The Beginning –

You have a large mass in your abdomen and it needs to come out.

These were the words spoken to me by my doctor on a Friday afternoon in early December 2014. A week earlier, I had traveled from Seattle to Northern New Jersey to spend Thanksgiving with my family. On the morning of my flight, I felt listless and my stomach was bloated. I had barely taken a conscious moment to assess how I was feeling before immediately attributing my malaise to my recent workload. Traveling to a meeting in London, running a large conference and the seasonal pressures associated with achieving year-end sales targets all contributed to what I considered to be a likely explanation.

It’s nothing, I thought, oddly comforted by the fact that running myself ragged was a pattern of behavior with which I was deeply familiar. I made an appointment with my doctor for the following week, then promptly compartmentalized the worries that were starting to percolate about my unexplained ailments.

The day before Thanksgiving, I offered to spend the day with my two-year-old niece, so that my sister Sharon could run errands. My niece was battling a cold, and as Sharon prepared to leave, she told me that we should lay low in hopes that rest would help my niece feel better.

When Sharon returned home to the sight of my niece and I tucked under an elaborate blanket and pillow fort, she greeted us with a hopeful, How are you feeling? I knew these words were directed at me, to provide an update on how my niece was doing with her cough and sniffles. But my sister’s question ignited an urgent internal conversation with myself.

How are you feeling, Christine?

Awful.

What’s wrong?

I don’t know, but it’s not good.

As if awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of a police car siren, I realized that if my niece had not been struggling with a cold, I would not have been able to keep up with her normal energetic toddler pace.

I think this may be serious.

For the rest of my visit, I did not convey to my family any hint of the rising tide of worry I was now treading in. A mental flashlight was fully illuminating the many occasions over the previous months when I felt unwell due to a variety of issues. At times, my energy level was low; other times I struggled with digestive issues. But the episodes were not happening with consistency, nor were they preventing me from keeping up with my schedule. At least that’s what I told myself in these moments.

As my return flight began its descent into Seattle, I could feel my consciousness shifting. Compartmentalization gave way to panic. What I once viewed as random dots of intermittent ailments, I now believed were undeniably connected.

After being examined by my doctor, she calmly told me I needed a CAT scan. I was prepared for this, but I tiptoed around asking any specific what do you think it is type questions. I felt my doctor and I had an unspoken agreement on this point, as she didn’t offer any hypothesis on what she thought it might be either.

We will know more once we have the results of your scan, my doctor said while exiting the exam room. For a moment, I wondered if her next patient was feeling any level of inner turmoil like mine.

I had the scan done the following afternoon. When the technician emerged to escort me out, I was struck by what an odd moment this was. While I knew that my scan would soon be in the hands of a radiologist who would make an initial diagnosis, clearly the technician must have some opinion on what she just saw.

Take care, the technician said with a smile, as she guided me to the patient dressing room.

I looked her squarely in the eye and studied her smile as if I were trying to solve a puzzle. Is she smiling because I am ok, or does she feel bad because I’m totally screwed?

I couldn’t tell.

That evening, I met my friend Laura for dinner. I relaxed into the normalcy of our easy banter. The stress and fear I had been holding onto so tightly started to release. I even entertained the possibility of less scary options for what I might be dealing with.

You know what I think this is? The ovarian cysts I suffered in my 20s are now reappearing in my 40s.

Laura wholeheartedly agreed.

But less than 24 hours later, I am on the phone with my doctor.

You have a large mass in your abdomen and it needs to come out.

This time, I asked THE question.

Is it CANCER?

I don’t know, she said.

A rapid discussion followed, about how my case would be referred to an oncologist who specializes in gynecological cancer.

Wait, if the mass is in my abdomen, why do I need to see a gynecological oncologist? And didn’t you just say that you don’t know if it’s cancer? Why do I have to see an oncologist?

Just saying the word oncologist made me feel like I was going to be nauseous.

My doctor explained that based on my scan results, there was a possibility that the mass was originating from my left ovary. But the scan and my blood work did not provide a definitive indication that the mass was malignant, nor did they rule it out. She went on to say that the oncologist she was referring me to was considered the “guru” for complex situations like mine.

I was mentally contemplating the guru moniker when my doctor moved to wrap up the call.

You are in great hands. Have a nice weekend.

Click.

I guess there is no right way to end a call like this. That said, have a nice weekend will forever elicit a reaction from me that a close friend once described as when I “go Jersey.” I was extremely angry over the abrupt ending to the call, but it did help me break through the mental paralysis I was experiencing.

I hung up the phone and googled the name of the gynecological oncologist. I wanted to see what my new guru looked like.

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