Welcome, You’ve Got Cancer!
I remember feeling the left side of my neck one day and thinking “Well, those are new” I had three small bumps under my skin that were all relatively close to each other. I assumed they were my lymph nodes but thought it was strange that they were swollen since I wasn’t sick. I had pointed the bumps out to Nick, the guy I was seeing at the time, and he strongly encouraged me to get them looked at. His mother had died of lung cancer so he was very adamant about me going to see my doctor right away.
I played phone tag with my doctor for a few days but eventually got an appointment that was right after my birthday in mid November. When I arrived in her office, my doctor felt my neck and said the bumps weren’t large enough for her to be immediately concerned. However, she wanted to make sure they were nothing to worry about so she ordered me to get an ultrasound as soon as possible.
The ultrasound was very easy. I laid on my side trying not to laugh while the radiology technician rubbed warm lube all over my neck and went to work. I had this particular technician once before when I had to have an ultrasound of my abdomen for pain I was experiencing a year earlier. At the end of the ultrasound she kept asking me if I had been sick recently. I told her I couldn’t even remember the last time I had a cold and that I was very healthy. She then asked if I had any dental work done. I told her I had just been to the dentist for a cleaning and that my teeth were fine. Her tone of voice was much different than the other time I had been there. She said she needed to show the results to the radiologist and would be right back. This was something she hadn’t done the last time I was there and it made me a little suspicious. There was also something about her face and the way she was talking just didn’t sit right with me. After talking to the radiologist she came back in the room and said my lymph nodes were slightly larger than what was considered normal swelling and that I would need to contact a surgeon and get a biopsy.
I met with a surgeon a few days after my ultrasound. He explained to me that doing a biopsy on lymph nodes was somewhat difficult and that instead of a normal needle biopsy, he would have to actually go in and cut out one of the lymph nodes to analyze it. He scheduled my surgery for January 2nd, an excellent way to ring in the New Year!
I demolished a liter of white wine, a glass of champagne, and a bottle of hard cider in a matter of 3 hours on New Year’s Eve. Clearly I was nervous about the biopsy. However, it was one of the best New Year’s I’ve ever had. I spent the night with two of my girl friends. We painted each other’s nails, sang along to Miley Cyrus and ate lots of spaghetti, which several drunk text messages later, I threw up in the sink. I am not the type of person that gets nervous very often. In fact the only times in my life I’ve ever felt nervous was when a boy was involved. My father had let it slip that my mom was having awful dreams about me and if there’s one thing I have learned in life, it is that my mother’s psychic intuitions are never wrong. If she had a bad feeling about something, then something bad was about to happen. As much as I heard people say “You’ll be fine” it never put my mind at ease.
The night before my biopsy I went to bed fairly early. I remember waking up at 2am and immediately grabbing my phone to search Google for what swollen lymph nodes might indicate. The first article I read was about Hodgkin’s Disease. I blurted out loud to myself “My God, I bet that’s what I have” The morning of my surgery I was not feeling nervous at all. At this point I didn’t know if anything was actually wrong with me so I knew there was no point in worrying myself sick about it. I was confident that if I was about to get terrible news that I would be able to handle it. I knew my strength and knew that I would be able to handle whatever came my way.
My mother came with me that morning to the hospital. I told her to go get some breakfast since it was 8am and she hadn’t eaten yet, but she insisted on waiting for me the whole time. The nurse that was going to be assisting the surgeon escorted me down the hall towards the room where they would be performing my biopsy. It was finally time to find out what the hell was going on with me!
The surgeon only numbed the area he was working on so I was still wide awake and could feel everything that was going on. I felt a lot of pressure on my neck and could see blood all over the surgeon’s gloves, which to be completely honest, scared the shit out of me. The room was totally silent so not only could I feel him tugging and scraping inside my neck, but I could hear it as well. Not to mention the burning skin smell! The nurse held my hand the whole time and as soon as I started crying hysterically she wiped away my tears for me. The surgeon kept apologizing that it was taking so long and promised he was almost done. The lymph node he was removing was a lot deeper than anticipated and he admitted that he was having a tough time removing it. When he was done, my surgeon looked at me and said “So do you have any interest in seeing this thing?” I responded with a big “YES PLEASE!” He held up a little jar full of liquid that had a chunk of tissue floating in it. It was much bigger than I had expected. He pointed out the big lymph node that I could feel from the surface of my neck. There were also two smaller lymph nodes on the mass he had taken out.
They walked me back out to my mother. The surgeon explained to her that it was a bit more complicated removing the lymph node than expected but that I did very well and would have the results soon. Then he said “You’ll be coming with her on Wednesday when we have the results, right?”
When we got into the car my mother looked at me and said “What the hell did he mean by that?”
A few days later I met with my surgeon to get my pathology results. I was working 9-5 that day and decided I would leave work for my doctor’s appointment and then go back after I got my results. My mother met me at the surgeon’s office, she actually got there earlier than me. I was totally impressed, the woman is never early for anything. We were only sitting there for a short while when one of the office employees came out to collect us and bring us to one of the examination rooms. The way she was looking at me kind of freaked me out. Like the look you give someone at a funeral when you don’t know what to say. She told us to have a seat and said the doctor would be in shortly.
I was in the middle of telling my mom about how Fran, my old manager at work, was mad at his coworkers because they hadn’t really done anything for his birthday which was the day before. They had filled the office with balloons and streamers for another associate a few months before, bought her a princess crown, cake, and for Fran? NOTHING! We were laughing and joking and just as I was about to continue my story the doctor entered the room and looked at us and said “Well, it’s not good” He told me I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and that everything else he was about to say I probably wouldn’t even remember. He said the most important thing was that I was otherwise very healthy and that my chances of beating this thing were very high. I had a chest x-ray done right before my biopsy. There was a mass that showed up on it which he didn’t tell me until that day. He said it was probably cancer too but that I would need a PETScan to determine what stage I was in. He said it was going to be a long road ahead of me but that it would be life changing and I would only grow stronger.
I cried a lot during that visit. My mom offered to drive me home and get my car later but I felt okay enough to drive home. I remember getting in to my car and Queen Bitch by David Bowie was playing on the radio. I couldn’t help but laugh because it was the song at the end of my favorite movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. As strange as it may sound, I knew at that moment everything was going to be alright.
Telling my friends was the hardest part. Having to call them up and talk to them without completely losing it was incredibly difficult. I started to hold it together better with the more calls I made. I went back and forth trying to decide whether or not to write about it on Facebook. I eventually decided that this was something I wanted to share with my friends and family and that having their support was the only thing that would help keep my spirits high and get me through this.
I am a photographer but have lost touch with my art within the last few years. I decided the following morning that I would take a picture of myself every day of the journey I was about to embark on and share it with the world on Instagram. My hope was that not only would it help me to cope but would also help others going through the same thing see that cancer is not a death sentence and you can still function normally and live your life. (For anyone not following me, my user name is maddicake_maddiecake)
The next step in my cancer adventure was to meet with an oncologist. My surgeon recommended one to me. His office was in the same town I worked in so it was very convenient. One thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want to be traveling a long distance for treatment. I already knew who he was and had heard many good things about him. Three people I know had all gone to him when they had cancer and all three were doing well and told me he was wonderful.
My parents and I met with him three days after my biopsy. It was a Saturday and I was quite impressed already that he had come in on his day off just to see me. When we arrived I was a bit surprised by his appearance. He was nothing like I had expected. A large guy with a thick Irish accent. I could barely understand a word he said. I was a bit weary but my parents both really liked him and he definitely seemed like the type of person who would do anything for his patients, day or night, which I found completely reassuring.
Shortly after meeting with my oncologist I was sent to get a PETScan. This was the test that would indicate what stage of cacer I was in and then my oncologist would be able to recommend a course of treatment for me. I was at the radiology office for about two hours, an hour of which I got to spend watching TV in a recliner. The radiologist that was administering my scan told me that his wife had Hodgkin’s when she was seventeen and has been perfectly healthy since. He told me about his two little girls and then said “You’re young and healthy, you’ll be fine.” I smiled at him because I knew that he was right and that I would be okay.
A few days later I met with my oncologist and it was then he told me that I was in Stage 2. I had tumors in my neck and under my arm. The mass that showed up on my chest x-ray was also in fact a tumor. Although I had it in three spots everything was above the abdomen which is why it was still considered Stage 2.
A bone marrow biopsy was the next task on the cancer list. When my oncologist told me that I had to get one done I think that was the most nervous I have ever been. I had always heard that extracting bone marrow was extremely painful, so this was not something I was looking forward to at all. I had talked to a few people and they told me that it really wasn’t a big deal and didn’t hurt that much. And all I have to say to that is…
LIES! ABSOLUTE LIES!
The bone marrow biopsy was completely awful. Although the actual pain of retrieving the bone marrow only lasted about three seconds, it was the worst pain I have ever felt. I was under the impression that my oncologist would only be taking it from one spot, but that was not the case. When I arrived at his office he told me he was going to remove bone marrow from two spots on my lower back. How my mother sat there and watched as my doctor performed this horrific event I will never understand. I definitely would have vomited everywhere if I saw someone screw a device into my daughter’s back and remove red licorice. Yes, that’s right, in case you were wondering, bone marrow looks like a skinny piece of red licorice! And boy did it make me hungry!
My doctor slapped two band aids on me and sent me home. I was glad the procedure wasn’t completely awful. As much as it hurt while he was doing it, I felt okay afterwards. However, I was not warned about how much pain I would be in a few hours later. I took it easy the rest of the day and took a lot of extra strength Tylenol to help with the pain. The full pain didn’t really kick in until the following morning when I could hardly sit up in bed or walk around without my back hurting.
Two days later I was scheduled to get my port put in. Between the pain I felt from the bone marrow biopsy and the pain I was about to feel from the port placement, I knew this was not going to be a great week for me.