Reading Michael Gerson’s account of his, thankfully, successful encounter with cancer, I found myself bastardizing Tolstoy; that folks without cancer are all alike, but those of us with cancer face it in our own ways [sorry Leo].
I bet, though, that everyone who gets a cancer diagnosis does entertain thoughts about mortality. But what does that mean? I don’t know, but Gerson leads me to explore what I was thinking.
First off, there is something wrong and you go through what that might be. Me, I’m healthy as a horse. I just easily and smartly dumped a (metaphorical) ton of weight and all was well on the home and professional fronts.
I figure that the pain in my mouth is likely due to the fact that I am that person who hates going to the dentist to admit that I am a lousy dental flosser. My punishment is some popcorn kernel stuck in my gum. Maybe I’ll need a root canal. Ugh.
I studiously cause much gum bleeding with my newfound flossing fervor. But the pain is up toward my ear. Good job on the flossing, but it seems to be something else.
Yikes. I get it now. It is a stupid sinus infection. Headache. Earache. Pressure under my cheekbones. This I can deal with. A call to urgent care. A ‘script for amoxicillin. Plenty of liquids. Been there and done that.
The pressure relieves as the ten-day of antibiotic regimen winds down. I finally recognize that I have been having pain when I eat, mostly when I swallow. This is a new finding. And I also recognize that the pain is increasing in frequency and severity. Not frequent and severe, but a definite upward trend.
So, as a star troubleshooter, I spend time chewing on one side of my mouth and then the other. Nope, chewing is not the problem. So it’s my throat. But it only hurts when I swallow sometimes. Sipping wine? No problem. Gulping water? Fail. I further localize it to the right back side of my mouth, base of my tongue.
I bet you never thought about your tongue as a big muscle. When you eat like a pig and bite off alot, your tongue moves the food around in your mouth so you can grind and pulverize it enough so you don’t choke when you swallow.
I find myself eating daintier bites to avoid pain. I eat more slowly. I begin to prepare myself mentally for each meal. I pull out the calendar to try and figure out how long this has been going on. I can’t exactly pinpoint it, but it wasn’t an issue on vacation. So let’s say it started in mid-August. I get my antibiotics at the end of September. Twelve days later I call for a follow-up.
Making the appointment they tell me that I can see my doctor some time in the future, but I can see the resident in 3 days. I jump on it. I know that I will need some kind of additional diagnostics, so the sooner I get on the medical referral train, the better.
And, for the first time I admit to myself that this is something. I recognize the somethingness as I’m making my notes for my appointment. I mentally mark my dear friend Kris who was put off by her doctor more than once. Her advanced colon cancer took her away from us too soon. I’m thinking that I am NOT going to let them put me off. And, I realize that I am thinking that this might be, you know, uhm. Okay, deep breath and think it for real. Maybe it’s cancer.
Off to the Google. Is mouth cancer a thing? Yup. Oh, and that Beastie Boy guy had salivary gland cancer, and it killed him. Step away from the Google. Wait to see the doc.
I am now taking four Advil every 4 hours for the pain. I decide to go to the doc without pain numbness to help them diagnose me. I know that the resident will bring in the attending. She does. They see that it hurts. That the recent antibiotic course rules out an infection. They palpitate around my throat. They use the word mass. Order at CT scan. And tell me to make an appointment with the ENT as soon as the test is done.
Mass. That’s a cancer kind of word. I walk across the street and sit at one of the tables in front of the Whole Paycheck. I’m a little rattled, but get on the phone to get the scan scheduled. Turns out that it’s considered two tests, neck and head. So they need to find me two slots. Have to wait three weeks. Can call back to see if there are earlier openings. Make the appointment with ENT for the day after the scheduled scan.
I go back to the cancer site. I tell my spouse there is a mass. He knows but doesn’t say it.
I can’t take the Advil because of the scan. I can’t take enough Tylenol to kill the pain and maintain kidney health. Move up the chain to Tylenol-3. Have the scan. See the doc.
It’s a few weeks later and my mouth is really sore. Painful. I eat a little bit at a time. It’s too much work to eat. The exam is very painful. The doc is very apologetic.
And then he says that it’s cancer. And that he thinks I knew. And I did.
More flurry of appointments to verify what we know. But he’s confident that I’ll be cured. Phew.
I don’t know why I cry. It is just a little squall. Over while he left and came back to the room.
I don’t know why I cry. The doc was right. I did know it. I cry a little more in the car. Then I take a deep breath. I remind myself that I am not going to die. At least not right now.
I take another breath and start to prepare. Need to tell my husband. Need to tell the Big Guy. And likely Skype the Little Guy who goes to school in the Rockies.
I’m getting treatment now. Have a second round of menacing poisons that attack my fastest growing cells on Monday.
I read Gerson’s post again. He talks about cancer as a metaphor for our mortality. Maybe later I will know why I cried. For me, at least right now, it’s just stupid.