How did I find out I had cancer…

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I am a wife and mother to four crazy kids, ranging from the delightful “tween” years, all the way into early adulthood.  We live in a wonderful white farmhouse out in the country, with green fields on one side of us, and beautiful marshland on the other.  I have a great job at my kid’s school, so I get to have all my summer’s off with them.  We spend our time playing board games and “Guitar Hero,” visiting the grandparents cool place up north, or just hanging around the house and doing mindless stuff.  For fun, I like to garden, read books, cook fun foods, and I have a passion for writing.  This was my life, and it was all so lovely and peaceful, until cancer quickly changed everything.

It all started in the fall of 07, when I just couldn’t seem to shake a bunch of strange problems that I was experiencing.  I had started the new year at school, but I kept having weird symptoms that didn’t seem to make sense.  I was so tired all the time; so god-awful tired!  I had a strange, persistent little cough that gradually intensified whenever I spoke too long or took deep breaths.  I had this annoying pain in my back and right shoulder-blade, which intensified as the weeks and months went on.  I would see doctors of all different types, trying to fix “this” strange  symptom, or stop “that” weird ache.  One night, right out of nowhere, I felt a huge lump growing out of the sternum area of my chest.  How long has that been there?  It was about a half an inch or more thick, and a little less than two inches in diameter, so I completely freaked out.  My regular doctor quickly explained this away as an inflammation of my sternum, or in medical speak was called costochondritis.  They always sent me home to rest, or try some remedy that they prescribed, but then another symptom would arise, which would send me back to see a different doctor.  I remember sitting on the sofa with my husband at night and just falling apart, because the pain in my arm was so intense.  I took a lot of over-the-counter pain relievers, which never seemed to help, and I would pack my arm in huge amounts of ice, because it felt a teensy bit better when it was practically frozen.  It was horrible!

Finally, I was referred to a thoracic surgeon, because my regular doctor said she thought I had some kind of “funny looking genetic thing” on an x-ray.  Thankfully, this man started to get the ball rolling, ordering an MRI to be done within two days.  When I met with him to hear the results of the MRI, I still assumed that it was costochronditis, and that it had probably gotten a little worse than it should.  Still, I wasn’t that worried, thinking it wasn’t anything that a serious course of antibiotics couldn’t cure.  I liked this smiling, dark-haired doctor immensely.  We were the same age, we both had four kids, and he seemed like an eternal optimist, like me.  Without a speck of distrust for this kindly doctor, I happily followed him as he urged me out into the hallway, where we could look at the MRI results on his fancy light-box.  With a trusting smile on my face, I looked up at the shiny box on the wall and blankly stared…too stupefied for words…too terrified of what I saw.

The first sign of panic that hit me was the instantaneous pounding of my heart, which felt like it would burst from my chest like a bomb.  My face suddenly felt hot, like it was on fire.  I stood a foot and a half away from the light-box, but I felt like I was experiencing one of those cinematic effects that a director puts in a horror movie.  Even though I didn’t move an inch from where I stood, I felt like the space between me and the light-box grew twenty feet apart.  Everything suddenly seemed so far away from me, and an oppressive black cloud started to close in around my peripheral vision, making me feel like I was in a long tunnel.  Behind me, people were walking to their own doctor’s appointment, completely oblivious to my newly altered universe.  I was aware that the doctor was still talking to me, but I didn’t recognize the language.  He was using his pen to point out interesting parts of my scans, and suddenly I knew without a doubt, “I am going to die from this!”

I have a bit of a medical background, because I had taken some medical transcription classes many years ago.  It was a year-long certificate program that would educate us on abnormalities and conditions that could arise in every system of the body.  We learned that a fish-hook stuck in an eyeball was probably not a good thing, and that “rales, rattles, and rhonchi” were all words that a doctor would use to describe how a heart sounds.  We also learned that huge, ungodly looking masses that grew inside your chest cavity, pushing into the spaces where your lungs and your heart belonged, were definitely not good.  We learned that people definitely needed their lungs to live, along with their heart, and that it would be advisable to not have ungodly looking stuff growing in there!  This was Medical Transcriptionist -101, and students who paid attention in class would have learned this on day four!

To make a long story short, “Amazing Thoracic Surgeon” immediately scheduled a follow-up meeting with my husband, “Just so we can all get on the same page…okay?”  In a complete panic, I went home and relayed every sordid detail to said husband and, like the good man that he is, he calmly told me not to worry, “You panic about everything!  Let’s just see what the doctor has to say!” and then we didn’t talk about it again, until that wonderfully reassuring doctor gave us a few minutes of privacy in his office.  And that was just after ushering my husband out to that infamous hallway of his, where he took us to go look at that pretty little light-box thingy on the wall.

“Completely caught off guard, and blown away!” was how I would later describe my husband’s grasp of the scans, and he isn’t even a trained medical transcriptionist like me.  The surgeon discussed the chances of it being cancer, “probably,” and he laid out the five different kinds that it could possibly be, ranging from some kind of lymphoma, “which will be your best bet” to a more deadly sarcoma, “well…let’s just pray for lymphoma!”  Then he educated us about the treatment plans for the five different options of cancer, and then, being the ever optimistic man that he is, he completely reassured me that he would do whatever it took to keep me alive, and I believed him.

The thing was, I could totally tell that this doctor liked me and my husband.  He said I reminded him of his wife, “She’s the glue that holds my family together!  I could die today and our children would be okay…but if she died…that would not be good!”   That man said a lot of stuff to me that day, although I can’t remember it word for word.  What I do remember hearing, however, was that if he had to hack me apart and piece me back together, in whatever manner that it took so that I could go home to my kids, he was going to do it!

Immediately, we scheduled the biopsy, and I went home to figure out how I was going to break this to my parents, and figure out all the details of my job.  But what was I going to do about our children?  How do you even begin this kind of conversation with your kids?  What do you say, and what do you not say?  It was all too difficult to deal with, so I remember going in my room to be away from them; I couldn’t control the tears and I didn’t want to freak them out.  I had a real problem to deal with, my youngest child.  She’s my precious, anxiety-laden six-year-old daughter, who has this unnatural obsession about me dying on her since she could string a few words together.  This has been her fear since day one, and all I could think about was, “Oh, my god…this is actually going to happen to her!”  Of all my children, this one couldn’t even let me go to the bathroom by myself, or not sleep in my bed with me.  Her dreams were never light and happy, just filled with dread and horror about waking up and finding me gone.  And now, it might actually come to happen to her?  What a cruel and merciless thing to happen to a child.  This would be devastating for all my kids, but she would never recover from it.  I knew it, and my husband knew it, too.  So very quickly on, I made it my personal mission in life to kick this cancer in the ass, so I could pull myself through for her.

About three days after the biopsy, “Amazing Thoracic Surgeon” called me up with the news, “Hey…I’ve got great news!  I knew you couldn’t wait for this…it’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma!”  And we celebrated this amazing miracle, as then he confidently gave me the name of one of his very good doctor friends, which I will call “Hallelujah Hematologist.”

“Thank God,” I think I might have said, or something very similar.  I remember running out of the room and actually laughing for joy.  Then I called my husband at work, and then my parents, “Hey, guess what?  I got the good cancer!” I said, totally overjoyed about it.  They were ecstatic, and there was a lot of happy crying that day, which sounds kind of pathetic when you think about it.  I got the “good” cancer… oh, great!

“Hallelujah Hematologist” was better than the thoracic surgeon, if you can believe it.  From the second that I stepped into his office, which was on a Tuesday, at around 3:00 in the afternoon, his warm smile and his sense of humor made me feel like I was finally in with the right kind of people.  We looked at the MRI scans, and he reviewed all my previous medical notes.  We talked, and I cried a bit, and he reassured me about the process ahead.  Lab tests were ordered, including a bone marrow aspiration that he wanted done immediately, which sent me to the land of tears and fear.

“Um…she’s kind of afraid of that procedure,” my husband stated with one of those goofy-husband smiles, because I had already fallen to pieces in the car about this, on the way to the doctor, “What if I have to have that horrible bone marrow thing?”

The thing about “Hallelujah Hematologist,” (and this is the thing that I love most about him), he doesn’t want me to suffer, AT ALL.  He just wants this horrible journey to go as smoothly as possible, and he doesn’t want to do anything that would scare his patients or their families.  Pleasantly, his nurse came in and took me to a nice little room, where she administered a couple of mind-numbing injections  and then it was done (Well, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure, things just got all “gone” for me!).  We left his office about 7:30 PM that night, which also amazed me.  Were all the other Oncologists like “Hallelujah Hematologist?”  Do they routinely go over their normal business hours, providing this intensive and amazing care to all their patients?  Throughout this intensive ordeal, he made me feel super special, like saving me was the single most important thing that he could possibly be doing in the world that day.  Later on, my husband and I would go over this appointment in great detail with friends and family, still astonished at the outstanding “emotional” care that he gave us that very first day.

A PET scan was ordered for Thursday, although we had a lot of wrangling between our insurance carrier and the clinic (Do not get me started on insurance companies, I could write about them for years!), and I began my first chemo that Friday.  The plan was that I would come in every other Friday, and it would take about six months total, my doctor estimated, with a helpful course of radiation at the end of it, “We want to make sure it’s good and gone!”

After half a year of dealing with weird symptoms and all the wrong diagnoses, I finally started on the right path to my recovery in February of 08.  It wasn’t easy, and it only gets worse the longer that it goes on, but by Thanksgiving, I was feeling pretty good.  I was finally done with all my treatments.  I could eat food for the first time, in a very long time, where I didn’t have to throw it up, or not enjoy the taste of it, or where I could actually swallow it (radiation was such a total drag!).  By Christmas, I had fuzz growing on my head again.  I was tired and completely wore out, but I was alive.  I still have a little ways to go before I pass the 5-year anniversary mark, which in our cool posse of cancer survivors is “super cool,” and a “really big thing!”  To celebrate, I plan on going out for a major romantic dinner with my husband!

So far, all is still going amazing!  My health is good, although I don’t take it for granted like I used to.    I eat as healthy as I can, and I do a lot of “mumbo-jumbo” alternative stuff that I think really works.  I see my “Hallelujah Hematologist” two times a year now, and the last time I saw him, I came home and told my husband, “I am totally in love with that man!”  My husband doesn’t mind…because he is, too!

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