My Fight With Cancer

My Fight With Cancer

A Story by Phil Kuhlman

I finally feel able to put to paper exactly what has happened over the last two years with my struggle with cancer and a high spine injury. Hope you like it.



     "We found a growth on your spine. It could be Lymphoma, it could be scar tissue, but it appears to be a tumor. I'm sorry." With that the doctor shook my hand and walked out of the room. Rather abrupt and not exactly what I expected to hear when I went into the hospital after finding I couldn't use my legs. Paralyzed by a tumor.


     I should go back a bit to really get the story explained properly. As a teenager I noticed I had a larger chest/ribcage than most people. But at the same time I was healthy and fit, so I assumed, as did everyone else, this was just due to the kind of exercising I had done. For years I had a barrel chest, but my arms didn't match. This seemed odd to me, but nothing strikingly so. Not even to doctors I'd see for other problems, like my knees, or doctors I knew.


     Then two years ago I suffered what I thought was a minor injury. I had been working for a local theater as the facilities manager, which was later changed to more of "maid duty" than anything else. One morning two members of the board of directors got the wild hair to go out onto the grounds of the Point Theater and trim every tree on the campus. However, they didn't choose to pick up the branches they cut off. The left that for me.


     It was my job, but they shouldn't have done part of my job, without informing or asking me, unless they wanted to do all of it in my opinion. That's just me. So I go out with the company truck and begin gathering every fallen branch. I enjoyed the work, it gave me freedom to devote my creativity and "brain power" to my writing, acting, and my occasional drawing. I didn't like the board though. Every couple weeks one of my 16 bosses, who answered just to themselves, would tell me they changed my job description. This would step on more toes, etc etc etc.


     I got off track. Anyway, the debris.


     It took about an hour to gather it all and drag it to the truck or trash bin, depending on what was closest. Finally done, I began to drive it to the bonfire spot on the campus in order to get it all taken care of. Then it happened. I moved one stack of limbs and noticed a giant bowed up treebranch in the pile. Just as I saw it, and everything I learned in my life about physics entered my head for a split second, it snapped out and cracked me across the nose and face, breaking my nose and snapping my head back hard. I swore for a few minutes and continued my job in great pain. Upon returning to the main building I informed my direct boss what happened and began to check my nose. I hadn't realized it was broken until he told me he could hear it popping when I moved it. I didn't think the little pops were that loud, but when I found they were it was clear it was broken. It wasn't until the next morning that I realized something else may be wrong.


     I woke up with severe pain in my neck, like a horrible crick. Thinking that was the problem, I continued my day, walked to work, and did the normal duties I always did. Later that week I was in a minor fender bender though, the deer won and ran off. My sister's car was busted up a bit, but no one was sore or hurt by it, except me in the back seat. My neck was killing me by this point.


     I finally went to the hospital for the severe pain in my neck and upper back, localized between my shoulders. He looked at me, heard my story, then said "Hmm...whiplash...sprained neck. Yup. Bye." So I was sent on my way with what I was told was nothing serious. "It'll clear up in 6 weeks."


     Being a doctor, I believed him.


     A few weeks later the pain lays off a bit and I go back to doing the same stuff as before. But it starts to get harder and harder for me to lift anything above my waist. To the point that I end up having to leave the job. Add to that the fact I had to deal with my job description being changed every week and other stressful factors in my day to day life, and I just couldn't do it anymore.


     The pain would come and go now, but it didn't really flare up until the summer of that year while I was staying with a friend. However, despite me saying there was something wrong to my employers and to the theater again, (I was a stagehand and an actor in a show there this time) it was mostly blown off as not important. So I dealt with it and continued working. One part of the show required me to literally throw a 10 year old boy on a platform up through a hole in the stage to make it appear like he popped out of no place.


     That did not help matters.


     Neither did the stupid part I had to play as a favor to the director, which involved an equally stupid dance which required equally stupid moves for someone suffering through upper back pain, like front rolls and side rolls on a concrete stage. Of course, neither did moving from one house to another over one night, and the fact that it was just me moving things for 4 other people, 3 of which moved out "just to move", did not help the spine problem. Course, the fact that they were family made it all the sweeter, eh?

     Yeah, fun stuff.


     Then it began to get really bad. I didn't notice it, but people who hadn't seen me in a while did. I began to develop a hump in my upper back that felt like muscle building in the wrong spot. This began to take it's toll on my other jobs, three of them at this point. One was a bad idea for my kind of injuries, but the doctors told me I shouldn't worry, so I didn't. It was cabinet installation. I'd hold up 300 pound cabinets, using leverage, not my own strength, while other workers would screw it in. My upper back though didn't care. I began to literally feel my muscles on both sides of my neck "unzip". Muscle tears feel like that. A straight line suddenly zips through the muscle, followed by a line of fire following it. And they popped up daily now. This made my back only look worse. This lead to another doctor's visit about how my whole back hurt, and how sometimes my arms would tinlge. Now I know what these were signs of, spinal damage, but the doctors again told me it was a sprained back and a sprained neck, and it'll clear up in 6 weeks. However, due to the time I had to take away from work I had to give up two of those three jobs.


     In January, almost a year after the initial injury I had to give up my final job, one I really liked too. I was the assistant technical director for Kerrville Performing Arts Society. I was one of the only union trained stagehands in town, I grew up doing it with my dad who was one of the highest paid in Texas, until a fall from the jumbotron onto hockey ice at the SBC center nearly killed him. Yes, he won his lawsuit. Anyway, back to my story.


     It got so bad that I began using ace bandages to wrap my upper torso just to take a little stress off my body. It helped a bit, but I'd have to lay down on hard surfaces every half hour or so in order to rest the muscles. But I kept going because the doctors told me it wasn't anything to worry about. But it was when I had to quit that job too. No job at all now. Just a lot of pain.


     I began searching for a job where I could work with the pain, by maybe sitting down, or just a short hours job. My dad finally tried to help me with it too by buying me a jeep. I had been having to walk everyplace during this whole time unless I got a ride from a friend. My old car died due to overuse. I was the only driving member of my family, and I had to take my sister back and forth from here to San Antonio daily during her pregancy. The dad didn't care to I guess, so it fell to me. So long story short, my car died and there was no way to get a new one due to lack of funds or support.


     I was attempting to act still though. I had a show openning Easter Week at the theater I liked, the one where I worked for KPAS at. First really up front starring role too. I had other co-star type parts, but my character was the focal point of the story in a lot of ways. But as I went through rehearsal it got so bad that attempting to run or lay down would send shockwaves of pain through my whole body.


     The day before Easter of '07, I found it impossible to sleep. My legs were tingling, as was everything below my arms, and it just felt too odd for me to get over. Walking became hard too. My legs were almost jelly as I walked to my car at 5 in the morning and drove to the hospital. Again, the doctors decide to be less than helpful. I'm told I'm suffering parathysia or something like that, which means things feel numb...I told them that though, so again, no help. I'm told "That's bad, you should see a doctor." which is why I'm in a hospital to begin with, but that'd make sense. I'm sent on my way again without an xray again. A full year of visits for neck injuries, without a single xray or cat scan. Odd.


     The next morning is when this story began.


     I wake up on Easter and hear my niece in the living room playing. A sign that it's time to get up and watch her find eggs. I sit up and spring off the bed. I'd been doing this to help get around how bad it hurt to put any stress on my upper back when standing. It didn't really work this time. I fell flat on my face. I thought that I tripped or stepped on something that slipped out from under me or something. But there was nothing on my floor. I tried to stand up, and nothing happened. My legs were not working. I couldn't feel them, they had no sensation, and they refused to cooperate.


     I had to military crawl my way into the hallway to call for help, until after a few minutes someone heard and came to my aid. I had to be drug from there to my car, thrown face down in the back seat, and driven back to the same hospital that told me I was fine.


     Following an arguement with an 80 year old man-nurse who didn't understand that I couldn't answer the "pain level" question properly.


     "On a scale of one to ten, what's your pain?"


     "I'm paralyzed, I can't feel anything."


     "So on a scale of one to ten..."


     "I'm paralyzed, man, listen. That means there is an absense of sensation!"


     "But on a scale..."




     I was intitled to freaking out I think. After my sematics arguement over pain v. paralysis, I get taken to the back for "scans". An hour later they do the first scan. Of course, they don't listen to me about my injury and do it in my lower back. The doctor comes in and tells me "It all looks fine, but there's a little blip up where you said your injury is, so we'll look there."


     And they get paid for this? Where the hell is my check?


     Another hour later they do the scan where I tell them I've been injured the last year. About thirty minutes later a doctor comes in and gives me the line you read at the very top.


     So now I'm told that for a whole year I've had "something" on my broken spine. Broken spine. I had a broken neck for a year and they just decided to not check despite repeated visits.


     Then I'm told I'll be sent to another hospital. This was a good thing to hear. I'd been going to the hospital famous for Jeanine Jones this whole year (look it up folks, it happend here in kerrville) and had gotten nothing but stress and dirty looks from doctors who thought "wow, twenty five year old white male complaining about pain who works? He's after pain meds!".


     Then the bad part happened. Bad for that day at least.


     A nurse walks in and says they're doing a catheter. Great. On top of everything else I get this. "We're sending a male nurse so you feel more comfortable."


     That did not comfort me. It really didn't after I saw who it was. The same 80 year old male nurse from earlier.


     He tells me after he puts it in (no feeling of it going in either. Paralysis paid off there I guess) that it will take 10 minutes or so to work. I find out later this is bull. It fails to work for the whole trip to San Antonio. When I arrive, it still isn't working. My stomach has distended a bit now due to that. A nurse sees it and quickly figures out what happened. He inflated it well below my blader, which prevented anything from leaving my body. Had it stayed longer it could have left me impotent for life due to where it was inflated. That's great news. Anyway, they switch it out and it works instantly. Another way off evaluation from that hospital. "6 weeks, it'll work fine!" "10 minutes, it'll work fine!"


     They have to do an emergency surgery to clear the tumor out of my spine and rebuild the vertebrae that the cancer had eaten. It takes nine hours, but my surgery was done by the same doctor who repaired Steve Austin and Kurt Angle's neck injuries. After the surgery I was told that my neck looked worse than Christopher Reeves and that any impact on it would have left me in his state. That's a bit scary.


     I am also finally told what it was in my body. A 7 x 4 cm ewing-sarcoma tumor that had developed in my teenage years. It had been pushing my ribs out the whole time, making me look barrel chested. It had been eating nutrients in my body which explained why I began to tire so fast and why I was never able to really develop much muscle mass. I had to suffer for a year before a hospital I'd been going to even bothered to look at my injury. I can't help but feel a bit betrayed.


     If my neck hadn't have been broken by those two whiplash injuries the tumor would have never attached to my spine I was told. But it may not have ever been found until it was too late had that not happened. Creepy two edged sword there. It's best not to think about the "what if" questions.


     I woke up the morning after the surgery with the ability to move my legs, but not well. It was a vast improvement over "Paralyzed". And even better than "Nope, we think you're fine, go back to manual labor!".


     What followed that was six months of chemo, which killed the tumor amazingly fast. It hadn't spread any futher than there, and a little had developed in the lungs, but it all died out. Had it not paralyzed me it could have gotten into the brain or spinal cord itself. Heh, me with the "What if's" again.


     It's changed me though. Forever most likely. It will be a full year since "paralysis day" on the 8th of April. I'm just now barely able to walk for short periods with the use of a cane, but my upper back looks horrible though. It's warped due to my muscles attempting to work for so long without bone support. It's amazing what you can do when you don't have options. My hair fell out of course. I was on a very heavy chemo schedual. Two weeks off, then fourty-eight hours of chemo, followed by three weeks again for six months. I had to suffer through horrible sickness, loosing my hair (I literally plucked all of it out in front of a mirror when I sat in the shower. It was dead in the scalp so I felt nothing. It was possibly the strangest thing I've seen myself do.) and loosing other things. My sense of taste, my vision in my left eye is a bit blurry now, nothing severe, and I still have bouts of what I call "chemobrain". Basically, the chemo makes your brain go...odd. You have trouble focusing, and your short term memory gets screwed up. It really gets hard to recall things sometimes, like words. I had to think for a few seconds one day just to say "table".


     But that's all in the past now. The cancer is dead and shouldn't reappear due to the type it was. My hair is no longer red or thick, but now a wavy blond-brown. I'm walking better now, no longer stuck in a wheel chair or in a bed. And I'm returning to the stage. My first show since the week I was paralyzed begins in April. I was due on stage in three days when I was paralyzed, so I intend to make up for having to leave that show by doing this. I can't do the physical comedy or fights anymore, but I can still deliver, still project, and maybe I can be a good example to anyone else out there that's suffering through cancer as well.


     I won. So what's next?


© 2008 Phil Kuhlman

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Featured Review

Oh man. That's intense. I can't even believe all those stupid doctors who didnt even take the time to take you seriously. that would drive me up a freakin' wall. i guess it's a lesson to listening to our bodies, too - being more aware when we know something is wrong. i just can't believe you went a year with a broken neck. that's insane.

really imporessive. though. congrats on surviving something so painful, and arduous. I like the ending - whats next??

that takes courage.



Posted 16 Years Ago

2 of 2 people found this review constructive.


Phil.. wow.. i have to say incredible..simply.
Stunning--Youve definitely overcame.
A very touching testament-Nicely Done

Posted 16 Years Ago

2 of 2 people found this review constructive.

Holy s**t--that's an incredible story! I enjoyed your sardonic yet calm humor throughout this. I'm so glad you're around!

Posted 16 Years Ago

2 of 2 people found this review constructive.

Wow I am so glad to hear this! My dad is suffering from Colon cancer. And its pretty serious. He started chemo the other day. We are hoping that it will work. Because the cancer is in a lot of places. I can't believe that your doctors were so dumb! I'm studying to be a nurse one day, and I just had to shake my head in shame. I would probably be seeking a lawsuit against the doctors that didn't listen to me. I can't believe that. A whole year with a serious neck/spine injury. *Shakes head* I'm so sorry. I'm also glad to hear your survivor story! ^_^ It gives me hope!

Posted 16 Years Ago

2 of 2 people found this review constructive.

Oh man. That's intense. I can't even believe all those stupid doctors who didnt even take the time to take you seriously. that would drive me up a freakin' wall. i guess it's a lesson to listening to our bodies, too - being more aware when we know something is wrong. i just can't believe you went a year with a broken neck. that's insane.

really imporessive. though. congrats on surviving something so painful, and arduous. I like the ending - whats next??

that takes courage.



Posted 16 Years Ago

2 of 2 people found this review constructive.

An amazing story of strength and courage, and you communicated your experiences very well. I'm surprised you don't have more anger or frustration in you regarding the lack of care you received at the hospital from the staff. Don't get me started on the health care system in this country - I could sputter for a long time on that one. And I had to look and see where you are from in your profile, because I want to make sure I never get sick in your town! I would be interested to hear how your character has evolved as a result of these dramatic events - have you written about that yet? If you have, send me a read request so I can read it!

Posted 16 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

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5 Reviews
Added on March 1, 2008
Last Updated on May 5, 2008


Phil Kuhlman
Phil Kuhlman

Kerrville, TX

I am a published author in the Horror genre. Thus far, my publication credits include "Shadows In The Snow" in the summer issue (#3) of Shroud: The Journal of Dark Fiction and Art, "Open House" in the.. more..