'My cancer diagnosis: What I wish I'd known' – Bill Brutocao

January 8, 2013 | by Roberta Nichols

One in a series of stories asking former patients to reflect upon their experience ...

Soon after beginning treatment for prostate cancer at City of Hope in 2008, La Canada attorney Bill Brutocao received even more disturbing news. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.

Bill Brutocao, a former Hodgkin lymphoma patient Former Hodgkin lymphoma patient Bill Brutocao, second from left, advises cancer patients not to become prima donnas. Cancer is hard on one's family too, he says. He's shown here with, from left, son Angelo, wife Christina, son Giancarlo and Giancarlo’s wife, Laura. (Photo courtesy Bill Brutocao)

Under the supervision of physicians Kevin Chan, M.D., clinical assistant professor of surgery in the Division of Urology and Urologic Oncology and Leslie Popplewell, M.D., clinical associate professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, Brutocao suspended prostate cancer treatment and began enduring 12 rounds of chemotherapy to battle the lymphoma.

En route to treatment one day, Brutocao noticed signs for a creative writing class at the hospital. He was intrigued, but didn’t sign up. Though he thought the process might be therapeutic, he says, “the last thing I wanted to do was write about my illness.”

Yet, as he began to feel better, he reconsidered writing. He tackled a new genre – children’s literature – and wrote “The Basking Shark Rescue Team.”  Arguably, his fanciful characters – Beulah the Basking Shark, Sam the Seagull, Rocky the Otter and Corky the Cormorant – may have rescued their creator from the vortex of illness.

Brutocao, 62, is currently in remission from Hodgkin lymphoma but will require a prostatectomy in February that will be performed by Timothy Wilson, M.D., chief of the Division of Urology and Urologic Oncology at City of Hope and the Pauline and Martin Collins Family Chair in Urology.

Granddaughter Eleanora Granddaughter Eleanora is just one of life's pleasures for former Hodgkin lymphoma patient Bill Brutocao. (Photo courtesy of Bill Brutocao.)

Despite his medical challenges, Brutocao is optimistic about the future. Last August, he became a grandfather for the first time (to baby Eleanora). He might retire later this year but for now he’s working part-time as an attorney and also teaching intellectual property law at the University of La Verne Law School in Ontario. He has continued his saga of the Basking Shark gang (even inventing some new characters) in two more published books, “Rocky and the Great Bird Race”  and “Sancho at the Music Festival.”  And he has two more books in the works.

Compared to what he calls the “esoteric, arcane legal mumbo jumbo” he produces as an intellectual property lawyer, Brutocao finds his children’s books considerably more interesting to write – and read. “You’re only here for a little while,” Brutocao said. “You want to be remembered for something and I’d much rather be remembered as the guy who wrote 'The Basking Shark Rescue Team.'"

We asked Brutocao to look back at the time of his diagnosis and to ask himself what he knows now that he wishes he'd known then. What wisdom, soothing words, practical tips or just old-fashioned advice would he give his newly diagnosed self?

1. It is a cliché, but hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Experience with chemotherapy will vary. You hope your hair does not fall out. Most of my hair did not. I lost a lot of hair around the temples, but otherwise most people could not tell that I lost any hair. I also felt that it was mostly the gray that fell out, so my hair actually seemed darker than it had been. If it had all fallen out, I would not have cared. It grows back.

2. You hope you will not have much nausea, or if truly lucky, none at all. I know some people who say they did not have any significant nausea. I wish that had been my experience. My nausea got worse as time went on. It is of course survivable, and in the big picture, so what if you have some bad nausea along the way? But I recommend that you be prepared to have nausea, and then if it is not too bad, count yourself among the lucky ones. I took to bringing a bucket with me. (Actually, that was my wife’s idea.) It came in handy more than once. Perhaps because they want to downplay the nausea angle, they do not seem to be prepared to catch the vomit when it comes. Thankfully, after the first time when I spilled my guts on the floor, my wife was always ready with the bucket.

3. I was psychologically prepared to lose my hair and to experience nausea, but it came as a shock to me to lose my two big toenails. That was not a side effect of chemotherapy that I had heard about. If I had been prepared for it, I would not have been upset about it when it happened. They eventually grew back too, but they are not one of my good features.

4. Although it is an unpleasant experience, it will pass. You see and know hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who have undergone the same experience. Remind yourself: If they can get through it, so can I.

5. Do not be a prima donna. Treat your spouse and family members with utmost love and respect. It is a life-changing experience for them, too. They are trying to help you through it. They do not have the escape hatch of having cancer. They are constantly alert and on their best behavior, and they feel they cannot do or say anything to upset you. Do not use your condition as an excuse to make their lives any more difficult.

Brutocao provided two other reflections as well ...

6. The most important person in my life then and now is my wife. She was the rock that supported me from day one. You cannot have my wife, but hopefully, you have a spouse, partner, friend or family member you can lean on.

7. By the way, I actually think I am a better person for having gone through the experience. So there may be a silver lining, after all.

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