Adventures in …Cancer?: If Only You’d Been Bad Asthma (Or, Leading to Up to Diagnosis — Part Two)

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(You can find the first part here.)

Where were we?  Oh, right.  The last time I talked about my cancer diagnosis, I had covered all the symptoms leading up to my hospitalization and getting over my fear of needles.  A fast heart rate, asthma symptoms, and some weird crap in my x-rays pretty much made that mandatory.

Here’s the run-down of what happened after hospitalization:

Something must be said for the fact that my mother pretty much stuck by my side in the hospital, sleeping in what I can only describe as the most uncomfortable chairs and “beds” the hospital torture division could come up with.  She stayed there with me while I proceeded to freak out internally over the fact that things were going terribly wrong.  There I was, thinking I had asthma and that some nice drugs and high quality breathing treatments would put it all to rest and I could
go back to my silly life.  But the x-rays made that impossible, and the subsequent CT scans pretty much confirmed what the doctors must have assumed:  there  was some really nasty shit in my body.

I don’t think the doctors ever said “tumor” directly to me.  They might have said as much to my mother.  Honestly, I’ve never asked her if there were things she learned from my medical records that she kept from me.  I was 19 and not at all ready for the world — immature, still living at home, directionless, jobless, and feeling rather pissed on (losing a job over something that wasn’t your fault and totaling your car in the same year doesn’t help one’s confidence).  So it’s likely she learned a lot of scary things that nobody dared say to my face at the time.  That’s not to say that I didn’t know what was going on, of course, but being able to watch TV and read lots of Alan Gardner books in the hospital certainly helped me escape just a little.

In any case, eventually the doctors had to tell me that they’d found growths around my aorta, trachea, and lungs, each of which were contributing to my various symptoms.  They didn’t have to say “it’s cancer,” but I pretty much knew by that point (this after a few days in the hospital, with lots of blood tests, bad food, and medicine).  You don’t have to tell a 19-year-old kid that he has cancer for him to figure out that he probably has cancer.  And being as immature as I was, I didn’t really know what that meant.  Cancer = death.  Little did I know…

It was at that point that my general practitioner had to tell me that in order to figure out what was eating away at my insides, they might have to do exploratory surgery.  In other words:  they were going to have to crack my chest, dig around in there, and hopefully pull out a sample while trying not to kill me.  And this wasn’t a normal procedure.  My doctor more or less indicated that most surgeons wouldn’t even try it.  If thinking I might have cancer didn’t scare the shit out of me (it did), then imagining myself as a giant game of Operation did.  Up until that point, I hadn’t had anything approaching major surgery.  Jumping from “I hate needles” to “I hate them, but you can stick them in me because I don’t want to die” to “holy fuck, you’re going to crack me open and dig around inside me” in a matter of days is understandably terrifying.  I remember breaking down at some point and having a total freak-out.  You know the type.  You just start blubbering and saying things that sound like intelligent words, but really you’re just crying and saying shit that doesn’t make any sense to whoever will listen because you don’t want to die, etc. etc. etc.  Somewhere in all this, a male nurse came in and comforted me.  I have no idea what he said (probably something like, “be strong, this isn’t the end, you’ll survive, you’re strong, etc. etc. etc.”).  All I know is that he did calm me down a bit, which is why I will forever love nurses (and those few male nurses out there — Paul Genesse is the only one I know personally).

I’m wandering a bit here.  The following day, the surgeon who had agreed to crack me open like a Christmas present came in to check me out and go over the details.  In my imagination, he stood seven feet tall with the build of a White Walker, though I suspect he was only a little over six feet and probably pretty average in real life.  When he arrived, he started feeling around my chest and neck and discovered that the lymph nodes in my neck had magically grown to the size of golf balls overnight.  Relief + terror = conflict.  On the one hand, that meant he wouldn’t have to chop into me like a kid dissecting a frog for science class; on the other, that meant whatever was wreaking havoc on my body was moving at a rapid pace, like genetic rabbits in heat.  But that meant having a far less dangerous surgery to get some actual material to work with for testing.

Of course, I was still terrified out of my freaking mind.  Even a less dangerous surgery sounded like a horror film to little 19-year-old me.  When the day came to put me under, I probably shook like crazy while my mother sat there telling me it was going to be okay.  And then they took me into the room, someone asked me what kind of music I’d like to listen to (I have no idea what I said — probably classical), and then I did that whole countdown thing where they tell you to start from 100, but you know you’re not going to make it further than 96, and so you count anyway because it distracts you from the fact that they’re going to shove stuff inside you…and then you wake up later and supposedly you’re OK, only you feel like a bus hit you and you realize “hey, they just cut into my neck and I probably shouldn’t move it”…when the attendant pops over and says, “Hi there, you’re awake.  Where are you?  How do you feel?” and all you can say is, “Unheeegzzzzaghlee errspital,” and that seems good enough to them, so they go away and eventually wheel you out to a room somewhere and let you see your family, when all you really want to do is turn on the TV, take some really good drugs, and pass out.  And then they send you home, like you didn’t just get your neck hacked up or anything.  Oh, but they don’t really send you home, of course.  They send you to a prison of your own mind, because you spend that week or two of recovery wondering what they’ll find in the golf ball they took out of your neck (and if you’re really morbid, you wonder if you can request the piece of flash back in a jar of formaldehyde, because it’s yours, after all).

And that’s how I found myself in a recliner some four feet from the TV, watching garbage daytime television (we didn’t have cable upstairs) and snoozing.  Two weeks later?  We got a call.  Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  We’d need to see an oncologist to determine treatment.  By that point, I’d already pretty much accepted that I had cancer.  I wasn’t over the fear just yet, but at least I knew where we had to go next.  At least we had answers.

This is where I’ll stop.  There’s more weird experiences to talk about later — some scary, some humorous, some bizarre, and some just plain sad.  Until another day…

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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