During my cancer journey, ten days into the radiation treatment it got very bad. About 8 pm that night, I felt an intense burning in the back of my throat. I was alone. Minute by minute it got worse; soon I felt as if someone was holding a hot poker against my throat wall. I was screaming in pain. These are not words of exaggeration, brothers and sisters. I have been through a lot of pain in my life but never anything like this. I was on my knees crying and begging to God to help me. To this day, I don’t remember what happened or how I got through the night. I just knew one thing—this was it—I was done. I would call my radiation oncologist, Dr. Berson, in the morning and tell him I was stopping the treatment. In my mind, I started to make a plan to travel to the last-ditch clinics in Mexico. According to the statistics (which I usually ignored) I was at a 20% survival rate.
In the morning, I got Dr. Berson on the phone and told him what had happened and what I had decided. He said to “just please come in”. I had great respect for this man and felt if this is what he wanted I would do it. I got in my red jeep and headed for Manhattan and St. Vincent’s Cancer Center. I remember looking out at the Hudson on the way down the Westside Highway, thinking what a long journey it had been–three and half years living with a very serious cancer. The first three years I was committed to alternative treatment and then finally I opted for conventional protocol. I felt scared that morning but it was ok. I was resolved in my decision to quit this treatment.
I found a parking space and made the short walk to the hospital. I remember approaching the nurse’s station and immediately noticed the concern on the staff’s faces; I guess they had heard. They led me right into a treatment room. I noticed the the nurse stayed with me which was unusal. She said Dr. Berson would be right in. She asked me how I was doing. I just shook my head and said, “Not good.”
Not even a minute later, Dr. Berson came in accompanied by another nurse. Let me pause here and tell you about Dr. Berson. He is the Head of Radiation Oncology at St. Vincent’s and considered by many to be one of the top guys in the country. I literally went through five radiation oncologists until I finally chose him. He was the most-forward thinking doctor I found, using cutting-edge technology that no other radiation facility in New York was using. He is a “doctor’s-doctor” and a really kind human being.
He sat down opposite me and asked with a deep expression of concern on his face, “What happened?” I told him, “It was just too much; I couldn’t deal with the pain. It was beyond painful.” He said in a very caring way that he could give me pain medication to help me get through it. I asked,”what meds?” and he mentioned a few meds that I knew would make my stomach sick. What struck me profoundly was the very real caring I received in that small treatment room. The two nurses sat close to me, their eyes never left me. I could feel their support.
I remember that we all went silent for a moment; it was as if they were waiting for something or someone. Then, as if on cue, the door opened and there stood a woman in her late forties, rail-thin with very short hair. She looked directly at me. With deep compassion on her face and in her voice she asked, “Gregory, are you ok?” She spoke to me like she knew me forever! Next she came right over and gave me a hug. This was the staff psychologist. She sat down and asked me what had happened. Dr. Berson and the nurse didn’t leave. They just stayed there with their full focus on me.
To this day, I can see the psychologist looking at me very closely, studying me, and then suddenly asking, “Are you sleeping very well?” I said, “No, in fact I wasn’t. I figured it was just part of it.” She replied, “Oh no, sweetie, sleep is very important to the healing process and to keep your energy going. Let’s get you on some sleep medication.” I told her I was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and was worried about taking meds like that. Now, here is the kicker! She tells me, she’s also in the “program” and that what’s vital right now is to get a good night’s sleep…it can make all the difference in the treatment. She also said that when you are not sleeping well it can destroy your emotional strength. She was right-that’s exactly what had happened to me.
At that point, Dr. Berson looked at me and asked, “Greg, can you go one more day?” Again, it was the deeply concerned feeling in his voice that I remember. I looked in his eyes for a long moment and responded, “Ok, Doc, one more day.”
Fourteen years later I am still here! The radiation experience for me was tough and I will write more about it in other stories. But that day made all the difference and just may be why I am still here and writing. I am so grateful for those nurses, the psychologist, and my hero, Dr. Berson. How do you thank warriors like them? Maybe by telling them, you will never forget their concern and unbelievable support and that it made the difference—it made the difference.