It’s a strange thing to contemplate one’s own death. We all know we will cease this life someday, but when given a death sentence in the form of a medical diagnosis—Cancer—knowing with certainty one’s approaching and inevitable end-moment draws near, gives one pause, and causes one to reflect on one’s own life. The “no longer living” makes all of this life seem that much more precious. And it all happens in that one instance of realization and, I imagine, just like knowing where you were on 9/11, stays with you until that fateful hour arrives, when you finally cease to exist in bodily form, die and pass-on to the life to come. I experienced these sensations on a hazy day in September 2017 but it took me some time to arrive at acceptance of it all. That day, was a day of smoke, haze, ash, soot, mirrors, and signs.
I stepped out of the house on a smoky, ash-filled day. Mount Hood and the surrounding hillsides usually visible from my window were covered in grey. The smell of the typically clean, and now smoke-filled air forced me to cover my mouth and nose. I was afraid to breathe-in the foul-death-stench that now replaced the fresh-evergreen-h2o. When I opened my car door, ash and soot flew into my face, forcing me to jerk my head around and cover my eyes. Someone had left the car windows cracked due to the 100-degree temperatures we were having. But the east winds had blown ash from the raging Columbia River gorge fires right into my car, and onto where I needed to sit. Fortunately, I did not have far to go—only a few minutes to my doctor’s office to discuss results from a recent ultrasound of my swollen and painful lymph nodes. I should have realized when she called me to come to her office for a face to face, that the news would not be good. But being that I’m typically an optimist and often naïve, I put the obvious clues and signs out of my mind and proceeded to problem solve the dirty ash in my seat.
I soon realized I would not be able to keep the windows down for fear I’d disturb the ash that lay all around me, and as I dusted a bit off the seat and sat to drive, the remaining soot conjured images of coffins and incinerating fires. The a/c in my car was not working. Who really needs a/c in the PACNW anyway? Well, it would have been nice for all the days the fires raged, and It would have been nice today. But hey, I had to make due. I tried to reflect on the positives. All my recent blood tests had come back normal, so I had no reason to expect the worst. However, the obvious signs would soon open up my eyes.
I arrived at reception and quickly the generally friendly receiving nurse led me to Doc P’s office speaking with overly friendly tones and concern. It was too much – even for such a sweet person as L. Suspicion put a crack in my internal mirror. Shortly thereafter, Doc P. entered and pulled her stool right to my knees, sitting close beside me instead of taking her typical computer stance. She looked at me with large doe-colored eyes and delivered the report from the radiologist. “It’s not good news, I’m afraid.” Crack went the mirror. “We suspect lymphoma and metastasized.”
Several of my lymph nodes were enlarged, and I knew that because I had been feeling and seeing them appear since March. But Lymphoma? What even is that? I’m smart enough to know it’s cancer and likely of the lymph system, but how and why did that happen? Save for the pain in my neck, a few soft and hard lumps, I felt fine, healthy—even great, and all my blood counts were normal? No, it couldn’t be. The suspicions of the radiologist couldn’t be right.
Suddenly, Nurse L who was always nice and Doc P. who was always caring and concise, appeared more tender, empathy dripping from their lab coats. Doc P. began again, this time with the radiology report on her lap. “Do you have any questions?” Well yeah, I had questions but couldn’t open my mouth to articulate them. “Do you want me to go over the radiologist’s report?” Blank, I stared and muttered, “Sure.” She opened and began the explanation.
“Several of your lymph nodes are enlarged.” I didn’t need an ultrasound to tell me that. I could feel them along the side of my face, my jawline, behind my ears, neck, and skull. Some painful, others just swollen the size of large marbles and one under my armpit—the largest—felt like the size of a golf ball. So yeah, I knew that wasn’t normal, but Cancer? “This is what we suspect.” She was moving forward at breakneck speed it felt with this diagnosis, with what felt to me like a death sentence.
Doc P. continued informing me of the next steps I would have to take, and of all the things she had already undertaken or put in motion on my behalf. She had all the urgency (which in retrospect, I appreciate and understand) and I had all the pause. I felt as though the steering wheel of my life had just been jerked out of my hands. In that moment, I sat there, a powerless, helpless passenger—feeling the same way I did when having a recurring childhood nightmare from years ago.
In the dream, I sat in the front seat of my father’s car. He drove, while drunk, and very fast. I went from frightened to terrified as the car speed increased and his response to my panicking pleas—trying to talk him into slowing down—were met with his ever-growing, bulging eyes and a frenzied grin akin to Jack Nicholson in Stephen King’s “The Shining.” He wouldn’t slow down and I braced myself for impact unable to look anywhere but at the approaching brick wall that he eventually drove us into, and whereupon I always woke up with a scream, sweating and gasping for air. Was my doctor driving me into a brick wall from which I would never recover? I didn’t know because I couldn’t know. Of course, I couldn’t. I’d never been down this road before.
Doc P. said I would need a CT Scan, and then a biopsy appointment with the oncology department of the local hospital. Thoughts raced through my mind of the wedding I was about to go help coordinate. I would be gone from home a week, and then my daughter-in-law was having her baby soon. Could I go near the child in my condition? My sons would be upset with me for being sick and I likely couldn’t go to the gym with them. My daughter and grandkids would be sad. My husband would likely feel lost and alone for a long time. My husband had plans too. We were going to be in Hawaii for his work for the next six months. I didn’t have time in my busy schedule to be sick and take a bunch of tests and who knew what else afterward. Smoke and haze filled my senses like the cloudy, gray outside, hiding the peaks, blue sky, and sun. All I kept thinking was, no this isn’t right. There is something else going on here. Those results can’t really be mine.
Before our time ended, my strangled emotions shoved their way to the surface, revealing themselves with tears and a shaky voice. “What do I tell my family,” I blurted out during a lull in our conversation. Nurse L appeared with tissue. Doc P. looked me in the eye, “Do you want to tell your family?” What an odd question I thought. But my answer was obvious, “No. I don’t want to tell my family this. I never wanted to tell anyone this kind of news—especially my immediate or extended family—my mother. No, I don’t want to scare them.” Then Doc P. took a breath and gave me the objective words to avoid telling the whole truth.
They were good words and although not telling the whole truth can legitimately be considered a lie, I recognized the lie had a good purpose—the one I wished to accomplish—to spare my family the worry of what might be the truth until I absolutely knew what the truth would be, which would not happen until after all the tests she had scheduled for me were completed.
In the meantime, I knew I would be using smoke and mirrors to spare myself and my family. It was my choice. I didn’t know if it was the right choice or the healthiest choice, but it was more familiar I would say, for me to handle it, than cramming the rest of my family into that flimsy vehicle that now carried me to some unknown destination.
For those moments and in making those choices, I now acknowledge and know I was afraid. Fear dominated my thinking and my decisions to act. Being a Christian, a believer and follower of Jesus for many years, I know fear is in the tool belt of the enemy of God—my enemy too. At the same time, a controlled enemy of sorts? Ultimately, what I believe is God is sovereign. Life happens to all of us and what evil may come, God promises to work for good, somehow.
So, I rolled around and wrestled with that and with the help of the Holy Spirit, I’m sure, I prayed and felt reassured and ready for the next step. I thought of the scripture, “We see through a glass darkly.” (I Corinthians 13) Although I recognized the context is different, the idea is there. I didn’t have a clear picture of what was wrong with me—not yet anyway. Just like the view from my window, I had to believe that Mt. Hood with all its beauty and splendor was still there behind the smoke and ash and that one day soon, the rain would come again, and wash away the soot. Then I would see the mountain again, however, it stood—snow or no snow—along with the sun and sky. Sooner rather than later, I would have a clearer picture of what was wrong with me.
Doc P. ended our visit by advising me NOT to spend time on the internet researching Lymphoma. She told me her story of having been diagnosed with the same when she was younger and the diagnosis being verified as incorrect! She didn’t have cancer, she had a virus attacking her immune and lymph system. How odd, that she would have that experience and that she would be my doctor on this day with that same diagnosis. Was this a sign? My family, mother, and siblings, would think so. We have a long history of being strong believers in signs. I’m here in America today because of signs my parents witnessed and heeded while we were still in Cuba. But I suppose that’s a story for another time. The next part of my Cancer journey belonged to the drivers of the lab, blood and medical tests. And I soon learned they were many to come.