W. is a long-time reader of this site who recently connected with us in real life. She and her husband moved to Detroit from San Francisco a few years ago just like we did and our kids are in the same preschool. One day we ran into each other and she mentioned the American Cancer Society's More Birthdays campaign on the site and told me for the first time that her husband J. has been battling (and beating) cancer of the gastroesophageal junction for the past year. His birthday was coming up and she was trying to figure out something cool for him. She wondered if there was something she could do for him in connection with the More Birthdays campaign. I thought it over and told her about the artist prints and wrapping papers available from the ACS, but ultimately decided to offer them a free family portrait session. I take a lot of pictures of my kids (including thousands that I don't share on the site) but I have so few pictures of our family together. I thought it would be a cool gift for this wonderful family to have some shots of the whole gang together, including sons D. (3) and M (baby). So we made some arrangements and W. thought it would be great to share some of the pictures here, as well as tell J.'s powerful story.
Now I am not a professional portrait photographer. I don't have any light boxes or strobes or fancy backdrops. I would never charge anyone for portraits, but I figure it would be a fun gesture, however small. I took a number of interior, posed family portraits that I'm not going to share in order to protect their privacy, but we did go out into the streets of Detroit on a Sunday morning (that's when you sort of have the whole central business district to yourself) and had a blast taking candid shots of the family walking the empty streets, posing in front of beautiful walls and doors, stuffing our faces with a few coneys, and riding the People Mover. Here are just a few shots from that morning:
Nothing about spending the morning with J. would leave you with any impression that he's fighting cancer. It was a few days after the first birthday he'd celebrated under that diagnosis, and even though he's spent every day since last March fighting the disease, he looked great. He looked strong. He looked like a man at the top of his form, a man who could have been posing for photos with his young family as though this were just another day, after just another year.
But for this family 2010 was no ordinary year. As we walked around talking, it became clear just what kind of a whirlwind it had been. In February 2010, J. started feeling a slightly unusual pain in his shoulder. In March, he went to see an orthopedic specialist who suspected possible ligament or tendon damage, and started him on physical therapy. After the therapy did nothing to stop the pain, the orthopedic specialist ordered an MRI that revealed cancer in J.'s shoulder. His wife W. was five months pregnant with their second child, and they had been occupied with the worries and excitement of welcoming the new baby and cancer was---in W.'s words---probably the last thing on their minds. No one in either of their immediate families had ever been diagnosed with cancer, and they had always considered themselves lucky in that respect. But it gave them no context for treatment or recovery and when they first sat down to speak with the oncologists, they had no idea of what to expect.
It must have been so frustrating in those first days when any certainty would give more peace of mind than the unlimited and terrifying possibilities that run rampant while the doctors do their best to bring clarity. At first they thought J. had osteosarcoma, which is a cancer that typically affects children, and it looked like it had been caught early and was treatable and possibly curable. But after a CT scan, the doctors found tumors in his liver as well as his shoulder. But this was actually positive news: they thought it meant that testicular cancer, with is more treatable than the original diagnosis (and with a higher survival rate). But whatever peace of mind that allowed dissipated after a biopsy of the liver tumor, it looked like it was actually colon cancer (despite a lack of symptoms and the unusualness of it metastasizing in the bone. They started with radiation on the shoulder before they even knew for certain what kind of cancer it was. The break came after his gastrointestinal oncologist noticed a slight thickening of the esophagus in a CT scan. Tests confirmed that there were no tumors in the colon, but a PET scan showed a long soft tumor at the gastroesophageal junction. The only symptoms J. could identify were some trouble swallowing and one time when his wife had to perform the heimlich after he choked on some takeout mu shu.
Meanwhile, the due date for their second son was quickly approaching. At a time when most couples would be thinking only of the sleepless nights ahead, or whether there was enough room in their house for a new baby's things, J. and W. were thinking about whether his tumors were HER2 positive and how far the cancer had spread in the lymph nodes in his abdomen. J's doctors recommended an experimental treatment that involved an antibody which would target the HER2 protein receptors in the tumors. The treatment has found success with some breast cancer patients, and there had been some successful trials for gastric patients.
J. and W. agreed to the experimental treatment. Just after his son's third birthday, J. began taking a combination of chemotherapy and targeted antibody treatments. Other than one trip to the emergency room for a fever, treatment was pretty much uneventful. Two weeks before their second son was born, they received the results of the first post-treatment scan. The nurse was crying when she delivered the news: the biggest tumor had shrunk to half it's original size. The others were all much smaller, if not undetectable. The news was great, and the treatment continued.
Baby M. was born: a wise, blue-eyed little gentleman. With his new son in his arms, the experimental treatments became harder than ever, and J. never complained. He continued working even through the most painful infusions. He did not want to let cancer take him down, and he was determined to go on living as he always had. And with Baby M. Born, he now had even more reason to fight like hell.
Last Christmas, the family sat down with J.'s doctors to hear the results of the second scan. The results were even better than before. The largest tumor had once again shrunk in half. The other tumors had also shrunk considerably or become undetectable. It was the best present they could have hoped for.
J. is off the most toxic chemotherapy drugs today and continues to take the antibody treatments. He's not out of the woods yet, but for now they are incredibly grateful and feel blessed with each day that they get to celebrate together. The FDA just officially approved J.'s experimental antibody treatment and now it may become a way for countless others stricken with this particularly ruthless form of cancer to fight it and remain healthy enough to truly enjoy the time it gives them. As tough as this past year has been for this family, they feel so lucky not only that J. was able to witness the birth of his son, this past week he saw another birthday, and if J. has anything to say about it, he will see plenty more.
As J.'s wife tells me: "I truly believe that much of J.'s progress is due to his amazing attitude. I can't overstate how positive he has been throughout this whole process. He has never once complained, or asked why this is happening to him. Instead, he's remained optimistic at every turn. I am so proud that our children will be guided by his strength of will and character." W. also believes it is only because of advances in research and innovative treatments over the past decade that made it possible to forgo more traditional treatments that in this case, with this particular kind of cancer, may have resulted in a more traditional and unpleasant path. W. knew that this is the kind of story the American Cancer Society is trying to bring into more homes, so that maybe it can soon be told by more and more families like this one. I'm so glad she saw the ACS presence on this site and decided to share her family's story with me so that I could share it with you. It was a privilege and an inspiration to spend the morning with this family and discover their story, and I hope it serves as a great reminder (even if your life hasn't been touched by cancer) of just how important it is to go out and enjoy it.
This post is part of the More Birthdays campaign for the American Cancer Society; be sure to head over and check out some of the artists and musicians who've donated their work to the campaign.