05/03/2021 By Dave Kuehnel
My Cancer Story – Dave Kuehnel
I graduated from college early and went home to farm. A year and half later, I found a lump on my right testicle. It kept getting larger and I saw a urologist, who assured me it was epididymitis, certainly not cancerous. What I needed to do was soak in a hot bath for an hour a day, and take heavy duty antibiotics. We had one bathroom at the farm, and dedicating an hour a day to one person was another lesson in sharing. I come from a family of 16 children. So I did my soaking and medicating, and the lump continued to grow.
I decided to seek another opinion after a couple months. I found another urologist in Green Bay and in less than a minute of palpating my lump said flatly, “you have testicular cancer and that needs to come out. Can you be back here at 7 am for surgery?” I was pretty much in shock, especially after having the other urologist reassure me that there was no way it could be cancer. I needed a little time. And for me, a third opinion. My 16-year old sister had just finished 6 months of chemo for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and she also had had a negative local medical experience and had moved her medical work 6 hours away to Mayo. I called for an appointment and her doctor shepherded me through to a great team, who did blood work and an ultrasound and still couldn’t be sure of what I had until they did the surgery. They did the pathology while I was in surgery, and I ended up having a radical orchiectomy and the cancer was Stage 3 seminoma. A “good type” to have.
A good type? Really? I was 23 and dating a wonderful woman, but I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. They sent me home to the farm with orders to start radiation to the pelvis and abdominal spine in a month. The cancer had metastasized into a number of lymph nodes along my spine, and they thought the radiation would keep it from progressing any further. My girlfriend never showed that she doubted that I would survive this, and was my source of strength and faith throughout. I truly believe that she carried me spiritually the whole time. I had started working off the farm, and I was able to work things out with my boss to leave work at 1:30 every day and drive 90 minutes each way to Milwaukee, 5 days a week, from mid-May to mid-September.
It was the worst four months of my life. Nausea, terrible constant diarrhea, and the worst repeated skin burning I would ever experience. I had to change burn bandages daily front and back. They warned me beforehand that I might never have children, and that I should consider setting up a sperm bank. My girlfriend and I weren’t to the point of talking about our life plans in those terms yet, but she had a 6 year old son, and I figured that would be enough family for me if that was the way things turned out. Never mind that I didn’t have the money for a sperm bank.
Three months after the radiation was done, I asked her to marry me.
Why am I so positive?
Throughout my life, people have asked me why I am so positive and optimistic. I have been blessed in many ways, but that comes in hindsight. At the time, I had no way of knowing if I had a couple months or a couple years left ahead of me or what. I do know that my girlfriend (now my wife) never showed me anything but hope and faith. I suspect there was fear in her like there was in me, but she lit candles at church and prayed every day for us to have a long life together. They told me that we shouldn’t have kids for at least two years after the radiation, and tests after two years showed that I had normal sperm as far as they could tell. Our first child came along very quickly, and our second took a little longer three years later, and, for a long time now, the feeling of being immensely blessed has greatly outweighed the fear of my life being cut short. Every child is a miracle, but these two seem like very personal miracles to me, and they have grown into such wonderful people that I really can’t understand why I was the one chosen to receive such beautiful gifts. From the first time I looked into each of their little trusting eyes, I see nothing but wonder and hope and opportunity for them.
Since the diagnosis over 35 years ago, I have always felt a little urgency about every new day, a special appreciation of every beautiful landscape or flaming sunset, and a great deal of thankfulness for my wife’s prayers. Someone was watching over me, and I am grateful.