Surgery Update

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back to the beginning: ‘The first symptoms’                                           Up to :
Back to previous post: ‘To you’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

* Just like the previous post, this one too, comes to you from the present, from today*
Thursday, 15 of December 2011

To all of you ladies, and our one gentleman reader, Robert

First of all, let me tell you that I’m alive, (and happily waving back at you – ‘hey there!’), and that I missed you all.
I missed you, missed you all so much, it broke my heart.
I missed writing for you and being with you, the joy and comfort that you give me, the precious feeling that I belong to something, and that I too, am worthy of the air I breathe.
But I’ve been so weak and sick and lost in pain, that any attempts (and of those, there were many) at sitting on the chair at my computer desk and trying to concentrate long enough to produce a readable result have all been futile.

I tried ladies, I tried to come back to you.
But every time I tried I was unsuccessful and ended up in tears, nauseous and shaking and hating this darn cancer with all the might my heart could master.
Look at ItIt, the cancer!
A mean bully who has taken everything away from me.
Granted, I didn’t have that much to begin with; mostly a petty, worthless life, but lately things have changed, this blog came into my life and it brought me you. I have a goal now, I have you and I’m determined to hang on to my treasures for as long as I can.
I want to live a few more months ladies, just long enough to at least finish my story and this blog.
Ah, and by the way!
Something has happened to this blog!
It has taken a life of its own. It’s now not just a blog anymore, but much more than that. It’s my legacy to you and to the life that I have lived. It’s a way, the only way, for me to be remembered and to go on living beyond death, even if it’s only as an ethereal thought, passing through your minds and lighting up a memory of me. For a fleeting second, I’ll be alive, with you again.
And so, I am determined.
I am not going to die before I have finished it. I’ll cling and I’ll kick back and I’ll battle to the last hope and to my last breath.
Will I be successful? Are a few more months a bridge too far?
Well, right now nobody knows the answer to that question, not even the doctors, but that’s no reason to give up. Rest assured, you have my word that no matter what, I’ll finally grow a backbone and put up a darn good fight.
There you are ladies!
Until the end, and in the name of you.

Now, before I go, let me give you a short resume of the things that have happened to me over the past 2 months. I hope you will better understand the reasons for my absence and silence.
But there is a problem.
As you know, I’m desperately clinging to the hope that I will be alive long enough to finish this blog. Also, if I am to help anybody, I believe it is important to write my story in the right way, chronologically and step by step. Which means that today my hands are tied; I can’t give you too many details or I risk disrupting the narrative.

Let’s just say that in January of 2011 I was diagnosed with cancer A and cancer B.
The most dangerous, the one that’s killing me faster than we can stop it, is cancer A.
My last post to you was written in October, a day away from surgery on cancer B.
At the same time, cancer A, which, for reasons that I will explain fully at the appropriate time, we were forced to leave well alone for a few months, was happily enjoying the unexpected break and spreading all over my body. And so it comes that I was getting ready for the surgery on cancer B, but getting sicker and sicker from the invasion of cancer A.
Now, tell me ladies, isn’t that jolly fun?
So many cancers, we’re spoilt for choice here!
Surgery on cancer B went fine. (Darn!) I didn’t die on Prof. Hill’s operating table, (although I had hoped to), and 3 days later, 2 plastic tubes (drains) hanging on from my chest, I was ready to go home.
I didn’t though.
Dana, my friend, was worried about the idea of me, post surgery, alone with those pesky plastic tubes, and invited me to spend the week with her and her family, to help with the recovery. She picked me up from the hospital doors and we drove to her home in Tyrellstown, where for a few days I was overly-pampered and felt a bit like a queen.
(Thank you Dana, Joseph and my most 2 favourite kiddies in the world! You’ve been the best!)
The recovery was easy and I should have had a great time.
Except it wasn’t to be.
Enter cancer A, and out goes the joy.
Vicious and as aggressive as usual, it never gave up. My belly started growing bigger and bigger, eating and even breathing became more and more difficult, and I was feeling weaker and more miserable with each passing day.
Things got so bad that only 2 weeks after the surgery, I was back in hospital, begging my oncologist, Dr. Breathnach, for more chemotherapy.
– ‘Please Dr. Breathnach, cancer A is going everywhere and is making me feel so sick! Can I have more chemo?’
He looked at me with worry in his eyes.
– ‘Andrea, but you need to let your body recover from the surgery. It’s too early!’
(He was right, of course, and I knew that. Normally, chemotherapy is given between 4 to 6 weeks after surgeries. This time frame is the optimal window. But there is nothing optimal about my cancer diagnostic, and I went on, babbling and begging for more treatment).
– ‘The surgery on cancer B was easy’, I told him, trying my best to sound natural and reassure all his fears. ‘I never felt much pain and the recovery is going very smooth. All is great from that point of view! My pains come from cancer A; it’s invading so fast, Dr. Breathnach, so fast! My belly is ever-growing, I look as if I’m 6 months pregnant, I’m always nauseous and I’m pretty sure I have huge clusters of cancer living inside my liver. Please Dr. Breathnach, let me have more chemo!’
Dr. Oscar Breathnach (lead oncologist at Beaumont Hospital, – all about him when the time comes) is a wonderful man who doesn’t have the heart to refuse his patients. However, like all dedicated doctors, he is also very reluctant to risk their lives.
He looked at me again, up and down, up and down, and I knew he was trying to asses my physical condition. ‘Is she strong enough for yet more chemo? So soon after the surgery?’
I must have appeared pretty healthy and rosy (thank you, my Revlon blusher!), because he smiled and agreed.
– ‘Alright Andrea!’, he said. ‘We’ll give you more chemo and we’ll do it as fast as possible. This time we are going to try a new chemotherapy combination, Gemcitabine plus Carboplatin’.

(Wow!
I almost jumped up in joy!
Carboplatin!
Never such an android, futuristic word, has sounded like so much pure delight to a human ear!
Carboplatin! My dear Carboplatin!
I had been longing for it since the first day of my diagnosis, and finally there it was, mine to be looked at, admired, poured into my veins and adorned with a thousand dreams!
And not to worry, my ladies, in case I completely confused you with all this Carboplatin talk, rest at peace; when its time comes, I will tell you all about it. For now, suffice to say that that day I was so happy I could barely refrain from (poorly)impersonating Eliza in Pygmalion and start singing : ‘Just you wait, cancer A! Just you wait!’
I had, and still have, great hopes in Carboplatin and knew that once it starts flowing through my blood and reaches malignant cancerous cells, the battle for survival, head-to-head will be fearsome, bloody and many of them will die. Thus, allowing me to live a few more months longer. A few more months might not mean that much for a ‘normal’, healthy person, but for a cancer patient like me, close to death, a few more months are almost an eternity. Every day of reasonable good health is precious, and a few more months mean not only the countable calendar, but also the sparkle of Christmas lights, the beauty of the first day of spring and revival of all nature, and even, possibly, yummy red-painted eggs in the celebration of Easter holidays.
Not to mention finishing this blog and reaching my goal.
So much joy and so many treasures in only a few months. Well worth the battle!
That’s why I wave my finger and say: ‘Just you wait, cancer A! Just you wait!’)

After the meeting with Dr. Breathnach and under his control, things moved at an emergency pace.
2 days later I was having a full body CT scan and the very next day, with scan results already assessed and up on the system, I was sitting on the comfortable reclining chairs in the Oncology ward, surrounded by all the nurses I’ve learned to love, and receiving my very first dose of Gem/Carbo.
And here I am today. 2 complete cycles finished, a bit of a delay, a bit of a worry, and ready for my 3-rd cycle tomorrow.
If my blood tests come back strong enough and my chemo infusion goes ahead as planned, I will be very sick for the next 8-10 days. So sick and nauseous I won’t be able to post much, but before giving up on me, let me give a bit of a good news you’re not aware of yet.
10 days ago I have gifted myself with a brand new toy.
A laptop!
My very first laptop!
It’s white and cute, and lovely, and it keeps me warm and drives me mad at the same time, (will I ever be able to use this darn little thing called ‘the touch pad’? will I, ladies?), and for all its ‘touch pad’ annoyances, the little pretty thing honorably fulfills its most important duty, which is of course, to allow me to stay in touch with you ladies even in those bad days when I’m not able to leave the bed. Talking to you has become so much easier now, since its arrival, a lot easier than having to drag my growing belly and fluid filled legs to the uncomfortable chair at the computer desk.
I’m so happy I have it!
I can talk to you, write to you, I can watch movies, read books, news and my emails, all without having to get out of bed. It’s wonderful! No matter how long I have to live, I’m determined to enjoy my beautiful today!
I have to leave you ladies now. It’s getting late and there are still a million more things I need to do in preparation for the up-coming chemotherapy cycle and all those dreadful days of fearsome nausea and vomiting and pains.
It’s not going to be easy, but I’m ready.
It’s either that, or death in the next couple of months.
Not much of a choice really.
Please keep your fingers crossed for me that everything goes smooth tomorrow, I’ll be back soon, hopefully ready to continue our story with the next chapter – ‘Emergency Room at Beaumont Hospital’.

Many thanks for everything you mean and done for me ladies, (and our one gentleman reader, Robert)
see you soon,

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back to the beginning : ‘The First Symptoms’                                                  Up to:
Back to previous post: ‘To You’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Posted in Breast Cancer, Cancer, Health, Ovarian cancer, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 21 Comments

To You

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’
Back to previous post – ‘Post Office with a Heart’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To you.

Before we go on to the world of the Emergency Room in Beaumont Hospital, (hold on tight ladies, the ride is about to get rougher and literally bloodier by the page), there’s something else I need to talk to you about.

Up until now, I wrote this blog with a voice from the past. I wanted to give you a detailed picture of how my cancer(s) came into being and I spoke about things that happened to me a year ago.
For this post only, that rule will not be valid.
This post comes to you from the present, from today.

First, I have to let you know that tomorrow I’m scheduled for surgery.
This will be my second surgery, addressing a different tumour, (than the first), caused by a different type of cancer.

Before I say ‘good-bye’ and go into the operating theaters, I want to make sure that I have told you a story that I think it’s important.
The story has a lot to do with you ladies, my readers, women from all over the world, who come and visit me here.
It also has a lot to do with death and my desire to die.

It starts in January of 2011, with Prof. Arnold Hill.
He was the doctor who pushed things further, detected and recognized my cancer(s).  It was also his responsibility, a difficult task, to present me with a diagnosis as surreal as mine. 
Since that day in January I saw him many times; and again, a few weeks ago.
The topic of the last consultation was the possibility of future surgery (the one that will take place tomorrow).
Initially, he agreed.
– ‘Alright Andrea,’ – he said. ‘if this is what you want, I will be happy to operate.’
Before I had the time to jump up the bed in pure joy and hug all the nurses, a new problem arose.
One of my legs was very swollen, felt warmer and looked reddish. This is the typical look for a blood clot and Prof. Hill was immediately concerned. A blood clot is not a joke, it is dangerous, and it can be life threatening.
All surgeries must be put on hold.
He examined my legs and said:
– ‘Until we rule out the presence of a blood clot, we can not operate. We want to save your life, we don’t want to kill you.’
I looked him straight into the eyes, and told him:
– ‘But I do’.
He raised an eyebrow.
Whispering, I continued:
– ‘I would love to die on your table. That would be a wonderful death for someone like me’.
This is the second time when I ask him to help me die.
He doesn’t like this type of nonsense talk. He doesn’t like it at all.
It goes against everything he stands for. Against the Hippocrates oath he once took, against his education, outstanding skills and moral beliefs. His entire life is dedicated to the saving of me, of you, and all of us. Entering a death contract is not something he is even remotely willing to do.
He looked at me:
– ‘You know I can’t do that’.
Sigh.
– ‘I know’.
And that was that.

There is a point to my story and I’m coming to it.
From the very first day I got my diagnosis, back in January, I always wanted to die. I begged and stalked doctors, professors, friends and friends of my friends. I researched the internet looking for easier ways to give it up and end it all.
Too much of a coward to simply throw myself in front of a train, I kept on asking for help.
– ‘Please help me, help me die!’
Before you frown at my behaviour, let’s stop for a second and consider my general situation.
I am not young anymore, I am not beautiful nor loved. Nobody needs me, I bring joy to no one, I have no family and no social worth. I am also a frightened sissy who, since cancer came around, cries all the time. And to top it all up, I’m facing a diagnosis so absurd and unusual, it slaps me so hard I can barely catch my breath.
– ‘How on Earth am I going to beat this?’ – I asked myself. ‘Who? Me? That much of a cancer? Impossible! No chance in Hell!’

Three weeks ago I was begging.
– ‘Please Prof. Hill, let me have an easier death!’

Today, all that changed.
I don’t want to die anymore; today, I want to live.
And it’s all because of you.
You ladies, women from all over the world, who visit my blog.
I don’t know who you are, or where you come from, but I know you’re here, reading my journal and spending a bit of time with me.
You gave me a priceless gift.
You gave me a sense of worth, of being useful.
Someone, out there, even in the slightest way, needs me!
For the people who follow this blog, for my friends and for all of you who take time to read it, I want to live.
Just a little bit longer.
Long enough to finish this journal and tell you all about treatments, scans, blood tests, surgeries and a very expensive poison, extracted from the Yew tree and called ‘Taxotere’.
We’re only now getting into the world of cancer, and there’s so much information I wish I was able to share with you.
Hopefully I’ll get out of surgery alive and well, (don’t worry too much, doctors don’t really like patients dying on their operating tables – see above), and I’ll see you again, in the next few days.
Thank you ladies, (and our one gentleman visitor, Robert), for everything you’ve done for me.

All of a sudden I feel as if I’m part of something, as if I too, matter.
It’s an unexpected and priceless gift,

thank you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’
Back to previous post – ‘Post Office with a Heart’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Posted in Breast Cancer, Cancer, Health, Ovarian cancer, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 34 Comments

Post Office with a Heart

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’                                   Up to – ‘To you’
Back to previous post – ‘Fear of Death’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At the end of July 2010 I find myself suspended from a thread, up in the air, dangling. Between the ‘I do-s’ and ‘I don’t-s’, I swing and balance, back and forth, forth and back, day and night, week after week, until exhausted, I drive myself into a state of utter confusion.
‘I have ovarian cancer!’
‘No, stupid! You don’t!’
‘This is an ovarian cancer!’
‘No, it isn’t!’
Trapped in the ever spinning circle of self-diagnosis dilemma, I’m experiencing a form of mental anguish from which I’m unable to escape.

When faced with a cancer diagnosis, doctors and psychiatrists will often tell you that the battle against cancer is two-folded. On one hand, you have the fleshly, physical fight taking place at cellular level, deep down inside your body. This is the battle-field where the big guns of surgery and chemotherapy play a very important role and come into combat. On the other hand, there’s the spiritual conflict, unraveling inside your mind, bringing sadness and fear and invading your soul. As a cancer patient you have no other choice but to learn how to be the best soldier you can, and fight in both.

– ‘You have to stay healthy and strong!’ – oncologists will tell you.
– ‘You have to keep a positive attitude!’ – psychiatrists will advise.

Depending on circumstances, neither is particularly easy. A lesson to be aware of is that nothing about cancer is ever trivial, or easy, or guaranteed, and everything is connected. Highly debilitating, cancer comes at you, raging, from all angles and on all levels, physical, mental, social and professional, it relentlessly encloses you, baring all escape, ever closer, inch after inch, cell after cell, until you can no longer defend or survive.
Hold on tight, you poor soul, raise your towers, target your archers and cling to every hope, because this here, is a mighty fight like you’ve never had before and never will after. 
It’s the battle for your last breath, the one battle that you cannot afford to lose.
I hold my hands in prayer and I wish.
‘Be my hero! 
Stay alive, you, part of my soul, cancer patient. For the beautiful life awaiting ahead of you, for me and for all the others who love you, be the winner and beat this!’ 

Although in July of 2010 I’m still many months away from surgeries, chemotherapy and ravages of the flesh, mentally I’m already surrounding to cancerous invasions. Between the ‘I do’-s’ and ‘I don’t-s’, I swing and suffer.
Every day I look at Dr. Patricia McNicholl’s referral note. It’s sitting here, on my computer desk, white envelope silently tormenting me.
It is addressed to ‘Beaumont Hospital – Emergency Room’.
And every day I find a new reason to ignore it.
– ‘Ah, but look! Today I’m feeling a little bit better! Perhaps I won’t need any doctors afterall!’
(And indeed, there are days when I do (feel a little bit better).
But the apparent return to normal health is only temporary, a slyly clever trick in cancer’s arsenal of weapons, to fool you into thinking that everything is alright and medical help is not necessary. The well-being is a chimera, it doesn’t last and symptoms always come back). 
– ‘Today I’m very busy. I need to go shopping, buy some more milk. Obviously, I can’t go to the hospital today, I have to finish the milk business first. I’ll go there tomorrow’.
Tomorrow the weather changes.
– ‘It’s raining. Can you not see how heavy the rain is? I lost my umbrella and I can’t walk in the rain.’
The next day I’m late.
– ‘It’s already too late in the afternoon. Doctors have left by now. Let’s leave it for some other time’.
Some other time is the time of the darn hair.
– ‘I have a bad hair day. It’s all fuzzy. I can’t go to the Emergency Room looking like the hideous extension of a broom’.
And so it goes, on and on, for another month of dangling in confusion and the ever more phantasmagoric excuses I’m digging out from dark corners of imagination in a desperate attempt to prolong the delusional status-quo, to dwindle and linger, far and away from facing a reality I cannot yet accept.

Clearly I’m a sissy.
To defend my irrational behaviour I have only one excuse. Not only I am a sissy, but I’m also very alone.  
Have a good look at me, frightened chicken with ruffled feathers and bloated belly, sitting at the computer desk, up in the dark room in the attic.
Can you hear the silence? Can you see the emptiness?  
A single bed, one lonely chair, a solitary toothbrush, one window to the sky.
Everything in my life comes in 1-s.
The loneliness of me, of I. One. Only.   
There’s no one else here to share with me, to hold my hand and my heart, to give me strength and to encourage me. Nobody is warning me: – ‘sweet-pumpkin, you either go to the doctors tomorrow, or you’ll sleep on the sofa until you do!’
Shush.
The silence of the void.
Because, I’m essentially a waste and nobody cares about me. 

Except, perhaps, for the Post Office with a heart.

Cancer patients will often tell you that the experience of surviving the disease has made them richer, fuller, more accomplished and more aware.
They will tell you that cancer brings unexpected gifts.
The joy of living in the moment, the intensity of ‘Carpe Diem’, the beauty of a sunset that you only now, after being attacked by cancer, have eyes to truly see, the majesty of the ocean, the glitter in the sun rays and the wind blowing in your hair. 
There’s a kiss on your lips, a touch on your hand.
With a sparkle in your eyes, you smile and breathe.
In love and alive.
The wonder of being
 Cancer patients will tell you that cancer taught them how to appreciate life, and how to be grateful. 
And some of them will even tell you about angels.
My landlord is a cancer survivor himself, (three years out and looking healthier, stronger and more handsome by the day).  My landlord told me that while travelling through his journey with cancer, he had met angels.
(Oh!
And he met fairies too!
His story about the fairies is enchanting and goes a long way back, to his childhood, but since this is not quite the right place for fairies, I will save it for a more appropiate time).
Today, I will tell you about the angels instead.
I met them too. 
First, you have to know that the angels I met are masters into fooling you that they are nothing of the kind. There are no wings to be seen, no walking on clouds and no magical wands with sparkling rubies to wave around and satisfy your every wish.
The angels I met look just like you and me, ordinary people. 
The magic is secret and kept hidden, deep inside.
There’s a heart there, a heart that beats bigger, wider, kinder and more loving.
A heart that cares.
It cares for a stranger, for someone who it has never met before and doesn’t know, for someone who is in pain, and lonely and sick and who will never have the means to give anything in return.
This is the wonder of unconditional kindness.
The gift of an angel.

I met my first angels at the ‘Carey’s’ Post Office, in Baldoyle.
See what I meant?
See how skilled are the angels into hiding themselves?
Meeting place for angels, instead of an enchanted meadow in the heart of a magic forest, a Post-Office, for God’s sake!
Of all places!


At the back of the shop, behind the glass, two ladies work there. They’re younger than me, and their names are Bridget and Irene. Bridget has dark hair, Irene is blonde and they’re both beautiful.
I see them every week, but except for the quieter times when we can afford a smile and a short conversation, we don’t talk much. At the Post Office they’re busy people, and the queues are ever pressing. 
Until the advance of my cancer.
Every week I come to the Post Office, and every week I look a little bit worse than the previous. My symptoms are progressing and the physical deterioration is becoming obvious.
The bloated abdomen is firm and grows ever larger. There’s a water fountain in my belly and the gurgling sounds never stop. The swollen lymph node in the groin is so big and so painful now, that not only I’m in pain while walking, but I can’t even stand up straight.
It hurts too much.
Bent from the waist, with a hand on my belly, I appear twisted and in pain.
The ladies at the Post Office are silent witnesses to the degradation of my body.
With a look of worry in her face, one day, Bridget asks me:
– ‘Andrea is there something wrong with you?’
Well, what do you know?
That’s all I needed.
All the loneliness, all the stress and confusion, the fear and the anxieties burst out pouring in an avalanche of tears and mostly unintelligible words.
In roars, I start crying and sobbing.
Yes, that’s right!
Right there, at the Post Office.
Desperate for human touch and warmth, I lose all pride and dignity.

Someone, someone out there, please show me that you care!

And, would you believe it?
At the Post-Office they do.

I tell them all about my bloated abdomen, the swollen lymph nodes, the gurgling noises, and the pain. And I tell them about my doctor’s referral to Beaumont Hospital.
They take time to listen to me, to talk to me, to hug and encourage me. But most of all, the two ladies at the Post Office insist of sending me to the hospital. 
On that point they’re adamant, and don’t give up an inch.
Relentlessly, they demand that I should go to the hospital, and they leave me with no place to hide.
Every week they ask:
– ‘Did you go to the hospital?’
And every week I blush red with shame and find a new, sorry pretext.
– ‘No, I was so busy this week. I will do it next week!’
But after a few tries the trick stops working. They don’t believe me anymore, and they turn up the heat a few degrees higher. 
They make me promise.
– ‘Andrea we don’t want to see you coming here again with a list of excuses’, Bridget tells me. ‘You’ve been delaying this for far too long and it’s not doing you any good’.
She looks into my eyes and asks: 
– ‘Promise us that you will go to the hospital next week!’
This is no joke, she’s worried about me, and she’s serious.
-‘Promise me!’
Cornered and with no escape in sight, I finally agree:
– ‘All right’, I mumble and smile, ‘I will go there next week. I promise.’

And that was it.
Bridget and Irene didn’t save my life.
That is not even possible, there’s too much cancer rotting at me from the inside, and nobody can.
But if I’m still alive today, grateful and happy that I can write for you all, women from around the world, it is in part because of them.
The two ladies at the Post Office.

(Up in the air, there’s a white flutter.
Can you see the wings? 
It’s the sign of angels).

In the next few days, trapped inside a promise I don’t have the heart to break, I will be left with no other choice but to painfully limp my way through the doors of the Emergency Room, at Beaumont Hospital.
The world of the doctors frightens me out of my mind, but the image of Bridget and Irene will hold me fast and give me strength.
I won’t feel so alone anymore.

(Because, you see,
from up there,
angels will be watching over me too). 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’                                    Up to – ‘To you’
Back to previous post‘Fear of Death’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Posted in Breast Cancer, Cancer, Health, Ovarian cancer, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Fear of Death

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Up to – ‘Post Office with a Heart’
Back to previous post – ‘Ovarian Cancer by Google’
Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My attic room is dark and the air is so heavy, it seems to be streaming in rivers. I’m floating inside a capsule, in a surreal space, where everything, time and gravity, stands still and there is a marked absence of any perceptible sound or noise. 
Hanging on to the limits of the event horizon.
My eyes are open but I can’t see anything.
My heart is beating but I’m dead already.

– ‘I have ovarian cancer’.

The feeling that overcomes me in those first few moments is traveling from a long way back in time, coded deep inside my DNA. It’s visceral, and brutally primitive. This is pure fear.  
Terror.

– ‘I have ovarian cancer’.

My hands are trembling and I literally waver from head to toes. Literally. My stomach is fighting back and there’s a powerful urge to vomit.
I’m shaking like a leaf and I’m terrified, so terrified, because, you see, there is absolutely no question in my mind, no doubts about it. 

– ‘I have ovarian cancer’.

Cornered and trapped, like a dying bird, I flutter wings, and hopes and thoughts and tears in spasmodic convulsions. I look up and I look down, desperately searching for an escape.
– ‘I want to fly out of my body!’ – I cry. ‘Let me out! I don’t want to be me anymore!’
But there’s no escape from the heavy, overpowering shadows that are encircling me from everywhere, pouring liquid pain and fire over me, and killing me down. 
This is how the fear of imminent death looks like.
Broken wings twisting in absurd convulsions. Breathe in, breathe out, you, dying bird.
The fear of Death is indescribable, comparable to nothing I have ever felt before.
It’s paralyzingly irrevocable.
It’s absolute and final.
The trial of all trials, the end of all ends.
Death.

But there are certain types of death that are even more frightening than simply dying. The image of my mother and her poor, sad suspiring skull starts flickering in my mind.
This is Death by an Ovarian Cancer.
The horror of the living skull.

I instantly plunge into self-pity and start wailing and mourning.
– ‘Ah! No, no, no… Please, no, no, no!’
I’m choking on my tears and begging for a kinder end.
– ‘Please God no, don’t let me die that way! Let this be something else, not an ovarian cancer!’ 
But there is no God to listen to me.
And there is no one else here either. I’m overwhelmingly alone.
I suddenly crave the human touch, the warmth and comfort of a friend. Someone, someone out there, please talk to me, and even if it’s only pretending, take me in your arms, hug me and tell me that you care, that I’m not alone.
With shaking hands and tears rolling down my face, I pick up the phone and call my friend, Dana.
I can barely speak.
I cry and stutter and wail.
– ‘I-I-I have o-ovarian cancer!’
She’s stunned. She knows everything about my swollen lymph nodes and the bloated belly, but the news about an ovarian cancer takes her by surprise.
-‘What are you talking about? What ovarian cancer?’
– ‘I – h-have – o-o-ovarian – cancer!’
I’m stuttering so badly she has a hard time understanding me.
– ‘Calm down, Andrea!’ – she tells me. ‘Calm down for a second and let’s start from the beginning. How do you know you have ovarian cancer? Who told you so?’
– ‘Go-go-google! I searched for my sy-sy-symptoms on Go-go-google!’
Slowly, piece by piece, Dana starts getting the idea. And she doesn’t like it a bit.
– ‘You mean to tell me that you’re crying so desperately now just because of a search in Google? No scans? No tests?’
– ‘I don’t need any tests! I know I have ovarian cancer!’
– ‘Alright, but how do you know?’
– ‘I j-just k-know!’
She’s not convinced. She’s logical and practical and needs facts.
For the hundredth time in the past 2 months, we start discussing my symptoms. The urgency to go to the toilet, the bloated abdomen, the pain when moving and the constant gurgling of the stomach.
But markedly, there’s one element that doesn’t quite fit in the picture.
The swollen groin lymph nodes.
On that subject Google is adamant : the list of ovarian cancer symptoms do not include enlargement of lymph nodes in the groins.
Conversely, an ovarian cancer is not listed as a possible cause for the swelling of lymph nodes in the groins. 
Hence the irrefutable conclusion – according to preliminary research, an ovarian cancer does not enlarge your lymph nodes in the groins.  

(Note to yourselves ladies:
Oh, but it does! Yes, it does!
It doens’t happen very often, but an ovarian cancer can, and sometimes will enlarge the lymph nodes in your groins.
No questions about it, it did it to me.
And in fact, the swelling in my lymph nodes only went away, never to come back, many months later, after the powerful attack of chemotherapy).

That day in July 2010 I was a long way from chemotherapy and talking to Dana on the phone, I started feeling a little bit better.
Sillier too.
I mean, why am I crying so hard? Why the roaring tears? Just because of a search in Google? Isn’t that a bit premature?
Dana starts closely scrutinizing the list of ovarian cancer’s symptoms. One by one, she ticks most of them off.
– ‘Your belly is a bit bloated, but your clothes fit you fine. You haven’t lost your appetite and you have no problem eating. You’re not nauseous. The urgency to go to the toilet only lasted for 10 days, and it’s now gone. You’re not bleeding. And on top of everything, your lymph nodes in the groins are swollen!’
There’s only one conclusion she can logically draw.
– ‘Please stop crying Andrea,’ – she says, ‘you don’t have an ovarian cancer!’
And there it is. That’s all it took.
In among the cascading tears, hope, the eternal, forever lasting light, starts shining through.
– ‘I don’t?’
– ‘No you don’t!’ – she tells me. And her voice is kind and caring and makes me feel safer. ‘Please stop crying!’
She asks me if I want to come over and spend the night with her, and her kids and her family. But she lives so far away, at the other end of Dublin and to get to Tyrrelstown from Bayside takes long, long hours. I decline the offer and decide to stay at home.
She urges me to go to the hospital.
– ‘The doctor gave you a note for the Emergency Room in Beaumont Hospital. Go there as soon as you can! Go there this week, don’t delay any longer!’
– ‘I will. I promise’
But like so many other promises before, this one too, will get broken.
It will take me more than a long and twisted month, of countless questions and doubts, of contradicting self-diagnoses, ‘I have ovarian cancer’, and ,’no, maybe I don’t have ovarian cancer’, puzzling and ever worsening symptoms and delusional wishes, to finally limp my way through the doors of the Emergency Room at Beaumont hospital.
I’m giving cancer 45 more days to grow in peace and comfort. To multiply and invade, to shed its enormous, malignant cells all over my belly and form more and more ugly clusters of death, sticking menacingly to vital organs, suffocating them, and cutting their blood supply.
45 more days.  
Ever closer.
Faster.
To Death.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Up to – ‘Post Office with a Heart’
Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’
Back to previous post – ‘Ovarian Cancer by Google’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Posted in Breast Cancer, Cancer, Health, Ovarian cancer, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ovarian Cancer by Google

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’                           Up to ‘Fear of Death’
Back to previous post – ‘Going to the doctor’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Upstairs in my attic room I collapse on the chair, motionless. I need a couple of minutes in silence to organize my thoughts and process the information I have just been given.
She said my lymph nodes are enlarged!
She said hospital!
She said urgent!
The story about my lymph nodes is particularly troublesome. This angle is completely new to me and there is no way I’m letting it go without further investigation.  
‘To Hell, or to Connaught!’ – I tell myself, paraphrasing Cromwell’s infamous saying.
No matter what, I have to have my answers today. I am not going to wait for hospital visits, scans, tests, and all that jazz. That’s way too long.
I want to know what’s wrong with me and I want to know it today.
The key to erudition is kept by Google.
First thing first.
Let’s turn on the computer and get the tea brewing. This search is going to be extensive and the environment has to be just right to allow for full concentration.
Cup of healthy green tea nearby and  cancerous cigarette in hand, I power up the computer.
There it is, my home page, white and clean, Google.
My fingers run over the keyboard.
First search string input – ‘swollen groin lymph nodes’.
As expected, the results are overwhelming and need a lot of filtering. It takes me about 2 hours to discern the relevant from the extraneous.
To spare you from all the work, this is the resume.

Lymph Nodes
(specifically groin lymph nodes)
Lymph nodes are considered to be the fortresses that aid the body’s immunologic defense. They look like capsules the size of a pea.
Inguinal (groin) lymph nodes are located along the crease where the upper leg and the lower pelvic area connect.
In many cases the swelling of groin lymph nodes will go away without any medical treatment.
When the swelling doesn’t return to normal size within two weeks, and other symptoms are present, (fever, weight loss, night sweats), a consultation by a doctor is recommended.
If the lymph nodes grow rapidly, are hard to the touch, rubbery or stationary (cannot be easily moved around under the skin), there is a chance that cancerous cells might be involved. A visit to the doctor is a must.

Enlargement of the lymph nodes in the groin can be caused by a wide variety of factors. Here are some of the most usual causes:
– common infection, (bacteria), or fungal, parasitic infections
– viruses – including HIV
– sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) – gonorrhea, genital herpes, chlamydia
– fatty growths – lipomas
– allergic reaction
– drug reaction
– hernia
– cyst (benign, filled with fluid)
– inflammation
– kidney stones 
– pulled muscle or testicular strain
– injury in the area – swelling goes down when the injury heals

The list is long and somewhat confusing. Basically everything, from the common bacteria, to fungus, to kidney stones and HIV can be a cause for the enlargement of lymph nodes.
But what about cancer? Can cancer be the reason for a swelling in the lymph nodes?
Yes, it can.
Cancer is always mentioned, but it’s rare and the last on the lists. 
According to all of the statistics cancer is not a common cause for enlargement of lymph nodes in the groins.
However, if cancer is present, it is most often caused by a testicular cancer, or cancers of the blood – lymphoma or leukemia.
Note that although testicular cancer is cited everywhere, there is absolutely no word about its female counterpart.
No one, on no list and nowhere, mentions ovarian cancer.

Phew!
I am so relieved I want to cry.
‘Thank you, God!’ – I praise the High Powers, (uselessly, I might add). ‘Cancer in the groins is rare and it’s caused by testicular cancer or cancers of the blood. I definitely, definitely don’t have testicular cancer! Neither do I have leukemia or lymphoma!’
Hallelujah, I’m saved!
But if it’s not a cancer, what is it then?
Well, what about a hernia?
True, doctor McNicholl couldn’t find a hernia simply by physical examination, but that still doesn’t mean that a hernia is not present. Only a scan can tell the whole story.
And what about the urinary infection?
I might have well had a urinary infection that went away without any medical treatment and caused the enlargement of my lymph nodes.
(And why are they still swollen today? After almost two months?)
I cling to hope.
‘Well yes, two months is a bit of a long time, but I’m sure in some cases a slow recovery can happen! Why not to me?’
Hernia, a benign cyst or an infection, they’re all the same.
In the end, the news is good: – I don’t have cancer!
(Tell me, isn’t that great?
Life is beautiful again, thank you God!)

The moments of exaltation and joy are precious, but short-lived. 
Before closing the case and opening the bottle of champagne, I decide to try one more search.
Just to be safe.
(I’m coming closer).
Fingers on the keyboards and a bit of a butterfly in my belly, I launch a Google search for ‘bloated abdomen’.
As expected from such a common medical condition, the search returns hundreds of results.

Abdominal Bloating
Abdominal bloating is a feeling of fullness, tightness or distension in the abdomen. Bloating is different from swelling, although both of these features may be present.
Sometimes abdominal bloating may be accompanied by increased borborygmus, (also known as stomach growling, gurgling), or more seriously, a total lack of borborygmus.

Abdominal bloating is quite common and in the majority of cases will not be caused by anything serious.
Common causes of abdominal bloating are:
– overeating
– irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
– lactose, fructose or other food intolerances
– gas-producing foods
– constipation
– menstruation
– swallowing air
– diverticulosis
– gallstones
– pancreatitis
– pregnancy
– obesity
– uterine fibroids
– ovarian cysts
– ascites
– partial bowel obstructions 
 
And there it is. This time it’s listed everywhere.
Everywhere.

Life-threatening, but uncommon causes of abdominal bloating include large abdominal tumours, such as those arising from advanced stages of ovarian, liver, pancreatic, colon or stomach cancers.
 
There’s no denying.
Although rare, if present, an ovarian cancer, can, and will, bloat your abdomen.

My heart is beating faster and I light up a cigarette.
‘Do I have ovarian cancer? Is it an ovarian that’s been happening to my belly?’
I’m definitely worried, but not yet convinced.
Remember my swollen lymph nodes?
An ovarian cancer is not listed as a possible cause for those. And in my case, they’re definitely there.
‘Neah, don’t be silly, Andrea!’ – I tell myself. ‘Just look at your lymph nodes! See how big they are? An ovarian cancer doesn’t do that!’
(oh yes, it does, but I didn’t know it then and unfortunately neither did Google)

Two thorough searches finished and three hours of intense reading, and I find myself more confused than ever. None the wiser.
The hernia version has one fundamental flaw.
A hernia can enlarge my lymph nodes fine-and-dandy, but it’s not listed as a possible cause for a bloated belly.
The same goes for the urinary infection. No bloating of the abdomen.
But a new idea is arising in my mind. The new kid on the block.
What about a benign cyst?
A benign cyst, (no mention of its nature, ovarian? uterine?) can be a factor in both the swelling of lymph nodes and a bloated abdomen.
Is that what I have then? A cyst? An ovarian cyst?
But if it’s a cyst, why not a tumour?
– ‘Ah, no! I can’t take this any longer!’ I’m exasperated. ‘Enough with the questions and the suspense already!’
For hours I’ve been beating around Google and the bush searching for intentionally vague terms, but not ever quite brave enough to perform the one relevant search that I truly need.
-‘Ovarian cancer Andrea!’ – the voice inside my head tells me. ‘Go on, search for ovarian cancer and let us end this agony!’
– ‘Alright-alright! I’ll do it!’

(I’m getting there.
The heat is surrounding me, flickering the air).

With shy fingers and the heart of a mouse, I input the third search string : ‘ovarian cancer’.

(Ding-Dong! the bells cry.
Knock-Knock! at my door.
There’s somebody there.
Dressed in dark, uninvited guest and carrier of Death.
Cancer.
Final and irreversible, from now on, forever with me).

Ovarian cancer search results are clean and tidy.
I click on the first link and it takes me less than a minute to achieve my goal. It’s a strange feeling, a bizarre warmth of complete, overpowering understanding pouring through my veins.
Puzzle piece after puzzle piece, they’re all coming together, sliding into place, finally at home. 
My face is white, my heart is racing and I remember almost fainting in fear.
Ovarian cancer symptoms are very few and very subtle. But they fit me to a ‘T’, like a black, killer glove, stretching and suffocating, perfectly moulded on my body.
From the white pages of Google, an image stares back at me.
It’s an image of myself. A mirror. 
This is me they’re talking about.
It’s ME.
And the tears, uncontrollable avalanche of sadness, start rolling down my cheeks. It is the second time cancer makes me cry.
Not long from now, tears will be the only ocean that I will know how to swim anymore.

 

Ovarian Cancer by Google
– The Silent Killer – 

Ovarian Cancer Tumour Ovarian Carcinoma – 10 cm ruler.
All rights by Wikipedia.

Ovarian cancer is a cancerous growth arising from the ovary.
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest of all gynecological cancers and the second most common.
It is the fifth leading cause of all cancer deaths in women.
Compared to other types of cancer, ovarian cancer is disproportionately deadly and has a poor prognosis.
It lacks any clear early detection or screening tests.
A PAP smear test will not discover the presence of an ovarian cancer.
Regular pelvic examinations, supplemented with ultrasound scans and  blood tests for cancer related markers, (CA 125), have been routinely used for ovarian cancer screening, but none of these tests are specifically able to detect an ovarian cancer.
In other words, an early ovarian cancer is almost undetectable.
The vast majority of ovarian cancers are diagnosed late, in stage III and IV, after the cancers have already widely spread.
Very few women are diagnosed early, when the disease may still be curable.

Risk factors for ovarian cancer:
– Family history
(Women who have a mother, daughter or sister who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer are at an increased risk of developing the cancer. If you have a strong family history of ovarian or breast cancer you may wish to talk to a genetic counselor).
Personal history
(Women who have had breast, uterus or colon cancer have a higher risk of developing an ovarian cancer).
Age over 55
(Most women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are over 55 years of age)
Never pregnant
(Older women who have never been pregnant have an increased risk of ovarian cancer)
Menopausal hormone therapy
(Some studies have suggested that women who take estrogen by itself (estrogen without progesterone) for 10 or more years may have an increased risk of ovarian cancer).
– Drinking milk
(A Swedish study found that milk had a strong link with ovarian cancer. Those women who drank two or more glasses a day were at double the risk of those who did not consume it at all, or only in small amounts)
 –Talcum powder or being obese
(It is not clear whether these are risk factors, but if they are, they are not strong risk factors). 

Ovarian cancer is called ‘The Silent Killer’ because it usually isn’t discovered until its advanced, incurable stages. Early symptoms are frequently absent. When symptoms do appear, they can be very mild, subtle and vague. In most cases, the symptoms persist for several months before being recognized and diagnosed. However, recent studies have shown that an ovarian cancer is not completely silent.

An ovarian cancer whispers – so listen!

Possible early ovarian cancer symptoms include the following:
– urgent, or frequent urination
– persistent bloated abdomen / clothes too small
– pelvic, or abdominal pain
– gastrointestinal symptoms (painful gas, nausea, stomach gurgling)
– difficulty eating, poor appetite, feeling full very quickly
– vaginal bleeding (very rarely)

I read the symptoms again and again and I feel as if I’ve been dictating them myself.
Except for a very few, I have them all.
That day, at the end of July 2010, I knew.
Without a doubt, without a question, I knew.
Painfully, laboriously, the words creep out of my mouth, shuttering the silence of the room in a thousand pieces. 
– ‘I have ovarian cancer’.
(take a deep breath, Andrea)
– ‘I HAVE OVARIAN CANCER’.
That repugnant, vile looking tumour, with its sickly yellowish colour cast, is slobbering all over my belly. 
Eating me alive.
As we speak.
‘I have ovarian cancer’.

But it will take many more, long, strenuous months, and a consultation with Professor Arnold Hill at Beaumont hospital, to finally detect and recognize it.

(Because an ovarian cancer,
kills you,
silently).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’                         Up to – ‘Fear of Death’
Back to previous post – ‘Going to the doctor’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Posted in Cancer, Ovarian cancer, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Going to the doctor

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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!’
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.
Until now.
-‘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?’
(I’m terrified.
‘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.

(Ding-Dong!

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’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Posted in Cancer, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The ostrich

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back to the beginning – ‘The first symptoms’          Up to – ‘First visit to the doctor’
Back to previous post – ‘Angry lymph nodes’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

June is gone and we are now in July.
Unlike the past three summers with their clingy, incessant rains, this one is a beauty. Dublin is sparkling under the sun, the sky is all so blue, birds are chirping a thousand wavering tremolos and people are strolling up and down the roads, throwing away their umbrellas and acting happier. 
Not me though.
I can barely walk. Every step I take is painful. Every time I lift myself from the chair, it hurts. Every sudden movement or stretch brings back the pain. The bloated abdomen only grows even more bloated with each passing day.
Nothing gets better, everything gets worse.
Whatever this is, it doesn’t give up and it doesn’t go away. It sticks with me, glued to my body, invading my soul. 
And instead of running to the doctors, I hide in a corner and start shaking in my shoes.
I’m terrified.
Frozen in fear.
I cling to desperate hopes – a urinary infection, a bloating indigestion, a painful hernia. 
In reality, all these self-applied medical diagnoses are nothing more but deceitful smoke to blind me away from the truth.
The trick doesn’t work.
Deep down inside myself, I know, I already know, fully know, that this is serious. Much more serious than a common urinary infection. But I’m so frightened, I don’t even have the courage to put together the deadly sentence –  ‘This-is-cancer’.
– ‘Go away! Go away!’ – I cry in the silence.
I can’t face it.
I can’t look at it, I cannot hear it.
-‘GO AWAY!’

Denying the obvious, I am now officially entering ‘The ostrich faze’.
Under the vicious attack, I lay down on the ground and frantically start digging a  hole. I want to bury my head deep, deeper still, inside a hole so profound as to keep me safe and take me away and afar from the evil malady with sharp claws and malignant cells that lives inside my bloated belly.     
I’m facing the enemy I fear the most and I cannot look it in the eyes.
C.A.N.C.E.R.

In being afraid of cancer, I’m not alone.
Most people have a fear of cancer; the feeling is normal and quite common.
But I, for one, am not content with simply being afraid of cancer.
Neah, neah, neah!
I am taking this to another level, I am obsessed with it. 
This morbid fascination started a long time ago, with the death of my mother.
I was 11. She was 38.
My mother, my hero, was a special person.
An accomplished hydrotechnics scientific researcher, she was highly educated and well-respected. But she was also a kind human being, generous and full of life. Her many friends were constantly calling and visiting the house, chatting over a cup of tea or enjoying long dinners together, late into the night. People naturally gravitated around her, attracted by her kindness and beauty. They loved her.
I adored her.  
And you know what? That’s not all.
She was also very beautiful,  a stunning young woman, so generously gifted.
It took cancer less than a year to rip all that apart. 
One year of suffering, and pain, and the enormous, gigantic belly filled with malignant fluid, the crawling on her knees, and the tears, the cries for help, the desperation and the deep, deep sadness. 
In the end she was left nothing but a shadow, nothing but bones, a skull that kept on breathing.
Breathe in and breathe out, you poor, poor skull.
I saw it all.

38 years later, while writing this, I cry in pain.
(Roll down, you teardrop of sadness, go and entwine yourself to my mother’s memory, make her sparkle, bring her my love).

The impact her suffering and death had over me was tremendous. A fearsome blow from which I could never recover.
At 11, a terrified child, I already started thinking of death and wishing for a different outcome.
‘Please God,’ – I would pray, ‘don’t let me die of cancer! Anything else, but not cancer!’
I didn’t know much about cancer, – what it is, or how it works, but I knew all too well what it did to my beautiful mother. The pain and the horrors of the breathing skull would stay, engraved in my blood, with me forever.
Clinching my little fists and with all the might of a soul of a child, I started hating cancer.

Over the years the feelings grew stronger and I found myself becoming somewhat fascinated by cancer. It wasn’t even that hard, given that cancer was everywhere. On TV and in the news, chatting to friends and browsing the internet, it kept creeping back into my life. It seemed that every day someone else was dying at the claws of cancer.
It enraged me.
There we were, more than a quarter of a century after the death of my mother, and people all around me kept on dying at ever-increasing rates, and most of them suffered just as much.
‘How is that possible?’ – I asked myself. ‘For decades we’ve been pouring literally billions of dollars into cancer research and treatments, the financial and intellectual effort is tremendous and world-wide, and yet, we’ve barely made any progress at all! While science is moving at a snail pace, human beings are continuously being reduced to these pitiful bags of bones, walking skeletons who drop like flies!’
It enraged and it intrigued me.
‘What is it about cancer that makes it so difficult to beat?’
Looking for an answer I embarked on a quest. Years ahead of my own diagnosis I started researching, spending long hours deep into the nights, reading books and online studies about the mechanics of cancer.  
Not many healthy, free-of-cancer people do that, but I did.
It obsessed me that much.
I got my answers, alright.
I know now how cancer works, and I know why it is almost impossible to beat.
I will tell you all about it at a later date, but for now, just remember this : cancer is a super-intelligent, incredibly sophisticated, natural way of killing us.
By design it was meant to not be easily beaten.
In the above sentence there are a few words that I want you to focus on.
The first, is ‘design‘.
Cancer is not an accident, or a mistake. Cancer is the careful, intentional result of outstandingly clever design and programming. Cancer’s DNA code is so complicated, not even all the powerful IBM servers in the world, united in unison can decipher it.
The second word is ‘meant’.
Cancer is not abhorrent, randomly spreading its enormous cells here and there, wasting precious energy and chancing its luck. Every transformation, every movement, every cancer cell is undergoing follows a plan and meets a purpose.
Cancer is intensly focused and has a clear mission.
To kill you
In a Universe where everything, (alive or not), has to come to an end, Cancer is nothing else but a mighty efficient weapon to ensure that human beings too, obey the rules and go through death. 
One day humanity will win the fight against cancer, (oh yes! we will!) but that’s a special threshold, an enormous step ahead that still alludes us.
We’re not there yet and for now, unfortunately, we just have to keep on dying.  

And there I am, standing in the line, waiting for my turn to meet Death and shaking in my boots.
The ostrich.
Too afraid to go to the doctors, I’m desperately burying my head deep into the sand. I don’t want to hear what the doctors might have to tell me. I can’t face their words, I can’t listen to their diagnonis! 
Once it is out in the air, on black and white and X-rays scans, ‘here it is! You have cancer!’, the doors are bolt shut and there is no escape.
My life, as I build it and know it, will have to come to an end. Ravaged, brutally turned upside down.
But I’m so busy now, so close to reaching my goal of becoming a real person that I can’t bring myself to give all that up.    
I deny and delay, and cling to the absurd hope that the urgency to go to the toilet, the swollen groins, the pain and the bloated abdomen are all caused by some mysterious infection that will soon pass.
But of course, it doesn’t.
In the next few days, doubled-up with pain, I will have no other choice but to look for medical help.  

The delusional honeymoon will soon be over.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Back to the beginning – ‘The First Symptoms’        Up to – ‘First visit to the doctor’
Back to previous post – ‘Angry lymph nodes’
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Posted in Cancer | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments