Craig’s Journey: Lessons Learned on a Hard Road
“The lessons I learned may not be for everyone, but they worked for me.” ~ Craig Weber
The thread running throughout Craig Weber’s life is that of guide, of advisor, of teacher. He is also a man who survived stage 4 colon cancer in 2013. Yet, when he thinks back to those hard days of diagnosis, surgery, and chemo, he doesn’t dwell on the hardship; he dwells on lessons learned.
It’s very clear that Craig had once—before retirement—been a special education teacher at Freedom High School in Bethlehem. Now, as he says, “I’m here–to give back.”
Plagued by stomach difficulties in 2013, he saw a doctor who, after some testing, concluded that he had a triple hernia, which needed surgical treatment. But the operation didn’t improve Craig’s difficulties, and he kept returning to his doctor, saying, “This isn’t working.”
He was right, for the hernias were not the real issues. Cancer was. Two cancers, in fact. For Craig not only had stage 4 colon cancer which had metastasized to his stomach and 12 lymph nodes, but also, stage 1 bladder cancer. Immediate surgery was imperative.
“I found a surgeon with glowing reviews, but he couldn’t fit me into his schedule,” Craig sits up straight in his orange Asics-branded T-shirt. “I said, ‘But I want you,’ when the doctor said he’d give me his excellent associate. That night, though, there was a huge snowstorm, and all his electives cancelled. So, I got onto his schedule.” It was December 2013.
Ten days after surgery to remove tumors caused by bladder cancer, as well as a colon resection, Craig returned home where his wife and his three sons and their families awaited him. But the course wasn’t smooth, for he spiked a 102-degree fever. The surgeon had said if he had a fever over 102, he should return.
“I had developed an infection,” he continues, lightly touching his gold wedding band. “The doctor inserted a tube to drain fluids, and then I went home. I saw him every three or four days until the infection went away.” Craig brushes his fingers through greyish hair that falls lightly over his ears.
“Coley’s Toxins,” he muses. In the late 1800s, Dr. William Coley injected bacteria into tumors, successfully shrinking them. He’s now called the Father of Immunotherapy. “When I got this infection, I thought about Coley. I wondered if the bacteria were helping me.”
Shortly afterward, Craig had a port inserted in his chest so he could begin 12 rounds of chemo. Despite anti-nausea medication, nausea from the first treatment consumed him. “I showed the medication to my sister, who’s a nurse. She said they’d been giving that medication since she was in nursing school, and that there was better stuff available. When I went back to my oncologist, he gave me another one that was much more expensive—but worked.”
Craig finished chemo, took the summer off, and then took a fall sabbatical to regain his strength through eating and exercising. It was tough to eat, though, and his weight dropped from 167 to 122. Then he came upon an article about marijuana cookies and ordered them from a California dispensary. Immediately, be regained his appetite and energy.
“I was fortunate enough to have terrific family support…my five brothers and sisters, my sons, my wife. Every one of them accompanied me to chemo at least once. My wife would go to all my appointments and take notes on her iPad. To me, the world was buzzing.” Craig gazes out the window. “I was fortunate,” says Craig. “Everything lined up.”
The word “fortunate” trickles through his sentences. But good fortune was not the only reason that he survived stage 4 colon cancer. The teacher in Craig recognized that he had acted in certain ways and that those actions served as lessons that he was anxious to pass on. He leans his wiry frame forward.
Lesson 1: “Expand your world. When you find out what you are about to go through, your world literally shrinks to the hospital and your house. I would get chemo Thursday through Saturday, and by Monday, I’d go to school again. I forced myself to work through this so I would not think about myself, laying around at home. When I went back to work in January, I entered society again. That helped my frame of mind.”
Lesson 2: “Get control. My control was over little things like making smoothies, eating marijuana cookies, getting the doc to switch medications, getting back to work.”
Lesson 3: “Use the right words. Five months before the five-year mark at which 12% of stage 4 colon cancer survivors are considered ‘cancer-free,’ I met a woman who kept saying that I was in remission. I kept insisting that cancer was gone, I didn’t have it. That difference meant a lot to me. ‘It’s gone’ is a state of mind. But, of course, I worry about it.”
Lesson 4: “Research, read, and learn. That’s how I found the right doctor for me. That’s how I found marijuana cookies, and learned some of the additional treatment options. The book Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds identifies nine factors that can lead to remission.” Craig pulls a sheet of paper from his knapsack and slides it across the table. “Some of them are exactly what I found at the Cancer Support Community, like increasing positive emotions, embracing social support, radically changing your diet, taking control of your health.
“When I read that chemo causes your intestines to extract fewer nutrients from food, I started drinking all kinds of high-energy smoothies. And when I read that colon cancer can spread to the liver, I started taking turmeric.”
Lesson 5: “Pay attention to your body. Often you know what’s working for your body better than the doctors. I knew that anti-nausea medication didn’t work—and I insisted on something different.”
Lesson 6: “Find a doctor who will listen to you and answer your questions graciously and completely. That is part of the healing.”
Six lessons that Craig has mulled over in the years since his diagnosis and treatment. “They may not be for everyone,” he says modestly, “but they worked for me.”
Though retired, Craig hasn’t given up teaching and advising special needs people. “I’m working with two young adults now, helping one figure out how to attend community college, and helping another–with traumatic brain injury–learn to write.”
Now he smiles. “I made of a list of 10 possible retirement projects. One is volunteering. Another is traveling in the winter which I couldn’t do as a teacher. Now, we’re planning a cruise to Nova Scotia. The new world of winter travel. I’m also redoing our kitchen.”
Craig’s voice softens. “I feel like there was a force working with me. How did I find the right doctor? How did he suddenly become free? Why did I get an infection? How did I have such a good support system? What is this force?” he wonders aloud.
Craig Weber attends the yoga class at the Cancer Support Community.