Could I Face the Music?

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Face to face with a dreaded possibility, I started to wonder, “Could I go on if the diagnosis was cancer?” The first step would be the initial operation to remove the tumor, then a biopsy to determine whether the growth is benign or malignant. If malignant, the next step would likely be chemotherapy.

This means overcoming two sets of fears. One, could I deal with “going under the knife”? Two, could I deal with the side effects of treatment? Sickness, losing hair, general sluggishness? Paint whatever picture you’d like, though the outcome may eventually be rosy, the path to the light is very dark. Could I do it?

Probably not. In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I am single and I do not have children. Though I have friends, family, and loved ones that I believe might miss me, there is no one that is dependent on me.

To some, stating this opinion is an insult. They remember the loved ones they watched battle a disease and live to enjoy more rich and happy years. People in the medical profession might consider my lack of faith foolish. While I won’t begrudge anyone their opinion, I have to say that the current set of options out there are not to my liking. Sitting in a hospital or treatment facility while pieces of me are tossed into a slop bucket in not the life I want to lead. Watching myself deteriorate while pulling out clumps of hair, all the while being told “it’s for your own good”, is not a pleasant picture.

Thankfully, that is not a question I had to answer. The MRI came back confirming that there was no tumor, my spinal cord is intact, and there is no impingement on any of my nerves. Long story short, I lucked up. It has been a few weeks, and with painkillers and muscle relaxers I am comfortably on the mend.

…or am I?

Related Links:
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Lance Armstrong Foundation Cancer Support

Mortality

Personal 1 Comment »

Ask anyone what conversation they fear most with their doctor. Odds are the word “cancer” will be in the response. Sadly, for doctors, there is no way to utter the word without striking fear into the heart of the patient. “We just want to rule it out. It’s very unlikely that this is anything serious. We have to make sure. It’s almost impossible.” None of these qualifiers lessen the fear-inducing shock that hearing the word “cancer” can induce. I was recently on the receiving end of one such conversation.

On Sunday evening, my neck started to hurt. It did not feel like anything serious, possibly a “crick” in my neck. Maybe I “slept funny”. Perhaps it was just a mild strain, nothing to worry about. By Monday, the pain was a little more intense, but nothing serious. “I’ll get some sort of muscle rub and take a few Advil.” Tuesday afternoon, it was really starting to ache. Wednesday evening, I think I was close to blacking out. I work in the middle of the night on Wednesday and finally decided, “It’ time to go the hospital.”According to my girlfriend, I turned the color of E.T. Though I generally have a cinnamon complexion, an alien hue is not good.

Driving to the hospital, I felt every bump in the road. My discomfort was audible through the hissing of my teeth. Like most people, I dislike doctor visits and loathe hospitals, but seeing the emergency room was like finding a soda machine in a desert. …or so I thought.

Anyone who has been to an emergency room, save gunshot victims or people in severe respiratory distress, would be reluctant to say that they were seen fast enough. Considering the fact that I live in the Bronx, not the largest, but a rather large municipality, I imagined that it would take a little while for me to see a doctor. (Side note: I’m not going to name names.) On duty, in the area of the emergency room that is not behind closed doors, there were two receiving nurses (taking the patient name, ailment, and immediately determining whether the situation is life-threatening), two receptionists (clerical workers that take address and insurance information), two attendants (either doctors or nurses that take blood pressure, temperature, and ask about allergies and pre-existing conditions), and a security guard.

I arrived at 2am. My blood pressure was taken at 3am. I spoke to a receptionist at 4:30am. During the entire time I was there, not one person went behind the closed doors to see a doctor. Not one. At 5:30am, I left.

To be fair, I have no idea what was going on behind the frosted glass. There could have been a terrible accident that had all the physicians jumping from patient to patient behind the scenes. From what I was able to glimpse, this was not the case. I don’t know for sure, so I cannot condemn the institution. Nevertheless, when not one person in the entire emergency room was called in to see a physician for over three hours (and most of the people where there before me), I started to think about the story of the woman who dropped dead in the emergency room without anyone batting an eyelash. I sought attention elsewhere.

At my next hospital, I was seen by an attending profession and registered within a half hour. A doctor was giving me something for pain within the next 45 minutes. All of this during a shift change. This hospital was just down the road from the previous facility. Though not as crowded as the other emergency room, people were being attended to at a faster clip with a smaller staff.

Turns out, I herniated a disc in my neck. How? No one knows. It’s “one of those things.” This was confirmed by the x-ray. After the x-ray results came back, the doctor said he wanted to check me in for an MRI, to “rule out cancer”.

Cancer? What the hell are you talking about cancer? I came in for a neck injury, what’s this cancer you’re talking about?
Don’t worry, you’re a young guy. It’s probably nothing, but since I’ve got you here now, just to be safe, I’d like to do it.

There’s really nothing like hearing these words from a doctor. “Wave of panic”, “go cold”, “stunned disbelief”, are all appropriate, but none quite do the feeling justice.

Before going into an MRI, there are numerous questions to answer. “Have you ever worked with metal? Do you have any implants or pacemakers? Is there any shrapnel in your body? Have you ever gotten metal in your eye?” After waiting for the MRI machine to become available, I was placed in a wheelchair and taken up two floors. Entering the general MRI area, I was left alone to sit and contemplate what was about to happen for around five minutes. After that, it’s MRI time.

For those who have never had an MRI before, there are apparently two kinds, open and closed. I got the closed one. I had to remove any metal or electronic devices from my pockets, including jewelry and belt buckles. After being placed on a slab, ear plugs were put in my ears since the machine is so loud, foam was placed around my head to keep me still, and a mask, not unlike the one Hannibal Lecter wore in Silence of the Lambs was locked over my face to keep me still. The slab rose and put me inside a plastic tube, where I remained for approximately 15 minutes. There is nothing to see, except gray plastic. The only things that were audible were the banging and clanging of the machine and myown breathing. The sound might best be described as a yardstick rhythmically slapping a metal table with an intermittent door buzzer. Already in an extraordinary amount of pain, fearing that I might have a tumor in my neck, and trapped inside what could best be described as a plastic coffin, I was absolutely terrified. Keep in mind, I had a neck injury, so lying back on this piece of hard plastic was excruciating. Until I injured by neck, I never realized how many muscles of the neck are utilizing in getting up and lying down.

Once out of this modern torture device I was wheeled back down to the emergency area to await my results. In agony, frightened, and generally out of sorts, I just sat in my wheelchair and shivered.

During the time in the machine and waiting for the results, all I could think is, “What do I do if this is cancer? What the hell do I do?” I did not replay events from my life. I did not strike bargains with God. I didn’t rip off my clothing and run shrieking through the hallways. I finally understood the phrase “face to face with my own mortality”.

(More tomorrow)