. My insurance had no choice but to let me write my own treatment ticket as no one in their entire network had ever treated or seen this (yay for being rare). I chose UCLA after my Dad did some research (I was pretty much dazed after sitting around for 2 weeks after the last Dr. I saw told me I was probably going to die).
UCLA saw fit to ask if I would mind sitting in front of their tumor board. Basically they pick interesting and rare cases, and any doctors interested sit in look at you, ask questions, then they kick you out of the room, and they all discuss your case. The treatment plan they devised called for surgery to remove all the surrounding tissue followed up by radiation treatment to the area.
I went into surgery on 4/29/05, not knowing how I was going to come out. There were two possible surgeries depending on what was found doing frozen biopsies after they put me under. Lucky for me I guess, the frozen biopsies showed no cancerous cells, so I got a slightly less radical surgery, something called a medial maxillectomy with partial facial degloving (google the images if you have a strong stomach) in short, they peeled my face off and removed my sinuses on the right side because of the close proximity to the brain, I was in the ICU for 4 days to make sure everything was ok. As soon as they pulled my catheter on the first day, I started shuffling around the hallways with all my monitors and tubes and crap, I wanted to start trying to get better asap. I don’t have any pictures from this time as I didn’t let anyone take any. I just wanted to forget the whole thing as soon as possible. The ICU is a miserable place.
I had about six weeks to recover from the surgery. Then I started radiation treatment. Compared to the surgery, it was really no big deal, but it might have sucked more. Radiation, for me consisted of driving to UCLA, Monday through Friday, and having my head attached to a table with a plastic mesh facemask , and then beamed with radiation for a couple minutes. No pain, no big deal…except it made me feel like I had the flu for the whole six weeks and the radiation altered my tastebuds. I went into the treatments with every intention of eating really healthy and all cancer fighting foods, really I did. What I ended up being able to tolerate was, blueberry toaster waffles, gingerale, and orange sherbert. Even just water was sickening. On the plus side, my tastebuds went right back to normal after about 72 hours after the final treatment. This all finished up August 17th 2005. Seven years ago.
It took about 2 years to really get back to normal. I had to regrow some hair where the radiation beam had passed, and my face took a long time to look normal to me (I still don’t see who I remember when I look in the mirror). Physically the treatments had really shattered my health, which is kind of funny as I had never even felt sick before I started getting treated. However it was in late 2005/ early 2006 that I started playing with something I had read about called CrossFit. Training had always been an integral part of my life, but coming back from cancer was proving difficult. I was going to jiu-jitsu and was still pretty strong but energy and endurance had left the building. After about 3 months of playing around with this in my garage, one of the regulars at my bar who had seen what I looked like and how I had improved, started coming by to workout with me. This kind of spiraled exponentially into what is now DogTown!
Crush Cancer, is my way of saying fuck you to something I have no control over. It is what I can do. I raise money in the hope to find better treatments and a cure for a hideous disease that I don’t want to ever see anyone suffer through. It is my way of fighting back against something that can’t be physically confronted. It is what I take with me every time I have to go in for a check up. It is what I use to steel myself when they read me my yearly scan results. If it does reoccur, I’m not scared to die, I just want to have done something meaningful for other people. I hope that helping people lead healthier lives through DogTown, and the yearly Crush Cancer fundraiser fulfills this. I'll never be as good as before I got cancer, but I'll be damned if I let it crush me.