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JOURNAL: Diagnosis, then magnificent pain

Randy Billings: Pub Fiction

JOURNAL: Diagnosis, then magnificent pain

This blog was originally intended to be a creative vehicle for satire. But I was recently diagnosed with cancer. So now, I'll catalog my experiences, both to inform and, hopefully, to entertain, as I embark upon a journey that many before have made and many more will unfortunately make.

The second shoe dropped on May 6, one week after being told the cause of the pain in my chest was a "very concerning" indication of lymphoma. That concern set off a flurry of tests and procedures. CT Scans and blood work. A consult with a head and neck specialist, who masterfully removed a swollen lymph node half-way up my neck, just to the left of my trachea.

May 7 was my first visit to the Maine Center For Cancer Medicine, where my doctor detailed the results of my biopsy and ordered another battery of tests, the most painful of which was performed that afternoon.

I've been diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin's Lymphoma, relatively good news since I'm told it is more treatable than the alternative. My prognosis is very good, with no obvious unfavorable aspects. Given my age (33) and otherwise excellent health – and despite my retreating fear of needles – I will likely make through chemotherapy and perhaps some radiation treatment.

I must, of course, travel down a long and bumpy road. Road sickness is all but guaranteed. I will likely lose all of my hair (except, perhaps, my eye lashes). With the exception of my beard, hair loss brings me no discomfort, since my wife has assured me that she "didn't marry me for my good looks."  But that's a blog post for another time.

Now, back to that painful test.

One of the additional tests I needed to undergo before I could begin chemotherapy was a bone marrow biopsy to ensure the cancer had not spread there. If the cancer is discovered in my bones, it will mean longer chemotherapy treatments, which I'm told, under the best case scenario, will likely consist of one three- to four-hour session every two weeks.

The oncologist said I could have the bone biopsy performed then and there. I was later told that these tests are typically conducted after the first consult, in essence, to preserve the element of surprise. People who have time to go home and research the test on the Internet, the nurse said, typically do not want to come back and have the test performed.

When the time came to undergo the procedure, my wife was inclined to stay in the room while my mother, a cardiac nurse, seemed eager to leave. The nurses kept asking my wife if she was squeamish – an obvious indicator that what was about to happen was not going to be pretty. She said she would be OK, since she watched the surgeon stick a needle in my neck only days before my surgery.

I told her not to sit through the bone biopsy for my sake. Thankfully, she left.

The nurse had me lay down on my left side, instructing me into the fetal position. The doctor located the top of my hip bone in the lower left of my back and injected a numbing agent into my skin. While painkiller would work for soft tissue, the doctor warned it would not numb the bone.

After several minutes of feeling nothing but steady, rhythmic pressure, I began to ache. The aching quickly turned to a sharp pain – a sign, the nurse assured me, that they were getting into the marrow. The team then quickly counted down from three, and the doctor began to siphon marrow from the interior of my bone, unleashing a magnificent pain that is difficult to describe. As my body involuntarily convulsed, I realized the nurse was holding my hand and elbow, not to calm my nerves, but to ensure I did not react by swinging my arm and knocking out the oncologist.

It was a cake walk after that short but intense pain. I could feel small reverberations throughout my bones while the doctor ground away, chipping away bone fragments to test. I thought of a happy place – my family's secluded camp in Blue Hill. Then, it was over.

Now I'm awaiting an appointment to have a port surgically implanted under my skin. The port will be threaded into a vein so medical professionals can more easily administer chemotherapy and draw blood samples.

My chemotherapy will likely begin at the end of this week, or early next week.