A woman looks back over her shoulder at the path behind her

Reflecting Back on Getting the Initial Diagnosis

My first thought was for my family. At first, the words stunned. "Looks like advanced lung cancer, we’ll know more when we can get a biopsy." When the words stopped echoing in my brain my thoughts first went to my family.

A road I've traveled before...

This is a road I’d traveled before. Three and a half years earlier we’d heard those same words used to diagnose my mom when they found her brain metastases. Well do I remember the shocked looks on the faces of my siblings and I’m sure my face reflected theirs. I don’t think that we wore any other expressions for days. It’s a face I came to recognize on the family members of the families of the newly diagnosed. I could look at them and know how recent their gut check had been.

And now I was the reason my family would wear that expression again.

My mother's fight with lung cancer

To be fair, my experience was not nearly as dramatic as mom’s had been. She had gone to her internist with severe headaches that didn’t let up. Her doctor sent her home with a prescription for a spray. The next day she went to urgent care, her sinuses were clear. The doctor there did a simple neuromotor test and then told her it was probably a brain tumor. She shouldn’t drive. Does she have a ride or should they call an ambulance? Her fight lasted a short 4 1/2 months.

Guilt overshadowed fear

More than fear of cancer, I was wrought with guilt. Guilt because of the trials I was about to put my family through. Guilt because I was never successful in any of the dozens I’d tried to quit smoking. Guilt because I believed I’d done this to myself. No one deserves cancer. I know that now but I believed then that I did. Later I would learn that those who smoke are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer.1

That day in October I learned that Mondays are the ED’s busiest day. I went in thinking I was having a heart attack because I was short of breath and my heart was racing. They did an electrocardiograph and a chest X-ray the sent me back to chairs. Eight hours later they finally put me in a bay and gave me the news. Cancer. I would be admitted for a few days because of my sick and weakened condition. When I asked the doctor for a favor I could see he was bracing for an unpleasant conversation. When I asked for a nicotine patch his features softened. He told me every other patient he had asked to go smoke one last cigarette. He then offered an opinion that I might be one of the few that make it. A pronouncement I would never forget.

Overcoming my biggest fear

The thought of calling my family and trying to tell them what was going on was overwhelming. When the morning came I called my friend Carole. I told her I was going to have a biopsy, I was alone, terrified and could she come be with me. Talking to her gave me a piece of courage. I called my cousin-in-law, Dave, next because he is married to the cousin I am closest to, and because I knew his wife Deb would be at work, I did not want to take her away from her job. Dave agreed to call my family on my behalf and I will always be grateful to him for that.

Moving forward

Within an hour, Deb was at the hospital. Within a couple of hours, my sister Jan arrived from Indiana. The next few days are a blur of tests, family, friends, and coworkers. At that point I was too weak to make it up the 3 flights of stairs to my apartment, plans were made and I moved in with my cousin because I wanted to stay in the city I called home.

My mom had shown me the gracious way to handle the rollercoaster ride I was embarking on. She looked for something beautiful to cherish each day. It’s a habit that still sustains me.

Almost ten years have passed since my diagnosis. I will never forget the way the emergency room doctor’s face softened and the tone of his voice when he told me that I might just make it. His pronouncement set the tone for an amazing ride.

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