The trouble with being a hypochondriac as that when you do finally get sick with something real, you find yourself doubting it with exactly that same Inner Thomas as you previously did your good health.
The advantages of this are obvious.
I, for instance, faced with a prognosis that was eerily identical to my lost brother’s initial odds, have spent whole days concentrating on which bed linens I would take to treatment. I stacked them in a chair, pleasing crisp blues and whites. I bleached a set of towels and bath mats within an inch of their lives, all white too. The color calmed me. I still can’t remember if white is the absence of color or the presence of all. Whatever. It’s not the light at the end of the tunnel, not that. It’s Van Gogh’s roses, or orchids, it’s soap, it’s milk, it’s the cleanliness that’s next to, but not to be mistaken for, Godliness.
Two months ago, I noticed a swollen lymph gland on the side of my neck. Since my daughter had been sick with pneumonia and I was fighting off a cold, I assumed my immune system was doing what it should: warding off the germs, containing them in their own miniature carrying case until such time as they could be whisked off to the body’s recycling bin. Like so many of the claims I’ve recklessly made, “I never get colds,” was right up there with “I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body.”
Both of these, by the way, have fallen on the sword of ‘Pride Goeth Before a Fall.”
I didn’t get colds for a good reason. One, I never leave my house, and two, I’m the queen of pharmaceuticals. At the slightest hint of a sore throat, I’m on it with over-the-counter miracles. A runny nose? Sudafed is my friend. I take it to wake up, some Benedryl to sleep, and a daily Allegra to ward off the allergies I developed when we moved to Phoenix. Never mind that I live in Florida now, never mind that I’ve not had a symptom in years.
I am a poster child for “Better Living Through Chemistry.”
Anyway, I thought I was fighting a cold and my primary care physician thought I must have an infection. He prescribed a knock-out punch of Amoxicillin and told me if it didn’t get better in three to four weeks, to come back in. In the meantime, I took the antibiotics, applied heating pads to my neck and Googled ‘lump in neck.”
There is a malady called a fatty lipoma that seemed to me to fit. A mobile, soft mass, domelike in shape. And so, armed with just little enough information to be dangerous, I relaxed.
Time went by. I continued to make fun of myself for thinking it was something serious, continued to fondle it night and day, and resolved to call the doctor.
Calling doctors doesn’t run in my family. We don’t like to complain. My father and brother Mikey were diagnosed with bleeding ulcers only after passing out from loss of blood. My brother Tom didn’t discover he had cancer until massive chest pains caused him to go to a ‘doc in the box,’ who famously said, “I’ve never had to tell a patient anything like this. That’s why I work here. You’ve got five golf-ball sized tumors in your chest.”
And you wonder why we don’t like to call the doctor?
I finally made myself pick up the phone early one Friday morning, merely as a means of displacing the panic I felt about our approaching trip home for the holidays. Going to New Hampshire meant flying, which for me – a phobic flyer – also meant dying. And as we all know, biting that bullet means tying up all those loose ends you’ve let go for months. When I called, the nurse said, “You were supposed to call us back in two to four weeks!”
They fit me in that morning. The doctor actually touched the lump, pronounced it reassuringly soft, looked at the blood work he’d ordered the last time I went in. He said he’d like me to see a specialist. “But I’m flying out Monday morning,” I objected. Once I was there and complaining anyhow, I added, “Look, I’m kind of flipping out about this.”
Through the first of what would become a series of miracles in acrobatic medical scheduling, I got in to see an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor that afternoon. Tall, lanky, wearing a huge mirrored object attached to a headband, this man (for whom I would soon develop the sort of admiration and affection that expectant mothers feel for their obstetricians) palpated my throat, made worrying sounds and sprayed something in my nose. He then snaked a tube inside my nostrils and down again to see what was going on.
Of all the procedures I’ve had before and since, this chutes-and-ladders intrusion was somewhere between disconcerting and absymal. There was one moment, after the tube had already become “the guest who wouldn’t leave”, when he told me to say ‘EEE.”
This was when I felt it for the first time, this reality eking in past the defense mechanisms. A sort of pathos for myself. The ‘ehe?’ I managed was so weak and also unbearably vulnerable I couldn’t help but feel saddened. And also frightened, like a tiny animal, the way it feels when I want to scream in my dreams but can’t summon the power.
On to the fine-needle aspiration which was a breeze, given the numbing and the fact that I’d expected, no, yearned, for it. This procedure got better when the surgeon hit something and said, with the surprise of a farmer hitting oil, “Look, it’s fluid!”
Dr. Postma told me the results would be back on Christmas Eve. He’d be out of the office, but his assistant Nina would call. I asked him worst and best case scenarios, most of which immediately jumbled together in my brain with the strange names of glands I never knew I possessed. What I remember the doctor saying? “I was a lot more worried before we found fluid. It felt solid to me.” Also, “Well, if it’s got to be cancer, let’s hope it’s thyroid. That’s an easy one.”
I was pretty patient for a person without a shred of that very same quality, waiting for the news.
Indeed, I was philosophical. “This might be the best Christmas ever,” I told my friend Jane, packing. For once, instead of thinking about all the things that would not be perfect, this time I’d appreciate it with that sort of ‘savor the moments’ alertness that fear of dying can induce. We both laughed when I said that, and yet there was a grain of truth to it my prediction that I cannot deny.
I said nothing to anyone in my family (except my husband). I figure I’d discover something on Christmas Eve and deal with it then. On December 24th, I kept the cell phone by my side, at every possible moment. By two-fifteen, when the office still hadn’t called, I wrestled down my fear of phone calls with strangers and dialed the number. The receptionist had nothing to tell me: Nina had gone home, the results weren’t back and the office would be closed until Monday the 29th, the day of our flight home to Tallahasssee.
I told my husband not to worry, but of course we both did. I embroidered a rich tapestry of medical personnel convening to conspire not to tell me the bad news. I imagined they’d gotten terrible results, imagined them sighing,“Why ruin Christmas for her, poor thing?”
Thank GOD I’m a hypochondriac, since these flights of fancy are simply impulses that crop up only to be squashed by my very own ‘You’re crazy and you know it.’ This is my own comfort ritual, a response that, in so many years of over-the-top fears, had become a powerful antidote to the obsessive worries that would otherwise overtake my life.
Fast forward through a lovely holiday, and a phone call in the Atlanta airport from my doctor. “Miss Curran? Good news. The fluid cells look normal. It looks like an inflammation. I want to see what’s causing it, though. Are you available for a CT scan?”
Moi? I was already texting everyone I knew to tell them I’d had this awful scare but it turned out to be nothing and wasn’t life just super-cali-fragil-istic!
The next day I had another test already planned at the radiologist, something I get twice a year, because three of my sisters have had (and survived, thank you, Jesus) breast and/or ovarian cancers. Everytime I get that test, I watch the technician’s face to see if s/he looks worried or sad for me.
Just about every time, I get it wrong. To me, this lady looked both concerned and sad. I could picture her that evening, saying to her husband that evening what a nice person I was to be struck down with cancer all over my body.
After that scan of my pelvis, they took me to another area where I was shot up with this contrast fluid, one that makes your blood warm. Literally. One second you’re in the cold plastic doughnut of the scanner and the next your very loins are throbbing.
A couple of quick pictures, and off I went, worrying about the wrong part of my body. Dr. Postma called three days later to say the CT scan showed something solid behind the fluid.
From that point on, the tests came fast and furious, their rapidity being a series of fortunate accidents and compassionate efforts on the parts of several people I’d never met.Within a week we had our diagnosis. Squamous cell cancer, poorly differentiated. I spent the night googling cancers of the head and neck.
I had a PET scan the very next day, another scheduling miracle, with no small help from a nurse named Jeff who told me he’d once spent a very unpleasant weekend waiting for his brain tumor scans (ultimately negative) to be read. In my case, he was also able to get the PET results read within two hours and forwarded to Postma, with whom my husband and I had an appointment at two that same afternoon.
After my Google-fest on overdrive, I was actually relieved to discover it wasn’t all-over. (The way a PET scan works is that they shoot you up with sugar water (on an empty stomach) and take a picture. Since cancer cells metabolize sugar faster, they’ll light up on the scan. The “hot spots’ on my PET scan were limited to the base of my throat and the swollen lymph node on the right side of my neck. “If you hadn’t had your tonsils out,” Dr. Postma said. “I’d think it was tonsil cancer. My best guess right now is the base of the tongue. We need to schedule a surgery to take out that lymph node, sample the ones ‘up and downstream’ and biopsy some of the places in your mouth we think might be the primary sites.”
This was a Friday. He scheduled me for surgery the following Tuesday.
Now all I had to do was tell my family. When is the best time to ruin someone’s day? I’d already held off for twenty-four hours, partly because I needed time to get used to the news and partly because until the PET scan came back, we’d not know how far it had progressed.
Having saved them that worry, however, there was no doubt I must begin sharing this information. We told my daughter first. She is only thirteen. I can’t remember if I cried or not. I do know I hugged her and stressed the fact that I was really glad I didn’t have lung cancer, that what I had had a high cure rate, and that from that point on, she should ask me anything and everything. I promised I’d tell her anything she wanted to know. Then we tried to phone our son at the University of Florida. He’s not easily reachable, except by text, so we texted him to call us. He texted back, “Is everything okay?” “Yes and no,” I responded.
And that’s the truth. As my other dear friend, also named Jane, said, alluding to her own terms for describing her divorce, “You’ll have the Cancer Sucks! and the Cancer Rocks! moments and probably everything in between.
Among the Cancer Sucks? Well, I have to stop abusing my body for a while. I will lose some of my taste buds for quite some time, some of my saliva glands forever. I will probably lose weight because I’ll have trouble eating while they radiate my throat for six weeks plus.
Oh, wait. Actually, would it be wrong of me to put that last bit in the Cancer Rocks file?
Also, everyone is being really nice to me. John, my sweet husband, is doing everything I normally do, including paying the bills. My sister and brother came down for my surgery and cleaned the entire house (including folding sixteen jillion loads of laundry and putting a Sandford and Sons garage into perfect order.) Another brother drove up for the day and brought me magazines and cookies and fixed a burned out light in the garage that had been on my fix-it list forever. My neighborhood friends (also known as the ‘bus stop’ moms) brought me dinner. Of my two Janes, one sent me the softest bathrobe and lots of potions from Connecticut along with a note that made me cry. My other Jane has been here night and day, often with Umi and Julianna at her side, all three of them practiced at foot rubs and pretending I’m beautiful. My neighbor Lynne was a watchdog through the dental exams and operations. My son came home for my birthday and told me he couldn’t wait until I moved to Gainesville (that’s where I’ll be getting radiation therapy) so we could spend time together. My daughter has been flat-ironing my hair and making me laugh and giving me hugs. Far-flung friends and family have called and written and sent flowers, books, prayers and good vibes and offers to help with anything I need.
(I promise, I will eventually write those perfect thank-yous. Until then, please know how perfectly lovely it’s been to feel this abundant caring.)
And here’s the in-between.
I’ve always tried to protect my parents, having watched them lose my younger brother Tom, when he was only thirty-two.
One afternoon, three days after the diagnosis, while John was driving Helen to dance, I finally collapsed into bed and began to weep. The phone rang. It was my parents. Knowing they’d worry if they couldn’t reach me, I picked up with a weak ‘Hello.”
“Oh, Sheila,” my mom began. “We are sitting here thinking of you. We love you so much and just wish there was some way to help you!”
I don’t know what I said then but I remember thinking, “I’ve got to stop crying.” Instead, I sobbed. We talked for a long time, through the tears and out of them, into laughter and out of that, towards subjects as mundane as housekeeping and as sublime as theology. When I hung up the phone I could have regretted my letting them see me suffer. Instead I felt grateful that they’d chosen to call at the exact moment I could no longer keep up the pretense that everything was just dandy. Denial can be a survival skill, a handy –even necessary – barrier between one’s self and the reality we cannot face. But there are times when the body knows the truth before we do, and in its own way and on its own time, refuses to let us pretend for one second longer. That our deep unconscious might make that decision at the very moment when the people we want to protect would suddenly be allowed to comfort us, well, maybe there’s a wisdom in that which makes a whole lot more sense than pretending ever did.