Friday, April 8, 2016

The temerity of a tumor

It's called a mediastinal seminoma. The first word refers to the region of the chest directly behind the sternum--right in the upper middle--, and the second is a kind of germ tumor which typically grows there. Not too typically, understand. It is rare enough to be a bit off-the-beaten-path medically and not so rare that nobody knows how to treat it but at least there is a chance they'll name it after you. Call it medium rare.

I mention this because I am currently hosting one of my own. Like many tumors in this class, it has grown quite large because it sets up shop in one of the few parts of the body with a nice bit of real estate undeveloped by vital organs, and expands until it has run out of chest cavity, finally making its presence known by trying to bump your lungs and heart and whatever else it assumes is unnecessary out of the way so it can take over everything.

I have a problem with that.

Fortunately, so did my doctors, although the story of my first month spent with the knowledge of a large mass in my chest did not go as pleasantly as I had hoped. It was March 2nd on which, fed up with a cough that just would not go away all winter and into the spring (it started in November, but as several people in my environment also had coughs that weren't going away it blended nicely with its surroundings and I assumed if I just waited a while it would finally clear up)--my patience gone completely, and my ability to run without an unusual amount of effort and exhaustion particularly at short distances finally being the last straw, that I visited a clinic nearby and complained of a "chornic cough" (OK, they mis-typed it) and a "tightness of chest." When an exam with a stethoscope didn't turn any problems up I was sent for a chest x-ray, and that's when they found it. Something that shouldn't be there, was there.

What it actually was took a long time to find out. First a CT scan took a more three-dimensional image of my chest. But the biopsy was what took so long, and around that, not the test, but the paperwork, and the second opinion from a large and respected clinic up north (Mayo) and than some more dragging on paperwork, while I called periodically and tried to figure out which of the 8 doctors who appeared in my chain of care for various reasons (some of whom I had never actually met or received any care from) might have gotten the results of the test.

By this point we were pushing up against Palm Sunday and Easter, which puts a special pressure on a church organist. I thought my time might be very limited, even, given the size of the thing, my time on this earth, but especially, as soon was we had a name for it, we'd start treatment, and that surely meant disruption. Either chemotherapy, which would cause an uncertain amount of it, or surgery, which would put me completely out of the picture for a month or two. Flat on my back, recovering from being pulled open like a lobster. But the mass gone completely. Perhaps.

I had to tell the staff at the church, and my other employers, that we had to have someone on standby if I suddenly was unable to perform my duties. And at least secretly, I thought, I just somehow have to make it through Easter. I can't leave my church high and dry on Easter Sunday, of all things. Just though Easter! Please.

Which in some way made those foot-dragging doctors useful, because it wasn't until after Easter that I got my results. And then another week to correct an early mistake I'd made trying to save money--I was out of network, and had to get my records transferred from one oncologist to the other, which took another week's time.

So on Match Day, when Kristen finally found out, after most of a year, where she had been selected to do her medical residency, after a long period of uncertainly, knowing we were going to move away but not knowing yet where, we finally had answers. A destination, a goal, a place for me to start looking for jobs. Future less cloudy. On our way to with the path well marked. Oh, and I might have cancer....

But I got through Easter, and somehow played about as well as usual, three epic services in one morning and an evening choir practice on top of it, no time to nap in between because we have people to see (I may have squeezed in a few zzzs after that). Alleluia!

And then I had a Baron Richtoffen moment.* I told the staff at our next meeting how glad I was that I had made it through Easter. And that, so far, has been my last Sunday! Well, I'm still glad Easter came early, and I still think it is much better to miss a Sunday or two that is not a major holiday.

I had a virus last weekend with a fever which conveniently robbed me of my voice on Friday, and the rest of me on Saturday and Sunday. And this was the week that we had decided to tell the whole church of my condition. The pastors had to do it while I was not present and I asked them to please let the church know that my absence was not due to the advanced stages of the disease, but an unrelated virus that was causing a fever. I'm sure some folks panicked anyway. The next day they sent me the entirety of the altar flowers (they normally divide these up between shut-ins--so sorry, guys!) care of the office manager, Janelle, who said that the ladies would have brought them to my house themselves, but were afraid they'd cry!

(I'm not at death's door yet, guys)

Meanwhile, we were trying to figure out just how bad things were, or weren't. Once I got to see my oncologist, things changed very quickly. He's been championed as "aggressive." He wanted me in the hospital the next day to start chemotherapy while simultaneously being available for all of the tests to determined whether it had spread. To our relief, we found it had not. It was just a very large tumor in my chest. About the size of a nerf football.

A seminoma is a strange type of cancer. It grows quickly, which makes it easier to treat. Seminomas can be shrunk very well with chemotherapy. It may only take three months. I have been told my cancer is very treatable, and I'll probably be cured completely (though that's not guaranteed). In the meantime, I still have to go through at least four cycles of chemotherapy. I'll have some good days and some bad days. Which is where this gets relevant to my blog readers.

Some of you are pianists and organist who do not read this blog to find out about me personally. I also have many Facebook friends and family who sometimes read this blog only when it contains information about me. Usually I'm here to share music with anyone who will listen and hopefully find it fascinating. But on the theory that music and life are connected, and given the major transitions we are going through this year, I occasionally get autobiographical on you. This particular journey might entail some inconsistencies in this blog. For instance:

1) I may find it next to impossible to get myself out of bed some days and unable to think straight enough to put sentences together because of the effects of the drugs and therefore will not be publishing the blog regularly for the remainder of the semester.

2) I may find that blogging is about the only thing I CAN do with any consistency, or on good days I may write several, set them on auto-publish, and proceed marvelously uninterrupted.

I can't say yet. Today is my third day in the hospital and third day of chemotherapy. So far it has not had negative effects on me. The anti-nausea drugs they are giving me are working wonderfully, and my kidneys are doing their jobs wonderfully, too. I won't be running any marathons this year and I have even stopped practicing the piano and organ. But since I work ahead I can still share new recordings with you through the end of the semester so long as I can think straight and stay awake long enough. Which isn't the problem right now--I haven't been getting enough sleep!

Those of you who are friends and family members, or concerned blog readers, can go to a place called and look for a fellow named michael andy hammer (the middle name is a good way to find the right me). I'll be putting all future cancer-related information there and not going on Facebook or this blog with it, so that we can continue to live our musically rich, intellectually curious lives as well as we can to share our passions with as many people as we can for as long as we can. All of us.

*I read a children's book once about the "red baron." Despite his success, he was never happy--never thought he had enough kills. First he becomes an ace--you need 10 kills for that--and the kills keep piling up. 20, 30, 40---I think he get all the way to 80. And they have a banquet for him and he drinks the toast, and says, "80 kills. Now that is something" as if satisfied with himself for the first time. And the next time he goes up in a plane, he gets killed. Moral: don't get complacent!


  1. Sorry to hear your news, but very glad that the treatment's going well, and that you made it through Easter :-). Get well soon.

  2. Mom had that album it was a red and white cover. Went 10 20 30 40 50 or more bloody red baron was roll on the score.... til it went... 80 men died trying to end that score of the bloody red baron over Germany. A bunch of marching music in the background.


I don't bite...mostly.