Memoriam Warriors

Thirty-yr-old Jason Hillstrom was told he was lucky, he has the best kind of cancer you can have. He was lucky enough to be diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. They were kind of lucky in how they found the cancer as well. He was just in the right place at just the right time to be rear ended at a stop light by a guy who fell asleep going 55mph, while Jason’s car was stopped. That is a whole other story but it is how he started seeing the doctors. It was July 4th, 2015.

He went in to the doc’s for a follow up and to be referred to the osteopath to get an adjustment. He explained that he had been having night sweats very regularly, his skin was itchier than he can ever remember, and he had a wound on the top of his head that would not heal. He had experienced some significant chest pain as well but he guessed he was downplaying the symptoms just thinking it was cramping. He had been drinking a lot as well so the other symptoms were associated with that habit as well.

The most significant symptom he had was difficulty breathing, especially if he was lying on his back. It felt like his lung was full of fluid and he could not hack it out so he would just cough and cough. He had to sleep on one side so he could breathe. He thought this was related to seasonal allergies and his history of Bronchitis. He had asked for and gotten his medicine to fix that problem but it wasn’t working. He scheduled again to see the osteopath thinking maybe there was pressure from a bone that was out of alignment.

Again he went in, explained he was having incredible night sweats, that his skin itched, he had this spot that wouldn’t heal, and he couldn’t breathe. Jason asked if something like a bone out of place was putting pressure on his lung. They said that was not possible but based on my breathing and wheezing they ordered an X-ray to see if he had a blood clot.

Immediately, he went to the hospital and got an X-ray. The X-ray tech told him there was something wrong and they needed to call his doc to see what to do next. He asked to see the X-ray and it looked like his whole left side was cloudy instead of the distinct black backroad in contrast with the white bone. Even though techs are not supposed to give advice, this woman was kind enough to tell him it looked like his lung had almost collapsed or that he had a really bad case of pneumonia. Still to this point the thought that he had cancer had not even remotely crossed his mind. The doctor sent an order for him to get a CAT scan, so he waited in a different room for a little while. He wasn’t too worried, he was just glad they were doing something and finding a problem to solve. The CAT scan was easy and uneventful. This was a Wednesday and he asked when he would hear from them to find out what to do next. She said probably by Friday he would know and he left. Jason hadn’t been feeling good for a long time but again he blamed that on all the hours I was working, all the booze he had been drinking, and all the stress he was under with legal and financial problems. He went home to relax after a long day with doctors.

He got home and relaxed for about an hour and then his stress kicked in again and he told himself he needed to get up and go do something. He was looking for new jobs because he hated the wine bar he was serving/bartending at and he couldn’t do his landscaping job because of his accident. So Jason put on his suit and went to the office supply store and printed out some more nice resumes and went back to hitting the streets. He met briefly with a couple assistant managers, gave them his resume, got cards, did the drill. He ended up at this casual country steakhouse called the board room and asked to see the manager. He was told they would be back in about a half hour so he took advantage of the time to sit and drink water and watch TV because he’s still feeling like shit.

Then his phone rang from an unknown number and of course he was excited. Yes! A callback already! He came to find out it was his doctor telling him that he needed to get to Swedish Hospital as fast as he could as they had a bed reserved for him because there was a mass in his chest that measured 17.5 cm by 10.5 cm and it looked like lymphoma but they needed to do a bunch of tests. He was floored! All he could think to say was, “are you sure you didn’t screw up?” Obviously she said no and instructed him to go to the hospital. Jason went to the liquor store.

He left the restaurant and sat in his car before he went to the liquor store and made one of the hardest calls he had ever made. It had been a bad couple weeks for him as far as missing out on job opportunities and losing his brand new car so he was already a little depressed and the people around him were kind of used to hearing bad news from me. He called his mom and tried to tell her and he remembers hardly being able to speak. He was just barely starting to cry and was silent. He remembers her being like what it is now and he pulled his shit together took a deep breath and told her he has cancer and he needs a ride to the hospital. She was shocked obviously, but they met at his house and he had a couple beers to help digest this whole situation and off they went to check in at Swedish.

The next few days were filled with tests and the doctors kept saying, “based on what we know it looks like Lymphoma”. He kept asking “is there a chance you messed this all up and you’re wrong?” because he was in denial. To their credit they did admit that was a possibility, albeit a very small one. The news finally got back to them after the tests and it turns out he has the best cancer you can get, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma! His family wanted to use the same oncologist that his grandfather had gotten along really well with and had success so they set up treatment through his clinic. He was told the treatment has become pretty standard and very successful so he got started. After hearing how curable it is and how fortunate he was, he responded emotionally by being very angry. Like this was just another pain in the ass that is making it so hard for him to reach his small building block goals to get his big boy life started. He regretted not being more responsive to the sperm banking suggestions because now he might be screwed. He did try to provide a sample after he got diagnosed the second time, but it isn’t ideal considering all that his body has been through in the last year, but it is something to work with if all else fails. He went through four ABVD courses and a month of radiation. He responded really well to treatment as far as the cancer stopped growing but the side effects of the treatments took a toll on him.

Emotionally, he was a wreck and made some more bad decisions and got himself put in jail so he did the majority of his chemo going to and from the jail to the hospital. The sheriff’s department has a policy that states he is not allowed to know when any of his appointments are so they skipped a month of chemo and then went on what they can call not an ideal schedule. He hopes this hiccup is the reason for his relapse and his doctor said that timing is very important so it could have played a significant role in reducing the efficacy of his treatment.

Several months went by, he was working, finally on the last of his meds, goddamn prednisone, for about two months and he could feel his strength coming back, He had some money saved up and a place to move to right next to a job he was making decent money at and enjoyed. He felt like he was just about to get back on his feet again completing his small goals to get to a more independent, self-sufficient spot in my life. He was feeling good.

Time for his six month PET scan, these make him nervous as hell but he liked doing it to know what was going on inside of him. He remembers being at the doctor’s office with a heartrate of like 150bpm but he kept telling himself all of the numbers and that he should be fine. This was again a Wednesday, the one right before Thanksgiving and his doc says he didn’t have the best Thanksgiving news for him, unfortunately they found a very small hotspot and they were going to start him on Brentuximab and see about getting this biopsied. Because of the holiday and because of how close to his heart the tumor was it took a couple weeks to get the surgery scheduled. He had to have what’s called VATS done. Video assisted thoracoscopic surgery. The surgeon did a great job and removed all of the mass he could find as well as drained about 700ccs of fluid that had been pressing on his lung. The openness he felt in his chest right away was amazing but the biopsy came back positive for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma again. The one thing the surgeon did mess up a bit was he said he would be able to work as a server/bartender and this was not at all true so he had to quit his job and just sit and wait for the next course of treatment. The waiting was the hardest part!

Stem cell transplant was Jason’s next option and the team of people at CBCI made sure to let him know how serious this whole process was and it scared the shit out of him so he got to sit and wait in fear for about three months while they got everything in order. He was doing the Brentuximab as a maintenance chemo until transplant. He was told that it is not that bad but it really wiped me out. Those couple months before were really hard!

He finally started to feel better once they got all his workup testing going and prepping for harvest just because they were finally doing something proactive. After the ball got moving the time and process seemed to go by rather quickly. They did the chemos and they were not that bad at first. The people were great, the food was good, and although he couldn’t leave the floor he was not in jail and I had access to docs, nurses, and most important…MEDICINE. Chemo without meds is a total bitch.

They infused the stem cells and he responded very well apart from some engraftment fever and rash. As he sat there typing on his last night in the hospital after a 25 day stay that flew by, apart from the ten days that his mouth felt like was butchered with a rusty spoon, but all in all he feels better than he did right before he came into the hospital and he is filled with excitement to really begin healing and move on from this two year misery. He wilI have some follow up preventative maintenance that is 12 more rounds of Brentuximab but he hopes in a year he should be off all these drugs and healthier than he was when he started!

Jason’s Life List:

  1. Summer Family Fishing Trip
  2. SkyDiving with a friend
  3. Watch a SNL taping/day in New York
  4. 4 tickets to a Broncos Game or any other Colorado professional team (Rockies, AVS)
  5. Gift Cards to local Farm to Table share with friends (Humboldt)
  6. Meet Andrew McMahon and attend a show