Chapter 1 Diagnosis
I had always hated doctors’ offices, but on this Monday morning I would finally be given the justification for those old feelings. After six months of unsuccessful treatment by my family practitioner, I had been referred to an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat specialist) for a persistent sinus infection. I was sitting on the exam table in an unusually posh exam room. I figured that someone had to pay for this nice office space. That someone is about to be me, I laughed to myself. The surgeon was across the room at the counter dictating some notes into my chart. She seemed happy after satisfying herself that I was an excellent candidate for her surgical services.
Just then, for no reason known to me, I felt the side of my neck.
“What do you make of these bumps,” I asked.
She whirled around and hit the stop button on her tape recorder. The clicking sound was too loud, too deliberate. The doctor approached me immediately, almost running. She had a look on her face like I was now the dead, still talking. As she felt the nodules on the side of my neck, her mood turned somber in a way that made me feel completely alone. I was so scared that I sat there not registering my own existence. After what seemed like 7 hours, but in reality was only 7 seconds, she said, “You’re gonna need to have biopsy surgery tomorrow morning. We need to rule out lymphoma.”
In my head, I heard a screeching needle sliding across an old, vinyl record and it drowned out her last words to me. “I’m sorry, did… you just say I have… CANCER!?”
I’m not sure how I managed to make the 45-minute drive home because I had no recollection of the trip. No stop lights, no traffic, no speed limits, and no pedestrians. As I sat my wife, Sara, down on the couch I could see immense fear in her normally jovial green eyes. I bluntly spit out the news so as not to prolong her suffering. “I have to have a biopsy done in the morning. She thinks I might have cancer.”
Sara paused for merely a second, leaned into me and we hugged like never before. She held me so tight to her chest that I had to breathe opposite of her just to have room to inhale and exhale. I was amazed by how quickly she rebounded from the news. At least on the outside. She straightened up, manufactured a smile and said, “Well, we don’t know anything yet. Let’s wait till we know for sure what it is. It might be nothing.” I agreed with her …in principle, but I was a long way from all right.
If you’ve never had surgery before, you will learn that it is a much-disciplined chaos. The pre-surgery instruction phone call is very clear. “You are scheduled for surgery at 9 a.m. Nothing to eat or drink after midnight the night before. Be at registration by 7 a.m. Wear comfortable clothing.” You know why they want you to wear comfortable clothing? Cause you’re gonna be sittin’ around and doin’ a whole lot of waitin’. It’s a closely held secret that the more surgeries that are scheduled before you, the more the Operating Room is behind schedule. If you happen to be unlucky and get a 1 p.m. surgery time, you better bring two books. In every surgical waiting room there needs to be a sign that reads: “Expect this to take longer than you’re expecting, even if you’re expecting it to take longer than you expect.”
Around 10:30 a.m. the pre-op nurses finally started wheeling me down the labyrinth of hallways to the O.R. Once inside, the staff moved with the precision of Jeff Gordon’s pit crew. I was quickly transferred from my gurney to center stage on the O.R. table. Two things struck me that I can never forget. 1) How unbelievably cold it is in an O.R. 2) How incredibly comforting the microwaved blankets that the nurses cover you with feel.
As show time approached, the anesthesiologist made some lame joke that the nurses laughed at out of trained obligation. He took pride in their coerced laughter. Not being able to shut off my quick wit, even in this situation, I one-upped him and caused a spontaneous roar in the O.R. Clearly wounded by my instant popularity, he leaned into me and began to push the anesthesia medication into my IV. He smiled a shit-eating grin of victory as he played his trump card. “Keep your day job,” he whispered, and everything went black.
One of the observations that I made throughout my days as a cancer patient is that most people have no idea how to treat you when they hear you have cancer. I think that they must assume you’re dying and that makes them very uncomfortable. They’re probably struggling with their own mortality. They fidget and look away as they talk to you. They offer their heart felt sympathy but you can tell in their head they’re saying things like, “Did that sound sincere enough? I hope he can’t tell how uncomfortable I am. Why didn’t anyone warn me about this before I ran into him? My God I hope he changes the topic soon.”
What’s even more noticeable than people’s uncomfortablness with cancer is that most people have questions they want to ask, but they are afraid to, so they don’t. It’s like they think that you may be embarrassed about your disease and they shouldn’t ask what they really want to know.
And without a doubt, there is one thing that people you run into, who know you have cancer, do more often than anything else. They lean in towards you, put their hand on your arm or shoulder, and say in a very slow and deliberate manner, “How…arrrrrre…you?” I now just have my own fun with them. My favorite response is, “Well, would you like the small-talk answer or the whole-truth-so-help-me-God one?” Then I quickly follow that up with a big reassuring smile and a, “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”