Thursday, September 11, 2008
Why does it seem like we spend the majority of our lives waiting? We are always waiting for something. We wait in line at the grocery store and the bank, sometimes in our cars. We wait in line for our dinner at times, ironically termed “fast food”. We wait at the doctor and the dentist, regardless of our “appointment” times, then wait for the pharmacist to fill our ensuing prescriptions. Sometimes we wait even longer for test results. We wait to find out if we are approved for a loan, accepted to a school, promoted to the higher position, or even offered the new job. We wait for births, and sometimes even for deaths. We wait for arrivals and departures, beginnings and endings, rises and falls. We wait until tomorrow, until next week, until next month, until next year. “Wait until next year” in fact, has been ripped from the world of sports and instead become a key phrase in all of our lives. “Hurry up and wait” is now more true, and poignant, than ever before.
But why do we wait? Why do we let our world spin by, missing opportunities and experiences, all in the name of waiting? Shouldn’t we be living our lives to the fullest, every chance we get, regardless of what we are waiting for? I’m as guilty as the next person. I wait, just like everyone waits. I waited, a long time, to write this post, in the hopes that what I would write would be the truest and most complete version of the story as possible. Many of you have noticed my references in the last few posts concerning a recent event. I’ve decided not to wait anymore to discuss this event. I can only hope it provides the release I clearly need.
As you regular readers, friends and family are aware, in January of 2005, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thereafter, she endured chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and was finally given a clean bill of health nearly three years ago, in October, 2005. At the end of this past July, she found another lump in the same area as the previous cancer. It was removed the first weekend in August, and about a week later we had the word that it was in fact cancer. The tumor was about the size of a pea, the cancer only contained in about 1.5 cm of that. Since that day, the term “waiting” has taken on a whole new and so much more dreadful meaning.
Upon the discovery that the tumor was, in fact, cancerous, the doctor immediately recommended a mastectomy, chemo and a PET or CAT scan for my mom. Breast cancer is known to metastasize, and when it does so, it is to the lungs, liver or brain most often. One or both of these scans would let us know whether the cancer that had returned was curable or terminal. Unfortunately, this meant approval by the insurance company of one or both of these scans. Which we waited for. It was bad enough that we had to wait for approval, but because my mom is insured, the hospital does not schedule appointments for such scans without the approval of the insurance company. In addition to waiting for the approval, it meant waiting to schedule the appointment, and therefore waiting to find out what was happening with the cancer. In the end, the insurance refused to pay for the PET scan (I hope I have that name right) because “it has not been proven to be more accurate or provide any more information than the CAT scan”. Let’s not leave out the fact that it would cost the insurance more than the CAT. In waiting for the approval, and since all my mom’s treatment has taken place at Huntsman Cancer Institute here in the valley, (and 2 ½ hours away from her home), she also opted to wait to schedule her appointments with the oncologist, the surgeon and the plastic surgeon in an effort to minimize the number of trips she would be required to make. Finally, insurance approved the scan, the appointments were set and she proceeded.
She had her appointment with the surgeon first, the oncologist next, the plastic surgeon after that, and the scan last. One appointment to the next was nothing but upsetting. The recommendation of the mastectomy ballooned into a recommendation of a double mastectomy, followed by immediate commencement of reconstruction surgeries, of which there could be as many as six total surgeries. The recommendation of chemo was suddenly for the strongest dose of the treatment, guaranteeing nausea, fatigue, nearly immediate hair loss and all those other horrible things that you’ve heard go along with chemo. (Whatever you’ve heard, believe me, it’s true.) The reconstruction could not begin on the same day as the mastectomy, as the first surgery would be at least 8 hours. So much bad news, all at once.
After the scan was completed, my mom, dad and I headed to “Gene Therapy”, an informative class regarding the genes involved with such cancers as breast and ovarian. On the way to the class, the oncologist met us in the hallway and told us the chest scan had come back clear, and that my mom’s heart was healthy enough to withstand the lengthy surgery that is a mastectomy. Finally, the first bit of good news. However, the waiting continued, as we waited to hear about the result of the abdominal scan.
The following evening – Thursday night prior to Labor Day weekend – the oncologist called to say a “spot” had been found on my mom’s liver, and two “spots” on two vertebrae directly behind the liver. The CAT was inconclusive as to what the spots were. The next step? An MRI. However, none could be scheduled until Tuesday morning after Labor Day. So we waited. The camping trip to Flaming Gorge for the weekend with my family, while enjoyable, was clouded with the concern everyone had, and didn’t discuss, about whether the cancer had metastasized. The additional concerning factor that the MRI might also be inconclusive in its results just worsened the situation. (As a side note, I find it ironic that the insurance refused to pay for the PET scan, which might have given conclusive results immediately, and instead wound up paying for two scans, one of which was inconclusive and the other which could have been. There’s something coming back to bite you in the butt, right there.)
Finally, the day of the MRI arrived. Mom had to be at the hospital at 7:30 a.m., the scan scheduled for 8:00 a.m. I went to work, attempting to perform my duties as normal, and waited. After hours of torture, I received the call at 11:30. None of the three spots were cancer. The two on the vertebrae are what the doctors refer to as “islands”, which just means area of bone more dense than the rest. The spot on the liver was a cluster of blood cells, nothing more. Mom cried when she told me. I cried when I heard the news. It is truly an amazing feeling of relief when something that horrible is staring you in the face, and it turns out to be something completely harmless.
Next on this harrowing journey is the mastectomy surgery, scheduled for this coming Monday. Mom has opted to have the single for now, since the double is a much longer surgery with a much longer recovery, and she has her responsibilities to consider as state head of the Eastern Star organization for the next year. Since the cancer is not in the second breast, the doctors have said they believe it will be just fine to wait a year to have the second mastectomy surgery and begin the reconstruction. A couple of weeks after the surgery she will begin the chemo treatments. As my boss had said, in a vacuum a double mastectomy is the most horrible thing you could think of. But in a situation where we briefly faced much worse, it suddenly seems manageable.
Mom, though, is not yet out of the woods. While we know that the cancer has not metastasized to her brain, liver or lungs, we do not know whether any cells have made it into her lymph system. We will not know until after the mastectomy is complete and the doctors have tested the lymph nodes they will remove as part of the surgery. And so we wait.
One last plea on my part to all of my readers out there: those of you who are women, please, participate in monthly self-examinations and visit your doctor regularly. Men, please remind the women in your lives to do so. You have no idea how awful this disease is until it affects you or someone close to you. Everyone please remember to participate in the “Click a Day” project located on the right side of my blog. A click a day will help provide free mammograms to those who cannot afford it. And please check out the Susan G. Komen Foundation website for further information on this plight, and always offer your support to those afflicted with this disease. More than ever, they need it.