When The Doctor Says “You Have Cancer”

I know I am not the only person out there who grew up expecting to get cancer one day. Cancer can be in your genes, and when it’s in your family, it’s just something you come to expect.

Mind you, I was expecting to get breast cancer in my 60’s or something. Never, ever, a blood cancer at the age of 25. But so is life.

Cancer is not something I used to dwell on a lot, but it certainly crossed my mind. It was something I would purposely think about before doctor’s appointments. Or sometimes it would just sneak into my subconscious and I would try to sneak it back out.

I know one of the main reasons why people like to read blogs is because its voyeuristic. I’m a journalist, I get that. People are generally interested in the lives of other people. That is, when they’re not too busy obsessing over their own. I know there are people out there who think about their impending cancer diagnosis, and wonder what the hell getting that news is like.

I mean, we see it in the movies and on TV. Stiff, stern, and slightly concerned doctor tells sympathetic protagonist that they have the Dreaded Cancer. We feel shock for them and figure their life is probably over. Or, at least over for the next few months while they get chemo, turn pale, and lose their hair.

I want to tell you about how I was told. About how it all went down. And what it’s really like to hear the C-word from your doctor. Surprisingly, it starts in the shower.

It was the evening of June 21, the day before the CT scan that had me admitted to hospital. I’d been experiencing pain in my neck for over a week and the doctor at the clinic mentioned a possible irregularity when she felt my thyroid. I’d just gotten home from the gym. I think I had just done a light elliptical workout, as my workout capabilities had been drastically slashed in recent months.

As I touched my damp, swollen throat, a thought that had been lurking deep in my subconscious came bursting forth. I’d been working hard at suppressing it for a while, but in this moment I had no control over it. My mind screamed “WHAT IF IT’S CANCER??” and I started to cry. I cried because I was scared, and I cried because I felt silly for being scared when I was a relatively otherwise healthy person.

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Bored in the imaging waiting room, June 22, 2011.

The next day I went to work like any other day. I was used to breaking off from the office to visit the hospital for x-rays and physio for my broken arm, so this scan was no different. My mom insisted on going with me, unlike my other scan days, which I found abnormally annoying. It was a laundry day, which means all my comfortable clothes were dirty in the hamper. So I was left wearing this little black dress with stockings.

Injecting dyes into my veins for the CT scan, June 22, 2011.

Most of you know how the story goes from here. That CT scan showed a blood clot (better considered restricted blood flow) in my jugular vein – a biggie. As soon as I stepped back into my office after the scan, my family doctor called and told me to go immediately to his office. From there, I went straight to emergency (my mother freaking out the whole way, bytheway) and into the CT scanner again to look for more blood clots in my chest.

At this point, I thought I was going to need surgery on my throat to remove the blood clot. I thought the clot, which was on the left side of my throat, was related to a surgery I had on my left arm a few months earlier.

I know I went into the hospital around 3:30pm on one of the stretchers in the back area of emergency. I was still in my dress and stockings. The guy next to me was passing a kidney stone, and there was a drunk throwing up on the other side of the room. My dad had rushed in, having just left a game of golf before starting the 18th hole.

I think it was around 7pm that I saw my family doctor walk into emergency. The same doctor I’ve had all. my. life. I figured he was there seeing other patients and came in to check on me. But when he started talking on the phone at the nurse’s station, I perked up to listen.

I didn’t catch a lot of it, because I didn’t want to worry more than I already was. I mean, I thought I was in for a gnarly scar on my throat and all. But it was clear he was on the phone asking someone advice on interpreting scans. I definitely heard the word “Hodgkins.” A word I knew had something to do with cancer, but the extent of which I had no idea.

By now I am still laying on the stretcher, my parents are both seated at my side. My family doctor gets off the phone and we expect to see him come towards us. He steps behind a curtain to grab a chair, this is where my mother claims she saw him stand for a second and gain his composure.

The moment he dragged the chair next to my bed, I knew something was up. Whatever he had to tell me, he had to tell me sitting down. Doctors in hospitals don’t just pull up chairs. They breeze in and out and deliver news looking over you at the foot of your bed.

I can’t remember his exact words, but these are the details that will always stick out in my brain. My doctor said something about it being more serious than we thought. He said “the scan shows a large mass in your chest,” and as he said this, he placed his hand over my chest. A gesture that made it seem all too real.

I lost my breathe for a split second. I shot my head sideways to my mother, and realized my life had just become a nightmare.

I quickly looked back to my doctor as this news sunk in. My father was already on his feet, with his hand gripping my shoulder. He immediately asked about my chances of beating this, and my doctor went into all the possibilities. From the beginning, they knew it was lymphoma. While I could have been facing a grim diagnosis, I was wheeled up to the oncology ward that night feeling hopeful that it was the kind of nightmare I could recover from. One I had to recover from.

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Oncology ward, June 23, 2011.

As each day passes, I realize more and more why I’ve been able to digest this news in such a calm manner. I really think that deep down inside I knew. I think I knew something was wrong with me for months beforehand, and that evening in the shower is when it all came to a head. Maybe I knew before I even got sick, and that’s why cancer was strangely on my mind at such a young age.

My diagnosis was a little different because I was admitted to hospital right away. I didn’t have time to go home and deal with the news on my own. In a split second, I became a cancer patient in the oncology ward.

I have to admit that I now realize that being told I have cancer is not the scariest thing I can imagine anymore. But being told I have it for a second time… A third time… A fourth time…

What I’ve really come to realize, is that life does not stop with a cancer diagnosis. It goes on. I woke up the next day on June 23rd and went through the motions. I still wake up every day and go through the motions. A cancer diagnosis is not something to live in fear of, or even dread and expect like I used to. It’s just about going on with your days as best you know how, enjoying what you can, disease or no disease.

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Posted on August 21, 2011, in Cancer. Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. I think you just left me without words. That is not something that happens too often…

  2. Wow, Susan. What a poignant post!

    Beautiful writing.

  3. This was amazingly written. I can only imagine what it must have felt like when you heard the news. My dad was actually told over the phone that he had cancer. Really?

    • Oh, I know! People get told over the phone all the time. Basically I think whatever way you’re told the news, it’s going to be in the way you least expect it.

  4. I’ve been reading for a long time, but have never commented,.. I think you are so brave, strong and positive and I’m a believer in the fact that your attitude can bring you a very long way and you’re such an inspiration. I wish you the very best that life has to offer :)

  5. I don’t imagine it’s very easy to go back in time and write about the events of one of the scariest days of your life, so I truly appreciate this detailed, honest post. Everything from the doctor placing his hand on your chest to your dad gripping your shoulder. These little details make the story so much more personal, and it’s obvious you spend a lot of time composing these essays. I can’t wait for the post “When the Doctor Says ‘You’re Cancer-Free.'”

  6. Thank you so much for this post – as stated above, it was amazing. I was struck at the beginning when you spoke of how thoughts of cancer seemed to surface from your subconscious before doctor appointments and such. That probably happens to many people, but at the end when you noted that at some level you had a sense that something was amiss in your body it brought tears to my eyes. I went back and read about the weird high fever earlier in the year, and the severity of the left arm injury, and it makes sense that a person with your uber healthy life style would intuit that something was up.

    You write so well – I think there’s at least one book in you about this experience, and it will help a lot of people. You’re already helping so many!

  7. Wow. Just wow. My knee-jerk reaction was, “Psht! People don’t think about *when* they’ll get a cancer diagnosis.” That was followed by the near-immediate realization (now admission), as someone who has an extensive cancer history in her family, that the thought does lurk in the dark corners of my mind; stealthy and sneaky.

    Thank you for your candid insight, Susan. I agree with Leslie regarding a future book on this subject from you.

  8. Another lurker coming out of the shadows here. You may be writing for yourself but by sharing you are helping so many other people. I think your experience is all too common. I often hear people remarking about how strong and courageous people are when the face this challenge in life. The fact is that everyone is just as strong and courageous when put in the same situation. There simply is no other choice. You deal with it. And those who deal with it publicly, like you, help so many others realize that the world is not quite as scary as we imagine. I have been following your story since the beginning. A week ago my best friend went to the hospital with an upset stomach and two days later had a third of his colon resected and is preparing for six months of chemotherapy. I know that reading your blog certainly helped me to be a better friend in this situation. Thanks.

    • You hit the nail on the head Greg – everyone and anybody facing a similar situation is strong and courageous. You really just don’t have any other choice when met with these challenges. Hope your friend is making out okay!

  9. I think your words are very comforting. They take away some of the fear of hearing those dreaded words from your doctor. We pray for your quick return to health.

  10. i think you’ve realized more in these past few months than most of us have in our adult years. Thank you for that!

  11. You are so incredibly strong. I’m so glad that you are home with your parents and sisters to be there with you the whole way.

  12. Thank you Susan, although our situations are different I was thinking they were going to say cancer. When they didn’t I was actually relieved to hear I had an incurable auto-immune disease, I know ironic right.

  13. I would never have been so calm. You’re a freakin’ champ. And I read your blog because I really enjoy what you say, not for voyeurism. :)

  14. Dear Susan, thank you for your great post. I love the way you put your thoughts into words. I’m a cancer babe myself and the day the docter told me changed my life. But as you wrote, the next day I woke up and I lived my life. Not the same, but as the news sank in and the strange situation became normal, I noticed I could still have fun and be happy. To me that came as a surprise, but I am thankfull for that. I think you are a greatspirited, strong girl and I’m looking foreward to your writings! love, Sam

  15. although the circumstances suck, you wrote this beautifully.
    My mom was told she had cancer when she was pregnant with me. Can you imagine? She was told not to breast fee so she could start chemo right away but she refused and waited six months after I was born to start. And the way my dad was told is a blur to him. I remember it clearly but since it was affecting his brain, it took a while for it to sink in.

    I worry ALL THE TIME that I have cancer. I feel like a time bomb. Its just a matter of time. This is why it means a lot to me that you share all this. I feel like I’l go through chemo myself. I just hope I’m half as strong as you.

    • Ahhh, I’ve heard other stories from women being diagnosed while pregnant. I really cannot imagine. 6 months is a long time to wait too, you’re a lucky girl to have had such a great mom :)

      As for the ticking time bomb thing, it makes me think of my unofficial tagline these days: “I’ve may have cancer, but I’m not dying.”

  16. I am at a loss for words – amazing read!

  17. I’m so intrigued by your perspective each day and envy your ability to write down these experiences with such clarity. You’re such a talented journalist….I hope you plan on writing a book one day!

  18. Thank you so much for continuing to less us take this journey with you. You’re opening many eyes.

  19. You write with such wisdom and strength, I have said it before and will say it again, when you kick this cancers ass – you need to write a book!

  20. Wow. You DID know and knowing helped you get through hearing the diagnosis. This was gripping to read (again!) and so well put and poised. Each post of yours I read, I gain just a little more perspective. You are incredible.

  21. Thank you so much for sharing so many steps of this journey. When many would want to retreat and heal in private you’ve shared so much. Thank you so much!

  22. Love this post! You’ve done such a nice job of documenting this for those of us who have no idea what it feels like to go through this!

  23. You are such an amazing writer Susan, even though I know how your story has developed I was on the edge of my seat throughout this essay. I know it is a blog post but it read like a well-developed essay. I also feel a bit like a ticking time bomb, my relatives are not known for long lives, but life goes on and it is so worth it ;)

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