Paul Gross reflects on cancer milestone: 30 years since the lump

DETROIT – I can't believe it's been thirty years.

It all started when the jeans I wore to my Thursday night bowling league started getting tight. I knew I wasn't gaining weight, and couldn't figure out why the jeans were getting tight.

Finally, I noticed the swelling in my left testicle. What concerned me was that there was no pain -- just swelling. If there was an infection, there would be pain. It never occurred to me that I could get cancer THERE.

In fact, no member of my family (that I was aware of) had ever even had cancer. I was the first. And remember that this was February 1989. I couldn't Google for information. I had no idea there was something called testicular carcinoma.

I scheduled an appointment with my internist, and he suggested that I have it ultrasounded. He never mentioned the word cancer, and did not give me any indication that there was anything seriously wrong.

In retrospect, I'm sure he knew exactly what he was looking at, but didn't want to scare me before getting confirmation.

So, across the hall I went for the ultrasound. I got undressed and put the gown on, and waited. And in walks the ultrasound technician, who would best be described as Miss July in the Playboy calendar.

So, I thought, this is who is going to ultrasound the family jewels. I couldn't believe it. But she was very professional (and so was I, I might add), and we got the job done. The urologist then came to see me, and told me that there was a mass in my left testicle, and it would have to be surgically removed. 

Surgery was scheduled for the second week in March, but things started getting complicated. The week before the surgery, I started experiencing some abdominal pain -- I thought that perhaps my spleen was inflamed. More on this in a moment.

The urologist told me that, during my surgery, the tumor would be removed and immediately sent down to pathology. There are different types of tumor cells, and they needed to know what type I had.

Following surgery, I received some initial bad news: the tumor was indeed malignant. Yes, I had cancer.  Hopefully, I HAD (past tense) cancer. Then more bad news: the type of cancer cell was called aniplastic seminoma -- a very aggressive and fast spreading form of cancer.

So I was scheduled for a CT scan, which identified a secondary tumor in the lymph nodes behind my left kidney. All of this bad news, however, was offset by a single piece of good news. Very, very good news. My tumor was a pure seminoma tumor. In other words, there were no other types of cancer cells in there.

Since certain chemotherapy drugs are very effective in killing seminoma, there was a very high probability that I would win this battle. But the battle ahead would be very difficult.

After a few days in the hospital recovering from the surgery, we started chemotherapy. I remember the nurse hanging the bag and starting the drip. I didn't feel anything as it flowed into my veins, except that it was cold. After a few minutes, I thought: "I got this."

Then, thirty minutes later, I started puking. And thus started five days of hospital hell. I didn't eat during those five days. Rather, I COULDN'T eat. There was no way food was going into my mouth the way I felt.  And even after going home after those five days, I still didn't eat for another four days -- until the chemo had been flushed from my system.

But something else happened that helped me overcome all of this: remember the abdominal pain I told you about earlier? That was the secondary tumor. Within two or three days of chemo, the pain was gone. I could actually feel that tumor shrinking. I knew the chemo was working.

A week later, back at home, I was taking a shower and washing my hair, when clumps of hair suddenly came off in my hands. So that was the start of that. I had purchased a wig ahead of time, so I knew the time had come to go to that. In retrospect, that wig looks pretty awful but, at the time, we thought it was okay. Today, of course, I probably would just go with the bald look, which is much more acceptable than it was then.

I still had three more rounds of chemo to go. The routine was one five-day round of chemo in the hospital per month for four months. I lost ten pounds each time -- that's a lot on my frame. And each round brought a different side effect. I remember during the second round developing the worst mouthful of canker sores in history. Not just a few. An entire mouthful. It was as awful as you can imagine.  

There was a light at the end of the tunnel, but it was a pretty long tunnel, at least in my eyes. Now, I'm no different than you. I'm no superman. I had to figure out how to get through this. And what I did will be helpful for you: I kept setting little goals to achieve.

Each goal accomplished was a big boost. My first goal was to fulfill my commitment to work for meteorologist Mal Sillars, who was off the week after I came home from the hospital following that first round of chemo. I was pretty worried that Sunday, as I was still pretty sick, but I felt a little better when I got up Monday morning. And I worked every early morning and noon newscast that week. I needed to be back here at work as much as they needed me: the comfort of being with my work family meant so much to me.

Other goals came and went: I finished my bowling season. I played in a few of our station softball games. I scheduled my April chemo week so that I could observer Passover with my family. I attended a June conference that I desperately wanted to be at. Each notch on my belt got me closer and closer to the end.  In short, I scheduled the cancer around my life, not the other way around.

Finally, at the end of June 1989, I finished the last of the five days of my final round of chemo. The nurses came in, took out my I.V. for the last time, congratulated me, and then told me something that has stayed with me for the past thirty years: they said that, from the first moment I walked into that chemo wing, they knew that I would walk out. They said that, in their experience, people with positive energy and attitudes seemed to do better than those without.

The ironic thing about all of this is that I was active in supporting cancer fundraisers BEFORE I had cancer. Now, having endured my own difficult battle, I can speak from experience when I emcee these events. Fundraising for cancer research has made a big impact. Just from my personal perspective, chemotherapy nowadays is much less toxic than the horrific stuff I was given. Yes, people lose hair, and perhaps feel tired or a little punky, but most don't endure the violent sickness I dealt with.

I will be celebrating my milestone at the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life this Saturday, June 8th, at West Bloomfield High School. If you're in the area, stop by and say hi! Although I bounce around the event a lot, I can usually be found at my synagogue team's booth around the track: Temple Kol Ami.

The event runs from 11:00 a.m. until midnight.  Anybody can attend, and there's no charge. But I'd be happy to accept any donations that will go toward more research that could save your life someday!

About the Author:

Local 4 meteorologist Paul Gross was born in Detroit and has spent his entire life and career right here in southeast Michigan. Paul has researched, written and produced eight half-hour documentaries for WDIV, as well as many science, historical and environmental stories.