This Is What Happened the Day of My Cancer Diagnosis
“I probably had the most bizarre reaction, because I just started smiling.”
Ann was only seven years old when the symptoms first began. Living in a small town in Michigan, she was constantly going to doctors with complaints about bizarre, itchy, and painful marks on her body, as well as digestive issues. Eventually, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder and Celiac Disease, and began a gluten-free diet which seemed to help abate some of her issues, if only temporarily.
Twenty years later, Ann was working as a childcare specialist in New York City, and her marks suddenly started getting worse, four bumps becoming 14 in just a matter of months. "I could hardly eat without getting sick and was mind-numbingly tired all the time," she told us.
Whenever she went to the doctor, she said, they would tell her she was their "little mystery" or "medical unicorn," which only increased her mounting frustration. Wherever she went, it seemed like no one could tell her precisely what was wrong with her. It turns out she had a rare form of the disease that will afflict roughly 38 percent of the U.S. population: cancer.
What follows is an account of the day in April of 2017 when she learned of her diagnosis, including her surprising initial reaction and how she decided to move forward. So read on—and for more on Ann's incredible battle with lymphoma, know that This Is What Her Life Was Like After Her Cancer Diagnosis.
"I was poked, prodded, and pulled…"
In New York City a few years ago, Ann's concerned boyfriend pushed her to go see a new dermatologist to see about the bumps on her skin. The dermatologist suspected she might have "pre-lymphoma," a term that refers to subtle warning symptoms of cancer. She was eventually referred to Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, which the U.S. News & World Report has ranked as one of the top hospitals for cancer care for the last 30 years.
"MSK is truly another medical world, where the high tech meets the low tech and everyone there is sick in some seen or unseen way," Ann said. "My first few appointments, I found myself almost naked laying on a reclined examining chair with four doctors and five interns looking at my body, poking, prodding, pulling and discussing. As one CT (computed tomography) tech put it, 'You get used to dropping your pants pretty fast around here.'"
Given her referral, you would think that cancer would be the first thing that they tested for. But, Ann says—due to liability lawyers and insurance companies—they ruled out everything else they could possibly think of before finally testing for "the Big C."
"I think overall [MSK] is very good and very careful, which all doctors are because it's not their fault. It's the insurance companies, because they need to make sure that they're getting paid for the testing that they're doing on their patients, which is understandable, and they need so much to prove that they need specific tests, especially for oncology, that it's horrible for the patient."
Finally, after more than six months of tests, Ann finally got the one she needed. "By that time, they had brought in not only a dermatological oncologist but also an internal one as well. I knew something was up when my internal oncologist came in, pulled up a rolling stool and sat down next to me in my robe and now all too familiar exam chair and said, 'So, we tested your multiple biosies for a clonality…'"
She had lymphoma, a broad term that describes a cancer that starts in cells that are part of the body's immune system.
Unpredictably—and inexplicably—she smiled.
"I probably had the most bizarre reaction, because I just started smiling," she said. "By that point, I didn't care what it was, as long as I had something to call it."
She also felt a measure of relief, because the diagnosis meant that she could finally take steps to get better. After all, her health couldn't have felt any worse. "At that point I was very, very sick," she said. "I was constantly getting colds. I was really weak so I couldn't really eat. I had lost about twenty pounds. I was losing color, I was very tired. I had dark circles under my eyes. My hair was thinning. So it was like a big burden that they lifted off of me by telling me what was wrong."
She also felt extra pressure to get well.
Her oncologist said they would need to discuss whether or not she was planning on having children anytime soon, since she would have to begin taking severe medication that complicates pregnancies and could possibly even render someone sterile.
Ann was 28 at the time, and while she's not planning on having kids immediately, she knew that she would want them sometime in the future. So to be told that she might not be able to—only moments after learning of her cancer diagnosis—was, as she describes, utterly overwhelming.
She made the calls—and then watched Friends.
She called her sister first to deliver the news. Her sister's reaction was very similar to Ann's: "Well, thank God they told you something. Now let's do something about it."
They immediately strategized about how to tell their mom, who was mistrustful of doctors, given that Ann's father had died due to medical malpractice when Ann was just 18 years-old.
She wasn't particularly hungry, but she ate the Kind bar that her boyfriend always packed for her in case she forgot to eat. She then called him to let him know about her diagnosis. Even though they had both suspected this might be the problem all along, he was more shocked that she was.
She took a cab home ("my immune system was low from the immunosuppressants/light chemo so I tried to avoid the subway," she said), and hugged her boyfriend, who was still reeling from the news.
"I was ready to not talk about it," she said. "So we watched Friends, our go-to feel better show and enjoyed each other's company. "
Sadly, Ann's story doesn't yet have a "happy ending." After over a year of chemotherapy, her doctors switched her over to radiation therapy. In the best-case scenario, she said, they'll find something that will expel the cancer from her body. In the worst-case scenario, it'll metastasize and go to her spleen, liver, brain, or bone marrow.
As an unfailing optimist, Ann lives her life in the assumption of the best-case scenario.
"I've already had the worst day of my life, which was the sudden death of my father, and, you know what, I survived that day, and I survived the days after that," she said. "And then I got diagnosed with cancer and, you know what, I survived that day too. So I never let myself be afraid that I won't make it through the day."
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