In January 2008, John Ross had his annual physical. He felt good. He knew he’d get some grief about his cholesterol but he was working on that. He breezed through his examination until his physician asked whether he felt anything when he pushed the side of his neck.
“Not a thing,” Ross said.
The doctor said it was probably nothing, but told his patient to give him a call if the area became tender or looked swollen.
Two weeks later, Ross called his doctor. A day later, he was seeing another doctor for tests.
Biopsies showed a tumor in the base of his tongue that had spread to both sides of his neck.
He still felt no pain or had any physical indication something was wrong.
“I was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma. … Fortunately, it was treatable … but it was one of the most arduous cancer treatments to go through,” Ross said.
Lawrence Memorial Hospital Oncologist Eston Schwartz estimated Ross would receive 36 doses of radiation, five days a week, followed by chemotherapy.
“I think the important part is that John was healthy. Everything is normal and then bam,” said Ross’ wife, Cathy, smacking her hands together. “You’re hit by a Mack truck and your life is upside down.”
The next 30 days were filled with numerous medical appointments. A feeding tube was inserted into Ross’ abdomen. Back teeth in the path of the upcoming radiation were removed. Then there was the wait for his gums to heal.
Ross said he was in shock much of the time, not understanding all that was going on.
“And being diagnosed with stage IV cancer, you feel like you’ve been handed a death sentence,” he said.
Cathy was his advocate.
“I was in this to save John’s life, doing whatever we had to do to get this out of him, get him well, get through the shock of all of this plus doing your normal routine,” she said.
The Rosses’ “normal routine” is operating a computer printer business in Lawrence.
“We’d try drugs to make him as comfortable as we could, but there is another side to the medications, side effects,” Cathy said. “He’s not himself anymore.”
And, as most families will agree: An education in dealing with cancer comes at you very fast in an unfamiliar language.
It was, to say the least, a difficult time for the couple.
“My sole responsibility this year was getting well,” John Ross said, “and Cathy had her responsibilities at work besides packing on all of my problems.”
Ross began treatments in February 2008 and wasn’t off all drugs dealing with his cancer until February 2009. Both agree it was September 2009 before either felt they were at the top of their game again.
Normal is sometimes a tough place to return.
Ross said he liked being around people a lot but through the tough times of his recovery there was only one person he wanted to see — Cathy.
“And I hated being called a ‘cancer survivor,’” Ross said. “I’d rather say I’m a proud LMH oncology alumnus.”