Dat, dat…, da dat dat dat – dat daa dat dat dat daaaa dat.
That is the opening phrase of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. As the bass trombonist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the past thirty years I have heard those violin notes hundreds of times, and in December 2014, the notes were the same as always. We were playing in the orchestra pit of the Lyric Theater in Baltimore for an entire week of Nutcrackers with the ballet corps of the Baltimore School for the Arts.
But this year, those notes did not sound the same. Or I should say, my mind as it heard those notes was not the same.
This year, I had cancer. My mind struggled to focus, though the familiar music and setting were a nice distraction for me. But as soon as the music stopped the thought came immediately back: I had esophageal cancer, stage yet to be determined.
I was fifty-three years old, at least a hundred pounds overweight, a recent inductee of the Type II Diabetes Club. I was also the possessor of more blessings from God than I knew what to do with: Olga, my wonderful yoga teaching wife; Dominik, our trumpet playing oldest son on a mission in Poland; and Raffi, our math wiz youngest son with the dry sense of humor. I was a member of the best ward in the church. I had a job I liked, with great health insurance. The complete list would assault you with its length.
That September I had choked on a piece of food at dinner. My wife had just completed a CPR course, so she successfully executed the Heimlich two-step and I could breathe. But a few minutes later I realized that something was stuck down near the stomach because I could not drink or eat anything. A trip to the ER took care of the problem: Dr. Solaiman removed the piece of chicken stuck in the valve at the top of the stomach.
He was surprised to find Barrett’s Esophagus—a pre-cancerous condition usually caused by chronic acid reflux that changes the tissue to something more resembling an intestine. He performed biopsies, which came back clear. He wanted to be sure nothing was hiding there, so another round of biopsies was done three months later. This time the cancer cells were found, along with some aggressive markers.