• by Rick Bulifant

Rick's Story: Bladder Cancer Survivor & Advocate

This part of my story starts in May of 2012. One day I was pausing for a quick pee break at the office. As I finished up at the urinal I looked down to zip up. Floating in the sea of yellow was a lone black spec about the size of a flake of pepper. I thought nothing of it as I thought it must be some debris that had probably fallen off of my jacket. I went on about my business and didn’t think any more of it. A few days later I was again, at the same urinal at the office. As I’m finishing up I look down to zip up and see another lone black speck floating in that sea of yellow. I had my reader classes on the top of my head so I pull them down and look closer at this black spec. Upon closer observation, it really was not black! It was dissolving in the water and as it was dissolving it was really red. Blood Red!! This kind of stopped me in my tracks. You see I have always been healthy and never really get sick.

So after that, I kept looking out for the spec’s that had me baffled. I did not see them every day, and never more than one. I would go 3 maybe 4 days and only see one! Nothing hurt and I didn’t feel any different. I would just see another one every so often. I thought that my pea sized brain had figured it out finally! It must be that I have a bleeding ulcer. You see I love spicy foods… a lot! Spicy Chinese, spicy Mexican, spicy steamed crabs! Little did I know that symptoms for that come out of the other end. But I didn’t know so I kept a check when I ate spicy food. Just I did not see the spec’s after anything spicy.

A week or two passed and I kept seeing this darned spec. You see, us guys are pretty stubborn, me included! We will pretend that we don’t see something like this and say to ourselves that our body will heal itself and it’s nothing to worry about. NOT! I had that voice in the back of my head telling me to get this checked out. It was really weighing heavy on my shoulders. You see, I did not even tell my wife about this. That was killing me not telling her. We are also best friends and we tell each other everything. So, since I was at 55 at the time, I decided to go to my primary care physician and get a 55,000 mile checkup.

Under the guise of a physical, I would tell the doc about the specs that I had been seeing. Off to Patient First I went. I told them why I was there and also about these mysterious specs. I get a complete physical including blood test and urine test. Of course, this day the specs decide to hide! Like always, the doctor reviews all of the physical test data and I am as always, perfectly fit! He does say for me to keep my eye on the Specs. If they continue showing up, he gave me a referral for a Urologist. He said it could be that I was passing a kidney stone (even though I did not hurt and I hear they do). Well since the doctor was handing out referrals, I ask him for one to a dermatologist. You see my mom has had a couple skin cancer spots burned off. Me, I am definitely a summer lover and stay in the sun a lot. I had 4 or 5 spots that I wanted to get checked out. So he agreed and gave me that referral as well.

A couple more weeks pass and wouldn’t you know it, those darned specs keep tormenting me. Not a lot of then, just one every 3 or 4 days. Oops I forgot to mention. I finally fessed up to my wife Amanda after the physical, thinking I was all ok. So now I have to go to see the specialist or I would hear her wrath. Naw, I did it because I was worried about skin cancer! So I set up both doctor’s appointments. The dermatologist was the first to be able to see me. I reluctantly go in to see her and show her the 4 spots. Oh no, here comes the bad news that I was dreading. She looks them over and says “age spot, age spot, age spot, mole!” What ?!?! No cancer? All good! Man I left out of there dancing down the sidewalk!

Two days later, I go to see Dr. Seabury at VA Urology and I tell him all of the facts as I know them. He says “Hmmm, could be one of 5 different things, could be something as easy as passing a kidney stone to worst case scenario, could be a symptom of some form of cancer. Probably not so we will start with some tests and work out way from there. “I was in agreement and so he gave me another blood test, another urine test and another bend over with the rubber glove test. We are in mid July so everything has been clicking along at a steady pace. I go back to see Dr. Seabury one week later for the results of these initial tests. All look ok and he recommends a CT Scan. So we set that up for the following week. So I go in for this and it only takes 20 minutes total. So I am feeling good that I missed hardly any work at all!

I go back the following week for the results of the CT scan. The doctor comes in and tells me that all of my organs looked pretty good… except there was a “fuzzy spot down at the bottom of my bladder”. I must have had a befuddled look on my face because then he tries to draw me a picture of it. He finally takes me into his office to see the “picture” on his computer monitor. There I was on this picture, he pointed out all of my organs and just like he drew it, a fuzzy spot down at the bottom of my bladder. He said “that should not be there and we need to get it out of there”. Wow, dazed my brain was somewhere else I guess. I just said ok, you know what’s best. So we set up some outpatient surgery the following Thursday August 9 th. He also said that I need to have someone with me to drive me home due to the anesthesia. All is good at this point as all he has called this thing is a “fuzzy spot.”

My wife, Amanda, takes me for the cystoscopy. We are going to get that fuzzy spot out and all goes well. I am home that afternoon and the pain meds begin to wear off. Did I happen to mention that I thought that I had a high pain threshold? I found out that day it wasn’t as high as I thought! You see there is only one way in and out of the bladder and that’s through the good ole’ willy whacker. So they take a high tech tool up that but it really felt like a knitting needle with a lasso on the end of it to snag that fuzzy spot. Oops, spot’s bigger than they thought! So they take out those tools and try it again with a larger set! YOUCH! Being proud of myself, I went back to work the next morning. Bragging to my co-workers about how I was not one of those old stubborn guys at all. I was the example of checking it out and “nipping it in the bud”! It didn’t dawn on me what that fuzzy spot could really be. We scheduled a follow up a week later I thought to just make sure that I was ok.

Amanda and I met up on Friday August 19 th at the VA Urology office for our 2:30 appointment to go over the standard follow up and a formality of seeing what the biopsy report said. Our vacation coincidently is starting later that day at 5:01 pm. We both had Nags Head on the brain. We rented a beach house for the week along with Amanda’s family. And what’s more, I am always fit and healthy! So back at the Doctor’s office, Amanda and I were laughing and joking waiting for Dr. Seabury to join us. He walks in carrying a stack of papers that he lays on the conference room table. He immediately says “I am not going to beat around the bush on this. What you have is an aggressive form of cancer that has roots and those roots are growing on the inside wall of your bladder. We need to remove your bladder. “Holy Crap! Do what? I look over at Amanda and she literally has tears streaming down both cheeks! Dr. Seabury explains that with the location of the fuzzy spot that he does not recommend other treatments or less invasive surgery. He recommends taking out the bladder and either have a stoma and carry a bag, or he says we can put in a new bladder.

I have never seen a bladder store or heard of a bladder transplant so I’m a bit perplexed. He explains that once the old bladder is out that they can make me a new one! Turns out that we have about a mile and a half of intestines and missing about 1 ½ ft. is not a problem. He illustrates this to us with a rolled up piece of paper and calls that my intestine. He then acts like he is chopping off each end of the roll of paper then slicing it long ways, then he lays it flat and takes the opposite corners of the paper and pulls them together. This makes a nice little pouch is what will be my new holding tank aka bladder! Geez that seemed incredible. It did not take me long to choose which of the 2 options I wanted. I still like to body surf with my two sons in the Nags Head waves so new bladder it is! This high tech specialized surgery Dr. Seabury does not do but says that one off his associates, Dr. Franks does. We go along with this as a starting point and schedule to meet with Dr. Franks after we return from vacation. We leave the office and walk out into the parking lot, knowing that our life has just been changed forever! We kiss and I go back to work in a daze. Amanda, she goes home and is devastated.

We decide to continue on our plan for vacation, now knowing that I had cancer in my body. Weird thing is, I still did not hurt and have no outward signs or symptoms. Those specs sure were messing with me though. We joked that they were taunting me since the outpatient surgery. Instead of specs they were clumps. So we go off on vacation and that allowed us to come to terms with what was coming up. We utilized that time to come up with our questions and Amanda typed them into her smart phone. We had a great vacation and believe it or not her family treated me like normal and it was not a pity party. It was a time for inner perspective. A time to think about what life is all about. What is my purpose in life? Have I left my footprint anywhere? My life had mostly been about work and seeing how I could take care of how many people at once. Vacation ended and we returned home and back to work we went. Daily I would ask myself “why me!!!” Had I really done that much bad throughout my life and this was going to be my punishment!? I started listening to a lot more Christian music. A lot more. That seemed to help.

The day came to meet with Dr. Franks so both Amanda and I went, armed with her smart phone full of questions. Dr. Franks comes in and introduces himself and describes what he will be doing and then asked if we had any questions. Amanda pulls out that phone and asks the series of questions that we had come up with. An hour or so later Dr. Franks looks over at me and asked me if I had any questions. I look down thinking for a moment & then look up and say, “Dr. Franks, it’s been pretty much common knowledge since I was in college that I am rather fond of 12 oz. beverages but only have an 8 oz. bladder, do you think you can make my new one, that you can make it a little bit bigger?” He grins and says “we will see what we can do”. Surgery is scheduled for Tuesday September 11, 2012.

After the meeting with Dr. Franks and before surgery, we began to tell everyone, now we had our battle plan. We started with my mom over dinner, then my two sons and then my dad. I purposely gave them the sugar coated version of what surgery I was going to have and did not use the dreaded “C” word. Less for them to worry about. I also told work and my extended camper family at Rockahock. I never knew that I had so many people pulling and praying for me. I am still humbled at that. I also had 5 or 6 churches praying for me. I needed all of them, especially my home church. You see, they had the Prayer Team pray over both me and Amanda. Not to heal me but to literally evict the cancer out of my body! Man that was strong! Man that was intense! The weekend before surgery I thought that I was going to just stay intoxicated. Funny thing, instead I did chores mostly trying to get things “ready”.

Surgery day gets here and the fact that it was on 9/11 didn’t bother me at all. Just turn up “the message” (Christian radio station) on the way to the hospital. We arrive and I have decided to not be depressed or mope about this. I went in smiling, laughing and joking. Maybe because I know that I had so much power behind me, I don’t know. But I was not afraid or scared. I joked with the nurses, I joked with the anesthesiologist saying he looked just like rocker Ted Nugent (He really did!) I do not know about the surgery but Amanda says something happened at 2:41-2:46 pm that day. Maybe, maybe not, I think so. I am not the same guy that I was before. I think I got a “do over” and I am going to take advantage of it.

The short version of surgery is that the doc had planned to also take out some lymph nodes, dependant on what he saw. If he saw cancer into the first layer he would take out 2. If he saw it on 2 layers then he would take out all 3layers. Incredibly he took none! We were on pins & needles until we heard him read the pathology report a couple weeks later. Eighteen areas tested and eighteen areas clear.

My hospital stay after surgery was a learning experience. Like losing my modesty after maybe 1 ½ days. Amanda stayed with me the entire time and was my rock through it all. Continuing with great care even after I got home.

Teaching myself how to work that new bladder how to be a bladder was a slow process, the new one had to heal first and once it did we had to test it to remove all of the bypass hardware. I went back into the hospital first with a fever and pain. One of the prayer team members, Valerie, visited us in the hospital and told us not to worry that I was healed. Boy was she right on with that. My body ran a fever, rejecting the hardware. My new bladder was ready for use. After 5 ½ weeks of recovery time I went back to work. Slow and easy and don’t do anything stupid was my motto. I had set small goals during my recovery time and since. Everywhere I go, I keep telling my story.

You see, that is it! The purpose of my life, or at least as I see it for now. I was spared to help save others. Remember, us guys are sometimes pretty stupid. We forget that early detection can save us. Well, I’m here to help change that. I tell my story to anyone who will listen and it’s amazing the stories that I hear in response. I guess I’m pretty vocal about Bladder Cancer. I honestly had never heard of bladder cancer until I had it. But here I was lying in the hospital bed a few days after surgery watching the 6:30 national news. Brian Williams announces that “today we lost 1960’s crooner Andy Williams, singer of Moon River. And he died of Bladder Cancer”. Geez that is what I just had!

So I was at my campground visiting about 6 weeks after surgery and I’m telling my story to bunches of people. One of whom is my next door neighbor. He is a really nice guy from Hampton. I do not see him anymore during the winter, but I saw him the following March. He comes up to me and says “Rick I want to thank you!” I asked him what for? He goes on to tell me that he wanted to thank me for telling him my story. He started having some of the same symptoms 3-4 weeks after I told him my story so he remembered what I said and went to his doctor. His doctor blows it off as probably just passing kidney stones. He is still remembering the story says “ok” but can you give me a referral to a urologist? The doctor gives it to him. He goes to a urologist who tests him and determines that he does in fact have Bladder Cancer! Since he caught it early he only needed outpatient surgery and periodic testing/ monitoring! Wow!

God is great! I know that he has a plan and purpose for me. I just did not know it before. So much has happened over the last year or so. I am so blessed and as Big Daddy Weave say’s “I am redeemed”!! My story continues……..

Thanks, Fight on fighta's!!

Rick Bulifant

Bladder Cancer Survivor & Advocate

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