Thursday, March 09, 2006

How I found out I had cancer

Early in December 2005, I just thought that I needed to get a complete physical. I've never had a physical before and since I turned 30 this year, I thought it was time. So, I had no symptoms or even slightest inkling that anything was amiss. I felt great. A little out of shape since I hadn't seen the inside of a gym since I lived in Manila 5 years before (a more affluent time of my life).

My life was pretty hectic. I was trying to establish my career. We have a 3 year old daughter. We were trying to settle a family in a far away land. 2005 was good to us. We just moved into our own apartment - the first home we called truly ours. We just bought a new car. Our old one was so old, it was hemorraging.

So, I went to see Dr. Gus. We did the usual blood draw, urine sample, pap smear, EKG. The results came out beautifully. I looked really healthy except for this weird anomaly in my EKG. Since my father had a massive heart attack at age 38, he wanted me to investigate further. He ordered an ECG (sonogram of the heart) and asked me to see a cardiologist.

I saw the cardiologist, Dr. K, in mid January. She saw the anomaly in my EKG. The ECG results did not explain the anomaly in the EKG. She ordered a stress test and a CT Scan of the heart. Let me just say that they are not kidding with that stress test. They really stress you out. I was running on that treadmill within 5 mins. I was huffing and puffing in 6. They do not lessen the pace for short people. Is that really fair? Anyway, the result of the stress test was normal given the abnormal baseline.

At this point, I was really worried. What is happening? Is something really wrong with my heart? I used to be an athlete. I used to swim competitively. I hardly get sick. People would catch a cold all around me and I would usually be spared. I thought I had a kick-ass immune system. The doctor said, the CT scan will show us exactly what is wrong.

One more development that same month - I developed this weird cough. I went to see Dr. Gus about it and he said it was a sinus infection and ear infection at the same time. So, he gave me antibiotics to cure it.

On Jan 31, I had the CT Scan. I thought that was so cool. I was experiencing state of the art modern medicine first hand. They made me lie down on what looked like a balance beam while this huge ring was moving up and down the length of my chest. This female machine voice would say "Hold your breath." Then the scanner would whir and move for about 40 seconds or so. "Breathe" it would say after taking the pictures. They sprayed this drug under my tongue to dilate the blood vessels. Took more pictures. They injected me with dye. Another photo shoot. After all that, the technician said, "If we find something urgent, our doctor will call your doctor who'll call you."

On Feb 1, Dr. K calls me at the office. Uh-oh. Bad omen. I don't remember the exact words she said but she wanted to see me at her office first thing the next day and I had to bring my husband. Don't get me wrong. Dr. K is one of the nicest doctors I've ever met. But no doctor will tell you that you have cancer over the phone. Although, it was obvious in her voice that something was up.

Needless to say, I didn't sleep that night. I couldn't. My cough was driving me nuts and I was sleeping on our loveseat so I could elevate my head. I really tried not to panic but I broke down by 2am. My husband comforted me saying we don't know anything yet. And whatever it is, they'll treat it. They do a lot of great things for heart disease these days (remember, we still thought it was my heart at this point).

On Feb 2, Dr. K says that my heart is perfectly fine. But they found this large mass in my chest. It looks malignant. Lots of other small masses in both lungs. But the one of concern is the big mass in the upper right lung. Can it be something else? Yes, it's possible. Only a biopsy can tell for certain what it is. But the radiologist thinks it's cancer. Is it the early stage? Not this size. It's about 3.5 cm (golf ball size). At this point, I'm a robot. Dr. K. wanted me to see a pulmonologist (lung doctor) that same day. She knows someone down the hall who is willing to see me at any time. I needed to get my CT scan films as well as a chest x-ray.

I did my chest x-ray at 12 noon and I got my CT scan films (15 mile drive), I was at the pulmonologist's office by 2pm. It turns out, he's not in my insurance network. He was willing to see me but I'd have to foot the bill. I figured that if I needed treatment for cancer, I can't be spending needlessly. So I declined his services and his staff looked for a pulmonologist in my network and made me the first possible appointment - next Tuesday. That's 5 days away. I went to my new pulmonologist's office to beg to be seen earlier. No luck.

My husband has an uncle in New Jersey who was an internist. We're really close to Tito Hec so I called and asked if we could drive over that night. I just needed to be near family. It also helped that he was a doctor. So, I told my boss about the mass in my lung and that I needed a few days to go to Jersey. From the start, she was very supportive.

So we packed up our gear and headed to Jersey ( 4 hour drive that took us 5 hours - we got a little lost ). He was shocked. So was his wife, Tita Bing. They saw us Thanksgiving and Christmas - I looked fine. He looked at my films. Was I loosing weight? No and God knows I've been trying. Any pain. None whatsoever. Just doesn't add up. He said he'll have his friends look at it the next day.

Tito Hec did not work the next day. He assembled a panel to look at my films. They all agreed. It looks like cancer. I needed a biopsy right away. They were all willing to do it gratis. But if they do it, that's already the first step towards treatment. There might be an issue of continuity of care if I had the biopsy done there and treatment in Virginia. Plus, there also might be an issue of cost. The biopsy will have to be done in a hospital. It meant poking a big needle through my chest and into my lung to get to the mass. There was a risk of the lung collapsing. I decided to have all the procedures done in Virginia. I could not afford not to work. I'm the breadwinner of my family. Without my job, I don't have medical insurance. Without my job, I can't support my family.

to be continued...


Einzige said...

Hey Xenia!

Just wanted to drop you a line and let you know that I've been a rude lurker on your blog--but I'm correcting that via this comment, I hope. :)

Does this longer post from you mean that the worst of your chemo is over at this point? I hope so.

Talk to you again soon!

xyz said...

Hi, Jim,

A blog is public space. I don't mind you in here.

I've undergone only the first of 3 chemo cycles. After that, we'll see how I did. I'm not really sure what comes after that.

Hoping for the best...