"I like to call this the ongoing conclusion. As Kim exemplifies, the point of the story is that it doesn't end. It is the most telling aspect - Survival..." JM
Over the next forty eight hours, I found myself surrounded by an influx of family members, friends, and acquaintances; the front door instantly became a revolving door of curious guests, those sincere in their well wishes, and others who were somehow guilt ridden into seeing ‘the sick kid’ before impending doom. Movies, snacks and small talk filled the hours until I was to be introduced to my new life. Excisional lymph node biopsy was scheduled for Monday morning at the Children’s hospital; this gave me the opportunity of one more weekend to live as a normal teenager; unfortunately there wasn’t anything normal about my situation. How does one prepare to be told they have cancer? It’s a question I often think of now.
The vacancy in my parents’ eyes didn’t go without notice. Boisterous and outspoken qualities that I had learned to treasure were replaced with silent fear. Years later, I realize that they had done their research as well, and were preparing a united front into accepting a potentially terminal diagnosis for their oldest child.
The operating room is not an inviting place. The surroundings are cold and metallic, sterile; yes I guess they have to be when dealing with life or death. Instantly a chill took over my body and it became unstoppable. My normally soft skin replaced with a slew of goose- bumps peeking through the fashionable hospital garb including slippers and a net cap. Anesthesia is introduced and a burning sensation causes me to yelp in discomfort at the needle stick and then I am able to relax. I’m instructed to begin counting backwards: five, four, three, two, one………
I fully awaken two days later into a world wind of developments. A disheveled body is asleep on an uncomfortable makeshift bed. My eyesight adjusts and my father’s features become clearer. He has aged in days. Minutes later my mother arrived, her facial features drawn, dark circles under her eyes, and the remnants of a good cry; she carried a cup of coffee for each of them. I quickly noticed their eyes lock into a stare and suddenly words weren’t necessary. “I guess we need to talk, huh?”
Seconds pass and a nurse arrives to check my vital signs. I realize that I am weak, a few days without sufficient nutritional intake, and I need assistance to stand to go to the bathroom. “Damn” I yell as I’m cursed with nature’s monthly gift to women; how embarrassing. Teenager… Hospitalized… Menstrual cycle… No privacy. Could it get worse?
A handsome young doctor enters my room on the sixth floor of the hospital. He puts out his hand to introduce himself; he is a new face to me, but not to my parents. Their paths had crossed.
“I’d like to talk to you about your biopsy results. During the initial procedure, we also did a bone marrow biopsy and I’m sorry to tell you that you have a type of cancer known as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma”. Pause. My mouth opens slowly as my brain registers what he has just told me. “Get the hell out of my room, now”. He quietly steps out and my father follows him. I hear “I’m sorry” again. Sorry doesn’t cut it.
I asked my mother for paper and a pen and I quickly put it to use. How long until I die? Will my hair fall out? Is there treatment and will I feel sick? Can I go back to school? And finally, why me? I didn’t smoke, hadn’t tried drugs, and maybe took a few sips of alcohol at a family party, but that was it. How was I chosen? In fact, how is anyone chosen? Being diagnosed with cancer at any age is traumatizing. It is especially so during the teenage years when vanity is in and hair loss and bloating due to legal steroid use is not.
Luckily for me, I was able to be discharged home after a short four day hospital stay. I was instructed to rest in preparation for further testing which would determine how extensive my cancer was and what treatment protocol I would be assigned. So much for going back to school in time for the spring dance and biology midterm; bring on the wigs and bandana and so long to the formal wear.
Within a week, the handsome doctor who I had not so nicely kicked out of my room was once again delivering news. The symptoms I had been experiencing for months, and thought to be related to ‘just’ a viral syndrome, were actually tell tale signs of a potentially life threatening disease. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma can present with classic systemic symptoms of fever, night sweats and weight loss. I had all three. Although causes are unknown, Epstein Bar virus may play a role in this malignant disease of lymphoid tissue. Yup, I had that too. Initial staging of disease is critical to therapy, which is why every part of my body was scanned; searching for cancer anywhere it could hide was the mission of my new doctor and soon to be friend. Deep within my chest a tumor grew to be the size of a grapefruit over the course of the preceding months. It wasn’t palpable, but it was slowly trying to give me a clue to its existence. The problem was I wasn’t listening. Despite losing some weight, I was still on the heavier side. The shortness of breath from the tumor was mistaken for the result of too many French fries and an extra serving of ice cream. The specialists had met and reviewed my case at Tumor Board, an interdisciplinary group made up of the best and brightest medicine has to offer. My disease was classified as Stage IIIB. Chemotherapy and Radiation were now planned for the next 8-9 months. Was I prepared? Attempting to sleep that night was impossible; I could only hear one word over and over in my dreams. Fight.