Friday, November 25, 2016. Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite days of the year. For as long as I can remember, I loved that it was a holiday that everyone celebrated. It meant a break from school, football with friends and time with family when you were growing up. In college, it was a time to return home, get together with old friends and spend quality time with your family. And while Thanksgiving itself is always evolving (whether it be the location, those joining or the family expanding), the concept stays the same. Some people return to their childhood homes. Other people start their own traditions where they settle. The constant is being with family. And for me, there is no other holiday like it because it brings so many people I care about together.
Thanksgiving 2016 was all this and more.
After a pet scan on November 3 — where they inject your body with a dye and make you drink gallons of “special juice” (which makes you radioactive for 12 hours), followed by 3o minutes in an X-ray machine (wrapped in a straight jacket so you don’t move) to see if the dye/drink contrast lights up to show cancer in your body — we received the results on the afternoon of November 4. The email read:
Hi Josh, I just tried your cell. PET scan is back and its good:
Continued decrease in the size of nonhypermetabolic anterior mediastinal mass. currently measuring 3.3 x 1.5 cm, previously 8.6 x 4.8 cm.
What is important is that the left over cells are not picking up any contrast which means they are dead cells.
Have a great weekend.
My first call was to the PA (returning the missed call) to make sure I understood each and every word (and we went through each and every word). For good measure, I forwarded the e-mail to the resident family doctors (my father-in-law and uncle) to dissect each word.
The clear takeaway: no more cancer. The huge mass had shrunk and is now just scar tissue that will continue to shrink and ultimately go away with time. The protocol I am on is working, will be finished in a few weeks and the three year maintenance plan will follow to help ensure the cancer does not come back.
Hard to explain the emotions that day and every day since frankly. We were told on the first day by my doctor that “I was going to be OK,” but to say there have not been moments of dark thoughts would be a lie. In the end, I was hoping (and confident) that this would be a gut check on invincibility and a wake up call to keep things in perspective everyday –not just when something necessitates a perspective check. And it sure seems we are headed in that direction, which was welcome news to hear out loud…..
So obviously Thanksgiving was a bit more meaningful than usual at the Sussberg house yesterday. And it was an amazing day. Notwithstanding my Wednesday pre-turkey day “cocktail” at Weill Cornell (three chemo treatments plus special testing for stomach issues that have been keeping me up at nights), I felt the best I have in weeks yesterday morning and afternoon. It helped having close friends stop by for bagels in the morning and my entire immediate family in attendance the rest of the day. In addition to the Nelson’s/Halpern’s (Lenny, Helene, Kim, Justin, Jordan, Brad, Julie (with a little girl on the way in March) and Joey), we had lots of Sussberg’s: Allan, Janet, Drew, Alexis, Mia, Violet and Janet Reichman (Alexis’). And of course Jen, Jake, Ryan and Brandon. It was the first Thanksgiving I have had my with brother and Alexis in a long time. My brother and Alexis, who have a lot on their plate with the twins (who are both doing phenomenally), have been unbelievable supporters over these last eight months. Just having them, the girls and Janet here was icing on the cake.
Bagels, lox, whitefish and cream cheese in the morning was followed by a few mile walk with my Dad and father-in-law. We got back just in time for nacho’s (recipe care of Ally Tauber), shrimp, vegetable platter, mini hot dogs, home cooked ribs (by me and Justin with moral support from Brad), and Joe’s Stone Crabs sent over night from Joe’s in Miami. The ribs were my creation after weeks of watching the cooking channel. They were actually pretty good. And there are plenty left if anyone is interested (just not sure how well they will hold up in the mail). I also stated a new tradition with Jake, Ryan and Brandon. We made a supermarket run on the way to pick up the bagels to buy the ingredients for the first annual Sussberg Fruit Punch. I figured it would both be nice for the kids to make something and actually have a drink of their own (that they could share with some of their friends that came over in the morning). They each picked out a few pieces of fruit (oranges, lemons and limes) and we added Hawaiian Fruit Punch, Ginger Ale, Pineapple Juice and Orange Sherbet into a huge container. Not that good, but they liked it and were proud (and that is all that counts).
As to dinner, Jen outdid herself as always, putting together a spread over the course of two days. It was a great great meal. I ate slowly because I didn’t want it to end (plus I had a stomach ache). As has become a tradition for us (and many others I am sure), we all went around the table and said what we were thankful for. Since the kids do not know the extent of my condition — only that I had an infection that has been getting cleared up (which explained why I couldn’t go to work/travel), everyone’s “speech” was sanitized. But when we went around the room and it got close to me, I had to get up for a minute and walk away to make sure I was going to be able to say something without completely losing it as I was already tearing up. Sitting around my entire family and thinking about the last eight months was a little overwhelming. I am a big believer in “it could always be worse,” and I say that a lot these days when thinking about all of the terrible tragedies and illness that we hear about on a near daily basis. But how about being overwhelmed by wondering if it get any better than this moment, on my favorite holiday surrounded by so many people that are so important to me, knowing that in a few weeks we were going to be able to start getting back to normal?
So I raised a glass and asked everyone to make a toast. I said I was thankful for my boys and all of the family being together. But I said I was most thankful for Jen because without her I would still be wandering around half naked (would have liked to have said in a hospital gown, but everyone knew) somewhere in White Plains (i.e., near the hospital). I than said cheers and l’chaim to many, many, many more Thanksgivings. I haven’t been drinking too much, but that sip of wine was delicious [it probably helps that I opened a fantastic bottle from Basta instead of the cheap stuff I normally drink.]
After everyone said their goodbyes, Jen and all four grandparents did some clean-up, Brandon went to sleep, and Jake and Ryan joined me in our bed for an early sleepover to watch the Steelers beat up the Colts. We all feel asleep together just past 9. Tough to beat moments like that.
Jen — it certainly hasn’t been an easy ride these past eight months but I really would be lost without you. I still don’t know what medication to take or when to take it. You are my advocate, my best friend and a huge pain in my ass. And I love you more everyday. I am so appreciative of the time we got together this year; it may have been for the wrong reasons, but being with you everyday was a blessing. Being thankful for you and everything you do is an understatement among understatements.
After Wednesday’s treatment, we have no treatment until December 7. And then the last intense push begins. We go in for treatments just about everyday for 2 weeks until the intense chemo is done for good on December 21 (assuming no hiccups). It is undoubtedly going to take some time to recover after a long eight months, but the house arrest is going to be over and the recovery — and return to normalcy — is going to begin immediately. I am thankful, but more excited than anything.
I have close friends out there who I know had tough Thanksgivings for a variety of reasons. I am so sorry for all of those grieving, dealing with personal issues or sick loved ones that impacted the holiday. It is impossible to always be positive. In tough moments, for me at least, sometimes it helps to stop thinking and just play.
I hope everyone can enjoy some of the Thanksgiving weekend.