The Cancer Battle, Part One: The Delayed Diagnosis

My mother was officially diagnosed with cancer on May 9, 2019, but our journey — I say our not to diminish the fact that my mother is the one who is ill, but because I will be with her throughout, and because you, my dear readers, are along for the ride — actually began in early November of 2018.

It’s almost funny how the smallest things can change the course of a life and the lives of those closes to the afflicted. And, by “almost funny,” I mean “not very fucking funny at all.” It started with a cold.

After several days of a sore throat, a cough, low-grade fever, and slight shortness of breath, my mom went to the doctor and was diagnosed with the common cold.

“Take some zinc lozenges, get plenty of rest, and drink plenty of water,” her doctor said.

Only she couldn’t seem to bounce back. She sucked on zinc lozenges — sugar-free! — took Tylenol for her fever, drank several bottles of water more than her normal intake, and napped when she was tired, but her health deteriorated. The doctor said her cold had morphed into bronchitis.

“This happens with people who have asthma,” he said, tone filled with confident sincerity.

But the bronchitis lingered. Her shortness of breath worsened, and so she was sent for a chest CT to confirm (or rule out) pneumonia. They saw a strange spot on the CT, but because the CT confirmed that she did have pneumonia, they couldn’t be sure what it was. They would get another CT in a few months to make sure the pneumonia had resolved, they said. The spot would probably be gone then, they said.

It was probably nothing to worry about.

Despite getting flu shots, we both got the flu, so Thanksgiving was spent huddled in blankets surrounded by balled up, snotty tissues. And, once again, my mother was diagnosed with bronchitis.

“You do this a lot,” said her doctor. “We’ll get it under control.”

Fun, right? It gets worse.

My mom never could quite shake her cough.

“I’m afraid it’s pneumonia again,” said her GP.

“It’s your asthma flaring up because you have pneumonia,” said the PA who squeezed her in when her fever returned and her shortness of breath worsened.

In the wee hours of Christmas morning, I made a panicked phone call to 911. We were visiting my aunt and uncle for the holidays and staying at the hotel, as a burst pipe had ravaged the guest bedrooms at my aunt and uncle’s home, leaving them unusable. Mom and I were chatting about what to watch on TV first — our family tradition is to watch the cartoon version of the Grinch, Talladega Nights (yes, we’re weird), and a Harry Potter marathon — when she stopped answering and started thrashing.

It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.

The fire department arrived first, proving yet again why I adore firefighters. Fortunately, the EMTs weren’t far behind. She was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, sirens wailing. My uncle and I brought up the rear of our small caravan because they refused to let me ride with her. After all, we had no idea what was wrong with her at the time, and I like to imagine they didn’t want me to watch my mother die. (In reality, they most likely assumed I would only be in the way.)

It was a febrile seizure. When her fever broke and she was able to speak again, her chief complaint was shortness of breath. Another CT. Another round of doctors claiming they saw something but didn’t know what it was. They recommended a follow-up CT back home but advised her to let the pneumonia clear up first. They also couldn’t rule out scar tissue.

It took two more bouts of “pneumonia” and two more CT scans before we got the diagnosis. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened were it not for an eagle-eyed radiologist who finally realized he wasn’t looking at pneumonia or scar tissue.

The entire experience left my mother, who jokingly calls herself “a dinosaur nurse,” disillusioned and disgusted. It left me pissed off.

Yet again, the health concerns of former smokers are ignore and dismissed when the first thing that should come to mind is “let’s send her to a pulmonologist and rule out cancer.”

Thanks for sticking with us this far. More to come.

We’re just getting started.

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