A few months back I made a post about a fundraiser for my friend, Michael Brunetti. Firstly, thank you to everyone who has shown their support to Mike and his family in this difficult time. Secondly, I’m happy to say that in that time Mike’s cancer has gone into remission! I recently interviewed Mike about his condition and what life has been like since returning to college post-treatment.
Nick: Describe the type of cancer you have.
Mike: I have nodular lymphocyte predominate Hodgkin’s lymphoma, its one of the rarer Hodgkin’s lymphomas. How the predominant variety works would the b-cells congregate in lymph nods and form tumors, which is what happened to me, I had six of them throughout my body. It is a traditionally more slower growing cancer, so if it is detected early there is a much greater chance of finding it at a lesser stage which means that treatment options are much better and you have a much higher survival rate. For mine, I was stage two. One doctor that I saw said it was like a 2 in 500 or 1 in 500 chance of a reoccurrence of this specific type in the rest of my lifetime, so its high because its such a slower growing cancer, however you still have the risk of reoccurrence of that cancer and other cancers.
N: When were you diagnosed?
M: I was diagnosed on January 27, 2011.
N: Can you describe how the doctors told you?
M: It was a weird case with me because, ya know, I’m 120 miles away from my doctor. When they did the biopsy on the one nod, which at first they didn’t realize at first was a tumor. A few weeks later when I went back in to get the sutures from the biopsy room I was talking with the doctor and at one point he was talking about ‘we don’t know exactly what it is, we sent it to John Hopkin’s, they’re looking at it.’ And he was going through the standard things and I just asked, ‘so what are they looking for?’ And he kind of paused and went all silent and, I mean I’m laying down on the table with my shirt up and he’s taking sutures out, and he just stopped and he’s like ‘we’re kind of looking towards lymphoma right now.’
N: What the first thing that you did after you were diagnosed?
M: The first time when they told me I might have cancer I went and told my father. I went home, drank a glass of gin, and sat my brother and my sister down and told them. We all cried our eyes out. When I knew pretty much when the day came that they were going to tell me ‘yes it is cancer, no it isn’t cancer,’ I called my mom to see if she had heard from the doctor and my dad picked up and my mom, I could hear her crying in the background, so I knew it couldn’t be that good, whatever was going on. And, uh, we went to Hooter’s afterwards. I know it sounds weird but I hadn’t eaten all day, I was freaking out.
N: How much time passed between when you were diagnosed and when you started chemotherapy?
M: It was two weeks after I was diagnosed for the simple reason that my father had terrible arthritis in his knees and needed a knee replacement and he didn’t want to do his knee replacement once I had started chemotherapy for the reason of….it would be just to hard for my mom to run the family business with my dad and myself completely incapacitated.
N: In the time between when you were diagnosed and you started chemo, what kind of things did you do?
M: I completely re-did my room. I put in a queen-sized bed, I cleaned EVERYTHING to get all the dust outta there. They told me not to take down the wallpaper because of the chemicals and smells. I hung out with my friends that were in town. We went bowling one night, we went to the movies. I just kept myself busy; I didn’t want any downtime at that point.
N: What would you say was the most difficult part of chemo?
M: Boredom. There’s only so much TV you can watch, there’s only so many movies before you start to get annoyed, no matter how good the movies are. And when you’re sitting in a hospital bed and your room is the size of like, a bathroom, for ten hours a day there’s not much you can do. The one drug they gave me caused a lot of bone pain. So, if I was tired and I sat, after awhile all my joints, my hips, would start aching very badly. I’d want to get up but I’d feel sick, and I didn’t want to be walking around but I couldn’t sit. Weakness was a big problem I had. I wanted to do things….but you’d get ten minutes into it and you’d be like, ‘damn it, I can’t do this.’
N: Is there anything that you had to give up during chemo that you really miss?
M: I had to stop drinking. Which is a bit of a tease, I just turned twenty-one. I came from a family that had a great appreciation for wine. There were a lot of foods I couldn’t eat and those were the foods that I craved the most. Like I couldn’t have blue cheese and salad; and I really, really, really wanted something clean and crisp and cold. And I couldn’t do leftovers, so if I got that I really liked the next day it was, ‘nah.’
N: When did you find out that your cancer was in remission?
M: On August 17, 2011. They gave a month off of treatment to let my body recuperate then they gave me a pet scan and the pet scan was clean. So they called me and said that you’re clean right now, you’re in remission, we’re gonna start the five year clock now (where they monitor you heavily for five years). It’s probably the happiest moment I could possibly imagine experiencing. And on top of it, it was my father’s birthday.
N: What was the very first thing you did once you found out that your cancer was in remission?
M: I got out of the shower and my mom told me. So I told her not to call or tell anyone and we drove right to see my dad (at work). Then we told my brother and sister. I went right down the contacts list. And there was a bit of a party afterwards.
N: What’s it been like getting back into the real world?
M: I didn’t expect there to be such a stigma surrounding cancer, until I went through it. People tend to treat you a little differently. I lost a good amount of friends, especially people from high school. Like I have one friend who would call me every now and then, he’d talk to me, and I knew his family. They just avoid me now.
N: What would you say has been more difficult: chemotherapy or the recovery?
M: Definitely chemotherapy and radiation were worse than the after. The waiting period once you’re done treatment was…hell, just to put it as lightly as I can. You’re sitting around, you still kind of feel like crap, you’re getting a little more energy back every week, you’re getting back in the life, you’re getting back to work, you’re doing more things. But at the same time you’re sitting around with the idea that in three weeks, the day after my pet scan, they could call me and say you’re not going back to school you have to come back and do more chemotherapy.
N: If there was one thing you could say to someone your age who had just been diagnosed with cancer what would you tell that person?
M: I’d definitely say three of four things, I don’t know if I could say just one. The biggest thing I think would be to, no matter what your insurance or health care situation is, find the best possible place to receive treatment. You find the best place with the team of doctors that you trust the most. It’s cancer, its not the time to be like, ‘He’s a good doctor and I don’t want to have to travel to see the other doctor.’ The other things I’d say are: Keep active; find a hobby that’s not too involved. I took up baking. Definitely fight as hard as you can. It’s not the easiest fight in the world. You’re gonna do things that you would never think of doing. Definitely I would suggest connecting with other people that are going through what you’re going through. Because no matter how good your family is, and my family is phenomenal, and no matter how good your friends are, my friends have been phenomenal, its cool when you can sit down and talk to someone who has gone through or is going through exactly what you are.