Don Rivers: My Cancer Survival Story
What does not kill us makes us stronger!
I was in great shape. I had worked out at least five days a week for over 10 years. I watched what I ate. But I also smoked cigars. I had even been telling myself to quit before I got cancer. I did not quit soon enough!
It was November 2003. I noticed a knot on the right hand side of my neck and thought it was kind of strange, so I went to see my doctor. He advised me to have it removed, but he told me it was probably nothing. I had it removed on a Friday morning and the surgeon told me it did not look like cancer — but he would send a sample to be tested just to be sure.
The next Monday I received a call from the surgeon informing me the path0logy report indicated squamous cells. I asked him what that meant, and he told me I had cancer somewhere from the neck up. I was numb. I did not know how to react. I drove my truck down to the lakefront and just sat there imagining the worst. I was thinking brain cancer and wondering how long I had to live. I called my doctor and asked him to refer me to MD Anderson in Houston. That was the best decision I ever made.
I had to break the news to my wife, Sandy. I thought a long time about how to do it. I finally decided just to call her and be honest. She said there must be a mistake. It took me a while to convince her that it was no mistake. I told her about my appointment at MD Anderson. They didn’t waste any time there, and I had an appointment for the following Monday morning.
It was a very rough weekend to say the least. We had to break the news to my teenaged daughter and 12-year-old son. I did not sleep or sit still all weekend. I kept wondering what would happen to my family if I was gone. I thought about all the people that depended on me.
We arrived at MD Anderson and they had already planned out my next three days. I had appointments with my whole team and several tests to go through. By the end of the first day, they had found the primary cancer. It was on the base of my tongue. I had never heard of this type of cancer. I was worried about my career and how else I would make a living. Radio is all I have ever done. I met with my primary doctor and asked him point-blank if I was going to live. He told me “I can’t make any promises… you have a Stage 3 cancer.” I was now officially scared. I stopped watching any TV show that dealt with death. I could not watch hospital shows either. I would only watch shows that would make me laugh; and that was hard to do at this point.
By the end of the week my treatment had been decided upon. I would undergo six weeks of daily radiation treatments. But first, I had to get ready. I would have exploratory surgery to determine the exact location of the cancer and to remove my teeth in the field of radiation.
The surgery was done early in the morning and my wife and I checked into the Marriott at the medical center afterward. I slept the rest of that day and woke up starved at about 2 a.m. the next morning. I left the room with a few dollars to get some crackers and a drink out of the vending machine. The machines on my floor were not working. I went to several floors before I found what I wanted. Then it hit me. I did not know what room I was in. I had to go down to the front desk and ask them where I was staying. They must be used to things like that happening because they did not blink an eye.
My team told me to eat a lot over the holidays and my radiation would start in January after I healed from the surgery. I really pigged out over the holidays, and it probably saved my life. I weighed 230 when I started radiation after the holidays.
The radiation department asked me what time of day I would like my treatments. I opted for 6 a.m. so I would not sit around all day and dread my treatment. I would lie flat on a table with a mouthpiece inserted, my head and shoulders immobilized with a custom-fit hard plastic mesh mask that was snapped onto the table, my legs and arms were immobilized using a strap. I was totally immobilized, and I did not like it. In the past for radio station stunts, I had been buried alive for 48 hours, frozen alive in a huge block of ice for 48 hours, even flown in an F-16; but this freaked me out — and I ask for something to make me less anxious. It was the beginning of the drugs.
The treatments would last about 20 minutes each day while a machine would buzz around my head, delivering the radiation. They had told me what to expect as far as side effects, but naturally I was a worst-case scenario. I volunteered to be used for protocol study. The first couple of weeks were easy. My neck was a little red, but that was about it. The hardest thing to that point had been being away from my family. I traveled back to Lake Charles on the weekends. In the third week, I started to lose my taste buds and my neck was looking sunburned. I started losing my beard below the chin line and the hair on the back of my head near my neck. My throat was beginning to hurt and my doctor prescribed pain medication. I also stopped sleeping because I was so stressed out thinking about my family’s future. The doctor prescribed a sleep aid.
Week 4 came along, and nothing tasted good. I remember going to Popeye’s and throwing away the chicken I bought and then going to Subway to get a meatball sub. I ended up throwing it away also. All my favorite foods had no taste, and it was getting more difficult to swallow. I just quit trying and I was starting to lose weight. Sandy decided to spend the last two weeks with me in Houston.
The fifth week started with me throwing up blood. I was scared that I would throw up during my treatment and no one would know. It never happened but added to my anxiety. Sandy said I started walking slumped over (she says I still do). My neck was on fire and I put a special ointment on it continuously. I was in a lot of pain and was prescribed stronger pain medication. I also started losing weight at an alarming rate and they put in a feeding tube. The sleeping pill was only knocking me out for about four hours so my doctor told me to take another one when I woke up so I could sleep another four hours. I started feeding myself through the tube a few times a day, but the weight continued to come off.
The beginning of the sixth week found me in the emergency room. I spent the next week in the emergency room 23 hours a day. The other hour was when they rolled me down for my treatments. I was malnourished, dehydrated, anemic and was developing other problems. I could not go to the bathroom. I could not swallow at all, yet I was still throwing up blood. They gave me blood and fluids and installed a constant drip on my feeding tube.
I was at my lowest point. I have never been one to give up. My feeling about battles had always been that “nothing can beat me” — but this was beating me. I felt like I was in the bottom of a hole and was just sinking deeper. I looked out the window and saw people going to work in the morning. I wished I was going to work and wondered if I ever would again. My thought process was affected by the pain and medication. I thought the end was near. I really thought that the radiation was pointless at this time.
I was on my way to a treatment and had to stop at a bathroom and throw up blood. I came out of the bathroom and told Sandy I was done with radiation. I was not going to finish the treatments. I had had enough! She had never seen me give up. It must have really scared her; but she knew I was stronger than I thought I was. She told me, “You have a 12-year-old son and teenage daughter who need their dad.” I knew she was right. I struggled through the last of the treatments and returned to our Moss Bluff home to recover.
I was so weak, I could hardly walk up the stairs. I was freezing all the time. I had lost 50 pounds so far. People said I looked like a ghost. My boss said my skin was a grey color.
My primary care doctor put me in the hospital. A pump was hooked up to my feeding tube. They put me on oxygen and a constant IV drip. They injected vitamins and different supplements into my feeding tube. I spent the next week being nursed back to a stable condition. I begged my doctor to release me and he finally did. I returned home.
I had home health nurses stop by the house each day to inject antibiotics for an infection in my mouth. I remember the first time I swallowed. I was so excited to tell Sandy about it. I started slowly sipping on ginger ale. I gradually got to where I could swallow soft foods and I could actually taste some things. I decided I had to get my strength back so I started walking around the block. I would walk about thirty yards and rest. I would repeat the process several times till I made it around the block. I was stepping down the pain medication. I started feeling a little better and decided to go back to work.
My doctor told me I had to consume 5,000 calories a day. I was using the pump to inject high protein food while I was at home and injecting it in my feeding tube while in my office at work. I gradually could eat again and started eating three big meals a day. I would also walk on my lunch hour to build strength. I decided to go back on the air and discovered my voice was so weak that you could barely hear me over the songs. I would go into my office during music sweeps and inject more food into my tube. My doctor had refused to remove the tube until I started gaining weight. I really hated it, and I was determined to gain weight — but every week I would visit him and my weight would be down more. I finally bottomed out at 167 pounds.
I asked my doctor why I was so tired all of the time. He told me that it was all the drugs I was taking. I told him I was going to just stop taking them. He advised me to step down but I refused and quit all of the drugs cold turkey. I would sit in my office and shake. I did not sleep. I was determined to not be an addict so I struggled through it. To this day I only take pain medication or sleep aids as a last resort. I never want to go through withdrawal again.
I returned to MD Anderson regularly, and on one visit I was finally told I was cancer-free! I thanked God and was talking on the air! The battle was not over, but the war was won. I was still working to gain weight and strength but the cancer was gone. I will always have to take Salogen to make my saliva glands work, Synthroid to make my thyroid gland work and Nexium to protect my throat. I will always have to do nightly fluoride treatments on my teeth. I will never be able to have surgery in the radiated area; but I am a survivor.
I often wonder why God spared me. I really think it was the prayers of others that saved my life. I was on the air one day and received a call from a young girl. She asked, “Is this Don Rivers?” I answered, “Yes.” She asked me how I was doing. I told her I was doing great. She said she was glad and that her school had included me in their morning prayers everyday. I have never been more touched. I had several friends who put me on prayer list. I am a firm believer in the power of prayer.
I remember going to work one cold winter morning shortly after getting the word that I was cancer-free. I stepped out of my truck and a cold wind blew right through my clothes. I stood there and enjoyed it because It meant I was still alive. My whole attitude has been changed. I realize that every day is a gift. I refuse to spend my time worrying, being angry or stressed out. I enjoy every minute and am very thankful. I know God has a plan for me.