Roller Coaster

My recent hospitalization was the longest and most volatile, resembling that of a roller coaster ride at an amusement park. What started with a fever prompting our arrival at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s (MSKCC’s) urgent care facility in New York last Thursday evening ended up escalating to a brief visit to the intensive care unit (ICU) as detailed in my prior post.

The isolated cardiac event appears managed by medication (metoprolol) and hasn’t reappeared. However, despite numerous blood cultures, chest x-rays, CT scans, and other diagnostics, the cause of my fever – the original reason for my hospital visit – remains a mystery.

After an infectious disease consult, bacterial infection was ruled out as the likely source of the fever and I was taken off the broad-spectrum antibiotics that were being delivered via intravenous infusion. Some of the cultures take time to process, so there is always a chance that something will materialize in the coming days.

One silver lining amidst the tight turns, steep slopes, and inversions on my roller coaster ride was the fact that my left lung appeared much improved in terms of fluid accumulation. This coincided with almost zero drainage from my two chest tubes over the past week or so and it was determined that removing both of them was in my best interest since they weren’t serving any functional purpose and there is always a risk of infection in having two foreign objects in the body.

Insertion of the two chest tubes (one while at the National Institutes of Health and the other at MSKCC) was done under twilight anesthesia, where I was awake but sedated. This is accomplished via administration of a concoction of agents including a benzodiazepine (midazolam) and the narcotic fentanyl. For both procedures, I had little if any discomfort.

Naturally, I expected that removal of the chest tubes would also be done under twilight anesthesia. Much to my chagrin, I was informed that the extraction procedure is normally done bedside and without anesthesia. Two medical professionals arrived at my room at MSKCC and provided a reasonable explanation for the lack of lidocaine or other local anesthesia (the injections would hurt more than the extraction, several would be needed to cover the entire area, and risk that the tubes could be punctured via the needles).

Ever since their initial placement, I’ve been anxious when cleaning or touching the plastic tubes that protruded from the front of my left chest. There was just something unnerving about seeing the foreign tubes that looked like they would be better suited on a Borg, a fictional alien group that appeared in the Star Trek franchise.

Michael Becker having two chest tubes removed at bedside.

As such, you can imagine my surprise as one of the medical professionals from interventional radiology wrapped the first tube around her hand and proceeded to yank it with the same intensity as trying to start a lawn mower by pulling the cord. To be fair, the pain wasn’t terrible and this was one of those situations where speed was definitely better than dragging it out. Nonetheless, I was shocked by the experience and now had an idea what extraction of the second tube would be like.


The first tube was easy by comparison, as it was only placed a short while ago. The second extraction was more difficult as that tube was in place for 4-months and had grown quite attached to me. The first attempt yielded little, if any, movement from the tube. Fortunately, the second try was successful and I am now “tube free.” The tips of both tubes were cut and sent to be cultured in case either was the source of infection that was causing my fevers.

There are plenty of other possibilities to explain my fevers, including the tumors, blood clots, and others. For now, the plan is to carefully monitor my temperature and hope that it continues to respond to Tylenol®. If not, we’ll be back at the hospital.

In view of the current situation, my medical oncologist (Dr. Pfister) appropriately held back on this week’s cycle of chemotherapy to be safe. Encouragingly, the CT scan used to look for pneumonia and other potential reasons for the fever provided a sneak peek of how the tumors responded to the first three weeks of chemotherapy and almost all of them showed decreases in size. This is definitely better than having the tumors grow or stay the same size, but likely doesn’t change the “terminal” nature of my disease. It does, however, hopefully buy me some more time.

It’s great to be back home and I cannot wait to see my daughters and the petting zoo…especially Humphrey! And words cannot begin to express our family’s gratitude for all of the many people that helped out while we were at MSKCC the past 5-days.


11 thoughts on “Roller Coaster

  1. I very mcuh appreciate your continued sense of humor as you wrote today’s blog. That will keep you going for a log time. When I was have chemo for my cancer I also had a fever of unknown origin. A low grade fever that lasted a long time. I had every blood test under the sun – nothing was found. I was put on anti-fungals and antibiotics and kept in isolation. Nothing worked. Finally my niece, a very smart AI doc, said to look for blood clots in the leg. Voila! There were clots my lower leg. They were treated and the fever went away. Hope this helps.

    Forever your friend,

    • Thank you, Jordan. I did have an IVC filter put in to prevent blood clots from reaching my lungs/heart. I cannot take anti-coagulants. They did scan for additional clots in my lower extremities but nothing turned up.

  2. Your blog inspires all the head, neck,and throat cancer survivors. And, the information you provide is more enlightening than reading JAMA.

  3. I am heading to NIH from Phoenix this coming Tuesday to try to get into the M7824 Trap study. I have Stage4B cervical cancer caused by HPV type 16. I searched the entire web to try and find a blog about someone’s experience doing a clinical trial. I found nothing. I finally located your blog by doing a Google search for M7824. I am a lawyer and have read everything I can find on clinical studies and nothing has been as informative and helpful as your blog. Thank you thank you for taking the time to do this!

    • Hi Kim: Sending good thoughts and mega positive energy your way!! Love Phoenix. Wish you the best!!

      Brenda, RN Paralegal

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Kim. I’m glad you came across my blog and that it was helpful in your quest for information about M7824. The folks at NIH are amazing. Best wishes!

  4. Thank you for the update, Michael. Glad to know you’re home. Dog bless Humphrey…that little sweetie. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

  5. I have been checking for one of your blog posts all day and was just rewarded! YES to more time!!! Thank goodness Lorie mentioned not speaking about hospice. Don’t give up Michael. Laurie Ann may be a great surrogate, but Humphrey still needs you😊

  6. Chest tube free at last! And tumors shrinking with chemo. Both great signs. Still seeing a really positive surprise ahead for you that brings you closer to spiking the football and doing the winner dance. You have a lot on your side. Sibling is fighting this exact SCC H/N too, so this blog helps me figure out how to be supportive. So far, things are really going well here, after being quite tough. Seems like you are one decision away from a huge change in your status and more certainity that you will win. You are so inspiring and have so many gifts. Keep your head in focusing on living a great life. A lot of your success is not due to science, but to you and your family’s emotionally strong stance to win this in the end. Will be interested to see your moves in the winning dance of victory….bet Humphrey can join you in jumping around in total joy.

  7. Michael-

    In the fall of 2009, my husband was diagnosed with late stage IV HPV/oral cancer that had also spread to lymphs. His is a “Story” similar to yours in some ways and very different in others. He had not a single cavity, nor ever a hospital stay at discovery. Needless to say 8 years later we feel we are healthcare professionals…..for the good or bad of it all. Our daughters at the time of discovery were ages 3,7,and8. We chose a different treatment path and perhaps find ourselves in a different place of “success”. After reading your article in The Inquirer Healthcare section I have been thinking of reaching out to you and your family for a connection and some feedback on experience and outlook. I do not want to intrude on valuable family time, but would so appreciate you contacting me if you or your wife may have time. Thank you for being so brave to share your story.

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