Nov 10

How I found out I have cancer

It all started in October of 2001 when I thought I was coming down with a cold or the flu. I get that every year in the fall when it’s going around, so I did what I always do. I bought some over the counter meds like Alka-Seltzer Plus and Comtrex. Only this time they didn’t seem to work. Instead of feeling better, I just felt worse every day. A lot worse.

So I went to see a doctor. I figured I’m getting older, maybe I need some ‘real’ medicine. The doctor said I had acute sinusitis and gave me some antibiotics she had there in the clinic to save me a prescription cost. She tells me I’ll feel better in a couple of days, but take them till they run out in 7 to 10.

A week or so later, I’m back at the clinic looking for help again. I feel worse than ever. The meds the first doc gave me haven’t done a thing to relieve me and I’m definitely getting worse. I can’t remember ever feeling this sick before. It’s way beyond any cold or flu I can ever recall having before. I can’t even think straight anymore. I can’t remember simple things from moment to moment.

A second doctor examines me and says that maybe they just “teased it” with the last meds, and this time he’s prescribing the “Mac Daddy” of antibiotics. Again I’m told I’ll feel better in a few days, but take them till they run out. I make my way down to a drug store near the house, pay the $130 or so for the scripts, go home and do as the doctor says.

The new pills are strong and I feel like I’m getting my ass kicked. I don’t know if it’s the sickness or the cure that’s doing it to me, but I feel myself getting nothing but worse. At this point I can’t even eat. I cannot get down any food, nor is anything coming out the other end of me. It’s all liquids only, mostly orange juice, sunny D and stuff like that. The really weird thing is that I’m craving something good to eat, but if you were to set it in front of me I wouldn’t even be able to take a bite.

I’m going through chills and sweats. Hard, wet, night sweats that wake me every 20 minutes or so absolutely soaked. This is something I’ve never experienced before. Night sweats – sure, but not like this; Not on this scale. This is WAY beyond anything I’ve had before. I mean I am soaked. The bed and pillows and linen are soaked. It’s really nasty. Nothing I can do with the temperature of the house, what I’m wearing or anything else seems to matter. I get them no matter what. On top of that, I’ve got a backache that just won’t quit or let me get comfortable in any position.

I try to go to work a couple of times over the period of time that I’m going through this, but the people I work with tell me to get the hell out of there, saying I look like death. They look alarmed when I look into their eyes. One of them tells me that he doesn’t want to worry me, but I really look like someone who’s about to die and I need to get some good medical attention. He points out that one minute I’m sitting there sweating like I just worked out and the next minute I’m wearing a parka and shivering.

So, I go back to the clinic long before I run out of meds again. I tell the doc the meds are not working at all and I can see no reason to keep taking them. There’s something else going on here and they need to figure out what it is. I compare myself to one of those batteries that you press both ends of to see how much juice is left in them. I tell the doc when you press both ends of my battery, it doesn’t light up at all anymore… it’s completely dead. I can literally and physically feel my body shutting down entirely. I’m really starting to get kind of scared.

At the doc’s office, I get a pain in my chest; a bad pain. I describe it to them as a little guy in my chest with a pair of scissors in each hand cutting everything in sight. It’s bad. They treat it like a heart attack and the next thing you know, they’re feeding me nitro-glycerin pills and then I’m in an ambulance headed for the cardiac unit at Fort Sanders Hospital.

For the next 30 hours or so, they check out my ticker with all the knowledge and tests they’ve got. To relieve the pain they gave me a shot of Morphine and WOW was that something! I didn’t like it at all! It just took over my whole body instantly. Yeah, the pain was gone, but so was I. It was pretty scary to me, and I hope not to ever have Morphine again anytime soon.

They put me on a treadmill that almost killed me, and some wise-ass doctor that runs the machine tells me as I practically fall off of it, “You’re kinda out of shape, ain’t ya?” It was a snide comment, and I took it as such. It pissed me off. I’d been pretty sick for weeks without an answer from the world of medicine, and now this creep’s giving me crap. I wasn’t in the mood. Unfortunately, I wasn’t strong enough to put up any resistance or defense to the remark. That pissed me off even more.

When they finally decided my heart was fine, they turned me loose and I took a cab home. That was on a Friday evening. I thought they told me as I left to see the doctor again on Monday, but I was so out of it I misunderstood. They told me to see the doctor the next day, on Saturday. Anyway, I lay in my house in Knoxville dying for the next 2 days and then Monday morning went back to the clinic pleading for help.

By that time, I really was nearly gone. I barely knew where I was. I had written a note, made a few copies and posted it in various places in my house and kept one in my pocket. It basically explained that I’ve been very sick lately and if anything should happen and they find this note, these are my last wishes. I could barely walk at that point. Each step was a struggle for me.

At the clinic, they examined me, asked a lot of questions, drew blood, made an X-ray or two and told me to come back the next day. I did. They repeated the blood and X-ray routine, gave up on a diagnosis and put me in Fort Sanders Hospital again.

Day by day, I got worse and worse. It wasn’t long before I was totally out of it. I did my best to answer the docs and nurses that went in and out with my right name and info to show that I was still in the land of the living and mentally competent, but it was getting harder to keep it up. I remember being alarmed inside that I could no longer remember relatively simple things anymore and was answering with, “I don’t remember” and, “I don’t know.” I felt like I was dying and they didn’t know why. Neither did I. They said it didn’t make any sense, but they always had something else to try or test next.

They were using every test they could think of. Drawing lots of blood, Cat scans, X-rays, ultrasounds, measuring everything they could measure. But they didn’t know what was doing me in and it showed. They were confused. They didn’t know what was going on. They drew so much blood and so often that it was getting harder for them to get any. They speculated that my veins were collapsing. They’d stick me 3, 4 or 5 times, then someone else would give it a try, until they were successful at getting some more of the juice from my arms or hands.

Various doctors would come in one by one every day and tell me what they were seeing and finding, giving me updates on my condition. It was never good. This was down, that was down, something else that should be down was up. Nothing, it seemed, was in the “normal” range. They watched my blood platelet count drop steadily to the point of having to give me a transfusion. They said it would “perk me up” but I don’t recall feeling much better at all afterwards.

Instead, I felt weaker and worse every day. Mostly I slept. I didn’t have the energy to do anything else. Whenever I was awake, I did my best to keep a good attitude, smile and be cooperative. Inside, I was pretty sure that I was laying on my deathbed; that I was living my last days or hours right then. They were doing all they could, and that’s all I could ask for.

Several days after I arrived in the hospital, a doctor shot some Demerol into me, rolled me over onto my left side in bed, drilled a hole in my pelvis from behind and scooped out some bone marrow. I didn’t know what he was looking for. It was just another thing for them to do to me in a long line of things they were doing to try and figure out what was killing me. Then, too weak to do anything else, I passed out again.

It’s the last thing I remember until I woke up a couple of days later with a sudden healthy appetite and the sudden regained knowledge of where and who I was. I was actually surprised to wake up at all, let alone lucid. I scarfed breakfast like a ravenous dog, wondering at the sudden change in my condition. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a whipped puppy, but I had now eaten for what seemed like the first time in forever.

A little while later the bone marrow doctor came in and asked if I remembered the conversation we’d had the day before. I had to admit I had no knowledge of anything that had happened the day before. He told me that’s pretty much what he thought, so he went over it with me again.

It was a “good news” “bad news” conversation. The good news was that they had finally discovered what the problem was and could treat the symptoms, which is why I suddenly had my appetite and mental faculties back; They had put me on some drugs the day before when the biopsy had come back. The bad news was that it was something called Lymphoma; aka: Cancer of the lymph nodes and it had progressed into my bone marrow, where they found it. I learned later that having it in my bone marrow put me in stage 4 of the disease. I also learned that the disease has 4 stages.

The doctor didn’t get real deep into it at that point, and I didn’t know what kind of questions to ask about it yet, so I asked if they had a book or pamphlet about it that I could read and he said he would see what he could find. It was delivered a little later and I read it to see what the implications were. Overall, it seemed like something I could beat or get through, giving me 7 or 8 out of 10 chances of not dying from it, so I took heart, got a good attitude and hung on. I learned later that was a little misleading, but it was the right thing for me to read at that point, so it was a good thing.

The Oncologist then decided to get a biopsy of one of my lymph nodes as well. Rather than get a whole node though, he decided to just get some cells from one to look at. He said he wanted to just confirm the bone marrow results. So they took a little needle stab just below my jaw on my right and pulled out a sample of cells from a lymph node to examine. A few days later the doctor said that the biopsy on the retrieved cells confirmed the lymphoma he’d diagnosed from the bone marrow.