Daily Archives: September 13, 2009

Hearing the words “you have cancer “

In April of 2005, when my pneumonia persisted despite three weeks of antibiotics, I was finally given a CT scan.  The scan suggested the possibility of a more ominous diagnosis:  if the mass in my left lower lobe wasn’t pneumonia or perhaps a fungal infection, than it could be lung cancer.  I was admitted to a local hospital, where I was placed in a room with three other patients.  I was given antibiotics intravenously as we awaited a biopsy.

This was a hellish time for me.  I was scared, one of the women in the room appeared to be dying, and the woman in the bed directly next to mine was a histrionic who had been admitted to the hospital with an asthma attack.  She commanded, and got, a lot of attention.  I put on my iPod and tried to drown out the sound of three different televisions.  By the third day, I was finally moved to my own room and so at least I had some peace and privacy again (well, as much as is ever possible in a hospital).

On day four, I was wheeled to the surgical wing where a needle biopsy would be performed.  The patient directly in front of me was handcuffed to his wheelchair and accompanied by a police officer.  I didn’t pose a flight risk, but was advised not to speak and to hold very still both during the procedure and for several hours afterward, as there was the possibility of a lung collapse as a result of the needle puncturing my lung.  I was given a partial sedative and a black dot was tattooed on my back directly above the suspicious mass.  A needle was inserted into the dot and a small amount of material removed for the biopsy.  In the recovery room, the surgeon told my husband and me that he felt this was a fungus, as it was a very atypical presentation for lung cancer.

In spite of my efforts to remain still, my lung partially collapsed.  An IV in my arm clogged as well, and my forearm ballooned up.  Even given the minor complications, I felt pretty calm.  I think I was just so sure that I didn’t have lung cancer. Statistically, a diagnosis of lung cancer at the age of 45, having never smoked, was highly unlikely.  I clung to that statistical improbability like the lifeline I hoped it was.

The results were to be available by the following morning.  My doctor came by on her early rounds, but my husband was not at the hospital yet.  She passed the time until he got there talking about her daughter’s role in a play at school.  I remember her describing sunflowers as part of the stage scenery, and how the motif had something to do with hope.

And then David was at the hospital and the next thing I knew she was saying to me those very words none of us ever wants to hear:  “I’m sorry, but you have cancer”.

A moment earlier I might have been in a plane;  perhaps flying over a field of sunflowers.  But then, suddenly, the plane began to hurtle toward the ground.  I struggled for composure even as fear and intense nausea overwhelmed me.  It felt like a dream, a very bad dream.  And in truth, the nightmare was only just beginning.