Rick’s Story: “I was spared to help save others.”

A seemingly insignificant black speck in his urine during a routine bathroom break turned out to be a signal of a profound change in Rick Bulifant’s life. What started as a tiny anomaly led him down a path of medical appointments, a daunting diagnosis, and eventually, a life-saving surgery. This is Rick’s story of his unexpected journey with bladder cancer and how early detection, support, and advocacy became pivotal in not only saving his life but also shaping his mission to help others:

My story started in May of 2012. One day I was pausing for a quick bathroom break at the office. As I looked down, floating in the sea of yellow was a lone black speck about the size of a flake of pepper. I thought nothing of it as I figured it must be some debris that had probably fallen off my jacket. I went about my business and didn’t think any more of it. A few days later, I was using the bathroom at the office again and looked down to see another lone black speck floating in that sea of yellow. Upon closer observation, it was red. This stopped me in my tracks.

After that, I kept checking my urine. I did not see them every day, and never more than one. I would go three maybe four days and only see one.

A week or two passed and I kept seeing the speck. I had that voice in the back of my head telling me to get it checked out. It was weighing on me. I did not tell my wife about it either. We are best friends and tell each other everything. Since I was 55 at the time, I decided to go to my primary care physician and get a checkup.

The doctor reviewed all of the tests and said I was perfectly fit. He told me to keep my eye on the foreign matter in my urine. In case they continued, he gave me a referral for a urologist and a dermatologist as well. He also said it could be that I was passing a kidney stone.

A couple more weeks passed, and the specks kept appearing. By this time, I had told my wife, Amanda, about what was going on. I set up both doctor’s appointments. The dermatologist was the first to be able to see me, but it was nothing alarming.

Two days later, I went to see Dr. Seabury at VA Urology and I told him all the facts as I knew them. He said it could be one of five different things, something as easy as passing a kidney stone, and in the worst-case scenario, it could be a symptom of some form of cancer. He gave me another blood and urine test. I went back to see Dr. Seabury one week later for the results of the initial tests. All looked good and he recommended a CT scan, so we set that up for the following week.

I went back the following week for the results of the CT scan. The doctor came in and told me that all my organs looked pretty good except that there was a “fuzzy spot down at the bottom of my bladder.” I must have had a befuddled look on my face because then he tried to draw me a picture of it. He finally took me into his office to see the scan results on his computer. He pointed out all my organs and just like he drew it, a fuzzy spot down at the bottom of my bladder. He said, “That should not be there, and we need to get it out of there.” My brain was somewhere else. I just said, “Ok, you know what’s best.” So, we set up an outpatient surgery the following Thursday, August 9, 2012.

My wife took me for a cystoscopy and we scheduled a follow-up a week later to make sure that I was ok.

At the follow-up appointment, my wife and I were laughing and joking about something while waiting for Dr. Seabury to join us. He walked in carrying a stack of papers that he laid on the conference room table. He immediately said, “I am not going to beat around the bush about this. What you have is an aggressive form of cancer that has roots, and those roots are growing on the inside wall of your bladder. We need to remove your bladder.” I looked over at my wife and she had tears streaming down both cheeks. Dr. Seabury explained that with the location of the fuzzy spot, he did not recommend other treatments or less invasive surgery. He recommended taking out my bladder and either having a stoma and carrying a bag, or he said we could put in a neobladder.

I had never heard of a neobladder, so I was a bit perplexed. He explained that once the old bladder was out, they could make a new one out of my intestines. It did not take me long to choose which of the two options I wanted. I like to body surf with my two sons in the Nags Head, NC waves so neobladder it was.

We decided to continue on our plan for a vacation knowing that I had cancer in my body. The weird thing is, I did not hurt and had no outward signs or symptoms. We went on vacation and that allowed us to come to terms with what was coming up. It was a time for inner perspective. A time to think about what life is all about. What was my purpose in life? Had I left my footprint anywhere? My life had mostly been about work and seeing how I could take care of many people at once. Vacation ended and we returned home and back to work we went. Every day I would ask myself, “Why me?” Had I really done that much bad throughout my life, and this was going to be my punishment?

The day came to meet with the other specialist, Dr. Franks, so both Amanda and I went, armed with her smartphone full of questions. Dr. Franks came in and introduced himself and described what he would be doing and then asked if we had any questions. Amanda pulled out her phone and asked the series of questions that we had come up with. An hour or so later, Dr. Franks looked over at me and asked me if I had any questions. I looked down thinking for a moment and then looked up and said, “Dr. Franks, it’s been pretty much common knowledge since I was in college that I am rather fond of 12 oz. beverages but only have an 8 oz. bladder. Do you think you can make my new one a little bit bigger?” He grinned and said, “We will see what we can do.” The surgery was scheduled for Tuesday, September 11, 2012.

After the meeting with Dr. Franks, we began to tell our family members. We started with my mom, then my two sons, and then my dad. I purposely gave them the sugar-coated version of what surgery I was going to have and did not use the dreaded “c” word. I also told work and my extended camping family at Rockahock. I never knew that I had so many people pulling and praying for me. I am still humbled by that. I also had five or six churches praying for me. I needed all of them, especially my home church.

The day of my surgery arrived and I decided not to be depressed or mope about it. I went in smiling, laughing, and joking. I was not afraid or scared. I am not the same guy I was before the surgery. I think I got a do-over and I take advantage of it.

The doctor had planned to take out some lymph nodes, depending on what he saw. If he saw cancer in the first layer, he would take out two. If he saw it on two layers, then he would take out all three. Incredibly, he took none. We were on pins and needles until we heard him read the pathology report a couple of weeks later. Eighteen areas were tested, and eighteen areas were clear of cancer.

My hospital stay after surgery was a learning experience. My wife stayed with me the entire time and was my rock through it all. She continued with great care even after I got home.

Teaching myself how to work the neobladder was a slow process. The new one had to heal first and once it did, we had to test it to remove all the bypass hardware. My new bladder was ready for use. After five and a half weeks of recovery time, I went back to work. “Slow and easy and don’t do anything stupid” was my motto. I had set small goals during my recovery time.

I was spared to help save others. We forget that early detection can save us. I tell my story to anyone who will listen and it’s amazing the stories that I hear in response. I’m vocal about bladder cancer. I honestly had never heard of bladder cancer until I had it. But there I was lying in the hospital bed a few days after surgery watching the 6:30 national news and Brian Williams announced that we lost 1960’s crooner, Andy Williams, singer of Moon River, to bladder cancer.

I was visiting my campground about six weeks after surgery and was telling my story to some people, one of whom is my next-door neighbor. He came up to me and said, “Rick I want to thank you!” I asked him, “What for?” He then told me that he wanted to thank me for telling him my story. He started having some of the same symptoms three to four weeks after I told him my story, so he remembered what I said and went to his doctor. His doctor dismissed it as probably just passing kidney stones. He still remembered my story and asked for a referral to a urologist. He went to the urologist who tested him and determined that he did have bladder cancer. Since he caught it early, he only needed outpatient surgery and periodic testing and monitoring.

During the early part of my journey, my wife and I knew nothing about bladder cancer. Dr. Franks told us about BCAN. BCAN was instrumental for information, especially the early Inspire. Since then, I have been able to be a bladder cancer advocate with BCAN at Hill Day. We all were actively trying to get Congress to recognize bladder cancer and hopefully steer more money for research. We have also represented BCAN locally at health fairs and other groups.

I have been participating in the BCAN Richmond Walks since 2013. We have hosted the Richmond Walk since 2016. We have successfully raised awareness and funds with my Rick’s Highsteppers Team and other participants and teams. I have met so many people along my bladder cancer journey, some with not good outcomes. That is why I do this, to be a voice for the voice’s bladder cancer has taken away. Together, we are going to beat this beast. 

God is great. I know that he has a plan and purpose for me. I just didn’t know it before. So much has happened over the last year. I am blessed and as Big Daddy Weave says, “I am redeemed.”