Thursday, November 29, 2012

In Which I Find Out I (probably) Don't Have Cancer

I know, I just gave away the ending. I (probably) don't have cancer. As a writer, I realize this is bad form. Why read on now? I've sucked all the tension right out of this post. But I care for you, dear readers. I know many of you would worry if I strung you along, so I'm putting the ending first to ease your mind. And now you can just enjoy the journey.

Also, I apologize in advance for any TMI. Usually I am so private about this stuff, but I found it impossible to write what's happening without actually writing about what's happening. 


Without going into too much detail, let it suffice to say two weeks ago something happened that sent me googling odd symptoms. It will surprise no one who's ever googled anything medical to hear that I found out I was clearly going to die. And not just on WebMD, that bastion of "everything boils down to cancer."  Every site I went on said, "Get thee to a doctor!! Fast!!"

I am not one to jump on doctor appointments. Not because I hate them, but mostly, it's just so inconvenient. I don't have time. And I feel fine. I mean, to go to a doctor means I am in serious pain and the Motrin just isn't cutting it. And right now, I feel just fine. Normal, for whatever that's worth.

But there was enough on the internet to convince me to call my doctor office and talk to a nurse. Based on past history, this is what I expected to hear: "Huh. Yeah. I don't know. You should come in. Our soonest appointment is in a month." I even checked their online appointment schedule and found out the soonest appointment available was in a month.

But I called, because the internet told me too. The conversation went like this:

ME: Hi. I'm having these weird symptoms and I thought I should check to see if I need to come in. I have an appointment in three weeks anyway, so maybe I could just talk to the doctor then. But I thought I should ask. Because the internet says I should.

HER: Can you describe what's going on?

ME:... (describing in as few words as possible, in a very light, nonchalant tone...)

HER: You need to come in. Now. Can you get here today?

So apparently she also reads WebMD.

When I got to the office, I was shuffled back immediately, without the usual wait in the waiting room while watching all the harried moms with their teething toddlers. When the nurse came in to take my blood pressure, she asked, "Are you nervous?"

Um... no. Should I be?

She asked this FOUR times!! Which I thought was odd. Because I really wasn't nervous at all. I honestly felt totally fine, and a bit silly for having driven 20 miles to see a doctor I knew would tell me I need to stop reading WebMD.

Lesson One: Don't rely on one article of clothing to make you feel good. She told me to get into a papery shirt, and I knew I'd approached my fashion completely wrong. See, I tend to wear jeans and sneakers. A lot. Most of the time. But I dress it up with pretty tops and fancy sweaters and scarves. I'd worn the CUTEST sweater that day, and a totally adorable scarf I'd just figured out how to tie in a new way. But suddenly I found myself in just jeans and sneakers... and a paper top. Boo. I should have opted for the skirt and kicky boots.

Lesson Two: Reconsider reading options. So now I'm sitting in the room waiting, papery top rustling with every move, and trying to read a book. I'd brought a funny book. One I couldn't read without laughing so hard I was crying; one which occasionally I've laughed so hard I snorted. I figured it would be the perfect thing to get my mind off sitting half-naked. Except, as it turns out, when you are waiting for bad news, funny things are not so funny. I feel like I wasted some perfectly great chapters in that room. I apologize to the author.

Lesson Three: It is not good news when your doctor walks in, shakes your hand, and the first words out of her mouth are, "So who in your family has breast cancer?"  Not, "Hi." Not, "How are you feeling today?" Not, "Do you have a history of cancer?" No. She asks, "Who in your family has breast cancer?"

Hello to you, too.

Lesson Four: (Here comes the TMI... if you're a man, you might want to avert your eyes...)  Mammograms mean nothing when you have dense breast tissue. Nothing. Do you know that they hide cancer 60% of the time? I'd JUST had one... my first one.. that's a whole other TMI post... and the radiologist said I was fine. In fact, she showed me my films and said, "See all that white? That's dense tissue. I'm just telling you because your report will come back saying you have dense tissue and I didn't want you to worry. It doesn't mean anything. It's very normal."

What she should have said was, "See all that white? It means we have NO IDEA what is in there."

So there is you PSA for the week. If you have dense tissue, don't assume everything is fine.

Lesson Five: Surprising your doctor can actually be a good thing. She discovered that what was happening to one breast was also actually happening to the other. I just didn't know it. (I'm being purposely vague here... there is only so much one wants to expose in a blog. The fact that I wrote the word breast earlier is already a milestone for me in the personal exposure bag.)

So at the end of this, she says, "The fact that this is bilateral is good, I think. It means you probably don't have cancer." And her relief was palpable.

And it wasn't until this point that I realized everyone in that office - the receptionist, the nurse, the doctor - all thought I was going to leave with a breast cancer diagnosis. Which, frankly, is pretty sobering. And also, at the same time, like some crazy acid trip because I find out in the same sentence that I not only probably DID have cancer but that now I probably DON'T.

Which I hope forgives the moment later in the day when, walking through a grocery store and some stock boy asks how I'm doing, I blurted out loudly and with great enthusiasm, "Great! I probably don't have cancer!"

But with this good news came other confounding news.... my doctor had absolutely no idea what the problem was. And so, she says, I need to go to the breast specialist.

ME: There's a breast specialist?

HER: Yes. That's all they do.

ME: Isn't that what you do?

HER: No. We pretty much just stick to vaginas here.

Yes. And this is why I love my doctor.

And also because, when she described how big and beautiful the Breast Center was, she spread her hands out wide and sang, "AHHHHHHH" like a choir of angels.

So now I have a breast specialist. And we have no idea what's wrong. But I feel fine. And I (probably) don't have cancer. And that last part is all I'm clinging to now.

I do want to say I'm not worried. So you shouldn't be either. I've seen my new doctor, and I'll save that for the next post. She seems concerned, but I think that's her job. Really, all she does is diagnose people with breast cancer, and that can't be a fun job. She's also confounded, but says nothing looks "overly suspicious," but I've had lots of tests and an MRI scheduled for next week, and I suspect it will turn out to be much ado about nothing.

I'm mostly thankful all this happened after I turned in my thesis, because really, I couldn't juggle all of that at the same time. So if there was a good time to see a doctor a day, this is it.

Okay. I think that's all the personal I can handle today. This is what I want you to know: I'm not worried. You shouldn't be either. And if you have dense breast tissue, ask about an MRI or sonogram.

My work here is done.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thesis... Done.

This, my friends, is the rather unpretentious, unimpressive first page of the culmination of two years' work. I am unabashedly thrilled.

Yes, the thesis is done. Yes, I can stop using words like "thesis" and "grad school" and get back to normal conversational words. If I can remember them.

Can you believe it's been two years? Me either. On the other hand, I can't remember what it was like not to be in school. Which is what my kids think when I say, "That two years went fast," and they reply, "Was it just two years??"

The last five months writing this thesis have been crazy. Head in laptop, eyes blurred, four-hour-a-night sleep kind of crazy. Non-stop writing and revising and crying and despairing and tiny leaps of hope followed by roller-coaster freefalls of doubt kind of crazy. But here it is... five short stories I've become mightily attached to.

I don't know what will happen from here. We're into the holiday season, so I suspect there will have to be some non-laptop time that involves cleaning and shopping and decorating, but I don't know how to function without a laptop calling me constantly. I keep wandering back to it, opening it, staring as though something important will leap out at me.

I have two novels rolling around in my head that I suspect I'll get knee-deep into before I return to Oregon in January. One is an old one I think I finally have a good direction for, and another is a new one that's more a seed still growing roots in my brain.

I feel both huge relief... and a little lost. Glad to say goodbye to stress of school, but depressed at saying goodbye to the promise of residencies, friends, letters from advisors, and that learning high that makes my brain feel like it's exploding.

Now to figure out what life will be from here on out...