The Mass Gets a Name –

Five days after receiving the results of my scans, I had an appointment with the oncologist my doctor recommended. When I called to confirm the appointment, I spoke with a nurse who could not have been nicer. As she asked me for information about my medical history, her tone of voice was so warm and engaging that for a moment I felt as though I were speaking with an old friend. If only.

Prior to this call, my conscious self and my overburdened psyche negotiated a semi-stable truce. We agreed to try to stay in the moment and take things day by day. If necessary, moment by moment. Although I had enough information to be extremely worried, there was nothing I could do until I heard what the oncologist had to say.

With a mental peace accord in place, I printed out the notes from the radiologist who reviewed my scans. I read them several times. I became fixated on one particular comment. The radiologist noted that while the mass was very large it appeared to be encapsulated, showing no indication that it had invaded my other organs.

I marked this passage with a highlighter, which made it easier for me to read and recite it, word for word, over the phone to various family and friends. I felt like a student who had one good grade on an otherwise crappy report card.

On the day of my appointment, I felt awful. There was no momentary, fuzzy transition from sleep to consciousness. The minute my eyes opened, I was engulfed in anxiety that was exponentially greater than what I experienced while waiting to hear the results of my scans. This would become a familiar pattern as my diagnosis unfolded.

Receive disturbing news….a brick wall comes crashing down….crawl out of the rubble…..stand up…..breathe…..more bad news……shit, here come more bricks……repeat.  

So, on this particular morning, I didn’t know if my condition was deteriorating, or if I was just bracing myself for the next blow.

As I entered the oncologist’s office, I was deeply relieved to feel the same warm energy that I felt during my previous conversation with the nurse. The reception area was bright, the walls were filled with artwork, and the windows framed an amazing view of Seattle, which included both the city and the snowcapped Olympic Mountains.

Within a few minutes I was brought into an exam room. I got to meet the nurse in person and we were engaged in small talk as the oncologist entered the room.

Hello Christine, he said. It’s nice to meet you in person, as I have been getting to know you a bit through the information in your medical file.

Uh-oh, I thought. I could not imagine there was anything in my current medical file that was giving off a good first impression.

The oncologist explained that he was going to examine me and then we would move to a consultation room to discuss surgical options.

As I laid on the examination table, the oncologist turned to the computer monitor and began typing. I asked him what software system his practice used. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.

I work in healthcare technology, I explained. I’m familiar with the patient systems you use.

For the next five minutes, we discussed electronic medical records and the challenges of developing software to accurately reflect healthcare workflows. Had I not been wearing a hospital gown, I could have easily been in my office. Clearly, I wasn’t, but I appreciated being able to speak to the oncologist – a man who, I am sure, never had only one good grade on his report card – on a topic with which I possessed both confidence and experience.

Once we were seated in the consultation room, the oncologist placed a piece of paper on the table. It was a diagram of a woman’s reproductive system. He drew a big circle that overlapped the left ovary and abdomen.

The oncologist said, The mass is about the size of a cantaloupe…

I tried to bring forth a mental image of the Whole Foods’ produce department, but was stopped cold when the oncologist finished his thought.

Basically, it’s larger than a grapefruit, but smaller than a watermelon.

Oh. My. God.

The oncologist continued to speak, but I wasn’t listening. I was trying to resume a normal breathing pattern after being figuratively sucker-punched in my cantaloupe growing stomach.

There is a very strong possibility that this will all be OK, he said.

Wait….what? I was now back and breathing.

What followed was a conversation in which the oncologist explained that the giant size of the mass, coupled with my blood work, did not present a clear case for cancer.

Cancer tumors typically present as small and in more than one place, he explained. This is not the case in your situation.

We moved on to discuss surgery, because whatever fruit of indeterminant size was living in my stomach, it needed to come out.

The surgery would be scheduled in three weeks, mostly due to the realities of the calendar. It was mid-December and the oncologist would be on vacation shortly. He believed I was stable and was comfortable with me waiting a few weeks to have the surgery. I agreed and was relieved to have a little time to mentally prepare.

As we exited the consultation room, the oncologist told me to rest, try to relax and he would see me soon. I thanked him and then reconvened with the nurse to review the next round of information needed to schedule my surgery.

As I walked out of the office, the anxiety I had awakened with several hours earlier was gone. I now had more information, but still no clear answers. The reality was that I would not receive a definitive diagnosis until after the surgery. So, I was at least three weeks from having clarity.

But the appointment did yield one very important development. For the past five days, the person I had been referring to as the oncologist, was now my oncologist. And although my oncologist offered the possibility that this all may be nothing – intuitively I knew this wasn’t the case. This was most definitely something.

But, I now had someone in a position to help me – someone I was able to find a way to connect and communicate with in a very difficult situation. This felt really good.

And at least for the next three weeks, I could walk while looking forward, knowing that I was safe from any more falling bricks.

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