Any Port in a Storm

For anyone fighting a blood or bone marrow cancer, your treatments will likely include having a port implanted into you.  In two of my cases, the doctors implanted a Hickman Catheter.  You can learn more about them from this good YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6dbV8vY1V8

Also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hickman_line

It is a long plastic tube that is surgically implanted, usually in your upper chest, and runs into your jugular vein.  Typically it has three ports, or “lumens” that extend from your body and allows medical professionals to either administer medicine, drugs (like chemo) or blood products into you and/or draw blood samples from you.

In another instance for me, they implanted a version of that catheter in the bicep of my arm.

Trust me; you will develop a love-hate relationship with your catheter.  You will love the fact that you will not need to be stuck with needles every day.  That gets really old really fast!  But you will hate having these plastic tubes hanging out of your chest which are a constant reminder that you have freaking cancer and are fighting for your life.  The day they remove your catheter – which is a simple and painless process – is very much a milestone to be celebrated.

The nurses should always be checking your catheter – making sure it is flushed and clean.  In one of my cases, I had the Hickman Catheter in my chest for about seven months.  I guess that was a little long, because I started getting infections that they traced back to the catheter.  So they removed it and put a new one in my collar bone area for the balance of my treatments.  You can’t be too careful about this.  You do NOT want to be getting infections when you have little or no immune system!

I am not a doctor and can only talk about my experiences.  PLEASE do not take my stories as facts for everyone.  Have an honest conversation with your doctor about all of this.

Father of the Year

My career in show business ensured that we never had a dull moment in raising our family.  After I went through twelve years of Catholic schools, we wanted to similarly curse our children so we sent our three kids to St. Norbert Elementary School in Orange, CA.   It is a great school and we are so glad our kids went through it.  I think the best part about the school was that it still had three nuns there: Sister Francis (the Principal), Sister Rose Mary (the First Grade teacher) and Sister Carmel (who I later heard our kids say was teaching them “Spirish” – that was Spanish in her Irish accent).

These were three of the really good nuns.  None of them was taller than four foot six inches or weighed more than ninety pounds.  But they really were lovely ladies who were GREAT with the kids.  How Sister Rose Mary was able to teach thirty first graders with no assistant, and keep them engaged and learning without a ruler to the knuckles is still a mystery to me.

One day when Ryan was in fourth grade and Neal was in first grade, I was in my car in the pickup line for the kids after school.  Well, Sister Rose Mary came hustling over to my passenger side window and very concerned told me in her Irish brogue “Mr. Stava, I need to talk with you.” After asking her what I could do for her she told me “Today Neal picked up a popsicle stick on the playground, rubbed it on the asphalt into a point and said ‘we’re going to have a rum-bull!!’” “What’s a rum-bull, Mr. Stava?”

I had to explain to her that I was producing a production of West Side Story and the kids had come to see it over the weekend and what a rumble was.  I then assured her that Neal would NOT be starting a dance-off gang war with the other first graders on the playground at St. Norbert.  To which she grudgingly replied “Well, alright then Mr. Stava; if you say so.”  Sigh!!

A couple weeks later I am in the pickup line and Sister Rose Mary again came hustling over and said “Mr. Stava, I need to talk with you.” “Today Neal called someone a ‘mensch’.” “What’s a ‘mensch’ Mr. Stava?”  I told her that ‘mensch’ was a Yiddish expression for a standup guy, a good guy.  Then I had to explain to her what “Yiddish” meant.  “Oh, alright then, Mr. Stava – if you say so.”  I don’t think poor Sister Rose Mary quite knew what to do about the Stava kids.

But I loved those nuns!  I don’t think I have ever met a priest who would pass up on a meal, but those nuns would go a week without eating if it was to help the kids.

Learning How to Accept Help

I have always been the kind of guy saying “what can I do for you?”  I always had an over-developed sense of responsibility.  Helping coach the high school football team the year after I graduated from high school myself.  Stage managing professional productions and being responsible for the operations of very expensive shows starting when I was twenty years old.  Managing and fundraising for several theater companies and helping keep them open (when some of them probably should have closed!) to ensure serving their communities and providing work for stage artists.  And of course for my family.

As a result, it was very, very hard for me to learn to accept another person’s offer to help me.  Maybe it is because I am a guy, or it was my ego, my pride or just my deep, practically crushing feelings of insecurity.  “If I accepted someone’s help, then maybe I was a lesser person and not worthy of their caring – or even their love??”  Ooouuch, it hurts to say that!

These issues came home to roost with me sixteen years ago when I started my fight with Multiple Myeloma.  There is nothing like a cancer diagnosis to make you realize you can’t do everything by yourself.  My initial step in dealing with this emotional roadblock was my rationalization that by accepting someone’s help, I was giving something back to them.  That sounds nice and might be true to some degree and it “worked” for a little while, but I came to realize the plain and simple fact that I needed help. And there was no getting around it and no shame in it.

Even things like being so wiped out that I couldn’t drive myself for many months at a time.  And believe me, being a Southern California guy where you practically get in the car just to drive to the bathroom; it is a big deal to learn to ride in the passenger seat.  Thank God for Nancy and my family and their patience with me while I came to learn my new reality.

And that is the simple truth – you can’t do it by yourself.  You need to accept and be grateful for help.

Jim

Jim Ahern was one of my very good friends.  He was a great, big-hearted funny guy.  We grew up together in Anaheim, CA – at both St. Anthony Claret elementary school and Servite High School and for several years thereafter.  During our first couple of years at Servite, Jim, me and few other guys would meet each morning and ride our ten speed bikes the four miles from home to school.  Many, many nights during high school and the years afterward, Jim would come over to my house and we would shoot pool on the really cool table Dad had put together in our garage.  We would laugh and talk all night, solving all of the matters that seemed SO important at the time.

Tragically, when Jim was thirty he died in a car crash along with his fiancée, Kathy Faley.  It was really, really terrible.  A few years ago I was on the phone with another friend from that time and we were reminiscing about Jim, what a great guy he was and how much we still miss him.  My friend reminded me of when Jim was starting out as a surveyor up in the hills of Orange County; he came across a wounded red tail hawk.  Somehow Jim managed to get the bird in a crate, bring it home, nurse it back to health and eventually released it back into the wild.

My friend and I remembered that all during the burial service for Jim and Kathy at a cemetery in the hills of Orange, there was a hawk circling overhead.  When their caskets were eventually lowered into the ground, the hawk soared off out of sight.  I still get goosebumps thinking about that.

A couple days later after talking with my friend, I was out for my morning run.  My usual path takes me through a neighborhood with a lot of tall pine trees.  I came around a corner and saw a bird standing in the middle of the road.  As I approached it just kind of looked at me, so I clapped my hands a couple times to scare it off.  It just calmly hopped a few feet over to let me pass.  A little bit further along I realized it was a hawk and I turned around in time to see it fly away.

Then it struck me like a lightning bolt what had just happened.  Now, the older I get, the less I believe in coincidences.  I am totally comfortable with the notion that Jim just wanted to remind me that he is still looking out for me.  And how lucky are we to have these kinds of experiences to remind us of these truths.  Thank you, Jim!

Dex

Dexamethasone – or Decadron, or commonly known as Dex – is a very powerful steroid usually prescribed to folks fighting blood cancers.  It is normally prescribed in tandem with an other cancer fighting drug and it seems to act as a “force multiplier” to help make the other drug more effective.

Look it up on Web MD or on the internet:

https://www.webmd.com/drugs/2/drug-1027-5021/dexamethasone-oral/dexamethasone-oral/details

Don’t let the small pill size deceive you; it packs a heck of a punch.  If/when your doctor prescribes this to you BE SURE to have a detailed conversation about side effects so you know what to expect.  I don’t know why some doctors don’t do this better.  But trust me on this – Dex can MESS YOU UP.  It will give you mood swings like crazy and if you are not careful you will find yourself snapping at your care giver, which is NOT a good thing.  It can also make your face swell up like a balloon in the Macy’s Day Parade.  And it can mess up your sleep.  “But don’t worry; we can give you another drug to help with that.”  I know they mean well, but sometimes you will feel like a witch’s cauldron bubbling over with all kinds of poisonous drugs and medicines.

On that blessed day when you eventually can go off Dex, your doctor should gradually taper the dosage levels down. Whew!

It All Started in a Corn Field in Iowa

Well, not quite, but almost.  Mom was from a farm in the small town of Missouri Valley, Iowa and Dad was from a tiny town named Lodge Pole, Nebraska.  They met at the University of Iowa.  I am the fourth of eight children (more about that in another post).

When it was time for me to be born, the family was living in Los Angeles where Dad worked at an aerospace factory.  Then Dad got a great job offer to play drums with a touring big band, which was his REAL profession.  So they scraped together all the money they had and sent Mom, Bruce, Randy and Gina on the train back to Iowa so Mom could be with her family when I was born.

Well, in true show business fashion at the last minute Dad’s touring job was cancelled – bah-dump-bah.  This stranded Mom in Iowa and Dad in LA, working to put together enough money to bring everyone back home.  As a result I was born at the hospital in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Eventually, Dad was able to bring us all back and be reunited in LA.

Several years later after all eight of us kids were born and we were going back to Iowa for my aunt’s wedding, Dad’s hilarious idea was for Mom to dress like a nun to garner sympathy on the train.  It didn’t work.

I still have such great memories of my grandparent’s farm in Iowa.  I’m sure it’s because I was just a kid, but the corn fields were incredibly tall and they seemed to stretch on forever.  Coming from Orange County we had never experienced something like that and we always had the best time when we visited.

What Are the Odds of That?

When I was diagnosed with stage III Multiple Myeloma cancer at age 45, I was told that I would be lucky to get three years. Wow! They said at that time there is no cure for Multiple Myeloma, just treatments to extend your life.  BUT many great people and organizations are working like crazy to change that, so time is a very good thing.

After I recovered from the initial shock I came to realize that I needed to focus on what I could control in the near term and not dwell on long term matters.  Naturally, I got my affairs in order but I threw myself into living daily, getting into the best shape possible and my treatments.  I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit that the night before each of my next appointments I couldn’t sleep from the anxiety of what I would hear, but I came to accept that was “part of the gig.”

With the advances they have made in treatments, I believe the life expectancy at diagnosis is now five to seven years.  But the doctors are quick to point out these numbers are getting longer every day and many amazing new treatments and possible cures are on the near horizon.  While Las Vegas isn’t as big as it is because the odds are wrong, the good news for me is that I am now clocking in at sixteen years!  There is something very liberating about surviving way past your expiration date.  “Irv – can I have a price check on aisle four and what is the expiration date on that Keith Stava banana?”  While I am not out of the woods, each day is a gift. I know I sound like a Hallmark card, but the feelings are real.

The Acute Myeloid Leukemia diagnosis was a different kettle of fish.  At my diagnosis, I was told that I had about two weeks to start treatments, or it would be game over.  Once we mapped out my treatment plan, I asked “what were the odds.”  I was told that between the difficulties of the treatments and the high chance of infection during treatments, I had about a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the next six months.  Again, wow!  That was basically a flip of the coin.  But like before, I focused on getting into the best shape possible and on my daily treatments.  And they were right, it was very tough.  But the days passed and seven months later I was able to go home just in time for Father’s Day.  I was a walking skeleton at one hundred thirty pounds (I started at one eighty-five), but I was home and in my own bed. Heaven!

Since then I have gained about twenty pounds and am doing really pretty good.  One day I read that the actress Jill Clayburgh had died of the same Leukemia as I had and shortly after that I heard of another person dying from it.  I got to thinking you always hear about people dying from Leukemia, but never about them living after it.  So I went to my trusty computer and Googled life expectancy rates.  I found that for patients over sixty years old, only about twenty-five percent survive for five years or more.  Ouch!

When I asked my doctors about this, one of them said “yeaaah that’s true, but we don’t talk about that much.”  Another was quick to point out those numbers are a bit skewed because many of the people who get that Leukemia are older and cannot withstand the rigors of the treatments.  So again, after beating the odds on Multiple Myeloma, I choose to believe that I will be in the twenty-five percent to survive Leukemia. Believe it and live it!  The good news is that here I am, fourteen months since my stem cell transplant and there is no sign of Leukemia in me. Onward!

I am not a doctor and can only talk about my experiences.  PLEASE do not take my stories as facts for everyone.  Have an honest conversation with your doctor about all of this.

Gobby

I have been very lucky to not only have a great, large family on my “side of the aisle” but also that Nancy had a great Mom named Ann, and Nancy’s brother and sister and their families.  Unfortunately, Nancy’s Dad left his family when the kids were teenagers and he pretty much drove a wedge between him and the rest of the family.

When Ann’s first grandchild was born, she decided she wanted to be called “Granny.”  That was until our first son was born and he was just starting to talk and he realized that Granny had a doggie.  So he called her “Gobby” (like Bobby).  Ann instantly fell in love with her new name and adopted it.  In fact, I think several of her friends started calling her that instead of Ann.

Gobby was the nicest, kindest person you have ever met.   When I asked for her permission to marry Nancy, between crying and laughing she gave me a huge bear hug.  I took that as a “yes.”

When Nancy was a young teenager, her family made the big move from central Orange County, CA to a sleepy little beach town in southern Orange County called San Clemente.  They bought a house with a back patio overlooking a fairway to a public golf course.  Later, every once in a while retired President Nixon would play a round on the golf course there.  He was always preceded by a couple of Secret Service sharp shooters and the people knew the routine was to stay inside while he played through.  That is, all except Gobby’s dachshund named Eloise.  Whenever Nixon was nearby, Eloise would tear down the hill barking her head off at him.  So of course Gobby would go out onto her patio yelling in her high voice “Eloise, Eloise! Get back up here! Eloise!”

I could just imagine the Secret Service radios: “This is Shooter #2. We have a bogey at 11 o’clock!” Then, “this is Shooter #1.  Stand down #2, it is only Gobby.”  And as she stood there yelling down at her dog, you would hear Nixon’s classic, sonorous voice saying “Eloise! Get back up there, Eloise!”  Eloise obviously had a good sense for people.  She probably wouldn’t have liked Checkers, either.  For any of you who are too young to understand that reference, GTS (Google that shit).

When she was fighting breast cancer she was sitting and talking with Nancy.  Nancy recounted how she had heard that if your telephone rang and nobody is there when you pick it up, it might be someone who has died just letting you know they are around.  So Nancy joked with her Mom that they should work out their signals now, so she would know when Gobby was around.  Without missing a beat, Gobby said “Oh, we can’t tell you about that stuff.”  After they cracked up, Gobby said “I’ll tell you what.  When you are all by yourself in a room and you smell a fart, you will know I am there with you.”

Later, after a large, soft tissue tumor required them to amputate Gobby’s left leg at her hip, she was forced to spend her time in a wheelchair.  But undaunted as she was by all of that, she drove Nancy and her buddy Anita crazy with her desire to go to Nordstrom to buy a cute pair of summer deck shoes.  Always the realist, Nancy said “Mom, you only have one leg! We’re not going to get you a new pair of shoes.”  To which Gobby replied, “Maybe we can find someone who had their right leg amputated and we can share with her?”  She was truly one of a kind.  Gobby has since past, but more of that in a later post.

The Unwanted Visitor Next Door

As part of my initial treatments for Acute Myeloid Leukemia, I had to spend a month in the hospital getting serious chemo to “knock down” the presence of the cancer cells.  This was to buy some time before the cancer came back in order for me to find a matching stem cell donor (turned out to be my brother Kyle) and make the arrangements for a stem cell transplant (again!) at the Duke Cancer Institute.  So I spent the month of December parked in the oncology wing of Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.  It is a great hospital with a terrific staff of nurses and doctors.

About a week into my stay on a quiet night, I heard a lot of sounds coming from the room next door.  Not terribly loud, but enough to notice.  After a while, a young and visibly shaken nurse came into my room to take my vital signs.  I asked if she was okay and if she knew what the sounds were about.  She whispered that the lady next door had just passed.  I now know that nurses aren’t supposed to talk about that kind of thing with other patients, but she was pretty new on her job.  I guess it is not the best thing to be telling patients who are fighting for their lives that their next door neighbor had just died.

After the nurse left I found myself in deep prayer for the soul of the lady next door and for her family mourning her.  All I knew of her was that she was a fellow human being fighting cancer.  And that was more than enough of a connection for me.  As the tears rolled down my face, I realized they were both for her and for my own mortality.

Over the course of the rest of that month, I heard a couple similar things happen in the rooms near mine.  The passage from the bible struck me “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil…”and I realized that I wasn’t just walking through the valley; I had pitched a tent and was camping out there!

But we cannot fear death.  We should only fear not living the best life possible.  And I know in my heart that can be accomplished by caring for and about others as much as we possibly can.

People

One part of fighting Multiple Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and Leukemia is that it requires you to be parked in hospitals, anywhere from a week to a month or longer at a time.  I realize that I was lucky compared to many who have had to spend much longer periods of time in hospitals, but to me a month became interminable.  Don’t get me wrong, the hospitals were great and the nurses and doctors were terrific.  However, when they have to wake you up every three hours to check your vitals, draw blood, give you medications, etc, etc, etc, hospitals become the least restful place you have ever been.  But I always tried to remember that they were doing their jobs to help me and I tried to show appreciation for it.

I am not a big TV watcher so a “benefit” from all this was that I had lots and lots of quiet time to think.  You won’t appreciate how long a night is until you’ve spent time in a hospital bed.

Early in my theater career, I had an experience where a partnership turned bad and I was forced out of it.  At the time, it crushed me and I was quite angry at my perceived injustice of it all.  I did move on, but I carried the anger inside of me whenever I thought about the situation.  And it was a pretty deep anger.  I know that mine was hardly a unique situation, but that didn’t matter because it happened to me.

On one of those long nights in the hospital I returned to what happened all those years ago.  Then the anger at “how I was done wrong” rose up inside of me again.  But this time, the more I thought about it the more I could see some of the reasons why my ex-partner felt and acted the way he did.  They were still way out of line, but I could see where he was coming from.

And then it struck me that all this time I had been looking at things the wrong way.  I needed to accept that he was who he was, not the way I wanted him to be.  I had the power to let all of it go.  And I did.  At that point it was like the sky opened up over my bed.  I’m sure many of you will say “duhh!!” to this, but to me it was a genuine revelation.

Since then I have tried to remember this and live my life more at peace with myself.  I don’t always succeed in the short term, but I manage to get there over a little time.  I no longer sweat the “small stuff,” I don’t let petty things make me mad, I really try to hold my tongue, and I truly try to appreciate all the good things that I have – which so outweigh any minor inconvenience I am experiencing at the time.  And I honestly feel this has been a critical part in me surviving two cancers.