This is the first post in my “Cancer Chronicles” series. Each installment highlights an experience from my time as a patient and cancer thriver with the intention of creating a complete archive of stories.
It was serendipity, I always say. It started with a night of intense, out of the blue pain followed by a perfectly timed annual doctor’s appointment. The rest is history. If the planets hadn’t aligned that week in April of 2014 I may not have known I had cancer for quite some time. It’s a scary thought – that there’s a rare and potentially life threatening cancer lurking within you, as you go along blissfully unaware through life. It’s even scarier to go to the doctor, find out something may be wrong, but not know for sure for several weeks.
On the day of my annual gynecological appointment in 2014 I mentioned my mysterious bout of pain from the night before. It had woken me up and seemed to be originating from within my reproductive organs. As a girl with a history of various “womanly” ailments, I was no stranger to random, seemingly inexplicable pain and cramping from within my midsection.
When I was 17 I had an ovarian cyst rupture in the wee hours of a summer morning. Shortly after, I fainted in my parent’s bedroom and took a trip to the emergency room. The pain I experienced was out of this world. My organs were examined in the ER with an internal ultrasound and I was treated with bed rest and pain pills. 10 years later, this night of pain seemed to be quite similar. I assumed it was just another cyst situation and was happy that the pain had all but disappeared by the time I reluctantly placed my feet in the stirrups. After all, cysts had always been presented to me as a normal occurrence and only worrisome if accompanied by unrelenting pain.
Looking back, though, I often wonder if that ruptured cyst the summer between high school and college was more than just a cyst. Was it the beginnings of my cancer? Or had it already been there for quite some time? Should the doctors have taken biopsies then? How would my life be different if I’d been diagnosed a decade prior to when I was? There are too many questions that will forever sit without answers, but I digress.
My current gynecologist, no stranger to my unique body, took my offhanded mention of pain and decided to investigate further. I had been working with this doctor for over two years to figure out the seemingly illogical reason for my inability to get pregnant. Every test had shown that my organs were functioning exactly as they should. Exhausted and defeated by the process, I had accepted the diagnosis of “unexplained infertility” just 3 months prior, deciding to give up on the medical investigating and just relax. Because of the strange pain, though, my doctor advised me to get an ultrasound that very same day. Just in case.
The possibility of cancer did not even pass through my mind. I was only 28 years old, I had just taken a work trip to Las Vegas, I was playing on a softball team, doing yoga regularly, drinking more than regularly, and functioning just fine despite my lifestyle. How could I be anything but “healthy?” In all honesty, I thought less about the potential that something could be wrong and more about how psyched I was to spend a few more hours away from the office. I actually had a fleeting thought that maybe, just maybe, this ultrasound could reveal the missing piece to my fertility puzzle. Ever the optimist, I suppose.
As I tied on a fresh gown and sat on the crinkly paper in a new office across town, a technician dimmed the lights and began to poke around my insides with an internal wand. I watched the screen she was scrutinizing and quickly learned that technicians are not allowed to disclose what they see, good or bad, to patients. The process was silent, uncomfortable, and the lack of conversation made my heart beat faster. How absurd that I would have to wait for an actual doctor to review the images before I knew what was going on! How naive I was to the protocol of medical procedures. The silence in that dark room fueled a domino effect of worry in my mind. Little did I know it was only the beginning of a long wait for answers.
What the technician saw, and what I can only assume was the reason for her silence, was that my right ovary was inexplicably the size of a grapefruit. Neither my gynecologist or the doctor who reviewed the ultrasound had answers as to why, only hypotheses and the assertion that further investigating was necessary. This meant surgery, and it would be the first of six surgical procedures I would have throughout 2014. The word “cancer” was finally introduced to conversations, although my doctor was quick to declare that it was only a very small possibility.
About two weeks after that fateful post-pain day of appointments, I went under for a laparoscopic surgery. My gynecologist made two incisions, one on each side of my abdomen, and started to search around with tiny cameras. I believe he immediately realized it was, in fact, cancer, and that it was far out of his realm to do anything but take biopsies. I drowsily awoke from the anesthesia and my life was forever changed.
I wish I could say that the day of my laparoscopic surgery came with all the answers I needed. It didn’t. On that day I only learned that yes, there were cancerous things happening within me, but the type or stage of cancer? No one was quite sure. As I recovered and as the biopsies were reviewed, I was passed around to several teams of doctors for over two weeks. At first I was told it was ovarian cancer and began a plan of treatment according to that diagnosis. Just as I was beginning to accept that reality, it was all undone.
I did not have ovarian cancer, and at this point the calendar had turned from April to May. What I had was a very rare type of Mesothelioma affecting the linings of the organs throughout my abdomen. Apparently it’s quite difficult to identify and diagnose, hence the excruciating wait time for answers. But, Mesothelioma? As in, “Were you exposed to asbestos? You could quality for a cash settlement!” It made no sense. I was not aware of ever coming into contact with asbestos, but I was also not aware that Mesothelioma comes in several varieties, and mine had nothing to do with asbestos. My official diagnosis: Well-Differentiated Papillary Mesothelioma. There was no going back to the bliss that was my ignorance.
I wish I could offer advice beyond the clichéd “listen to your body,” but I feel like my diagnosis was such a lucky fluke that those words don’t even apply. One night of pain aside, I felt just fine. There was hardly any indication of the disease inside of me and I could have lived for years or decades as the disease grew and worsened without my knowledge. The fact that the series of events unfolded the way that they did in April 2014 will forever remain one of the most serendipitous occurrences of my life. I was awakened to the mysteries within my own body, and am thankful that for whatever reason, my organs sent out a smoke signal at just the right time.