The L version of the C word

May 7, 2015

Yesterday my head was spinning. I was visiting a Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, following up on some health issues I’ve been having. Head-spinning was not one of them, but that’s what seemed to be happening when the doctor spoke these words: “…or possibly lymphoma”.  Dr. Mahle, the ENT, had just reviewed the medical chart sent over by my regular physician. He had looked at my checklist of symptoms that have been bothering me for about two months. He had felt the lumps on my neck. He had looked up my nose and asked me questions. It’s hard to answer with someone shining a light up your nostrils.

This all started with a basketful of symptoms collected across the past two months: Fever & chills, occasional night sweats, swollen hands and feet, intense joint pain, daily morning back aches, constant tiredness, a golf-ball sized swelling under my jaw. A dosing of Prednisone helped with my early complaints. While the symptoms have come and gone over the past few weeks, the one that has been constant is a large, somewhat flat lump on the left side of my neck. Dr. Mahle believes it to be related to lymph nodes and he biopsied the area with a rather imposing needle; in my mind’s eye it was about the size of my cordless drill. It was really a fine-gauge needle and, thankfully, it didn’t hurt any more than getting a flu shot. The doctor had apologized anyway.

I’d been mulling over the prospect of cancer for a few weeks. My family doctor had cautiously used the ‘C’ word in conversation, but it was always among a list of things we were trying to rule out. Initial blood tests were inconclusive, only saying that there had been inflammation in my system recently, but I already knew that. Likewise with a CT scan of my neck; it mainly noted some lymph and gland swelling. The golf ball lump was a salivary gland gone wild and already reducing in size. And the neck scan results seemed to eliminate any thyroid involvement. I guess I was hoping it might eliminate the C word, too. But no.

I’ve read and heard from others that when “cancer” is spoken, even as a possibility, that that is all the patient can hear. The word reverberates in a patient’s head, and they can’t remember what else might have been talked about. Having worked in medical school training in the area of patient communications, I knew I had to hold tight and pay attention to any other words the doctor might be saying.

And I’m glad I did. I took a deep breath and focused on his fuller words; sometimes repeating his phrases to help remember them. But mostly what I recall is this: a fast-talking but kind doctor who seemed to be taking me on–not just my condition, but me. In the brief time we were together, we found common ground with both of us having daughters making a life in Los Angeles, and both us of anticipating a vacation in the next week. We will both be out of state when my lab results arrive.

He told me I could call in to one of his partners for biopsy results a week from Friday, but my immediate reaction was to think, “No, I’ll wait until you’re back from your trip.” I’ll still be away, but if I wait to call on Monday, he’ll be there. As if he was reading my mind, he added, “But I’m the one who has met you and examined you. I’d like to be the one who shares these results with you, whatever they are.” I felt the care right there. I want to wait. I may change my mind, but for now, I will wait over an additional weekend and talk with Dr. Mahle on his return.

I asked about what he was seeing in the biopsied material, now lingering in a test tube on the counter in front of me. He told me that thyroid-related growths–I believe this is correct–tend to look purple. That was not the case with mine. I questioned whether they looked to his eye like a tumor. He said that the look of the cells, paired with the nightsweats I’ve been having, is sometimes indicative of lymphoma. It’s the “L” version of the “C” word, cancer within the lymphatic system. OK. There it is.

I went back to work and found myself drifting into thoughts like: “If it’s lymphoma, what does the end-story look like?” “Do I need to update my will?” “When will I tell my mother, my kids, my co-workers, friends, church?” “Just how sick am I going to get?” “Will I need radiation?” “Can I exercise?” “Do I have to exercise?” “Can I justify eating ice cream instead of broccoli tonight?” The rest were so off-the-wall that I won’t even write them down. I couldn’t avoid looking up lymphoma on the web’s medical sites even though Dr. Mahle said “half the medical information the web is written by crazy people, and you can’t tell which half.” He made me laugh with that, even though I had just had a cordless drill in my neck.

All I know with any certainty is this: waiting is hard. I’ve waited about 6 weeks to get this far along toward a diagnosis. But after a night’s sleep–I won’t get into the weird dreams–my head is no longer spinning. I know this could all be benign. Or I could turn out to be a patient with cancer. But I am surrounded by loving, caring people who will stand by me either way. And my faith makes me stronger today than I was yesterday.

UPDATE: I wrote this as health events were just unfolding in 2015. Things got better, then worse. I chose not to post this at the time I wrote this, but on reviewing it now, it seems very true to my experience. I’m doing well now and I plan to post more about this soon.

About Ron Dauphin

Photographer, writer, proud dad, and UCC pastor.
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