by William Connors
You may have seen me as part of the group at the Mother’s Day Purple Ribbon Run in Bow, NH. I was one of many wearing a t-shirt with the slogan The IncrediBILLs and a mask given to me as a surprise just before the race. I am Bill, born in 1967, married with three spirited children and humbled by the support of my family and friends.
My journey to the race began at the end of April 2011. I was experiencing some chest pain, so I headed to the ER. While the immediate concerns of heart trouble were quickly ruled out, a chest x-ray revealed three large tumors, as well as numerous little growths in my chest cavity. The doctor was equally caught off guard when he realized that this was the first I had heard of the tumors. Living in the Boston area, we were quickly connected to Dr. Henning Gaissert, a Thoracic Surgeon at Mass General and Newton-Wellesley Hospitals. Pathology confirmed what Dr. Gaissert had suspected — invasive Thymoma.
Dr. Gaissert sent me to Dr. Panos Fidias, an oncologist at Mass General. A chemotherapy port was put in, and within a month of the initial chest pain I began a chemo regimen of ADOC - Adriamycin (Doxorubicin), Cisplatin, Oncovin (Vincristine), Cytoxan (Cyclophosphamide). My chemo protocol was nine weeks long: three days of treatment the first week and then two weeks off to recover, for a total of three, three-week cycles. The oncology nurses did an amazing job of educating me on all the hydration and chemo as well as other meds I would need to take to minimize the side effects of this cocktail. I made a pre-emptive strike and shaved my head, before my hair all fell out. I was able to continue working throughout this regimen with weekends reserved for resting and recovering.
At the beginning of August, my follow up scan showed that the tumors had shrunk enough, and my surgeon, Dr. Gaissert, recommended surgery. This surgery would remove as much of the cancer as possible. With such a big surgery on the horizon I did get a second opinion and even a third consult on the phone. I also spoke with other cancer survivors and doctors who continued to state that surgery was a good option.
In September 2011 I underwent a six hour surgery at Mass General. Dr. Gaissert was able to remove the large tumors as well as many “seeds” in my pleura (the lining between the lungs and chest cavity). I am now down to a little less than 1/5 of my lungs and a fair amount of pleura, but I gained a gortex covering to replace some of my pericardium (the lining around the heart). I would not need to worry about my heart getting wet anymore!
At the end of October, I was well enough to start working part time from home. A scan in November showed the success of the surgery and my continued recovery.
In January 2012, I questioned Dr. Fidias as to what I should be doing now. Dr. Fidias said, “You live. I’ll work.” I started walking more and more, slowly regaining my strength. Evenings were still spent “in my office” — the living room couch.
In April 2012, a scan revealed still no visible signs of cancer. Dr. Gaissert calmly stated, “It’s time.” Time for me to get back to life; time to get back to running; time to do whatever I wanted to do. “It’s time” brought us all to the Mother’s Day Purple Ribbon Run. It was great to connect with Michelle and her parents while being able to finish a 5K — just ahead of my trash-talking son.
Unfortunately, in 2013, a scan showed a tumor near my aorta that was growing at "an impressive interval". My new oncologist, Dr. Jerry Azzoli at Mass General, consulted with colleagues and determined that I should follow the identical chemotherapy regimen as I had two years ago (ADOC) with the primary goal of shrinking that troublesome tumor.
By September the tumor had shrunk enough for surgery. Dr. Gaissert removed that tumor and used an argon beam coagulator to reduce a few other small nodules. The new year of 2014 brought a scan with nothing of concern to my doctors, so I received a six month pass and a return to fully living.
In Spring 2015 there was some enlargement of nodules in my chest. Fortunately the nodules were located away from vital organs, yet Dr. Azzoli decided it was time to control those nodules. I started Alimta (Pemetrexed) in the late Spring -- a ten minute infusion every three weeks. After three months scans showed the Alimta was keeping everything stable, so I stayed on Alimta. I continued working and doing all that life demands, raising three teenagers. The Aimta did its job keeping all quiet in my chest, but unfortunately in the Spring of 2016 my high liver counts (AST, ALT) required me to stop. My nodules remain stable, so I am luckily off treatment for thymoma.
In late 2016 an unrelated tumor was discovered in my colon. Surgery removed the tumor, but I needed to have chemo. I am on the 5-FU regimen which is a 48 hour treatment (via a pump you take home) once every two weeks. Radiation is set to begin after 8 cycles of the 5-FU. A second primary cancer was another unexpected bump, but this is a more common cancer with a very high cure rate.
I am grateful to all of my doctors, nurses, family and friends who support me and my family. You are actually the incredible ones! This journey reminds me how truly blessed I am.
See you on the starting line in Bow on Mother’s Day!