Survivor story: Mom was my ‘Rock’ during cancer journey

Tony Slater

Tony Slater

Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 15:25 PM.

“You have Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, and I would like to send you to Duke University Medical Center as soon as possible.”

Those were the words spoken by Dr. James Wortman to my mother and me as I laid in my hospital bed at Cape Fear Memorial Hospital in the early fall of 1983. I had just turned 17 years old and had begun my junior year of high school. As a teenager, I did not know much about leukemia at all, only to associate it with dying to tell you the truth. That was almost 30 years ago. Dr. Wortman went on to say that this type of leukemia was most common in children and was known to respond well to treatment 60 to 70 percent of the time. I would come to know Dr. Wortman in Wilmington very well as I would visit him every Friday for the next three years for check-ups, blood work and chemotherapy treatments. He said we had caught it early, and as a teenager he believed I stood a fair chance to beat it. I don’t know that I can describe to you how scared I was. There are no words. My family and I put our trust in Dr. Wortman and his advice, and in a couple of days I was admitted to Duke University Medical Center where I was to fall under the care of Dr. Joseph Moore and his team.

I was admitted to Duke a week prior to Thanksgiving ’83. At Duke I went through a series of tests and treatments day in and day out. Mom and I had to travel between Duke North and Duke South via the tram for many of my treatments and tests. I remember one day a lady asking most seriously after a bit of herky-jerky motion “Who’s driving this thing”? The first good laugh for me and Mom both in several days. I was released from Duke and came home on Thanksgiving Day with an appointment to return just prior to Christmas.

When we returned to Duke for a day full of test and treatments, we were informed that my leukemia was in remission but we still had a long way to go. I did not comprehend how long the next three years would be for me. The trips to Duke would take place every six weeks for the next three years. They were early morning and long days for me and Mom. I-40 was not in place yet.

I remember early on going through a series of lumbar puncture procedures over a period of several weeks (one about every four or five days) to test and treat my spine. Somewhere around the third or fourth LP, Dr. Wortman was having a difficult time with the procedure. Dr. Wortman consulted with a neurosurgeon and concluded that my spine was lacking sufficient fluid for a sample to test. This particular procedure went on for longer than I care to remember. We all were a bundle of nerves, but from that day on Dr Wortman referred to me as a Rock. I never moved, never flinched and never voiced my pain or displeasure. When I went back a few days later we were all tense from the word go. Dr. Wortman inserted the needle and within a few seconds exclaimed, “Well I’ll be damned.” He laughed and said it was flowing like a river. We were both extremely happy.

I was sick often and more so during the early months of treatment than the later months. The one treatment I remember most is a treatment I received during my visits to Duke. The drug was called Adriamycin. It made me lose my hair. I was not particularly fond of this drug. It is nicknamed the Red Devil. I am able to put a funny side to the Red Devil treatment though. Prior to administering Adriamycin the nurse would give me a medicine called Decadron to treat nausea among other things. Prior to my first treatment the nurse neglected to inform me that the Decadron would give me what they called the hot seat; in other words, it made my rear end burn and tingle. It lasted less than a minute or so. It was not my favorite thing to experience. Over time, though, we would laugh about it. My treatments came in cycles and one particular cycle started with a four-day course of a medication injected into my belly just under the skin by a pump that I would wear on my belt. Since this was a treatment that was started during a Duke visit as well, my mom had to remove and replace the needle for the remaining three doses.

As my treatments came to a conclusion there was definitely a great sense of relief to me and my family. I would now more or less get on with my life as it had been on hold somewhat the previous three years. Time for me to live my life free from worry. It was however about six years after finishing my last treatment that I heard the best news of all. One day during a checkup with Dr. Wortman he told me that I would never have to worry about this again. It was gone; I was cured. I remember this like it was yesterday. Dr. Wortman said this to me with a tear in his eye. Through my tears I thanked Dr. Wortman for all he had done and all he had meant to me. He told me again I was a Rock through it all and I was his miracle.



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