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Recognizing the Good…

Recognizing the Good…

To be honest, I received some bad news yesterday about my cancer and the severity of how much it has spread. But today I choose to focus on the positive. I cannot say thank you enough to the hundreds of people that have reached out to me and my family during this difficult time. To the friends and neighbors that have been willing to stop everything they’re doing to assist my family…to the colleagues and acquaintances that have sent me private messages of support and inspiration…and to my former students that have uplifted me by sharing the impact I’ve had on their lives…you have given me hope and put me in a much better mindset. Simply put, THANK YOU.

I had a negative mindset yesterday after finding out more about my condition. The community that surrounds me made that mindset short-lived, highlighted by the love, strength, and determination of my wife, Cindy Traskaski Rick. I don’t know if I’d be able to do this without you…but with you, anything is possible. Thanks for being my rock (and as a former Earth Science teacher, you know how much I appreciate rocks).

I’m overwhelmed by the love and support I’ve received online and in person. Thank you doesn’t say enough. For those of you that know me and know what’s in my heart, you know how I feel and I don’t have to say anything more.

I woke up this morning considering myself lucky. I am thankful for what I have in my life. I choose to be positive and with our collective strength we’ll get through all obstacles that stand in our way. Let the fight begin…

The Facts of Life…

The Facts of Life…

So, I realize it has been about a week since I’ve given an update on my condition (that starts with the letter ‘c’, I prefer using that term now). And I’m struggling getting started with this ‘essay’ (take note, this post is much more like a novel — you’ve been warned!)…but when faced with similar tasks in college, I always seemed to do my best work by procrastinating until the last night. And usually quite late on that last night.

And while I’m facing no deadline (treatment optimism), the truth is that I feel guilty in not responding to the many people that have sent me private messages asking how I am feeling and how they can help. For example, former Prairie Ridge High School athlete and future innovative high school administrator Jessica Sturm has checked in on me multiple times over the last few weeks, only to be left constantly reloading her Facebook page waiting for a response (kidding, I hope). So many people, including my rockCindy Traskaski Rick have told me that everyone understands…and that in no way should I feel guilty. In my head I ask, “How do I accept the generosity and inspiration from so many people, never respond in appreciation, and still feel good about myself (The oxford comma is something I will bite, scratch, and punch for — see what I did there?).

So as a former science teacher whose chromosomal preference for English went to his sister Suzanne Rick Warren, I usually covered up my lack of writing skills by using creativity. The truth is that I watch more tv than read books…so, today I choose to use the theme song from 80’s sitcom hit — The Facts of Life! For all of my former students and players that were born after 1988 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGS56qJ0xIw – and for those that are old enough to have significant memory loss or if technology is not your ‘thing’, copy and paste the URL (that web address thingee) into a new window if you want to hear the song.

“You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have, the facts of life (refrain)”.

So, let’s start with the good. After meeting with multiple oncologists throughout the Chicagoland area over the last three weeks, we’ve found our team. They are AMAZING and are focused on a positive mindset, which was one of my requirements. They have extensive experience with metastatic melanoma and they cared enough to ask me about my daughters (not many places we went did that) during our initial consultation (The very first thing my oncologist said to me during our initial consultation: “We are going to beat this and my goal is to have you walk your daughters down the aisle”). I cried. A lot. To be honest, I just cried when I typed that last sentence…it was an extremely positive memory.

For my hip hop audience or anyone that has ever seen a Fast and Furious movie, my oncologists are my “ride or die”. Sorry, I needed a way to switch emotions in order to finish this post. Mission Accomplished!

They saw me at my worst and they treated me as if I was their own family member, checking in on me multiple times. Additionally, my oncology team sent my biopsied lymph node in to test for a genetic mutation that makes me eligible for ‘targeted theraphy’ (research BRAF mutation and targeted therapy if you’re interested in the technical stuff). I’ve never been so happy to find out that I’m a freak (my word, not theirs). Coincidentally, my life is starting to mimic that of the movie Deadpool. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Back to more good stuff: I’ve started my first series of targeted therapy treatments and I’ve had tremendous positive results towards the ‘condition’. Most of my symptoms (detectable lymph nodes by sight/touch, wheezing, coughing uncontrollably, extreme weight loss, sleeping 16 hours a day) related to cancer (there, I said it) have gone away. And even the four visible lymph nodes in my neck have shrunk significantly (three are no longer detectable by vision or touch, and the largest one that forced me to the doctor in the first place has shrunk by 80%).

Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve shared the full extensiveness of my cancer on Facebook yet (that’s not necessarily a ‘good’, but it is a ‘fact of (my) life’). The cancer was originally detected in my neck, lungs, liver, and throughout both my spine and pelvis (For Cindy and I, the extensiveness of how much cancer has spread throughout bone is the most disturbing). Refocusing on the good, the brain MRI came back clean and most other organs/tissues didn’t show any signs of cancer. That’s good and I’ll take it (refer back to the song).

The ‘bad’ is obviously a relative term. Most people would say to themself, “Self…winner, winner, chicken dinner!” credit to Mathew Matt Timmermanfor the ‘self’ part. You’re being greedy by even considering anything after the paragraphs above could be ‘bad’! I’ve already mentioned the treatment as targeted therapy, which is simply taking a series to two different medications (8 pills a day from one bottle, 3 pills of the other). I know, right — that should’ve been explained in the good section. I have extensive, incurable 4th stage metastatic melanoma and all I have to do is take pills to make it go ‘away’ (shrink is a more accurate term…I like how it was described in a YouTube clip I watched, where they described it as the cancer masses melt away like ice cubes).

So, here’s the rub. Both pills only work because of the mutation and they are effective by disrupting the protein that the cancer cells feed on to grow (the cancer’s metabolic enzyme chain — can you tell I’ve done a lot of research since diagnosis). In other words, the drugs stop the cancer cells from attacking healthy cells, which is good. I’ve been on the first pill for about 10 days longer than the second pill — with the first, no significant side effects and positive results as outlined in the ‘good’ paragraphs. The second pill, well, that’s a different story.

I started taking the second pill on Friday, June 17. The next day I took my lovely wife out for dinner for her birthday and I felt GREAT! More encouraging, I felt exactly like I did months before my diagnosis. I’m going to make an effort (too late?) to keep the rest of this short. After all, it’s not fun talking about the bad stuff. Over the next few days, I had a series of severe reactions to the second medication — joint weakness that turned into significant joint pain, blurred vision, violent shaking (chills), severe fevers (topping out at 103.6), night sweats, a rash on my legs, multiple bumps on my body that are sensitive to the touch (like bruises), and muscle pain (as if I had the most intense workout after months of being lazy). You know how they read the list of potential side effects at the end of every drug commercial…yeah, I hit the jackpot and seemingly had all of them.

In short, I was miserable. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still take the side effects associated with the medication over the symptoms associated with my malignant masses. I was told to stop taking the second medication immediately and that in 48 hours I should start seeing a noticeable change in my symptoms — 60 hours in and I’m still experiencing most of those side effects. I see my oncology team tomorrow and I’m hoping I experience significant improvement after that…time will tell.

So, I’m left with the facts of life…
Good – I’m optimistic that my cancer cells are actually “melting”.
Bad – The same drugs that will potentially save me are causing pain.

I liked the quote that Adam Paul sent me (the picture associated with this post). “When the Root is Deep — There is no Reason to Fear the Wind” — my roots, represented by the love and support of everyone that has reached out to me since my diagnosis, have never been stronger. Like the initial conversation I had with my oncologist, I’m WILL beat cancer and I WILL walk both Evelyn and Harper down the aisle — and I hope they don’t get married until they’re 35 (especially since they won’t be allowed to date until they’re 28). I’m strong, I have a positive mindset, and I have a support system that can move mountains. If cancer were personified, it should be shaking in its boots.– you messed with the wrong family. Revenge is going to be pretty sweet.

The Public Announcement…on Facebook.

The Public Announcement…on Facebook.

FBO = Facebook Official

Usually when people are posting things for the first time on facebook, they’re announcing something positive to the world: admitting a new relationship, declaring the gender of a newborn baby, announcing the return of the McRib at McDonalds.

Well, this post intends to take “FBO” in a different direction.

As many of you know, the last few weeks I’ve been fighting my share of health issues: bronchitis, shortness of breath, double ear infection, fatigue, rapid weight loss, etc. I’ve missed a lot of work and have spent most of those weeks in bed. As it turns out, those symptoms were masking a more sinister development…

Last week I was diagnosed with stage iv cancer, or more specifically metastatic melanoma. You know, that’s the incurable kind of cancer with horrendous five-year survival rates if you look things up on Google. It also spreads quickly and doesn’t seem to discriminate what type of tissues/cells/organs it attacks. After the initial shock and thoughts of not being able to witness my daughters Evie (5) and Harper (2) grow up, I changed my mindset and realized that I will beat my condition…after all, cancer is just a word and not a sentence (I saw that on some meme somewhere…credit to the internet).

It helps that I have a spunky, badass wife in Cindy Traskaski Rick that doesn’t take no for an answer and constantly contacts doctors until I get the appointments I need. She has been my rock and my beacon of hope…cannot say thank you enough or communicate how lucky I am to have her in my life. Through this she has even become a better mother (if that’s even possible) and an even more loving wife — what a way to spend our ten-year anniversary, my love!

We’ve also been blessed with amazing family, friends, and neighbors who have been willing to contribute by volunteering to watch our girls, bring us meals, do chores around our house, and provide insight into similar situations that have brought us hope and optimism. We’re overwhelmed by the support we’ve been given by those closest to us. Thank you doesn’t say enough. If you ever need to feel like you’re part of a community, get an incurable disease…or better yet, just take my word for it. We really need to take the time to appreciate each other more often when times are good. Cindy and I are so thankful to everyone that has already reached out to help.

Speaking of which, this post is not intended to get donations or ask for assistance. Everyone has something going on in their personal lives and there’s no way to prioritize what each individual goes through. My hope is that by making this ‘Facebook Official’ I’ll have access to more stories of optimism. For the many of you that have dealt with cancer directly or indirectly, I’m eager to hear of your positive stories and/or recommendations for doctors and treatments that have helped you through the process.

I will fight, I will win…and I will be able to help the next friend or acquaintance that faces insurmountable odds in their own personal fight.

This will be a long battle that will present its own peaks and valleys…thank you in advance for any support, positive thoughts, and prayers you can share along the way.

The Recruiting Process…Choosing an Oncologist!

The Recruiting Process…Choosing an Oncologist!

“With the first selection in the 2016 cancer killing draft, Steven Rick selects…”

No pressure, you’re just picking the oncologist that will give you the best chance at reducing the amount of cancer in your body and, as a result, gives you your only shot at possible survival. Oh, and in case you haven’t looked up the statistics on Google yet, the five-year survival rate is listed at 14%…so even the best doctor in Chicagoland is probably only increasing your chance at living long enough to see your daughters enter middle school to a 1 in 5 shot. FML. Better yet…F*ck You, Cancer!

So, the question becomes, where do you even start in selecting the doctor that will give you the best chance at a 20% 5-year survival rate? Assuming you’re going to set up consultations with multiple oncologists, what questions do you even ask to help narrow the field? We started where most people begin…close to home. Our local hospital has a cancer specialty center. Our first consultation took place about 22 hours after diagnosis, meaning we went into our first appointment mostly naive and completely scared shitless. That said, it was a pleasant experience. Our local oncologist was kind, knowledgeable, and interested in beating my cancer. He referenced a podcast he listened to earlier that morning that discussed the latest treatments in metastatic melanoma.

Let’s pause for reflection. If you were in my shoes, would you trust your life to a doctor that learned how to treat your cancer on his drive to work that morning? Neither would I.

And so, the wife and I spent the next 24 hours researching every cancer (specifically, melanoma) specialist within 100 miles. It was a Saturday which meant that none of the offices were open, but we still called and emailed any university or cancer center that had a melanoma specialist and requested a consultation. My wife had a slogan, “leave no stone unturned”.  Holy cow…there were a lot of stones. And now it was time for me to grow a pair.

Most places couldn’t get us in for at least a week…and unfortunately, my symptoms were getting worse by the day. We scheduled appointments as they became available, hoping to find the oncology team that would offer us the treatment option we couldn’t refuse (even if we didn’t know quite what that meant, yet). Meanwhile, friends and family constantly sent us recommendations on Facebook…”check this doctor out”, “we had a bad experience at this place”, “our friend was cured by this doctor”…half the time the recommendations contradicted one another, leaving us confused as to whether we should explore that option. And we were still only talking about the options in the Chicagoland area. Furthermore, many people recommended cancer treatment centers around the United States: Mayo Clinic (Rochester, MN), MD Anderson (Houston, TX), NIH (Bethesda, MD)…so many options, so little time.

So, the wife and I went on the local tour, scheduling consultations with every melanoma specialist and research facility that would see us in the next two weeks. Our second appointment introduced us to a man by the name of Dr. Jon Richards. More on him (and his team) later on in this blog post.

One thing we haven’t discussed yet is the difference between common, FDA-approved treatments and Clinical Trials (where research centers offer fully-funded experimental treatments -or combinations or treatments – in order to determine the effectiveness of new drugs…in exchange for you being a human guinea pig). Sorry, that’s not fair to characterize Clinical Trials in a negative light as they offer many potential benefits…and generally Clinical Trials are what ultimately lead to FDA approval. Participants in Clinical Trials are offered access to promising new treatments not available outside the CT-setting, participants are generally monitored more frequently (thus, safer), and the drugs used for treatment are often cost-free to the person exposed to the trial. Also, Clinical Trial participation contributes to the collective intelligence of cancer research…which is vital to our understanding of how to improve medical care for those diagnosed with cancer in the future. All good things.

My opinion of clinical trials rests solely on my personal experiences during the ‘recruiting’ process. The college/university tour offered me a glimpse of what it must be like to be a blue chip athlete (minus the bags of cash and other incentives – allegedly). You see, it turns out that being an otherwise healthy (ignore that thing called cancer), under-40-years-old person is an attractive trait in the Clinical Trial community. I couldn’t help but feel like a piece of meat…university oncologists viewed me as a positive outcome (or at least a higher probability of being a positive outcome) that would make their research look good. Okay, so I have no proof that is what they were actually thinking…but that’s how I felt — and I’ve always been a firm believer in “perception is reality”. Do you know how many times I heard “you’d be a great candidate for our clinical trial”? Now for the sickening part — those oncologists that said I would be a great candidate never even looked at my scans (x-rays, brain MRI, CT-scan, PET-scan). They hadn’t bothered to get to know MY cancer story. My wife, who calls herself the pack mule, brought every single scan and report to each of our consultations — and yet, we were told we were great candidates for whichever Clinical Trial there were invested in because I wasn’t a 75-year-old, lifelong smoker with diabetes.

Now, you may criticize me for being too harsh on the research community…after all, I have already admitted that I have no proof of their dastardly intentions. But I will tell you, and my wife will attest, that there was a different feeling in consultations with universities as opposed to someone like Dr. Jon Richards (I told you he was coming back into the story). We left a consultation from a highly reputable institution (for sake of the story, we’ll call it the University of Schmicago) and both of us started crying. During lunch after the appointment, my wife tried to describe how she felt…she explained the pain, the loss of hope, and the trouble she had catching her breath. I said, “Cindy, you now know what it’s like to be kicked in the balls. The University of Schmicago just kicked us in the cookies.”

Now, to be fair, there was nothing that the University of Schmicago did that was inaccurate or unfair. They were just extremely honest and data-driven, explaining each potential treatment and any associated statistics (“with this treatment, you have a 20% chance of success and a 45% chance of potential negative outcomes”), something we did not want to hear…over and over and over. Okay, we get it, cancer sucks and there’s a higher probability that I won’t survive while possibly experiencing painful and potentially-deadly side effects. You win, University of Schmicago, I’m officially defeated.

We had a much better experience at another university (let’s call it, Schmorthwestern), where they didn’t kick us in the balls…or any other painful orifice, for that matter. In fact, they intrigued us by offering a completely different treatment path. In addition, they had a Clinical Trial that provided benefits with fewer side effects. Hmmmm, finally something to think about. I could tell my wife (by the way, she and I are the only ones that can call her a pack mule…attempt to do so at your own risk) was falling in love with Schmorthwestern. Their presentation was great. They had a team of doctors that met monthly to discuss their cancer patients. They were, after all, Schmorthwestern, and could offer some of the most up-to-date treatments and technology on the planet. She felt safe. She felt supported. I, however, felt like a statistic. Again. I was told I was a great candidate for any of their clinical trials…where have I heard that before?

One place I did not hear that was the office of Dr. Jon Richards. Okay, to end the suspense, Dr. Richards is MY doctor. He has been my doctor since the moment I met him…I just didn’t know that yet and to be fair to my wife, we still had a lot of stones to turn over. Dr. Richards saw me at my worst…he saw the guy that was three inches shorter, hunched over coughing up a lung. He saw the lymph nodes sticking out of my neck, my skin pale and sweaty. He saw me at my worst…and it wasn’t a pretty sight. We met him on a Friday and I’m still not convinced he didn’t think I was going to make it through the weekend.

The first time he walked into the office, he held my hand and he said “we’re going to beat this and my goal is to have you walk your daughters down the aisle”. Now, that’s a novel concept, a doctor that realizes I’m more than just my cancer diagnosis…that I actually care more about my daughters than myself…that I’m still a human being and not just a potential statistic. Dr. Richards took my wife and I into another room where we reviewed my PET-scan together. He answered questions…and if you know my wife, you can be sure that she had an arsenal of questions ready to ask. He spoke to us with respect, yet explained things in a way that was easily understood (gotta love a good analogy!). When asked about his plans for my treatment, he started with “If you were my brother, I would…” — signed, sealed, delivered. Dr. Jon Richards was my doctor since that initial consultation. I just hadn’t admitted it yet.

We still had consultations set up (University of Schmicago, Schrmorthwestern, etc.) and we didn’t feel guilty because Dr. Richards was going to be out of town for a week. He actually had us schedule an appointment with his associate, Dr. Sigrun Hallmeyer, for the week he was gone. Wow! If I wasn’t sold on Richards, Dr. Hallmeyer was the icing on the cake. Aggressive, warm, passionate, caring…I had found my team. And the best part, their second office (main office was next to Lutheran General Hospital) is located in an unsuspecting strip mall in Niles, Illinois. Right next to a ‘Wig World’. Yes, that’s a store that sells wigs. My cancer treatments take place in a strip mall…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My wife said “leave no stone unturned”. We turned over multiple stones and ended up in a suburban strip mall. Many people, myself included, often refer to their fight against cancer as a battle…or better yet, a war. When this process started, I had no idea I’d be fighting this war using guerrilla tactics…hiding in trenches…attacking the enemy (cancer) from the unsuspecting safety of a ‘Wig World’.

 

 

 

On the Topic of Tears…the Diagnosis.

On the Topic of Tears…the Diagnosis.

Upon initially learning of my diagnosis, I didn’t even cry. I remember being surprised by my lack of emotions as I talked to my doctor. However, I’ll never forget the conversation. It was around 5:30 pm on Thursday, June 2 and my doctor called to give me the results of a recent lymph node biopsy — “Well, Steve, it’s cancer…or more specifically stage IV Metastatic Melanoma”. There were no tears and my voice didn’t even crack. So you’re probably thinking that I’m either tough as nails or some strong spiritual sense gives me everlasting internal peace. Well, neither of those statements is true. The truth is, I didn’t cry because I halfway expected my cancer diagnosis. I had been sick for about four weeks and various doctors kept telling me I had pneumonia. I knew something was wrong…the coughing, the wheezing, the shortness of breath, the pain in my chest, the fatigue…all resulting in my daughters only being allowed to see me twice a day (first thing in the morning and right before their bedtime). But I don’t think I truly ever believed that I had pneumonia. I knew something was wrong…and it felt deep down to be something much worse than pneumonia. My doctor had just told me that I had life-threatening cancer and I didn’t even cry. That was, until I hung up.

Suddenly, I couldn’t stop crying.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to that conversation on June 2nd and remember what it felt like to be able to have a conversation with another human being without being on the verge of tears. My wife came into the room after I got off the phone with my doctor and saw the look on my face. She just gave me a hug as I cried on her shoulder. I never told her this (the internet reveals all, I guess), but in that moment I felt I was saying goodbye to her. And goodbye to my two beautiful daughters…to the future I had always envisioned  with them (soccer/basketball games, high school dances, college graduation, future careers, marriage, grandchildren — yes, hoping those are listed in chronological order!) And goodbye to the thirty-nine years I had already spent on this planet…regretting that I probably wouldn’t live to see my next birthday.

Okay, so I was getting a little over-dramatic. The truth is that I was naive. I had no idea what stage iv metastatic melanoma even meant…although early google searches did not give me  much reason for optimism. We hadn’t even met with a single oncologist and I had already resolved myself to the worst-case scenario: impending death. That’s not me. And my spunky wife certainly wouldn’t let me keep that mindset for long. The pity party had to end before we could even take a whack at the cancer-stuffed pinata. After all, we still had to get our girls ready for bedtime. Potty…Pajamas…Brushing Teeth…Story Time! Back to reality. Sigh.

In the weeks that followed, I cried. A lot. And despite the occasional moment of weakness that allows a negative thought to enter my mind, most of the tears I’ve experienced lately are positive tears. What do I really have to cry about? One look at my Facebook account and you can see hundreds of friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, and former students/athletes surrounding me with their love and support. A peek inside a recent crowdfunding website that was set up for my family (You Caring) and you can see that people have been willing to extend beyond their means to assist my family in our time of need. I’m positively overwhelmed by the love and support of people I’ve been fortunate enough to build relationships with over the years. I don’t feel like I deserve the love and support…and there are people that could use all of this attention a lot more than me.

So, I have cancer…and it’s the bad (read: aggressive) kind that doesn’t discriminate and seems to enjoy screwing with the human body. My human body. I’m done crying for the wrong reasons. I’m ready to cry because, well, because I feel sorry for cancer…it’s about to get its ass whipped. Get your war paint on — we’re doing this.