Heath Saltis: Testicular Cancer

Heath with DorothyI’ve been through testicular cancer, seizures, ulcerative colitis, hyperthyroidism, blod clots. And operations—if anything goes wrong with me, you just take it out. So the motto I come back to is “Don’t worry about something until something happens.”

I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1990, when I was eighteen and I’d just started my music career in Los Angeles. The docs weren’t sure how the cancer had moved around in my body; they just knew it grew way too fast. So I had my testicle extracted. About a month later, I chose to have a full upper lymph node dissection rather than six months of radiation. This was before Lance Armstrong.

I was there for two weeks, the only guy on my floor with hair. It was a brutal surgery.

In all honesty, I think my parents’ divorce during my senior year in high school kicked off all this stuff. I was seventeen, and it was a bad divorce. We lost our house, and when I graduated, I moved to L.A. I chose to do that, but it was also traumatic. There was a breaking point in there. Wham. Eighteen years old and I get sick? There was something dormant in my genetic make-up.

Other issues started popping up. I was doing follow-up in L.A. when I started having seizures. The docs thought my cancer had come back in seizure form, but no one knows. Then I began getting bloody stools, so I moved back to Ohio in ’94, about the time the music industry crashed. It was ulcerative colitis, and I had my colon removed five years ago. During all of this, the docs noticed my thyroid was completely blown out—I had hyperthyroidism. And about ten years ago, I was diagnosed with Factor Five Leiden, a genetic predisposition to blood clotting.

Neither of my parents takes credit for this, by the way. God bless ’em.

When I was recovering from the testicular surgery, my aunt and my grandfather were both dying of cancer. My grandfather was the biggest support for my brother and me when we were young. I have very few life regrets, and one of them is that I never really talked with him. All he wanted was to make sure I was OK and to talk about what we were going through. But I don’t think I understood what was going on with me, and it scared me. That’s always killed me. I can never get that back.

When anyone asks me about my five-year goals, I tell them I don’t know where I’m going to be at the end of this week. My cancer could come back in a heartbeat. I could bleed out tomorrow. I could get a brain tumor.

With my daughter Kate, I was worried our first child might inherit everything I have. Would she be predisposed to cancer? My blood-clotting syndrome’s definitely genetic, but it’s not in my parents. But then you start looking at statistics. Breast cancer’s prevalent in women, period—some genetic and some not. My wife’s side has a history of heart disease. There’s something in every family; you just don’t know.

My wife told me, “You’re not going to pass on this stuff. If you do, we’ll deal with it,” and finally I embraced the best choice I’ve ever made. We’ve been trying now for nine months to have our second child, and there’s not even a discussion. It’s all we want.

When you’ve been through as many health things as I have, you strive for a deeper fulfillment. I’ve been with a biopharmaceutical company for ten years, and I remember interviewing with blood clots. They saw me through my ulcerative colitis and my colostomy, but I also worked my ass off. I worked in the field with an ileostomy bag hanging from my side, and I’ve given back to them tenfold.

But I can’t see myself walking into doctors’ offices with a bag on my shoulder for another ten years. It’d kill the average person. I feel better when I’m productive, but I don’t think my work now is the right kind of productive. I’ve been given so many chances, I have a constant yearning to do something significant. I think that’s what a lot of us feel who go through experiences like this.

I had record deals in L.A., and when I came back to Ohio, I started my own record company and put out two records in ’95 and ’97. I feel at my best when I’m creating something on the piano, so I find time to go to my basement to make a piece of music, to write that song. It’s carving out a piece of happiness.

Heath is a 20-year survivor.

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