Reaching the Dragon’s Gate

I never thought this would hurt so much. The pain I’m feeling transverses my whole body. Sometime it is sharp, shooting like needles. Other times it is dull and hot like a razor. I try my best to relax into it and make friends with it, but it is nearly unbearable.

According to Chinese legend, at the Yellow River at Hunan, there flows a waterfall called the Dragon Gate. A letter supposedly written in 1279 describe how “its waters plunge a hundred feet, more swiftly than an arrow shot by a strong archer.” In the myth, thousands of carp gather in the basin below, hoping to climb the falls. Any that succeed will achieve their dream of turning into a dragon. Many carp swim upstream against the river’s strong current, but few are fortunate enough to make the final leap over the waterfall.

I’m no stranger to physical pain. Having battled cancer since 2006, I’ve felt worse before. All that practice doesn’t seem to help much today, though. All I can do is breath into it and let the endorphins do their work. After all, this time I have brought this upon myself.

It all started with a low-grade nagging cough. I thought it was just seasonal allergies. I had blown it off for several months thinking it was no big deal. I was a young thirty-nine years old. I worked out regularly, rode a bicycle as my primary mode of transportation (even in the dead of Boston winters), and ate a healthy and balanced vegetarian diet. I rarely got sick, and if I had a persistent cough like this, it really couldn’t be more than just allergies.

Besides, I didn’t have health insurance or a job. I had been working as an independent attorney and was taking some time off to recharge after wrapping up a very long set of cases. If I were going to the doctor, it would be on a stretcher on my way to the emergency room for a broken bone or stitches after falling off my bike.

But the cough persisted. And then the lymph nodes on my neck began to swell until I could no longer deny something was going on. But it still had to be something pretty minor, right? I had just started a new relationship six months prior and my girlfriend was now also getting concerned. I wasn’t the lively guy she had originally met anymore. I was always tired, and had lost interest in a lot of my passions. I barely rode my bike anymore, and had even stopped driving my racecar, which was so central to my being. She urged me to do something to figure out what was wrong.

Hoping for an easy (and cheap) way out, we first tried a local traditional Chinese herbalist. But he only made matters worse when even he looked at me with concerned eyes and suggested I go see a western doctor. My Asian girlfriend had never seen this happen before, and we both grew increasingly concerned. Even though I was still convinced it was going to be a minor bacterial infection, I still thought it was wise to get health insurance before finding out. So the next day, I began hunting for coverage. I was scared if I went to a doctor first I may be then be stuck with a pre-existing condition if it turned out to be something significant. Boy did that decision pay off.

A week later, insurance in hand, I was diagnosed with stage-four throat cancer. That nagging cough was being caused by a sizable tumor on the base of my tongue that had spread into my jawbone and the lymph nodes on both sides of my neck. “But seriously, cancer?” I proclaimed.

It was the second-most insane thing anyone had ever said to me in my life. The first-most being the statement that followed: a five-year survival rate of only 20%.

I had grown up in inner-city housing projects. I spent eight years as a Navy Hospital Corpsman attached to a Marine Corps heavy weapons field unit. I raced cars and motorcycles for fun. Little rocked my boat.

I fainted on the spot.

Growing up, I was always taught that only old people who smoke and drank too much got throat cancer. Even though I had enough medical training, it was hard to break through this stereotype. How could I, a young, fit, and healthy non-smoking non-drinking vegetarian, have cancer?

It turns out that my disease was virus induced. Human Papilloma Virus or HPV to be exact. Over 75% of people become infected with HPV at some point in their lives. There are over 120 different HPV strains. Each of which can cause a whole slew of different aliments. Some strains don’t do anything at all. Others like HPV 11 and 6 are the cause of warts, both common and genital. And strains like 16 and 18 are the leading causes of cervical cancer. Similarly, new studies have show that 16 is also the most common cause of oral cancer like mine, and that the most common population affected are non-smoking, healthy, young white males. The positive news for me was that the survival rate of HPV-related oral cancers is much higher than non-HPV cancers, raising my five-year survival odds to a (still terrifying) 50%.

Also more positive is that while there is no cure yet for any of the HPV viruses, new vaccines have come out that may help prevent many strains of HPV from infecting young adults, so long as they take them before becoming sexually active. While there is no specific vaccine for oral cancer yet, many think that vaccinating young adults will help lower the overall rates of HPV infections and help quell the quickly growing HPV-related oral cancer rates that are now impacting up to ten thousand young males each year.

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I was diagnosed seven years ago to the day, and this quiet little virus has changed my life. Today, the shooting pain I am feeling is not from cancer, but the fact that I am sitting in a chair having the story of China’s Dragon Gate waterfall tattooed onto my arm around a cancer ribbon. It’s a massive tattoo that will take two full days to complete.

DragonTattooMy tattoo is my badge of honor that expresses my journey and fight over the past seven years. In the myth, few carp are fortunate enough to make the final leap over the waterfall; those that do are transformed into a powerful dragon, their lives forever changed. I’m no dragon, but I have been in full remission for over two years and have reached my own Dragon Gate. My life is pretty much back to normal, with hardly a side effect worth mentioning. The upstream fight, however, has forever changed me. I have grown in ways I could have never foreseen and been blessed in ways I never could have even perceived.

It’s not a journey I swam alone. My girlfriend is now my wife. She stuck by my side through thick and thin, and together we fought our way past the statistical odds of mortality. Every time I fell backward or got stuck in an eddy, she, my mom, my close friends, and the others around me who love me so much were there to help push me back up stream. The other patients I met along the way, and all the amazing caregivers that treated me, also each helped me get up the falls in their own way. But in the end, it was my undeniable faith that everything would be all right that really got me through this. From the moment I regained my consciousness that day I was diagnosed, I never for more than a split second thought about those numbers again. And for this faith, I’ve added a QR bar code to my tattoo that reads “Jesus is Love” when scanned. To me it’s the perfect expression that no matter how advanced our technology grows, we still need to have a measure of old-world faith in a higher power.

After an hour or so, the pain of the tattoo gun has turned to numbness, and I’ve begun to relax. I know I can get through this. It’s actually a walk in the park after what I’ve experienced these past few years. This time I am not hurting because I’m dying, I’m hurting because I’m living. I can breathe easy through it, because I know to the core of my being that everything will be OK. Besides, I only have 26 more hours to go before it’s finished.

By David White

Stand Up to Cancer Blog

April 16, 2013

David is now a senior partner at large international firm. Since completing treatment, he and his wife have become avid scuba divers, diving around the globe. He has also returned to hiking, snowboarding, and motorsports and may possibly be in the best shape and health of his life since boot camp. His tattoo is also fully healed…

For more info on oral cancer and the HPV connection visit: http://oralcancerfoundation.org/