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.

2 responses to “Hearing the words “you have cancer “

  1. Linnea: Your dramatic colourful history is good for a movie scrip. Mine is so plain and crude.

    Returning from Europe in 2005 coughing blood I made a doctor appointment that was cancelled by me after coughing stopped and reappointed latter when blood spiting restarted.
    My doctor send me for and X-ray and seeing the results he toll me “you have lung cancer”.

    I could have said Now tell me the bad news or If this is true then you were wrong mistreating me for a couple of years for upper back pain and stomach reflux, instead I toll my wife that went into shock, anxiety and denial. I never smoked and was good at snorkelling and diving.

    I got in an Iressa trial for one month followed by CT scan and biopsy. They toll me that the analysis was going to be when I was on the table, If they found cancer they will do an immediate second biopsy. I watched doing it again! I asked for the results and was told that my oncologist will tell me in my next appointment… I said I know the result, you did the second biopsy, so is a cancer tumour, I just want to know details, like what type. They were surprised, patients don’t notice this things and they don’t tell. It was NSCLC adenocarcinoma and I needed surgery to remove a lobe.
    We have to participate and be assertive. Two years latter they were going to remove a second lobe and I asked for a PET scan, not a normal procedure in Ontario, cost extra $2,500. Was done for free and the operation cancelled because a rib showed signs of cancer too.
    So I have good lung capacity but my wife is against diving, just snorkelling now.

  2. Hang in there Guillermo, and keep on swimming. Linnea

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