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May 31, 2017

Feeling the burn

By Dom Cioffi

I returned to Jacksonville, Florida, this past week for my first three-month, post-cancer check-up. In February, after several months of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, I received the “cancer free” label. However, I will still need to visit the Mayo Clinic every three months for the next three years and then every six months for another two years. After five years with no reoccurrence, I will then be declared cured.

Although I was deemed cancer-free in February, I still had a number of residual issues to deal with. What I’ve discovered is that while modern cancer medicine is amazing, it still renders the patient a tad broken when everything is said and done.

I have several issues related to my treatment, including tinnitus (a high-pitched ringing in the ears), peripheral neuropathy (numbness in the hands and feet), GERD (acid reflux), and a touch of dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). I also had several issues related to my use of the pain medicine fentanyl, but those dissipated once I discontinued use.

The tinnitus and neuropathy were caused by Cisplatin, the chemotherapy drug I was treated with. While Cisplatin does a wonderful job clearing your body of residual cancer cells, it also causes a bit of nerve damage in the process. The tinnitus will never go away; the neuropathy could go away, but it may take over a year. If it’s still there after a year, I will likely have it for the rest of my life.

The GERD and dysphagia were caused by radiation being targeted at my neck (because the tumor I had was located at the base of my tongue). Basically, radiation hardens the surrounding area, causing a host of issues.

While there is nothing I can do to improve the tinnitus and neuropathy, I was told by my doctors that, with hard work, I could improve the GERD and dysphagia.

So, right after my February appointment, I began seeing a speech pathologist every two weeks to work on my throat issues. She gave me a number of exercises that would both strengthen and create more elasticity in my neck and tongue.

I was also told to thicken any thin liquids that I was drinking (water, juice, etc.). The idea is that thicker liquids won’t accidentally seep into your lungs and cause pneumonia. This required me to purchase a special dietary thickening gel that I squeeze into my drinks. This sounds gross (and it was initially), but like most things in life, I eventually got used to it.

You probably think tongue exercises sound non-taxing, but I can assure you, when I’m done with my workout regimen, I’m in pain. I do these exercises three times a day (usually while I’m driving) and like any serious athlete, I push myself for the burn.

My speech therapist gave me a specific set of techniques with a number of reps, but I increased her recommendations for each exercise. I figured that these were guidelines and if I wanted great results I would have to put up great effort. My goal was to cure these two ailments, or at least give it my best shot while the window for improvement was still open.

So every day for the last three months I have been training my tongue and throat (and receiving countless stares when I’m idling at stoplights). I have done everything that was asked of me and more. But would it help?

When I returned to the Mayo Clinic last week they retested me with a special x-ray machine. I was told to swallow various solids and liquids that were laced with barium so they would show up on the x-ray.

While I swallowed, they filmed, and later my doctor reviewed the results. I can’t tell you how excited I was when he analyzed the tests and was visibly impressed with how much had changed. He said this was directly attributable to the effort I put forth.

Since I was diagnosed with cancer last July, I have approached this disease as a competition—a competition that I was absolutely going to win. Thankfully, that approach seems to be working.

This week’s film, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” also features an approach that seems to be working: great characters wrapped up in an intriguing storyline, blanketed with an epic soundtrack.

In this episode, the Guardians travel through the galaxy trying to unearth the origins of Peter Quill’s mysterious parentage. As a child, Quill was abducted from Earth and then raised by a group of alien thieves. Later he became famous throughout the cosmos from having saved so many people. Now, as the leader of the Guardians, Quill must look after his crew as they face another celestial enemy.

Check this one out of you’re a fan of the Marvel Universe of films. While initially less popular than some of the other Marvel characters, Peter Quill and crew are quickly becoming fan favorites.

A high-impact “B+” for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him atmoviediary@att.net.

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