“Certain things happen in your life that are completely out of your control. The outcome depends on how you handle them.” ~ Pablo Garcia
“Honestly, it happened so quickly—from the time my doctor told me until the time I ended treatment—that it hardly registered,” says 40-year-old Pablo Garcia matter-of-factly. “I went to the doctor when I realized that I probably hadn’t pulled a muscle, because the pain was so intense. He examined me, and said he’d see me Tuesday to remove it. ‘Remove what?’ I asked. ‘Your testicle.’ There’s no history of cancer in my family.” He was speechless, and so was his mother, for Pablo had seminoma testicular cancer. He was 24.
He decided to delay radiation until he and his new wife returned from their honeymoon. Then he underwent 18 weeks of treatment, so sick that he lived on Rita’s Mango Italian Ice for weeks on end., and often could not even leave the hospital before he began vomiting. As rough as it was, it was also so successful that he needed no further treatment. He was done. Cancer was over.
But, really, this was just the beginning.
Seven years later—at 31—Pablo, a life-long Phillipsburg, NJ resident, was walloped with excruciating pain that radiated throughout his body, first his back, then his stomach, then his legs. He could find no pattern, for the pain kept jumping throughout this body.
That night he went to the hospital, writhing with pain, trying to escape it. An ultrasound revealed a large mass in his lower back and abdomen, but it wasn’t cancer. The mass was so intertwined with his main artery that no surgeon would perform surgery.
He transferred to another hospital, where he lay in bed for 17 days, undergoing test after test, including nine biopsies, to figure out precisely what was occurring.
“All I knew,” notes Pablo, “was that I was in the hospital bed for weeks. They weren’t telling me anything, and were feeding me narcotics.” He speaks quickly, “I asked the doctor if I was going to die from this because no one had any answers. When you have to ask that question, you lose a piece of your soul.”
But at last there was an answer. He had developed an unexpected side effect of radiation: Ormond’s Disease, also called retroperitoneal fibrosis (RPF), retroperitoneal fibrosis a rare condition in which scar tissue develops in the digestive system. “I developed a tumor in my lower back, attached to a main artery.” He hesitates a moment. “It had destroyed my nervous system.” It may not have been cancer, but to Pablo, it was worse than cancer.
The specialist he then saw would not operate, either. Instead, he put Pablo on prednisone for more than a year. And while the prednisone shrank the tumor from the size of a lemon to that of a pea, it also permanently damaged his nerves and wreaked havoc on his joints, putting him in near-constant agony.
Initially a self-taught barber just after high school, when he saw his ability, Pablo glommed onto barbering as a career, got his certificate, and rented a chair in downtown Easton. Now he works during the hours that the pain is not too severe. Disability payments help him make ends meet. “I just live with the pain. I don’t want to be on pain killers any longer,” he says. His back pain constricts his life, ensuring that he move carefully, avoid jerks and heavy listing. He has braces and heating pads. He stretches every day.
And although he believes that his cancer experience hardly affected him because it was so fast, it may be that subsequent health issues obliterated cancer’s harshness, molding its hard edges to a soft memory. He reflects on cancer at age 24: “I didn’t cry or suffer any kind of break-down until a few months after my treatment. One night I was sitting in my living room, watching a commercial about cancer. I lost it. It was the first time I acknowledged this had happened to me.” He went into counseling and started taking anti-depressants until he concluded he didn’t like their effects on him.
The aftermath of cancer has not been kind. But had it not been for his ex-wife, Pablo is quite certain that he would not be where he is today; she was a mainstay in both his cancer and his RPF experiences.
“My life went from ok to horrible. A life full of constant pain just goes downhill. I couldn’t get around. I couldn’t exercise. Then, I had an unfortunate accident in my backyard when I shattered my heal in seven places. Then I really couldn’t get around. My weight ballooned up to 340 pounds. I had weight loss surgery, and lost 150 pounds. I thought that without the excess weight I would eliminate my back issues, but that wasn’t the case.” He hesitates, “I have had a really rough 15 years. Very, very rough.
“But I’m getting better,” his intake of breath resonates. “here is an amazing new woman in my life, and I’m happy. I have my own place. I have nice things, I have a job. I’m calm.” He laughs, “My two younger brothers have more grey hair than I do.”
And then he continues, “Certain things happen in your life that are completely out of your control. The outcome depends on how you handle them. Keep a level head and not worry about things you can’t do anything about.”
Pablo went to high school with CSC director Amanda Buss. They reconnected at a reunion.