C, the Scariest Letter
November 2, 2005

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ update 7:45 a.m. est


The word seems to scare the hell out of most people.

And there's this feeling that you're "safe" from it until you're at least 40-something. Sure, younger people get it. But you won't until at least then. Sure, there's Lance Armstrong -- but he was kind of a fluke. And a good thing he was an endurance athlete used to pushing through the pain. Of course, his yellow bracelets are everywhere now, trying to make people more aware, not of cancer, but of survivorship.

But, there's still this feeling that it's a death sentence ... or at least that you'll have a lot of pain and suffering and ... well, not to be too delicate about it, vomiting. There's still this feeling that if you have ever had cancer, you'll have some kind of unearthly mark on you that shows others the hell you've been through.

None of those things are necessarily true. And as we head deeper into November this year, I'm reminded of that more so than any other year since my diagnosis.

In fact, I felt so much better after chemo started that I was intensely relieved to have gotten a diagnosis ... finally. I was 31. My oncologist figured I'd probably had the disease for two years at that point.

I'd been going to my doctor about every other month with a new set of fevers and apparent sinus infections. He'd throw some antibiotics my way. I'd feel better for a few weeks and then relapse. Call him back, get more antibiotics. I had no health insurance and the price of the medicines and constant doctor visits were killing me.

Actually, his refusal to even run a simple blood test was killing me.

Then, the Monday before Thanksgiving, while teaching class, I felt really horrible. The room was spinning. Since my students were working on their papers, I sat down for most of the hour. When I finally went home, my fever was 103.7. It broke a few minutes later, but I left for a "doc-in-the-box" at the local MedPoint.

Dr. Bogan took one look at me, drew blood, shoved the tech out of the way and ran the test himself. This 70-something doctor in semi-retirement was scared. I listened at my door -- grateful it was right next to the nurse's station so I could hear something -- and listened to him chew my regular doctor a new one.

My hemoglobin was a 5.8. You can die in the 4 range.

Later, I found out that Doc Bogan said he could see the outline of my spleen through my t-shirt.

So, I was sent back to my doctor the next morning. He was sweating bullets -- literally, the sweat was rolling down his neck with each question he asked me. And I gave him the same answers I'd been giving him for two years. Two years as I feared I had some kind of nasty systemic infection.

Yes, the rash was itchy.
Yes, the rash was more itchy after a shower.
Yes, I was waking up in the middle of the night after my fever broke -- drenched in sweat.

And the one that always pissed me off:
Yes, I was sure it wasn't AIDS ... I'm in one of the absolute lowest risk groups.

He called another doctor. Set up an appointment for me for the next day and he was upset that I couldn't be worked in that day. He told me he'd treat me for free if I had anything he could help with, a cold, the flu, whatever. Then he told me, "If he suggests you go to the hospital ... go." Oh hell.

Wednesday. Trip to the blood specialist. I still don't know what I have. He goes over my history. He blanches when I say I've had these symptoms for two years. It's not an obvious paling -- he's got a good patient manner. But I can tell. This is not good.

Bone marrow is drawn. Not quite as painful as I'd expected ... they use good drugs now. That's done. We still don't know what I have, we have to wait on the results.

"Which hospital do you prefer?" the doctor asks.

"I dunno, why?"

"Well, we need to take a lymph node and pump you full of blood."

"Umm, okay. I'll pick St. Joe." It's just a few blocks from my house. Without health insurance, despite working at the University of Notre Dame, it doesn't really matter which hospital I pick.

He expects me to go straight to the hospital instantly.

"Can't I go home and get some stuff first?"

He doesn't want to let me go home even for a minute. I do anyway, after convincing him that I live around the corner. I get some books, some things to do. Clothes.

And then I'm whisked to the hospital and into surgery. They hesitate. I'm still running a mild fever and took Advil just hours before. I assure them I've got another 15 minutes before the fever breaks. The nurse is unsure. "We can't wait more than 15 minutes or we'll lose the operating time slot." She considers cancelling the surgery. My fever breaks right on time.

When I come to, they're giving me a blood transfusion. In all, I get 5 units of blood. I've been pale for so long, everyone who comes to see me assumes I must -- for some very strange reason -- be wearing lipstick and rouge.

Nope. That's just the fresh blood coursing through the veins in my face.

continued again later today ...

Posted by Red Monkey at November 2, 2005 4:27 AM | Blog | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Andy Ternay said:

You can add me to the list of many people who are grateful you saw Dr. Bogan...grateful you are a part of our lives today.

November 2, 2005 6:45 AM
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