July 16, 2014
Bob Margolis, Pennsylvania
Bob Margolis has had three types of cancers, including stage four HPV throat cancer.
The article below is reprinted with author’s permission, originally published on Yahoo! Sports, December 25, 2007
The world of NASCAR is a traveling circus, and I love being a part of it. I’m on the road for 30-plus a year covering races from California to New Hampshire and everywhere in between.
Yeah, it can be a grind, being away from home, away from my family, but when I’m at the track, I’m alive.
For the last year, though, my life has been on hold. I haven’t been to the track since the Pepsi 400 in July. It wasn’t by choice.
About 13 months ago, I was covering one of my favorite races of the year, the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Texas is one of my favorite spots on the circuit. It’s where I get to see some old friends, eat a great meal at my buddy Rick Stein’s steakhouse and, best of all, write about some of the best racing of the season.
That was certainly true back in the Fall of 2006 when Tony Stewart dominated the event, leading 278 of 339 laps. It was a classic Stewart performance, highlighted by his climbing the fence.
That weekend, especially while at the track, I began to notice that I was a bit more tired than usual. I didn’t think much of it. I had been on the road for nine straight weeks, so I chalked it up to a lack of sleep, long hours at the track and not eating right.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be more than just fatigue.
A startling discovery
The morning after Stewart’s victory, I was getting ready to head back home to Pennsylvania when I discovered a lump on my upper thigh. It was about the size of a walnut, and while it didn’t hurt, it definitely didn’t belong there.
By the time I arrived in Phoenix the following weekend, where Jimmie Johnson would all but clinch his first Nextel Cup championship, the lump was the size of a tennis ball, and my leg had turned black and blue.
Despite constant pain, I worked my way through the weekend. But by the time I got back home to Pennsylvania, my leg was so bruised I could hardly walk. Plus, I had developed a second lump on the right side of my neck.
I immediately went to see my family physician. Within 30 seconds, he told me I needed a CT scan.
A CT scan is one of those tests where they put you in this claustrophobic tube while this huge machine buzzes and hums around you. The test lasted about 30 minutes.
Afterwards, laying in a hospital gurney, one of the staff doctors came in with some grim news.
“We’ve discovered something from the scan,” she said. “We’re not exactly sure what it is, but we recommend further testing.”
More doctors, more tests
With the season finale coming up at Homestead-Miami Speedway, I had a decision to make. I hadn’t spent the previous nine months on the road, eating bad press box food, staying in stale hotel rooms, waking up at the wee hours of the morning to catch flights home only to miss the season finale. Or had I?
I ended up watching the finale from my couch. It was tough.
Several days after Johnson wrapped up his first title, I found myself in the office of Dr. Pat Toselli, the chief of surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital in Allentown, Pa., who, after examining me and looking at the test results, said, “This looks like it could be lymphoma.”
Lymphoma. Isn’t that cancer?
“Yes,” he said. “But, we’ll only know that for sure once I can remove the lump in your leg.”
Wait a minute. Cancer? Me? I’m never sick. I don’t even get colds. I’m a pretty healthy guy. Maybe a bit overweight. But, hey, most of us writers who travel the circuit are. It’s just a part of the deal when you travel as much as we do.
I don’t smoke. I take a handful of vitamins every day. Cancer? Are you sure?
The thought of having cancer took my breath away. Am I going to die?
My whole life began to change from the moment he said the word lymphoma.
My older sister had died three years earlier from lymphoma. All I could think about was seeing her lying in a hospital bed.
I didn’t want to die.
I was scared.
How do you tell your children you’re sick and, worse, it might be cancer? When I did, we all cried.
I kept telling them that everything would be alright, even though I knew it might not be.
The day after Christmas I was in the hospital having surgery.
I was still in the recovery room when Dr. Toselli came in to give me and my wife the bad news.
The initial diagnosis was something called Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. My doctor told me it’s a common, non-Hodgkins lymphoma with a high cure rate. He told me that it wouldn’t be easy, but I could beat the disease.
Cancer. I had cancer. Other people I knew had it. Now I did. And I was scared.
But I knew I could beat it.
The start of treatment
I was ready for chemotherapy, or at least I thought I was.
The first time I received it, my head itched so badly they had to stop, give me Benadryl, and let my body adapt to this toxic drug being put into my body.
And this was only Round 1. I was to receive six rounds of chemotherapy, once a week, every four weeks.
The whole process took about six hours, with me sitting in a recliner as a witch’s brew of chemicals slowly pumped through my body.
Would it kill off the cancer? What would it do to me? Would it cause any permanent damage?
After two treatments, my hair started falling out. I decided to go with a crew-cut look, but within a week or two I was completely bald.
One of the side effects to my chemotherapy was a decrease in both my red and white blood cell count. A decrease in reds makes you tired all the time. I knew when that was happening, because everywhere I went it felt like I was walking uphill wearing a lead suit.A decreased white blood cell count was even more dangerous. It opened the door for infection. Even a common cold would be a serious situation for me.
My doctor prescribed me Neulasta, a drug to keep my white blood cell count stable enough to allow me to fly with all those sneezing, coughing and who-knows-what-else people sitting around me. It also allowed me to walk among the crowds of thousands at places like Daytona, Talladega and Texas.
My “other” family
Despite raised eyebrows by the oncologist, I continued to work. I was tired most of the time, especially the first week after treatment. Still, I didn’t miss any races.
The day before boarding a plane for Daytona Speedweeks, I had treatment. The next 12 days were a real challenge. But it was also an eye-opening experience.
It was during Speedweeks that I discovered what it meant to be part of the NASCAR family. Once word had spread through the garage that I was battling cancer, it seemed that every crew chief I talked to, every driver and nearly every official I ran into asked how I was doing.
It was like being around a thousand mothers. There was a level of caring that went beyond anything else I had ever experienced. I knew that if anything happened to me while I was working at the race track, I would be in good hands, surrounded by friends and family who would make sure I received the best care available. It felt good.
When I got back from Daytona, my routine was treatment on Tuesday, rest on Wednesday and board a plane for the next race on Thursday.
Fridays are always my busiest day at the track. It’s the best day to find out what’s been happening since the previous weekend. The day starts early, around 7:30 a.m., usually right after the garage opens, and doesn’t end until well after 6 p.m., later if there’s a Craftsman Truck race.
Most Fridays I don’t leave the track until almost 11 p.m. I made it through the second race of the year at California with no problems. The next two races were at Las Vegas and Atlanta.
Those weekends, I hit the road right after treatment. Come Friday night, I was tired, which made the drive back to the hotel extremely difficult. My entire body ached.
When I got back into the hotel room at both Las Vegas and Atlanta, I put my gear down on the floor and lay down on the bed just to catch my breath before going to dinner.
The next thing I knew, it was Saturday morning. I woke up, still in my clothes. I hadn’t moved all night.
I never told my wife or doctor about it. In fact, I never told anyone. I didn’t want to give anyone a reason to tell me to stay home, away from the track.
Dealing with pain
During those five months of chemo, there was pain, not just in my bones, but in my stomach, even in my mouth. And I felt it every single day.
It was terrible.
Still, no matter how difficult it was for me to travel or work, I continued to do both. Being at the racetrack was good therapy for me. It helped to take my mind off of the pain and discomfort.
It also helped me to stay focused and not think about those dark thoughts that would creep into my consciousness. I would think about dying. Even though I knew I was getting treatment and it was working, there was always that chance I could turn out to be one of those 1-in-a-1,000 patients who doesn’t respond to treatment.
Those thoughts kept me awake at night.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point early in my treatment I felt strangely alone. It was an odd feeling for me. I don’t consider myself to be an overly religious person. I think of myself as being a spiritual being. I believe in God.
But here I was feeling all alone. Had I forgotten that God was with me all the time? All at once it came to me.
Someone once told me that if God brings you to something, He will also bring you through it. That one statement alone was probably more instrumental in my making it through the tough times than anything else.
From that moment on, I never felt alone again. Even in those toughest of days, I always knew that I wasn’t facing this challenge alone.
The end of the beginning
By the beginning of May, my spirits were high. My treatments for non-Hodgkins lymphoma were drawing to a close.
I had gained several pounds and had lost all of my hair, making me a fat bald guy with cancer. Still, I was feeling optimistic. Tests showed a decrease in cancer activity in my body, and I was looking forward to a final PET scan which would show I was completely cancer free.
However, there still remained an issue with a lump in my neck. It was about the size of a small marble. It would shrink after each treatment, but then it would grow back to its original size. My doctor told me not to worry about it, but when it never went away after my final chemo treatment, there was a bit of concern.
The day after I got home from covering the Indianapolis 500, I went in for my PET scan.
Two days later, my wife and I went to the doctor’s office for the results.
The news wasn’t good.
The next chapter
The lump in my neck, which was a swollen lymph node, was still showing enough activity for my doctor to suspect that there was still cancer present. There was also a spot on my right tonsil.
He suggested that I seek out a specialist for the next step, which would involve a biopsy of the lymph node and a possible neck dissection, which would mean I would have my neck opened up.
Open up my neck? I didn’t want that. Why didn’t the chemotherapy work?
My doctor didn’t have an answer. He suggested that it might be something else, like an infection in my jaw.
I went to a dentist and had some teeth pulled. Still, the lump remained.
When I was first diagnosed, I reached out to a good friend from the racing business, John Gorsline, who had fought a successful battle with neck and throat cancer. He told me that when your doctor isn’t giving you the answers you want, find another doctor who will, and don’t give up until you find one who gives you the answers you want.
Living on the east coast, I had several options. I chose to seek help in Philadelphia. I’m not quite sure why, but I’m glad I did. It changed everything.
My odyssey at HUP begins
A man named Gregory Weinstein saved my life.
At our first meeting, Dr. Weinstein, a cancer surgeon at University of Pennsylvania Hospital (HUP), stuck a large needle into the lump in my neck, not once, not twice, but three times.
The results of the extract came back quickly.
“You have Sqaumous cell cancer,” he said.
And not just in my neck.
“I would suspect that you have it in your tonsil as well,” he added. “You have what is called neck and throat cancer, and here’s what we’re going to do.”
I sat there with my wife as Dr. Weinstein told me he would operate and remove my tonsil via a new procedure he’s been at the forefront of developing – robotic surgery. Then, a few weeks later, he would open up the right side of my neck, from just behind my ear all the way to my chin, and remove lymph nodes, including the cancerous one.
Then, I would have to undergo radiation therapy and/or additional chemotherapy for, as he called it, “belts and suspenders.” The radiation would remove any remaining microscopic cancer cells.
I shook as he described everything to me. Then I couldn’t hold it back any longer. I started to cry.
“How serious is this?” I asked.
“If I don’t operate on you, you’ll be dead in six months.”
Now, I wasn’t just scared. I was petrified.
“Will this all work?” I said.
Dr. Weinstein assured me that he had had great success with the procedure and that as long as I came through the surgery successfully, I would be fine.
Then he said to me, “I will make you well.”
I got up from my chair and hugged him, the first of many hugs he would receive from me, and told him to schedule my surgery.
Three in July
Little did I know that what I had gone through battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma would be a piece of cake compared to what I would go through for the next six months.
On the weekend of July 7th, I went to the Pepsi 400 in Daytona. Within days of my return, I was in the operating room at HUP for the first of three surgeries.
The first procedure was a sort of dry run for the next two. In the second surgery, Dr. Weinstein removed my right tonsil and a portion of the roof of my mouth.
This made it hard to eat for a while. In fact, I had to learn how to chew and swallow all over again. Which brings me to the PEG tube.
Because I would not be able to use my throat during my entire six-month treatment, I either had to have a feeding tube placed in my nose or through my chest.
Hmm. Having a tube stuck in my nose and down my throat for several months didn’t sound too appealing. I opted for the chest tube.
Dr. Frankenstein, I presume?
Right around the time Tony Stewart was winning his second Brickyard 400, I was back at HUP for a third surgery, a neck dissection.
When I woke up from this surgery, something was sticking out of my neck. It turned out to be three drainage tubes designed to collect fluid.
I had to see what I looked like. With the help of my nurse, I walked over to the bathroom in my hospital room and saw myself in the mirror for the first time.
Seeing myself with tubes sticking out of my neck and over 20 staples holding together the incision in my neck was too much.
Oh my God. I looked like Frankenstein!
I started to cry. Would I look like this forever?
When I opened my mouth, it was crooked. I learned later that my doctor had to cut through nerves in my neck and face. Sometimes those nerves heal and your mouth returns to normal. Sometimes they don’t and you’re left with a crooked mouth.
Which would it be for me?
At home, taking care of myself was a chore. I had to learn how to drain out the tubes from my neck and how to feed myself through a tube in my chest.
As you can imagine, sleeping with tubes sticking out of your body is difficult. I learned to sleep sitting up, which freaked out my wife. She would wake in the middle of the night, look over and there I was, sitting straight up.I can’t begin to tell you about all the different kinds of pain one can experience while fighting cancer. I can tell you that I haven’t had a day without pain since early in November 2006. Not one day.
Whether it was my stomach, my throat or the sores in my mouth, pain became a part of my life that remains with me to this day.
I was getting sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Recovery Pt. 1
This past August and September are still a blur. I was constantly on pain medication and slept a lot. I was supposed to remain inactive, but I couldn’t do it.
I hadn’t traveled to a NASCAR race since early July, but I watched the races from wherever I was, whether in the hospital or at home. And I wrote about them, supplemented by an exchange of emails and phone calls from my fellow journalists in the media center, and from talking to crew chiefs over their cell phone while they were at the track.
It was absolutely amazing the support I continued to receive from the NASCAR family. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t receive at least a half a dozen emails from someone in the family asking how I was doing, wishing me luck and saying that they were keeping me in their prayers.
My own family during this time was tested to its extreme. My kids had to watch their father in pain, exhausted and struggling for a good deal of the time.
Each one was extremely helpful. My 16-year-old daughter Natasha became my nurse, making sure I took my medicines at regular intervals.
The final step
I was scheduled to have 32 radiation treatments, once a day, Monday through Friday, for six straight weeks. It would be the toughest part of my battle with cancer.
Every day I showed up for treatment with my favorite Pink Floyd album, “Division Bell.” It was my saving grace.
In order to receive an innovative treatment called IMRT, which focuses the radiation into your body in a precise manner, you have to lie perfectly still. To make sure I didn’t move, they placed a plastic mesh mask that fit tightly over my face and body. It was then bolted down to the treatment table.
Yeah, it was confining and yeah, if you’re the least bit claustrophobic it would be an almost intolerable experience. Fortunately, I had David Gilmour’s voice in my ear, calming me down for the 20-minute procedure.
After the first few treatments, I started to get used to the entire routine.
By the time the treatments ended, I’d lost nearly 60 pounds. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I looked old. My skin was very pale and drawn. And I was really skinny, too skinny, down to 155 pounds.
My hair had grown back, but what happened to that fat, bald guy? He was now a skinny, older-looking cancer patient.Recovery begins
My treatment ended just before Thanksgiving. I’d planned a big dinner, but didn’t have the energy to play host. I could barely get out of a chair, much less cook.
Two weeks and two days after my treatments ended, I woke up and felt great. I wasn’t back to normal. But I had energy and I could focus.
On Dec. 19, my radiologist, Dr. Quon, and my surgeon, Dr. Weinstein, both gave me the green light to resume my life again. That meant I could resume light travel and exercise, like taking my 85-pound black lab for walks again.
The feeding tube finally came out, too. The pain of it being pulled out was excruciating, but hopefully that’s the final bit of pain I will feel.
A new day and thanks
So there you have it. That’s what my life has been like the past 12 months. I’m proud to be a member of an exclusive club of cancer survivors.
I always enjoy the look on people’s face when I tell them I not only survived one cancer, but two – in one year.
I’m convinced God has brought me through this most difficult year of my life for a reason. He obviously has some important work for me to accomplish before my time in this world is over.
I’m ready for it.
I still have tests ahead of me. The first one comes in March, 2008. It’ll be my first PET scan, the one that determines any cancerous activity.
My doctors are optimistic that we won’t find anything. I’m optimistic, too.
With this being the time of year when giving and receiving gifts is so much a part of our lives, I am truly blessed to have received the greatest gift of all – the gift of life.
Now, I just can’t wait to get back to the track.
There are so many people I want to thank for their help and support over the past year.
First and foremost is my family – Becky, who was my rock, Janelle, Natasha and Alana. And my brother Don. We already had a close relationship, but through this we grew even closer. It was his twin sister, my older sister, who succumbed to lymphoma just a few years ago.
I want to thank the doctors and staff at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia (HUP). I am convinced that without the kind of medical care I received at HUP, I would not be here to tell my story.
I want to thank my NASCAR family. From fellow media members like Bob Pockrass, who made sure that everyone in the media pool was kept appraised of my condition on a weekly basis, to the members of the NASCAR Public Relations staff who called me all the time to check in on me and remind me that the “circus” would still be there when I got back.
And good friends like Todd Berrier from RCR (who probably won’t mind you knowing that he’s one of those highly spiritual people in NASCAR) who gave me the kind of encouragement to keep fighting. And Drew Patey from Safety Kleen, who was already my closest friend. He offered me a place to rest in his travel trailer at each racetrack, especially when I was so tired I could barely sit up.
Thank you Bob Pallo from Pocono Raceway, who just recently went through a similar ordeal with neck and throat cancer. Your insight was invaluable. And thanks to Lori Hamilton, Bobby
Hamilton‘s widow, who contacted me soon after hearing I was afflicted with the same disease that claimed her husband’s life. Her words of support and encouragement were a joy to read. I only wish Bobby had been as lucky as I’ve been.
And to each and every other stranger, who became a friend that I met along the journey.
Finally, thanks to everyone at Yahoo! Sports – especially Dave Morgan, Jon Baum and Jay Hart for their unwavering support over the past year. With little exception, I continued to work throughout the entire year, even when I felt absolutely terrible. Also, the support and words of encouragement I received from my fellow writers and staff at the Santa Monica offices has been remarkable and made me very proud to be a part of Yahoo! Sports.
Thank you everyone for giving me the kind of love and support I had never imagined was possible.
Cancer is a very difficult disease to conquer. It affects everyone around you. It changes everyone around you. But it’s not a death sentence, as I have learned.
One final word:
During this past year I lost a very dear friend to cancer – Ray Cooper.
Ray and I had known each other for nearly a decade. He was the NASCAR PR representative for Dodge Motorsports. I had incredible respect for him not only as a writer and PR rep, but also as a human being.
Our mutual love for good food found us eating together quite often while on the road, especially when the tour took to the south. Ray knew the best southern barbeque joints in the world.
When Ray was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July of 2007, we talked often, and although we both knew he had a tough battle ahead of him, I encouraged him to never give up. He never did.
He was brave and a real fighter to the end.
I will always miss you Ray. Any media center that I’m in, you’ll be right there with me.
God Bless you all and I’ll see you at a racetrack in 2008.