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Column: In and Of Itself

In And Of Itself

Even though I’ve been riding this non-small cell lung cancer roller coaster going on 56 months now, post-diagnosis; I still can’t separate cancer effects (physically, mentally, psychologically, spiritually, etc.) from normal age-related effects, and by normal I mean reasonably expected at this middle age: gray hair as an example. Certainly I don’t want the effects (symptoms if you must) to indicate cancer on the move and/or the stage IV tumors in my lungs doing something to complicate an already precarious set of terminal circumstances. However, as life goes on, I’m likely to experience this sort of fact (cancer) from some kinds of fiction (not cancer). No one ever said living with cancer would be easy, quite the opposite in fact. Nevertheless, living is preferred, so complications be damned.

Still, it’s the complications, that if ignored or misunderstood or wishfully-thought-of as insignificant – in the scheme of the cancer world in which I reside 24/7, might actually be my undoing. As an example: the shortness of breath I experienced in late July which led to my week-long hospital admission during the first week in August. I had just begun a new round (six-time) of chemotherapy (“new” meaning an I.V. drug with which I had never been infused) and even after just a few infusions, I was already having difficulty breathing/catching my breath; completing a sentence was difficult. This was a side effect with which I was familiar, having previously been infused many times, as you regular readers know, so to my way of assessing, it was just another day at the office, so to speak, (the cancer office, that is). And not ever wanting to make a mountain out of a molehill (or is that a tumor out of a mole?), I toughed it out, thinking it was par for this particular course of treatment. It turned out I was wrong – almost dead wrong.

As my breathing became more labored and my inability to speak/breathe a complete sentence more obvious, I had to admit – even in my generally delusional this-can’t-be-cancer orientation, that something was amiss and maybe it was the cancer asserting itself. When I next saw my oncology nurse for my scheduled infusion, it was quite apparent to him that my condition was more than a side effect, it was a straight-on effect. And after he hooked me up to an oxygen sensor and walked me around the unit and saw how low my oxygen levels were, well, it wasn’t too much longer before arrangements were being made and I was “ambulanced” to Holy Cross Hospital. Two days later I was operated on by a thoracic surgeon who removed 4.5 liters of fluid from my lung. I don’t know if I was drowning, exactly, but neither was I treading water.

But I had read the boiler-plate handouts from my oncologist and thought I knew what to expect – and shortness of breath was what I was expecting, and quite frankly, a side effect I had experienced before. However, when the symptoms went from the sublime (expected) to the ridiculous (beyond expectations and requiring immediate medical attention), I began to realize I likely wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I was going to be in a hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland. That’s when it became serious.

And though I pulled through with flying colors and a re-inflated lung – with an above-average prognosis from my thoracic surgeon, I’ve learned my lesson: next time, I’m calling the doctor. Whether any symptoms I’m having are cancer-related or not, I certainly don’t know, and as much as I don’t want them to be, it would seem awfully foolish and naive of me to think it’s not and neglect to inform my oncologist. Everything might not be related, it might just be middle age. The fact that I never know is the scary part.