I recently had a five-year gynecological examination that found no evidence my endometrial cancer had returned. It was scary. I saw a new doctor in a new state and had insurance–for a change. I gave her a summary of my medical care from 2011. She performed a visual examination and took a pap smear. She told me that I should hear from her in about two weeks, if the tests showed any abnormality. If I heard nothing, then I had nothing to fear.
Of course I held my breath when she said that. I would face my fears again and again every day for those two weeks. On the last of those days, I felt brave and confident that I had survived for the five years that would reinforce my status as a survivor. Then I got a voicemail message that scared me. The doctor said that my test result was abnormal. She paused. It was a long pause.
My pulse raced. I heard my tinnitus rise in volume. I broke out in an oily sweat that wet the back of my neck in an instant. Cancer. It can return. It can come in a different form. It can lay waste to dreams and disturb peace of mind. It has left scars on my body and on my psyche. I knew I was strong enough to face whatever news was coming. That did not change my fear. It heightened it. I very much wanted to learn that I was okay.
I do not think of myself as having beaten cancer. I survive it. If it was an enemy that fought with me, I would have a battle with it. However, cancer is not like other enemies. It does not play fair. It hides. It uses tools you think are your own like your native strength (if it can), leaving you depleted for the next round of treatment.
I am grateful to God for my ongoing life. But I do not believe I was saved by my good behavior any more than I believe cancer is a punishment for bad behavior. It is just cancer–a disease for which we have treatments but not many cures. In my experience with cancer, I have been operated upon. Organs were removed. I have been subjected to radiation that burned what was a likely point for cancer to spread. I have been injected with chemotherapy drugs that scorched my cells in unforgettable ways. I have been treated, not cured. A cure would have left me well, not recovering with fingers crossed and my eyes focused on a calendar that seemed to pass before me very slowly. If I believed in earning my time here through good acts, I would be judging those who also receive a diagnosis of cancer and see time run out before it should. They no more deserve cancer than I did.
My doctor finally finished her message by saying that the results were abnormal because my cervix was removed back in 2011. She said I no longer needed to have this test. I can put behind me the fear that the cancer will return . . . there.
It still makes my temples pound to think about how I reacted to that long pause. Instead of relief when it ended, I felt something closer to grief. Surviving for five plus years what you fear very much is tough work. I cannot think of any comparable experience in my life. Sometime in the space of five and a half years from diagnosis to that physical exam I lost things I cannot regain–illusions, confidence, opportunities, resources, and more. I gained things, too, like friends’ and family’s support, perspective on what is important in life, and more.
I still had to go for a mammogram. No evidence of cancer there. I haven’t yet gone for my colonoscopy. Something else came up before I could make that appointment.
On May 15, I felt a small bump on my abdomen. It was red and painful. I made an appointment to see a doctor on the morning of May 17. Then I went back to the task that consumed me at the time. I read final exams of my law students and concluded grading my first-year law students’ papers. On May 16 I woke and realized that my pain was far worse than it was only a day earlier. Bands of pain seemed to cross from the right side of my body to the midline. I went to a meeting of our legal research and writing faculty at which we were going to discuss candidates for our law fellow program. I told my colleagues that I would appreciate our discussing my students early because, at the conclusion of the meeting, I would either drive home or to a hospital emergency room.
Traffic was heavy. I ended up going home and going right to bed. I gulped down some cold water and fell into a fitful sleep. When I woke, I felt hot, but I could not find my thermometer. I was not sure if I had a fever. I only knew that my small, red bump hurt like hell. I went back to bed.
At 5:30 the next morning the pain went from that single red bump to the left side of my abdomen. I knew something was very wrong, but I had no idea what it was that made me feel so overwhelmed by pain.
I called my sister and asked her to take me to the emergency room. I had a doctor’s appointment for later that morning, but a six-hour wait seemed interminable. We drove to the hospital.
The resident examined me and was stumped. She thought it might be advisable to send me home to let the red bump “fester” so there would be something to lance. I could not imagine waiting for my condition to worsen. It felt like it could not get much worse.
I am grateful that the E.R. doctor on duty came to evaluate me before any decision could be made. He recognized what the resident did not. I had a flesh-eating infection that already was advanced enough to threaten my life. He said he wanted to admit me, begin pushing antibiotics, and get me in front of a surgeon.
I had to ask myself whether I had survived cancer to die from a bizarre infection. At that point, I knew of only one other person who had ever had such an infection. He is a friend of my brother. He spent time in a coma, had a chunk of his chest removed to keep the infection from spreading to his heart, and had to go through kidney dialysis for some time after doctors halted the spread of his infection. He was lucky. Many who have had a flesh-eating infection have died. I had to wonder whether I could survive yet another dangerous condition. Had cancer left me strong enough to resist a deadly infection?