2012 began for me in the same way I believe it began for most people; with the hope that it would be better than the year before and the nagging suspicion that it probably wouldn’t. My own suspicion was confirmed far earlier than I would have liked it. In the height of my New Year’s Eve revelry I decided that doing a headstand would be the best way to celebrate another year in the dust. Of course I completely ignored the fact that I’m a slightly out of shape IT consultant and much older than I think I am. As my ill-conceived head stand began to wobble I compounded my idiocy by attempting to correct it using my rippling abdominal muscles (which are completely imaginary). Shooting pain through my back’s entire muscular system along with a healthy dose of throbbing pain in my abs quickly proved to me why this had never been a good idea. Being the bull headed-male I often am, I took a muscle relaxer, some pain killers, and called it a night.
The next morning my back and stomach didn’t waste any time reminding me of the previous night’s stupidity. I chalked it up to an older body not healing as quickly as it used to and continued with my day. Luckily I didn’t have to fly that week, so my body was able to recuperate a bit, but I still found my stomach area (most notably the left side of my diaphragm right under the ribs) to be tender and slightly swollen. The next week I had to fly out to a client site, on a regional jet, which is just as uncomfortable as a regular jet only smaller. I kept up my diet of painkillers and muscle relaxers (a frequent flier’s magic recipe) which helped me get through the hassles of travel. On my return home I found that same stomach area to be just as swollen as when I first hurt it with the pain increasing instead of fading. At this point I couldn’t ignore it any longer and finally scheduled a doctor’s visit.
Nothing is more fun than retelling the tale of how you foolishly injured yourself before the new year could even get started. My Doc got a chuckle out of it and then commenced with the poking and prodding his profession is famous for. When he got to the swollen area of my stomach he was a little concerned. He cautiously agreed with my pulled muscle assessment, but thought there might be blood pooling underneath it from a small tear. A CAT scan was immediately recommended. Just to make sure he had another doctor in the office give me a once over. The second doctor was even more concerned than the first and went so far as to suggest it could be my spleen. The CAT scan was unanimous and I was scheduled for one the day after next.
CAT scans, in and of themselves, are not horrible. However, the iodine mixture that they need to inject into your body for the proper picture is downright ghastly. The side effects are miserable, ranging from nausea (which I had in buckets) to an intense warmth that feels like your insides are cooking (had that too, especially in the crotch area….weird). I’m glad we got the image in one take because I spent the next 15 minutes trying not to puke all over the kind technician’s shoes. Still a little woozy and filled up to my eyeballs with iodine I drove from the hospital directly over to my doctor’s office for the post CAT scan meeting.
Here’s where the fun started. The muscle that I thought had been pulled was actually my spleen. Not only was my spleen visible, when it should never be felt outside of the ribcage as per the image on the right, but it had swollen down almost to my navel. One thing I failed to mention earlier in this post is that while traveling for work I was trying to lose weight (gotta stick to those New Year’s resolutions). I was more successful than usual yet attributed it to my newly found willpower. My doctor informed me that the 20 lbs. I had lost (I didn’t even notice it had been that severe) was actually due to the spleen eating up all my calories in its race to grow to a mammoth size.
Referrals to specialists were made and last minute appointments were hastily schedule giving me zero chance to process what I was being told. I was sent to an oncologist’s office to further discuss what this misbehaving spleen might really mean. Yup, an oncologist was my next step. This was scary as fuck. My new Doc told me that we would have to conduct a couple of procedures in order to be sure of what we were dealing with. In my entire life I had never broken a bone or had a medical procedure performed and now I was staring down the barrel of several.
The first was a lymph node biopsy. Sounded simple enough, but when hospital officials started talking about living wills and medical powers of attorney it made my supposedly routine surgery feel like I was about to be cut from throat to crotch with a rusty bone saw. Being a horror writer you can imagine the other grisly images that came along with that particular flight of fancy. Thankfully the surgery was routine. As they administered the twilight anesthetic I went from being transferred onto the surgery table to then instantaneously waking up in the recovery area. I was groggy, loopy, just a little high, and incredibly fucking relieved to be awake.
The second procedure was another biopsy this time of my bone marrow. You see punctures being performed willy nilly in medical dramas like they’re a walk in the park, but when you see your doctor covered in sweat once he’s done you know that it was a fucking ordeal. The entire time my overriding fear was flinching as he ground the needle into my hip and accidentally causing a slip that would puncture a much less forgiving organ.
Waiting for the results of these tests was a fucking mind killer. The anticipation was far from the delicious kind in Willy Wonka or Rocky Horror. I called each doctor almost daily trying to find the status of the lab’s progress. One set of results came in, but I still had to wait for the other before returning to my new Doc and processing it all. Finally, when all the results OFFICIALLY came in I geared myself up for what would be the most important medical visit of my life. My mind had been frazzled for quite a while, with still no time to slow down and reflect on what was happening to me, so I was grateful when the Doc allowed me to record our conversation.
Most of the conversation was a blur as my body was fiercely tensed awaiting the words which would irrecoverably fuck my shit up. Doc had reviewed the results with the surgeon who performed the lymph node biopsy, reviewed his own results from the bone marrow biopsy and even brought in the professional opinion of a specialist from Duke University. As gently as he could, in his small examination room where I clenched my wife’s hand, he told me I had cancer. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to be specific and two types to be even more accurate, one in my spleen and another in my bone marrow. He went on to tell me it was aggressive, late stage and rare in a person of my age. I had the cancer of a 70 year old ravaging my 31 year old body. As crushing as the prognosis sounded there was no talk of X number of months to live or even death itself. Modern medicine had been battling these particular strains for some time now and as long as I didn’t delay a single iota in starting my treatment I had a fighting chance of making it through the gauntlet.
What came next is for another time as I know that there’s been enough of my blood drained into these words already.
Why am I writing this?
First and foremost I need to personally thank the few people I’ve told directly about my medical challenges and their discretion. I hope you don’t feel betrayed by my decision to now share these details publicly. I’m still not sure why I’m doing it. I don’t know if this will be the first in a series or my only words on the matter. Will this be cathartic? Is it an attempt at a meager written legacy? So much of this requires a level of self-reflection that I just can’t give right now. The one thing I do know with certainty is that these words chipped away a portion of the stone I now carry and even a miniscule lightening of the load is integral to my survival.
I have no expectations for this post. It’s not a pity party or a cry for attention. It is the simple baring of a soul while I still have a soul to share. It is the drive to write that even in the direst of circumstances is an addiction that must be sated. This is me, plainly and without polish.