Sat, July 20

How to say thank you to so many?

It’s halftime, and the homestanding Cowboys lead Show Low 2-1. As the dutiful sports reporter/photographer I snap a few pictures of CVHS coaches Mike Reamer and Loretta Grondin talking strategy with their troops.

But as I step back over to my wife to await the second half, I suddenly discover everyone on the team looking at me, each player wearing a big grin. Before I know it, the players are happily presenting me with a get-well card and a game ball signed by each of them.

Flash forward a week. It’s a crisp autumn Friday night, and Mingus Union’s football team has just finished off Page 28-10 to complete an unbeaten region season. As he does after every game, coach Bob Young gathers his players at midfield to talk about the next step, which in this case involves playoff preparations (and a win – see story).

Again, before I know what’s going on, I’m being called front and center. Senior Drew Coffey then presents me with a game ball from the team’s 24-10 win over rival Flagstaff from the week before – the victory that sealed yet another Grand Canyon championship for the squad.

Such is life for me the past few weeks as Eric Lusk, the Verde Independent and Bugle sports editor adjusts to also being Eric Lusk, the cancer patient.

Five years ago I had never even heard of the Verde Valley. The closest I had come to this area was a stop at the Flagstaff Mall on my way to the Grand Canyon in the mid-1990s.

Now, I’m trying to find out just how to say thank you to so many from the Verde Valley who have thrown blankets of support, encouragement and prayer around my wife and I during this time.

The examples above are just two of literally hundreds I could write about. We’d have to run several extra pages for me to list all of them.

There have been cards. There have been e-mails. There have been books. There have been prayers (boy, have there been prayers!).

There have been meals and offers to take me to appointments. One youth football team – the Cottonwood Colts – even put my initials on the back of their helmets when they heard the news about me a few weeks back.

Wow! I kind of feel like I’m living the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. That is truly what so many of you have shown me that I have.

Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.

As you may have noticed from recent sports pages, I am back at work, almost full time for now. The surgery at the end of October went well, and after two nights at the Flagstaff Medical Center I returned home.

The doctors said all my "margins were clean," meaning they got all of the cancer out of my tongue that they knew was in there.

I lost about a third of my tongue, but it actually doesn’t look that bad. One of my doctors said this past Monday that things were "healing rapidly" and another on Friday pronounced the tongue wound "healed."

Ironically most of the pain I had from the surgery came in the areas where they removed my two bottom wisdom teeth. My jaw was sore for quite a while, but my tongue was pretty numb since they took out a main nerve (a mixed blessing). It’s still numb, but I still have more than enough active taste buds to suit me.

Over time, I should be able to talk and eat pretty normally. I’m still on the mushy stuff for the most part right now, though I did manage Red Lobster nicely on Friday night after an appointment. Speech-wise, I still sound like I’ve got cotton in my mouth, but folks say they can understand me OK most of the time.

The next step, which will begin in a week or two, is radiation. This is the part that will probably knock me for a real loop. Radiation, I’m learning, is different from chemotherapy, which is a mixture of drugs also used to treat cancer patients.

With radiation, doctors actually deliver X-rays to the spot where the tumor was and places around my mouth and neck where they believe cancer could have or may have spread. The goal is to knock out any other cancer cells that may be hiding out somewhere in my tongue or cells in other places that didn’t show up on regular X-rays and CT scans.

I won’t lose all my hair or anything, but the side effects of radiation in the mouth can be pretty severe:

A temporary loss of taste. The loss of most/all of my saliva glands, which in turn can cause dry mouth and the potential for lots of cavities, etc. Skin redness, like a sunburn. General fatigue and malaise, which I’m sure will be a factor since I’ll be traveling to Phoenix every day for the treatments.

We’re going to Phoenix as opposed to around here or Flagstaff because they have the latest radiation technology, which is supposed to cut down on the side effects and better pinpoint the radiation beams. Since I happen to like my saliva glands and don’t want to lose them permanently, I figure this temporary inconvenience is well worth the mileage.

The American Cancer Society even makes free hotel rooms available for patients like me in case the trips do overwhelm me and I need to stay in Phoenix overnight. That may be the case toward the end, which is usually the roughest time.

With that being said, my name may not appear in as many bylines over the next couple of months. But I’ll do my best to cover as many as my local sports teams and sports stories as possible.

It will be hard to keep me away since so many of these coaches and athletes have been a source of strength for Pam and me over these past couple weeks.

And for that we again say a heartfelt thank you. What a wonderful life.