Three Little Words
“It’s a cloudy day…”. A raunchy song from the band Cosmic Nomads (one of my clients), looped around inside my head, as I walked the short distance to my local GP. The day was indeed cloudy and cool, unusually so for an Australian summer.
I don’t know why that song popped into in my head. Round and round it went, interspersed with another song from Coldplay, “Don’t Panic”. The two songs segued musically together rather well, but not lyrically. One was dark, the other happy. The walk up the stairs to the surgery seemed to take a long time. Or was it that time had stretched itself?
“You have cancer” she stated matter-of-factly, though with a concerned look in her eyes. “Oh, I had a feeling.” I was more concerned about my client arriving at the studio in a few minutes. Can’t be late. “I have a client soon, I must go. I’ll come back this evening.”
How quickly your life can be turned around, twisted inside out, and flipped upside down, with those three little words my GP uttered.
I don’t remember whether I did a good job or not for Rob. I guess I must have, as there were no complaints, and he has been back with different projects a few more times since that cloudy day. Hope he did not see my intermittent tears – at least with a job like mine you don’t have to look eye-to-eye with the client too often - just look and talk to the tools in front you, create nice sounds, and gaze at the computer screen. I was now on “auto pilot”.
And now for the ingredients, and the recipe for those three little words, the recipe that no one wants to try:
In a large melting pot put one hard-boiled egg, add a mild sore throat, mix in a dash of sneeze, a bit of a temperature, some paranoia…and voila!
I had been to see my local GP regarding another problem, and was prescribed antibiotics. Good, I thought, maybe the antibiotics would help shrink that swollen gland in my neck. I’d had “flu” and swollen glands a few too many times during the last 12 months, but being a “bronchial” child and adult, I wasn’t overly concerned. Why visit the doctor over something as trivial as a cold, or swollen glands?
The gland, now affectionately called my “hard-boiled egg”, did not shrink, it seemed to grow a little larger. A blood test was ordered and the results were fine, nothing much to worry about. But, when I mentioned to my doctor that I was still concerned about my “hard-boiled egg”, an Ultrasound was ordered, as soon as possible.
The Ultrasound done, I gathered my reports and X-rays from the diagnosis centre, and promptly read them before seeing my GP. I always liked to know what is going on first, to be forewarned. Wasn’t that what you were taught in the Girl Guides, their motto being, “always be prepared”?
The histology report recommended an Ultrasound-guided Biopsy, which was performed a couple of days later. That was fascinating, watching on the screen as the doctor poked into my “hard-boiled egg” a few times with a syringe, gathering samples for Pathology. At times I find it better to watch what is going on, to alleviate my fears, and reduce the slight feeling of pain – “Meredith tolerated the procedure well”, was written on the report. Ha! Little did they know!
This biopsy returned positive for cancer in the neck lymph node, which was the secondary tumour as I learned later. I was referred to an Ear, Nose and Throat Oncologist Surgeon, after a chest X-ray that returned with clear results. A surgical biopsy to be performed in hospital was next on the agenda, to locate the primary tumour, suspected to be near my tonsil.
Things were beginning to sink in that I wasn’t well, but, I didn’t want to accept that I had cancer. I was too busy in my personal and business life to be bogged down with other problems. To me, it was just another experience, another learning curve, in the wonderful pattern of life, but for what reason I did not know, and still do not.
Now came my first visit to a hospital for this biopsy. I was told it would be only Day Surgery, but my sister, Kris, suggested I take some nightwear, as they may keep me in overnight. Nah, I thought, I’ll be up and out of there that evening, besides, Mum wanted to collect me. Kris was right, being more experienced with hospitals than I, and I had my overnight stay.
I was frightened of course, never having experienced a general anaesthetic, and I was more worried about having no control over my senses. What will they do to me without my knowledge? Stories you hear…golden staph…instruments left in the body…maybe I won’t go home? Was I already knocking at those “Pearly Gates”, or were the other ones beckoning, half open?
What scared me even more was in the Recovery ward - I found that I couldn’t breathe, being partially asthmatic. It was frightening, I was suffocating, and trying to lift my arm to signal that I had no air, but still groggy I must have looked rather silly! Ventolin was given. Heaven, I could breathe again. This was only a biopsy, I thought? What if I must have major surgery? The next morning, it felt like my throat had been ripped apart, and boy, was it difficult to swallow anything, even water.
There were a few days to wait for my Pathology results, which wasn’t a very pleasant time, not knowing, as I was unable to read my reports. They were in the hands of the Surgeon and I couldn’t do my usual sneaky preview. So thank goodness when I returned to work soon after hospital I was very busy. My business partner (and husband) was away on business, and it was my turn to hold the fort, as we had no staff to call upon at such short notice. The phone rang hot, and I had to postpone or cancel a few jobs. The chaos kept my mind busy, too busy to face the cold hard reality that I had cancer, and that there was a long, tough road ahead of me.
Those two songs still churned around in my head, the Cosmic Nomads leading the affray…“who’s that over yonder, all dressed in black…I don’t wanna die before my time…I wanna better life instead… well, you can take my bones and my chromosomes, but you can’t take my soul…”.
Then Coldplay’s song “Don’t Panic” joined in “…all I know is nothing to run from… ’cause everybody here has someone to lean on…we live in a beautiful world….”. Two very different songs, different moods, and I wondered which song was the closest to the prediction of my new future.
The biopsy result returned positive, a “poorly differentiated squamous cell carcinoma, with metastasis to the left lymph node”. A CT scan was next. New terminology to learn. Things started to move really fast from then onwards, and now everything became a blur.
A visit to the Head and Neck Cancer Clinic at a major hospital, in the Radiation Oncology unit was next, where I was examined by various Doctors and Radiologists. There were about ten or more in the room, looking down my throat, feeling my “hard-boiled egg”, then studying the “photo shoot” from my CT scans. They sent me out to wait in Reception, while they conferred over my predicament. Surgery first, or radiation? Chemo? After about 20 minutes of discussion behind closed doors, they invited me into another room where I was informed of their decision. Surgery first, followed by radiotherapy.
“What if no surgery?” I queried, being frightened of major surgery.
“If there is radiation only, there is no guarantee that the secondary tumour will shrink, and the radiation would kill the primary. Then you would have to have surgery anyway, and perhaps you wouldn’t be able to have radiation after that for quite some time.”
I thought for a while, and decided this appeared the logical way to deal with my problem. Got to be tough, trust the doctors, don’t be scared of surgery, I’m sure I am in the best of hands.
Next I visited the hospital’s Dental Surgeon for my teeth to be examined, maybe some would have to be removed before surgery and radiation. Apparently teeth should not be removed after radiation, as other problems may occur, such as osteoradionecrosis, where the extracted area may not heal. Radiation therapy is not very kind to your body, bones rot, besides other matters which may result from the “poison”. Luckily for me, my teeth were in good order, and no extractions were necessary. Phew! Almost as scared of the dentist as I am of surgery!
I visited my Oncologist Surgeon again and booked in for surgery, a week later than he would have liked, but being near Christmas, I wanted to have a “last supper”, and enjoy some Christmas “cheer” with friends. The Surgeon had sinusitis also, and the last thing I felt like was having him sneeze whilst chopping, or to be on medication himself. “Whoops! Sorry about your head, just a slip of the knife”. My mind filled with sick corny sayings and dark humour, which helped me cope with the cold hard reality of my mortality.
The surgery went well, and out of the 41 lymph nodes removed, only one was positive. My stay in hospital was fine, and they remembered the Ventolin for me in Recovery.
For seven days I was in hospital, and it was amusing getting out of bed, or going to the bathroom, juggling the saline drip on its pedestal, and two drains coming out of my chest to grasp onto as well. I called my drains “bull’s testicles”, as that was what they resembled when filled with a reddish liquid, soft and bulbous (not that I really knew what bull’s testicles felt like!) Many times I became tangled with these confounded tubes and “balls” - get out of bed on the wrong side, then get back in to perform a 360 degree turn around, untangle my arms. Showering? That was another adventure – looking back, I think it would be more practical if humans had more hands!
When my “balls” were to be removed the nurse said, “Now wriggle your toes, take a deep breath, and breathe out slowly”. I did as I was told.
“I’m sorry if I hurt you”, she looked concerned.
“No, that…that was…okay…” I grimaced a little, then smiled, “I have no feeling there at all!”. From above my ear down to my breast, then along to my shoulder I had no feeling.
“You sly bugger!” she grinned.
I could not praise the nurses more highly during my stay, underpaid for their capabilities and duties. And what a tough job they have, being kind and caring to all and sundry, especially to the couple of grumpy patients who shared my ward. I was going to miss the nurses, but I don’t think I really miss them enough to repeat this episode of my life again!
I was released on Christmas Eve, and tomorrow would be the first Christmas Day since I was small, that I could relax, have others wait on me. Meanwhile, I “cruised” on my painkillers and champagne, in between sipping the wonderful, flavoursome “Sustagen”, a food supplement drink.It was great to be out in the land of the living, amongst family and friends. The disappointment of the day was only being able to gaze longingly at the scrumptious food filling the large table in front of me, beckoning…smiling…saying, “eat me…eat me…”