Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’ Up to – ‘Ovarian Cancer by Google’
Back to previous post – ‘The ostrich’
At the end of July I find myself surrounded by impenetrable walls. I’m trapped inside a cubicle made of reinforced cement. There are no windows, there are no doors and the air is heavy and is suffocating me. I try to run, but the bloated abdomen drags me down, I try to hide, but the distorted groins slash at my every movement and make me cry out in pain.
I’ve reached the end of make-believe and Lah-Lah Land.
Encircled by heavy, diseased walls that cannot be seen or climbed, not even me, a terrified ostrich bird can dream and hide any more.
There’s no point in clinging to false hopes any longer either.
The miracle I was praying for? The common infection that acts like a sweet-good-girl and goes away all by itself?
Clearly not happening.
With each passing day I’m getting sicker and sicker, I’m ballooning out of proportions, chased and hunted, out and away from my body and my world.
And I still can’t quite understand what’s really wrong with me.
Baffled by the apparent cacophony of my symptoms I’m unable to make sense of any of it. Questions are criss-crossing my mind, at ever-increasing pace, more and more urgent.
‘What’s happening to me?’ – I ask myself. ‘What is this? What am I really dealing with?’
It took me almost two months of pains and continuously worsening conditions to get here, but the time for factual, clear answers has finally arrived.
Ostrich no more, today I want to know.
The need to know is growing so strong it even overcomes my fears.
This is an imperative.
I must, I have to know.
I glance at my computer.
There he is, so inviting, so simple and white. Google, my trusted friend with his immense treasure of knowledge. I can feel the temptation arising. My fingers are itching and I’m literally dying to launch a search.
‘Go on Andrea!’ – the voice inside me urges, ‘search for bloated abdomen and swollen groins and let us see the results!’
But, mostly out of fear, (oh please, give me one more day of blissful ignorance), I decide not to.
Instead of using the internet and getting bombarded with a lot of information that might not even be relevant to me, I have a better solution.
I am going to see a doctor.
Yes, you heard that right!
Me, – the ignoble, trembling sissy, I am finally going to take action!
The cubicle’s menacing cement walls are sliding ever closer and closer, choking and suffocating me. There’s no more time.
‘Tomorrow,’ – I promise myself. ‘First thing, tomorrow!’
The very next day I crawl to the nearest pharmacy and ask for a list of family doctors in the area. They give me a few names and addresses, and I start visiting some of the cabinets.
In the end, I pick Doctor Patricia McNicholl.
She is located in the Bayside area, a short 5 minutes walk from my home. Her cabinet is welcoming, and so clean and it always smells nice. Her receptionist is lovely too.
Standing in front of the desk, I give her my name and she books an appointment for me, for the very next day.
All the while I’m so terrified, I’m shaking.
The receptionist is a kind and caring woman. She looks at me and senses my fear.
– ‘Can I help you?’ – she asks. ‘Is there something wrong?’
Immediately I start pouring my story.
This is the first time I have the chance to talk to someone who is, even if only remotely, related to the medical field and the words are coming out at cascading pace:
– ‘My groins on the left side are so swollen, and there’s a visible bulge growing here, look!-here! and my belly is always bloated and the pain is so bad, I can barely walk!’
– ‘Oh! Andrea,’ – she says, ‘do you have a swelling in your groins? That’s probably a hernia!’
I’m so elated, I want to jump up her desk and give her a kiss.
‘A hernia would be just dandy,’ I tell to myself, ‘so wonderful, thank you God!’
Of course, even a trivial hernia is a nuisance for a chicken like me. I am afraid of the surgery and I would rather avoid it, but in the end, a hernia is a hernia, nothing like cancer and the news is good.
Doctor Patricia McNicholl’s receptionist is not a nurse. She has no medical training but she is the very first person working for the health department, to listen to my symptoms and immediately mention a hernia.
A number of doctors, a lot more qualified and with no fault of their own, will soon follow.
That night I barely manage to sleep.
‘Tomorrow I will see a doctor! A doctor!’ – I can’t quite believe I’m brave enough to take that step.
A million questions cross my mind. ‘What will she tell me? Is this really a hernia? Will I have surgery? Can I not just ignore it and let it be? Perhaps it will go away soon enough and surgery won’t even be necessary?’
I’m worried but I’m also proud of myself.
At long last I’m taking control.
‘Tomorrow I will see a doctor!’ – smiling and hopeful, I drift away to sleep.
In the morning I get up, get dressed and ready, and arrive at the doctor’s cabinet 10 minutes early.
Sitting on a chair in the waiting lounge, I pretend to browse a magazine and I can hear my heart racing. I’m so terrified of the future and what the doctor might have to tell me, that I’m seriously considering all sorts of excuses to beat a hasty retreat and start galloping out of there.
But then, there she is.
Standing in the door, doctor Patricia McNicholl smiles and invites me in:
– ‘Come on in, Andrea!’ – she says.
I get up from the chair and step inside her cabinet.
Behind me the door closes.
Cling-clang the handle slides in.
Tic-toc, the clock sounds.
That sound and that moment, I will never forget.
From that day on, my life will never be mine again.
Controlled by cancerous strings I will become nothing more but a puppet.
Doctor Patricia McNicholl is a woman of my age. Around 50 years old, her hair is dark and short. She wears glasses, her gaze is intense and intelligent and her presence is professional and reassuring.
(Travelling through my journey with cancer, I will find myself coming back to her cabinet, many, many times in the future. She will never fail me.)
But today we’re only at the beginning.
Doctor McNicholl has never seen me before and she starts with the introductory questions about my medical history.
There’s not much to say.
Umbilical hernia at the age of 8, hepatitis type A at 23, atrial fibrillation at 35. Except for the unavoidable occasional cold and flu, I’ve enjoyed quite a healthy life.
-‘How can I help you today?’ – she asks.
I tell her everything, starting with the urgency to go to the toilet. She immediately thinks of a urinary infection and asks me to give her a sample of my urine.
I can sense she is hopeful.
I am too.
Quickly, I run up the stairs to the toilet and bring her back the sample.
She compares it with a coloured chart.
– ‘Hmm,’ – she says, ‘it looks normal’. There’s disappointment in her voice. ‘This is probably not a urinary infection.’
I tell her about the bloated abdomen and the puffy ball that lives in there. I tell her about the swollen groins. She wants to have a look and I lie down on the on the clean, white bed.
I’m dizzy with fear.
I pull down my jeans, expose the belly, and there it is, my distorted, enlarged groin, clearly visible. With her hand, gently and slowly, she starts feeling the swelling.
Two seconds later, I jump up in pain. It hurts.
– ‘Is it painful?’ – she asks.
– ‘Yes, it is’.
She proceeds to examine the rest of my abdomen, carefully exploring the stomach, the liver, the uterus and ovaries.
Nothing hurts and everything feels normal.
But the examination is not quite over yet.
Her hand returns on the area at the end of my pelvic, right where the abdomen ends, and keeps on pressing there, again and again. She is clearly insisting and searching for a certain, specific sign.
– ‘Does it hurt here?’
– ‘No, not at all’
One more try, one more push.
– ‘Still nothing?’ she asks.
– ‘No, nothing’.
What doctor McNicholl is trying to do, is to find the hernia. But of course, there is no hernia and she can’t feel anything else abnormal either.
– ‘All right Andrea, you can get up now’, – she tells me.
Lifting myself up from the bed I’m shaking head to toes. I can barely gather enough courage to ask:
– ‘What do you think this is, doctor?’
‘Oh God, what is she going to tell me? Why did I even ask?’)
She looks at me, and I know she knows I am scared.
Her voice is reassuring and calm.
– ‘Andrea, your lymph nodes on the left side are enlarged. This can indicate something as trivial as a common infection, or perhaps, but not very likely, a much more serious problem’.
(Lymph nodes? Enlarged lymph nodes? What lymph nodes?
This bit of news is coming to me like a bolt from the blue. It is the very first time when the idea of lymph nodes under attack is presented to me and I’m taken completely by surprise).
I sit down on the chair and I can hear my own heart beating in fear. Gradually, at a snail pace, I utter the words:
– ‘Can this be cancer?’
She turns to me, her gaze is intense and her answer is honest.
(please say no, please say no)
– ‘Yes, it can be’.
(oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god)
– ‘But in your case, I’m hopeful that it is not’ – she continues. ‘A cancerous lymph node is normally solid and painless. Yours hurts and it feels soft’.
She looks at me with comforting eyes.
– ‘Andrea, this is most probably something else, not cancer. Cancer is rare, while infections are very common. But we can not be sure until we have performed a number of tests. You need to go to the hospital. You need to go there tomorrow, this is urgent’.
(urgent? did she just say urgent? hospital? oh no! that’s the last place I want to go! and I’m so busy right now, I don’t want to waste time endlessly waiting in hospital lounges!)
I am not giving up on the hernia. I try again and this time I’m almost begging.
– ‘Doctor McNicholl, what about a hernia? Can this not be a hernia?’
– ‘It could be, but there’s a problem’, – she replies. ‘I examined you and I cannot feel it. You need a scan Andrea; a scan will clear up most of these questions. Go to the hospital!’
She writes a note addressed to Beaumont Hospital – Emergency Room. She puts it into an envelope and gives it to me.
– ‘Bring this note with you. I don’t want you to worry unnecessarily, but I don’t want you to delay either. Go there as soon as you can’.
Looking back in time at my first appointment with her, I have to say that Doctor McNicholl had done her job flawlessly.
Faced with patients complaining of symptoms similar to mine, doctors, quite often, prescribe antibiotics for the enlarged lymph node and treat the bloated abdomen as a common indigestion.
Not the same with Doctor McNicholl.
There was no talk or sight whatsoever of antibiotics, and she did not even mention the dreaded, catch-all terms of ‘upset stomach’ or ‘indigestion’.
By sending me immediately for specialized tests and examinations, she did the best job she possibly could. To this day, I’m grateful to her.
(Note to yourselves ladies,
an indigestion is a very common misdiagnosis for a bloated abdomen caused by a silent ovarian cancer. If the feeling of bloating lasts for more than 2 weeks, insist on being recommended to a specialist and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer!)
My consultation is now over. I thank the doctor and close the doors of the cabinet behind me.
Deep down I feel shuttered and confused.
‘Swollen lymph nodes?’ – I keep on asking myself. ‘What does that even mean? Where on Earth are those lymph nodes and what did she actually feel down there?’
I crawl back home as fast as I possibly can, in pain and limping.
I’m on a mission and I’m determined. This time there will be no retreat.
Google, my friend, here I come!
Indeed, I will.
But the news silently awaiting for me is devastating.
The bells of Danger.
Faster and faster they sound, louder and louder.
Until the sound becomes overpowering.
Deafeaning of all else, maddening of all logics, irreversible).
I’m on my way.
Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’ Up to ‘Ovarian Cancer by Google’
Back to previous post – ‘The Ostrich’