The Preliminary C Diagnosis: Looking Back
A year ago today I received a call when I was at work. It was the director of the Lymphoma center at Columbia. I went into the bathroom to take the call. Gently but without mincing any words, he informed me that the preliminary results of my needle biopsy were in: I had lymphoma. More testing needed to be done to determine precisely which form of Lymphoma I had – Hodgkin’s vs non, and even within non, there are over 80 different known forms. So I had to schedule an appointment with the oncology center in a week and by then the full results should be in and we’d have a specific plan of action. More waiting, but there it was. I had cancer.
Over the past few weeks I’ve had my preliminary series of cancerversaries. March 22 was one year since I first called up the doctor saying I needed a CT scan, and sure enough I went in and got that CT scan because when my doctor pulled up my X-ray results he paused and said well it looks like you’ve earned that CT scan after all. I hadn’t wanted to be right about that one.
March 23 was one year since I got a call from the hospital saying I needed a PET scan; one year since I got an email from my doctor with the detailed CT report. One year since I found out I had a growth the size of a grapefruit in my chest. One year since I found out there was a pretty solid chance I had cancer.
March 29 was one year since I got that first PET scan. Which determined I had activity. I had to lay on my back, unmoving in the cold machine, arms overhead for what seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t sleep on my back at that point because the pressure of the mass caused me to cough. It caused discomfort. It caused pain. So laying there, as still as possible for what seemed like an eternity, terrified that if i moved too much we’d have to start all over, was excruciating.
I held it back as long as I could, taking short shallow breaths, and right before the scan was finished, I erupted into a coughing fit, trying to maintain my position but unable to prevent the full body spasm and rolled onto my side. They ran out and said it was ok, I was done, and as I sat up and pulled my legs over the edge I saw a doctor in the scanning room, or maybe a technician, look at out me, and deep down I knew.
But you don’t officially know until the doctor officially confirms. So I held out hope anyway. Because when all you can do is wait in the face of an uncertain future, all there is left is hope.
April 1 was one year since I met with the surgeon – the top CT surgeon at Columbia, who told me this wasn’t a job for him. Who told me the PET scan showed activity, and activity indicates cancer cells. And cancer cells in a mass like mine require chemo, not surgery. One year since the surgeon told me his best guess was lymphoma. One year since I found out I would likely lose my hair, and no, this was not a cruel April Fool’s joke.
I continued to hold out hope.
April 5, two days ago, was one year since I had a 5am wakeup call for a 7am needle biopsy. One year since the doctors had to make sure I understood the nature of the risk of the procedure. The mass they needed to test was adjacent to both my heart and lungs. There was a risk of piercing both. And I hadn’t eaten cuz I wasn’t allowed to. And naturally I had hardly slept because insomnia ruled my life.
April 5 was one year since I had my first of three vasovagal reactions that morning, before anything even happened. Meaning, I basically fainted even though I was already reclining. Meaning, my blood pressure dropped into the teens, just from the idea of inserting the IV. Then afterward in recovery, it happened twice more – once when I first tried to sit up. My blood pressure went even lower. Then again, a while later, after feeding and hydrating and monitoring by the nurse, when I tried to sit up to get the heck out. My body had had enough.
The scans were one thing, but this was another. This was my first real hospital admission aside from a precautionary standard protocol trip after a car accident my senior year of college. This was my first surgical procedure aside from wisdom teeth extraction. This was a dance with my own mortality.
When I think back on that day, when I was lying there in the hospital, in extreme discomfort because lying on my back was nearly impossible due to the pressure of the growth, what I remember is how lonely, cold, bleak, stark, and gray life felt. Afterward I put on a brave face after going through some version of hell. Patched up but not Whole.
And that needle biopsy confirmed what I already knew was true, exactly one year ago today: I had Lymphoma. I had cancer.
Fast forward exactly one year: this Wednesday, April 5, I also had a 5am wake up call, but this time for a 7am dance party. This year, one year after I was in the hospital dancing with the very real reality of death, I was living my life. I danced for two hours with one of my best friends, surrounded by joy and love, walked over nine miles, did 1.5 hours of yoga, and got lots of fresh air and sunshine. This year, one year later, I felt stronger and more powerful than ever. My day was filled with vibrance and friends and joy and laughter and hugs and love and light and SO MUCH LIFE, and as I walked out of yoga I looked up to see the sky ablaze. It was beautiful and so perfect.
I didn’t even realize the parallels and perpendiculars of that day one year ago to two days ago, until I walked out of yoga class and saw the sunset, glowing and shining. 5am wake up calls, but totally opposite experiences. A year ago I was dancing with mortality and death. This year I was dancing with life, experiencing life, living life. I was full of joy, full of light, full of love.
One year ago today, my life fell apart in one moment, with one word. Lymphoma. I fought back the tears. I had known this was a near inevitable outcome. For weeks I had prepared myself and treated it as if I had cancer. I did the research. I accepted this possibility. But nothing can prepare you for that moment. And I couldn’t hold it back any longer. I broke down.
But still, there was hope.
And here I am today, reflecting on how much has changed in the last year. My life has completely transformed, and I’m in love with it. Here I am, celebrating so much.
Here I am, alive and well. Here I am, full of life. Here I am, full of hope.
Here I am.