Sunday, July 12, 2015

How does that happen?


I wonder: how do others manifest fear when confronted with things that go bump in the night? 

 For me, my feet go entirely numb when presented with a precipice and the interminable distance to the rocks lurking at the bottom, so very far away, and yet so close, just waiting to break bones and disassemble my frail body. 

I recall vividly when I, as a young teenage boy, undertook to swim the breadth of the lake with my Uncle Bobby.  Reaching midway and hanging in the water to rest, I became aware that my legs had become both completely numb and had also begun to ACHE.  The ache was not what one might expect of an ache secondary to exhaustion. I was terrified.  I could not see the bottom of the lake, which I had always been able to see.  You see, I had never ventured more than a couple hundred yards from shore and this lake is crystalline in its clarity. But that day, no lake bottom in sight.  Only the lurking denizens hidden in the depths which I could not see and which surely had intentions of dining on me.

Here I was treading water midway across the five miles from our cabin, in a lake renowned for its mile plus depth.  I overcame my fear as we hung there treading water, listening to my uncle and the banter we kept up with family members in the boat which had accompanied us.  I never repeated that swim, not because I couldn’t swim the distance, and not because I was never dared to attempt it again, but because that terrible numbing aching pain in my legs when I think about it. 

Another similar experience happened on a day out elk hunting in the mountains of western Alberta.  I had to cross a scree slope to access a particular likely looking ravine where we had seen elk moving days before.  I made my way carefully across the slope to where a huge tree had fallen diagonally across the edge of the slope.  I was presented with the need of having to get down on my belly and possibly scoot under the tree, or clamber up over it to continue my journey.  I elected to climb up and over this massive tree trunk.  I slung my rifle up onto a broken branch and scrambled up and onto the trunk.  I reached down on my left to retrieve my rifle and rehung it on a broken branch on the uphill side of the trunk.  I lifted my left leg to swing it over the trunk and realized that my boot laces were entangled in the broken limbs.  I sat there a moment wondering--do I get off the tree and free my laces or do I try to reach down and free them.  It was then that I heard a distinctive grunting growl and, looking up the slope some 50 yards from where I sat, a she grizzly sat on her haunches rocking and growling. 

I remember as if it had happened moments ago.  My legs went completely numb.  I sat wondering, do I try to shoot her from here, where I sit trapped?  Would I kill her instantly or would I wound her, incense her and ensure her intention to devour me right where I sat?  Perhaps I ought to simply shoot myself and be done with it.  Realizing that fear had literally paralyzed my lower limbs and hoping to conceal that fear from the bear, I sat there and simply stared at her, and she at me.  I guess she got tired of watching the helpless human because she eventually got up and wandered away, grunting her amusement under her breath.  Once again, my legs had defined my terror.  It took a very long time before I could get my legs under me for the walk back to camp.

Yet another experience with how my body reacts to fear occurred when I took a vacation to Cabo San Lucas with friends.  I rented a snorkel, mask and fins and swam out into the rich colourful environment of the reefs.  I was unfamiliar with swimming in tidal waters and did not pay a lot of attention to where I was relative to the shoreline.  It was then that I noticed a large nurse shark swimming slowly along the bottom and looking very close and threatening. 

I lifted my head to find that the tide had carried me several hundred yards from shore and I was certain that there was now no way I could manage a frantic swim to shore and beat this shark to the shallows, even if I could stir my legs into action remotely resembling swimming.  Once again, my legs had defined my fear.   I did what any paralyzed man might otherwise do, I simply hung in the water as motionless as possible hoping not to attract the attention of the shark.  Eventually, the shark swam off, paying absolutely no attention to me.  Only once it was out of sight did I attempt a very quiet swim to the beach and stumbled out of the water glad to be alive, cheating the loss of my lower limbs once more.

So, for me, fear happens like that.  When confronted with things that go bump in the night, my legs fold up and refuse to work, numbed by fear.  It was like that when I sat in my surgeon’s office and he said “I’m afraid it is cancer, Mr. Bryson, and we will need to schedule you for a mastectomy as soon as possible.”

So, why now?  What causes fear today?   

I have been feeling some indistinct discomfort in my right underarm for several weeks.  I haven’t thought too much about it as it has been very hot here lately and perhaps the heat is getting to me.  When I get into bed for the night I tend to lay on my right side.  I thought that the pressure, temperature and humidity was causing me more than usual perspiration.  I didn’t connect the fact of this discomfort with the recognition that I have also been massaging my underarm more than usual until today. 

Today, as I walked round a new lovely little shopping mall with my wife, I once again found myself massaging my underarm and found what feels like a lump or grossly enlarged lymph node in my underarm.  So, what happened then? My legs went out from under me, of course.

I’m not going to panic.  But, does that make the numbing pain in my legs any less noticeable? No, it surely does not.  How do we react to our battles with cancer? 

For me, I mark the anniversary of my surgeries and my survivorship; I struggle against what seemed insurmountable odds at finding a support group; I continue to tilt against that windmill that says only women suffer breast cancer and only women are welcome in the support groups; I establish a Facebook presence and open a blog where I hope other men, confronted with this leg numbing experience, can find support.  I refuse to give up on being part of the solution and I find a way to get involved and participate in world class genetic studies through the University of Washington and Dr. Mary-Clair King’s genetic labs.  I reach out to Alan Blassberg and he has me laughing in no time.  Diversion.  Support.  Understanding.  Reassurance.  Humour.  What wonderful things for a friend to gift us with.

In 1985 my surgeon and I discussed a series of nine surgeries, over three years to restore the use of my forearms and hands lost in an industrial accident.  Was that a frightening prospect?  Well surely.  And three years later I had full use of both forearms and hands once again, perhaps a little stiff but that would work itself out.  No reason to believe that I would ever lose the function in my hands again, the injuries were repaired and I was healed.  Can we ever know that to be true when we discuss cancer and its treatment?  Can we be certain we will never experience another cancer?  Is the experience of breast cancer and follow up surgery and treatment a one-time event?   

No, cancer is insidious and we cannot know when or even if we will have to do battle again.  But, can we allow that possibility to take over our lives and leave us with frozen legs for the remainder of our lives?  We cannot.  I cannot! 

What can we do?  What can I do? 

I can reach out.  Inform myself.  Participate.  Become part of the solution.  Support others in their battles.  Educate myself and others.  Be watchful and deal with the numbing sensations when they occur and seek medical expertise when needed and trust that life and the cosmos will support us.  And, life is finite, so live every minute that is given to us.  Fear is real, but it need only be a motivator to seek advice and move on. 


Saturday, July 4, 2015

She is Sorely Missed

Linda Ruth Van-Hook Briganti, LMHC
October 22, 1949 – February 03, 2014

Linda met her husband Vincent on June 26th 1982 in Calimesa California and were married one year later on June 26th 1983 in Boca Raton Florida.

Linda and Vincent went on to have two wonderful young sons, Vincent Jr. and Nicholas.
Linda was initially diagnosed with “Triple Negative” breast cancer in 2005 and, after treatment at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma Washington, was cancer free for nine years.  Linda hadn’t been feeling well and returned to hospital in Olympia on January 31, 2014 for further testing and passed away on February 03, 2014.

Linda and Vincent had purchased and remodeled a home in Pensacola Florida in anticipation of retiring there.  Vincent, as it happens, was in Pensacola and was expecting Linda to join him there for a vacation when he received a call from his son Nicholas to tell him Linda was very ill and to come home right away. 

Linda, true to form (at least from my experience of her), had asked her son not to call Vincent and interrupt his work in Pensacola, or worry him unnecessarily until they knew whether this hospital admission was serious.   Vincent flew home late Saturday night, and spent her remaining time with her until she passed away early Monday afternoon. 

Linda dedicated much of her life to working with folks both professionally as a therapist, and privately; supporting her church groups, youth groups, her family and uncounted numbers of clients who sought her help for any number of issues.  Linda was well known and respected in the Olympia area for her work with and contributions to men, women and families struggling with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

I began to see Linda to work out issues secondary to my breast cancer and mastectomy and the unbelievable emotional turmoil that my wife and I had undergone behind my illness and recovery.  I was grieving over my losses at the time and as confused as I had ever been.    Through many difficult sessions, Linda helped me come to terms with changes in my body, my sexuality and my relationships.  My relationship with myself may have been the relationship which was most severely strained and in peril. 

I owe so much to this woman and I miss her.  I know my sentiment is shared by many folks in the area who knew her, every one of us benefitting from having spent any amount of time in her presence.  She is survived by her mother, her husband Vincent and their two sons and she is sorely missed by everyone who knew her.

Not entirely certain that it will mean as much to you as it means to me but when I read Oriah’s “The Invitation” I am reminded of Linda and the work we did together.

It doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.

It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life's betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, 'Yes.'

It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn't interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

By Oriah Mountain Dreamer from her book, THE INVITATION (c) 1999. Published by HarperONE, San Francisco. All rights reserved. Presented with permission of the author.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sunday Morning Coming Down

Well the last several days have been difficult to imagine. 

Since Friday when Esquire Magazine posted an on-line article about my struggle with breast cancer my Facebook activity has been overwhelming. 

For the past seven (7) years, I have looked without much success for support groups and organizations through which I could make sense of my experience with this disease.  I wished only to find a support group in which I could relate my experiences to others who understand the issues associated with breast cancer and in particular with respect to male breast cancer.

With the advent of the Esquire publication I have now been contacted by numerous individuals and organizations:

Nicki Boscia Durlester, author of the book "Beyond the Pink Moon" and moderator of the informative site

Lisa Marie Guzzardi, co-moderator of the informative site "Protecting BEFORE Breast Cancer"

Alan Blassberg, Producer

I am overwhelmed with the support I am getting and am so encouraged to move forward with my plans to become an integral link in the support structure for men dealing with breast cancer and other forms of cancers common to men.  I will be working with Nicki, Lisa and Alan this coming week to develop my strategies and to help each of them in any way I can.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Slight departure.

I have been overwhelmed with work and issues lately and have been remiss in getting here to write but today I had an experience that I just HAD to come and talk about.

Sitting in my surgeon's office today, waiting to have sutures removed after the excision of yet another basal cell, I met a young woman who had had a double mastectomy several days ago and was waiting to have the drains removed.  This young woman looked so very tired and care-worn.  Such a pretty young lady who, from her mother who waited with her, I learned is 36 and has three and a half year old twins at home. 

I overheard her telling her mom that with the drains in place it is just so difficult to sleep.  I remember all too well how very annoying those drain tubes and the pump mechanism can be and how difficult it is just to dress one's self or function normally through the day let alone try to sleep.  I remember the difficulty of pumping fluids from the surgical site and disposing of them and hating that damn drain every moment of every day.  I also remember when my surgeon visited me in the hospital days after my mastectomy and I convinced him I had had quite enough of the drain and pleaded with him to remove it.  I so much appreciated his candor as he said "this is going to hurt" as he deftly and quickly placed a hand next to the drain and pulled in one smooth motion.  Boy, he was right!  It did hurt, but only momentarily and it was gone but never forgotten.

My heart goes out to this young lady, and to her mother............. 

How difficult it must be to face moving into the best years of adulthood, being so very young, having been diagnosed with breast cancer and having a double mastectomy at 36 years of age.  I cannot imagine how devastating it must be for a woman of any age to be diagnosed and face breast cancer and ultimately lose the visible aspects which have defined her gender.  The pain in this young woman's eyes was palpable as was the worry in her mother's eyes and her steady gaze, watching over her daughter with the intensity of a hawk. 

I am humbled by this young woman and can only wish that she survives her experience emotionally intact.  And to her mother and family I say.... take good care of this young woman. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Alien gets a name

The day after my surgeon called, Rebecca and I were sitting in his office as he tells us that The Alien is in fact a "Ductal Infiltrating (DCIS) Estrogen Receptive Tumour."

So The Alien has a name and we are scheduling a double mastectomy for the earliest possible date available on Dr. Bill Williard's calendar.  I distinctly remember that both Rebecca and I were relieved that Dr. Williard would be my surgeon.  The physician who initially excised my tumour had worked with Dr. Williard's group but had left to pursue work elsewhere.  Rebecca and I both felt much more trust and faith in Dr. Williard from the first time we met with him.

Dr. Williard is the primary surgeon of the Northwest Surgical Group, a division of South Sound Surgical Group in Olympia Washington working out of Capital Medical Centre.
3920 Capital Mal Drive SW Suite 201, Olympia, WA 98502

Suddenly the world seemed to have come crashing down onto my life. Rebecca and I spent the mercifully short time between diagnosis and our surgical date in what Patrick McManus described as "Linear Panic."  I was frightened but the central theme of my emotional state at the time was one of utter confusion.  I mean, listen to the media regarding breast cancer.  What do you hear?  Breast Cancer Research.... for your wife, your sister, your mother, your nieces...  Search the internet under breast cancer and what do you routinely find?  Photos of women, women of all ages, young women, middle aged women.  What you very seldom see are photos of men on these sites and information about male breast cancer is even more difficult to find.  The myth seems to be "men don't suffer from breast cancer."

Where did I fit in this puzzle?  Surely there has to be some mistake.  I am not anyone's mother, sister, wife or niece.  This can't be happening to me, there has to be some mistake..... doesn't there?  But no, there was no mistake.  I had breast cancer and, as it happens, a rather aggressive and dangerous cancer at that.  What was interesting and truly wonderful for me is that given the size of the tumour it had been growing in a milk duct for some time. (Yes, men have those too.) Most such tumours of that size would have erupted through the membranous wall of the duct and become a much more invasive cancer, placing me at much greater risk. 

So, there I lay, stretched out on the gurney, my stomach in knots and still in denial; covered only in a surgical gown and warm blanket, Rebecca and I waiting for Dr. Williard to come in and talk to us prior to surgery.  We discussed the options.  One breast?  Both?  Should we do a prophylactic procedure on the left?  On the right, the site in which The Alien had taken up residence, was a foregone conclusion: we would do a full blown radical on the right to include sentinel nodes adjacent to the site.  I struggle even now to remember the specifics of that discussion.  It is odd how such earth shaking news and the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis can distort time and muddy one's memory....or at least it did mine.

When he came to speak to us after surgery, Dr. Williard was pleased to tell us that of the four sentinel nodes he had removed and sent to pathology during the procedure, none had shown any sign of cancer cells. 

I was discharged the next day and went home in a daze. Recovery was no picnic and not for the faint of heart. I would have gone nuts had it not been for Rebecca.


If there was one overriding feeling in the process of being a male diagnosed with breast cancer I would say that feeling was one of complete and utter frustration.  Certainly I experienced a variety of emotions from the first indication that something was amiss.  Perhaps the place to start is at the beginning.

Rebecca and I were making love.  In the process, which was a heck of a lot of fun bye the way, she became very serious and as she backed away, she gently placed her index finger on a tiny lump just under my nipple and said "what the hell is this?"  The offending lump was something I had never noticed and I said as much.  She was not to be distracted from her concern however and we talked about this little invader we came to know as "The Alien."  After some discussion we determined that first thing Monday morning we would call my Attending Physician and make an appointment to be seen.

The following week we went in to see my physician and he examined The Alien and said that I ought not to worry, that it was "just a cyst" and that we needn't be concerned.  He also said that if we were not comfortable with dismissing the issue, or if the size or texture of this lump were to change, we ought to call and have him have yet another look. 

Well that didn't sit well with Rebecca and we discussed it for a couple weeks following our initial appointment with the doc.  In truth neither of us was terribly comfortable with the lack of detailed information we had concerning the lump and we called and set a second appointment with Steve.  He seemed perplexed when we sat there insisting that The Alien be removed at the earliest possible opportunity but offered to refer me to the surgeon across the hall from his office.

Several days later we received a call from the surgeon's office and an appointment had been set for me to come in and have The Alien excised.  So there I sat, propped on the surgeon's exam table as he prepped my chest and injected a local anesthetic.  As he prepped the site, he too said that I needn't worry as The Alien was surely "just a cyst" and would not pose significant issues for me or in this case for him to excise it. 

Well, that was easier said than done.  As he cut deeper and deeper he found that what we thought was a tiny pea sized lump was much larger and much more deeply imbedded than any of us had thought.  After several more injections of local anesthetic and a lot more cutting the surgeon lifted an encapsulated shiny white mass about the size of my thump from the wound and placed it in a specimen container.  I thought I would be relieved to see The Alien removed from my chest but in truth, I wasn't relieved at all.  What I felt was dread. 

In Washington State, the law requires that any mass removed from a body must be sent to pathology and we were told that the surgeon's office would call when the pathology report was in.  Weeks passed,  two weeks and counting.  Both Rebecca and I lived with anxiety through that period and never seemed able to relax into the belief that it was "just a cyst."  Early in the third week after the excision I called the surgeon's office and inquired.  I was told that the lab that had examined The Alien was not comfortable with the findings and that The Alien had been sent on to yet another lab for further study.  It was then, my heart in my throat and my guts threatening descend through my chair I asked.... where was it sent?  I was told that The Alien had been sent over to "Fred Hutchison" for further examination.

A week later my office phone rang and as I answered the caller identified himself as the surgeon and his words still echo in my mind.  He said "I'm so sorry....  Can you come in to see me?"