Cancer treatment part 2: Two cases of never giving up
December 30, 2008
One day, we will all confront age and ailments.
Even in Tahoe, where youthful experiences are exalted, where hikes, climbing, skiing and wakeboarding are more passion than pastimes, invincibility one day ends.
Robert “Fro” Frohlich knows it as well as anyone. Frohlich, 53, has spent the better part of the last 30 years cataloging the exploits most Tahoans enjoy. The Tahoe City resident, magazine writer and adventurer has covered local icons like skier Shane McConkey, been to his share of sailing regattas and just this summer began training for the expedition of a lifetime: A ski trip to Antarctica.
Tom Selfridge of Truckee also enjoys what the area offers, whether that means cross country skiing or kayaking. An avid hiker and climber, Selfridge, 58, appears as healthy as anyone you’ll see taking coffee at Wild Cherries.
Both have something in common, though. Cancer.
Doctors diagnosed Frohlich this year with cancer of the appendix, an extremely deadly form of the disease.
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Selfridge is now freed of colon cancer after months of battling with the disease and its treatments in 2006.
Each sought treatment from Dr. Larry Heifetz at the Tahoe Forest Hospital system, where they are among scores of regional patients. A new partnership between Tahoe Forest and the University of California in Davis is providing state-of-the art services for cancer patients, a rarity in rural hospitals.
“In January 2006 I went in for a colonoscopy, you know, just one of those things you should do,” Selfridge said. “The doctor said I had a mass about the size of a fist wrapped around my large intestine.”
He balls his fist slightly as he pauses to remember the moment, then moves on.
Selfridge said he felt fine before the test and had no indications cancer was attacking his system.
For Frohlich, the discovery came this summer while he was training for the trip to Antarctica. After months of working out with a trainer, he wasn’t losing weight. He said his stomach was notably distended.
“I basically had no alarms,” Frohlich said. “But I was completely mystified as to why I was getting rounder instead of leaner. My stomach had become bloated where the tumor was.”
So Frohlich went to get himself checked out, and the doctor came back with bad news. Fluid from the tumor in his stomach was causing the distention. It was a cancer of the appendix, extremely rare and extremely deadly.
From those initial diagnoses, each took different routes to Heifetz. After an initial meeting with the doctor, Selfridge went in for surgery on March 1, 2006. He’d never gone under the knife before that date.
“I couldn’t even believe what was happening,” Selfridge said. The surgery removed the tumor, but bad news awaited Selfridge when he awoke. The doctor informed him the cancer had spread into his lymph nodes, which makes it easier for cancer to spread throughout the body. “The highway to hell,” Selfridge calls it.
Despite the cancer’s spread, the surgery went well, though, leaving Selfridge ready to return to his job as the general manager at the Truckee Sanitation District within a week and a half.
In contrast, Frohlich’s Sept. 13 surgery didn’t get him back into the sports he loves quickly.
Doctors performed extensive exploratory surgery, worked for six-plus hours on his insides to remove an orange-sized tumor, and cracked open the area from his sternum to his stomach to remove 95 percent of his cancer.
“Pre-op, I was about 250 pounds, post-op I was 210,” Frohlich said. “I stayed in the hospital for two and a half weeks before I convalesced at home.”
It took months for Frohlich’s body to heal from such a massive, arduous operation, he said.
Chemotherapy treatments, which Selfridge explained as “the best treatment they have” awaited both men next.
Selfridge started treatments in April 2006, and had a port placed in his chest for the easy distribution of drugs.
An intense feeling of cold-sensitivity ” a common chemo side-effect ” hit him hard.
“The first time I got home from a treatment I shot down some pills with a glass of water,” Selfridge said. “Then I felt like I was choking. My throat contracted when I took the pills with the cold water. After that I always had warm water.”
Monday treatments left him fatigued on Tuesday and Wednesday each week, but couldn’t keep him from the outdoor activities he enjoys. Throughout the summer Selfridge continued to hike and climb, taking on Mount Tallac, Mount Rose and Castle Peak.
“It’s easy to say ‘Mind over body,’ but harder to do it,” Selfridge said. “If things are going good, it’s easy to have that mindset. During one cycle I remember that I got really depressed, and it would be difficult to get yourself out of that.”
Frohlich has recently started his chemo, but like Selfridge, isn’t letting his life go by the wayside. After the first storm of the season Frohlich took his ski gear out to Blackwood Canyon on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore to find fresh snow. He plans on attending the February World Alpine Championships in Val D’isere, France.
He said support from the friends he’s made over the years” skiers like Daron Rahlves and Hermann Maier” has helped tremendously.
“I have in my corner a lot of famous friends who are great, and a lot of great friends who aren’t famous,” Frohlich said. For all of the silly things in Tahoe people like to pursue, Frohlich said, they know how to support a friend who’s hurting. “There are a lot of world class people here, and when things go South they’ll step up to the plate.”
The help is needed. Selfridge’s daughter helped to drive him to and from his treatments, especially when the dark days of radiation started in November 2006.
“The range of side-effects can be broad and severe with radiation,” Selfridge said. “I had 28 treatments, I went five days a week. It was by far the worst part.”
Selfridge said the radiation left him feeling brutalized.
“The thing you have to realize is that you’re not out of the tunnel yet with that last treatment. The side effects stay around for awhile,” Selfridge said.
Frohlich, who is being treated with chemo, said there are also days he struggles with the treatments.
“Cancer is (expletive) terrifying,” Frohlich said. “You go in for a treatment sometimes and you see hollow faces, sunken eyes, bald heads, it’s scary.”
Both said the atmosphere at the Tahoe Forest cancer center kept them positive.
“The people there make all the difference,” Selfridge said. “Having Larry there is huge, not just for local availability but because he has such great connections. He has pipelines to Stanford and the (University of California, San Francisco) hospitals.”
Frohlich said that while the nurses at Tahoe Forest are matter-of-fact, it is an overwhelmingly positive atmosphere, from Heifetz’s dog, Theo, to the other patients.
“I believe in the care that I’m getting there,” Frohlich said. “I’m getting a high level of energy from everyone you meet there, and also a high level of friendship. These people are into what I’m into, they talk about skiing, hiking, mountain biking, they make you feel very positive. When people suggested I should get to a ‘real hospital,’ I asked if they were kidding.”
The outlook for both men looks starkly different.Selfridge is free of the disease, but knows he’s always one bad test away.
“You have to look at it like you’re just along for the ride, but you learn to take nothing for granted, even your next day. I try to live right, stay active and involved, and keep a positive attitude,” Selfridge said.
Frohlich knows he has a big challenge ahead of him, and making it through the next year will be a feat.
“If I can make it this year, maybe I can make it two years, if I can make it two years, maybe I can make it five,” Frohlich said. “Cancer or no cancer, I intend on following my life’s passion. Cancer doesn’t play favorites, I have no idea how I got it. But, I say bring it on, man. I’ve never backed away from anything and I’m not going to start now.”
Follow Frohlich’s trials and tribulations against cancer at http://www.caringbridge.org/cb/viewHome.do.
Read more about the Tahoe Cancer Center at http://www.tahoecancercenter.com.