The voice on the other end was my doctor's. He seemed grim. The CT scan showed multiple swollen lymph nodes in my chest, with the largest being a 6.5-centimeter mass under my right arm. I was anemic, and my white cell count was alarmingly high. He paused.
"What does that mean?"
"You have cancer. It appears to be some kind of lymphoma. If I had to guess, I would say it's non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but we'll have to biopsy it to be sure."
"How long do I have? Will I get over this, or is this it?"
I felt my world shudder. Lights got very bright, and I was very conscious of my students just on the other side of my office window, looking in at me. I knew my assistant had dropped what she was doing and was listening. I grabbed the edge of my desk to keep a grip on something real.I could tell my young doctor, himself a parent of a young child, didn't know what to say. He struggled to say something reassuring.
"Lymphomas as a whole are very treatable. The five-year survival rates are very good."
I latched on to the words, "five years." In five years my baby would be a little girl on her way to kindergarten. Five years was everything and nothing all at the same time. And I might not even have that.
The next minutes are a blur. I was given two surgeons' names by my doctor, told to call my insurance and find out if one of them was in-network, and to call him back as soon as possible with my choice so that he could schedule the surgery for me for the following week. "Time is of the essence," I remember him saying.
I remember that my assistant principal, a wonderful woman who is now my principal, was at my side before I even knew I had told anybody what was going on. She asked if I wanted a ride home, asked if I needed to talk to anybody, asked if there was anythimg she could do.
"I want to go home," I said. "And then I can come back later for parent teacher conferences."
My assistant principal assured me that me coming back for conferences was the least of her worries at the moment, and that I needed to stay home and be with my family. At the time, though, I didn't want to have to tell anyone I loved.
The phone rang again, and the caller ID showed the last person I wanted to talk to right then: my mother. Mom was our in-house day-care provider at that time, and when I saw my own home number, I knew. The doctor had called home before he called me at work. And she was the one who gave him my work number. Mom's smart; she knows what it means when a doctor calls you in person at work three days after a CT scan.
"I'm on my way home. I'll talk to you about it when I get home. Don't worry."
"I'm your mother. I know something's going on. Just tell me."
I did, and I can't even describe the noise she made. It was a quiet, low cry that I'd never heard before. I can put myself in my mom's shoes that day and know what that sound she made was. It's the noise you make when your soul dies a little because you think you're going to lose a child.
For some reason that no longer makes sense to me, I decided to call my husband at work before I left school. His response was just one word: "No." And the way he said it was so certain. No, you don't have cancer. The doctor's wrong. This is all just a scary mistake. I kinda believed him.
I drove myself home, and somehow survived the trip. I had found that both recommended surgeons were in-network, so by the time I got home my mother had gotten another call from my doctor with dates and times for an appointment with the surgeon, pre-op testing, and a same-day surgical biopsy.
Over the next week and a half, I bravely told family and friends that I had cancer. I worked right up until the day of the surgery. I finally let myself break down in the surgeon's office when a physician assistant listed all the areas of swollen lymph nodes, including the one under my sternum that I couldn't see or feel and didn't know was there. I went in for my very first surgery. I reacted badly to the anesthesia and threw up for 24 hours, becoming so weak my mother had to bathe me and dress me. I sat in the surgeon's office with my husband on March 7, and he casually put a piece of paper into my husband's hand. Hodgkin's lymphoma, nodular sclerosing. It finally had a name. I was told it was the cancer you want if you have to have cancer.
Once it had a name, and once we knew for sure that this wasn't just an unfortunate bit of overreacting by a new doctor, I resolved to fight. The same day I got the biopsy results I scheduled an appointment with my stylist to turn my long hair into a pixie cut (and God love her, she didn't even bat any eye when I brought a Bud Light with me to that after-hours appointment and got a little buzz as I got a buzz.) One afternoon, my mom crawled into bed with me as I was napping and brought me a wig catalog, which we looked through together. Okay, I thought. This sucks, but it's not as bad as it can be. I can be treated. I can have some time. Other people have beat it. I can, too.
I was angry for a long time. Angry that my first doctors had failed me. Angry that I hadn't paid better attention to my own body and that I had ignored red flags. Angry at God for giving me the daughter I'd always wanted, then threatening to not let me live to see her grown. Angry at the chemo and radiation that saved my life but for a few months made it close to not worth living. Angry when I developed lymphedema, a complication that probably wouldn't have developed if the cancer had been caught before I had disfiguringly huge nodes that caused scar tissue under both arms.
It's been five years since the diagnosis today. I'm not really angry anymore. I think most things happens for a reason, and there is a reason why my diagnosis was missed. I'm strong, but could I have handled being treated for cancer days after my child was born? And could I have handled knowing I was sick while I was pregnant but being unable to start treatment until the baby had been delivered? I don't know. I was never given the chance to find out. And maybe that's for the best. When I was finally diagnosed, I was in a position to fight, with the most precious thing in the world to fight for: my daughter.
While not the biggest day on my calendar, it's worthy of remembering. It's worthy of a beer (as so many days are.)
Five years since diagnosis...
And I'm still here.