“It’s not cancer.”
These words are spoken to me by my (very) handsome surgeon as I’m still emerging from an anesthesia haze in the recovery room after emergency surgery.
“Okay… That’s good,” I say, never really thinking that it was going to be. This was a bit of an anomaly for me because I always assumed that anytime I felt something unusual going on in my body that I did indeed have cancer, but for some reason this time it hadn’t crossed my mind.
Several months ago after experiencing some intense stomach pain I went to my PCP who thumped on my distended abdomen for less than 30-seconds, told me to go buy some laxative and sent me on my way. Five hours later I found myself in an emergency room where after a Cat Scan I was descended upon by two medical staff, had a tube jammed down my nose and into my stomach and was told that essentially, something was strangling my small intestine and I needed to be admitted.
Other than having my daughter sixteen years ago I had never been hospitalized for anything and everything happened so quickly that it was hard to process the flurry of activity– the IVs, the vitals being taken every four hours, the administering of medication and the monitoring of the stuff that nobody should ever have to see that was being extracted from my stomach via the tube. I vomited repeatedly, something I haven’t done in 27 YEARS and that was more traumatic than any other part of this frenzied scenario.
I became this pliable mass, being formed and shaped into machines, onto cold metal slabs of tables where robotic-like arms took more 360-degree images of my abdomen. I just did what I was told– let them attach stuff to me, insert more unknown liquids into my IV and accepted the Ativan that was offered to me every once in a while. I’ve never felt more at the mercy of anything in my life. It was the ultimate of relinquishing control.
I was naïve enough the next morning to ask during the 6:00 am rounds if I would be able to go home that day. The doctor and surgeon, without having to say the words, basically let me know that that wouldn’t be happening. When I begged to have the tube removed just for a little while, and immediately vomited rather violently the surgeon dashed out of the room and came back within ten minutes to tell me that he had put me on the schedule for surgery the following morning. So, clearly, I wasn’t going home any time soon.
The surgeon presented a few different scenarios but never once mentioned cancer, and neither did I. The procedure went off without a hitch, taking less than 45-minutes from beginning to end. An errant band of tissue left over from laparoscopic day surgery in my twenties was causing a blockage and apparently with just one or two snips, the problem was solved and I was released the following day.
Ten days later at my follow-up with the surgeon I reminded him of those first words he said to me in the recovery room.
“I think I said it more for myself,” he said.
“Why, did you really think you were going to find cancer?” I asked.
He hesitated before saying, “Yes. I thought it was a good possibility.”
As part of their jobs doctors have to keep their patients from panicking. If he had told me of his suspicions before the surgery I would have completely crumbled. I didn’t blame him for being honest with me but for the rest of that day I was thrown off, questioning my mortality, so when about 3 weeks later, there were some unusual things going on with my entire digestive system I was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this time, I indeed had cancer.
I Googled every symptom I had, endless amounts of time a day, and the top three were all signs of cancer. I scoured copies of my x-rays and Cat Scan results from the days in the hospital, using the internet as my medical dictionary. No matter how many times I read the words “normal” and “unremarkabIe” I was still convinced that my surgeon had missed something, that malignant cells were somehow hiding in the places that weren’t visible during surgery. Based on the things I read I staged my own cancer and read articles on how to tell my teenager that I was going to die. I did this for three weeks, the earliest I’d be able to see a doctor to get seen.
I didn’t and don’t have cancer. After I saw my doctor and he confirmed it for me, my symptoms immediately disappeared, but the relentless reminder of my age and mortality has stayed with me. I’m 53 and other than needing to lose about 15 pounds, I’m in perfect health. As I age, cancer will always be a possibility and I know myself well enough that I won’t stop Googling every strange and new symptom that comes along, and that I will always pray to hear the words, “It’s not cancer.”