I noticed a lump on my neck a few weeks ago. Not huge, but noticeable. When I turn my head, other people see it too. I went to the doctor for my annual physical and mammogram. (I’ve done that every year faithfully since my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003.) The doctor said that the lump was probably nothing. Most likely a cyst. All the blood work came out normal, thyroid normal, white blood cell count high, she said it was a bladder infection and prescribed some antibiotics. No big deal, I have chronic kidney problems, bladder infections are par for the course. She referred me to an ultrasound just to be sure.
Today I had the ultrasound on the lump on my neck. It’s about 1/4 of an inch wide, 1/2 an inch tall. The radiologist puts her wand right on it. She says it’s a lymph node. She starts to move the wand up and down. She says there are multiple swollen lymph nodes. She is moving the wand from my collar bone up to my jaw line. She says she will measure the three largest. I ask how many there are. She says normally when there are this many, they don’t count them. They just put “numerous.” I know this. When my sister was diagnosed, the malignant lesions on her liver were “too numerous to count.” I begin to get frightened.
She asks me to turn my head, and she moves the wand over the other side of my neck. From this angle, I can see the spaces on the screen. They look huge, but I know that objects on this screen are smaller than they appear. Still, on the screen they look to be the size of those pink rubber erasers that we used in elementary school, the kind that were tapered at each end and usually broke in half around November. She is measuring lots of them. I see her measure at least three on this side. If she measured three on the other side, and three on this side, how many are in there?
I ask her what that could mean, all those enlarged lymph nodes. She says she can’t say, she’s not the doctor. I’ll have to call my doctor. She says it’s usually nothing. Normally, enlarged lymph nodes are nothing that they worry about. She smiles and says have a nice day. I put on my necklace and leave.
In the car, I call my doctor. She is with a patient and can’t speak to me now. I should call back at 7:30. When I get home I sit down in front of the computer. I enter the symptom into Google, ‘multiple swollen lymph nodes neck.’ I find a wonderful reference detailing all of the diseases that have this symptom. By looking at symptom combinations, I am able to rule out breast cancer. That’s good. But, I am not able to rule out other scary things. Esophageal cancer. Leukemia. AIDS. Did we use a condom every time I had sex in the nineties? Probably not, but I tested negative before I got married. Am I positive that my husband was faithful? Yes. That’s not it, I tell myself. Mononucleosis. Tuberculosis. Some things are not so scary. Sinus infection, ear infection, gum disease. I just finished a round of antibiotics. I took them all until they were gone, like you’re supposed to. I don’t think it’s an infection.
I start to call friends. The first one is not helpful. Stomach cancer, he says. Brain tumor. Not supportive. The second is very informative. She does the same thing I did, finds the same Web site, sees the same things. She is sure that I am not sick. All the same, she asks me to call her the instant I hear from the doctor. Even though she is on east coast time, and it will be the middle of the night. The third is a know-it-all. She is sure that it is allergies. My allergies are weird, she says. They come on all of a sudden. They could be causing something like that. She is right. It’s probably no big deal.
I finish my errands for the day, and now I’m waiting for the doctor to call. She hasn’t called yet. It’s 8:30. She finished with her last patient at 7:30. That’s a good sign, right? She didn’t drop everything to pick up the phone, so it must not be urgent. Right?
The Next Day
The doctor called today while I was in a meeting. She left me a message with the name and number of the surgeon that she’s referred me to. I’m having my first consultation on Thursday. They’ll make sure I’m healthy, then schedule my biopsy. If I were healthy, would I need a biopsy? Anyway, that’s where it stands now. No one can tell me what’s going on. I don’t think anyone knows.
I haven’t told anyone but my closest friends. My mother would have a panic attack. Since my sister’s death, she simply cannot cope with the thought of losing me. Luckily, she’s on a cruise somewhere, and I couldn’t tell her if I wanted to. I’ll fill her in on the details as soon as I can. As soon as I know.
I am a single mother. What will I tell my son?
One Week Later
I don’t recognize myself in the mirror right now. My eyes are too big, like a frightened animal. My face is too skinny, my skin the wrong shade. I’m sure that it’s nothing, I keep telling myself. I don’t feel sick. Suddenly I realize I’ve been clearing my throat constantly for months. What was that a symptom of? Leukemia? Esophageal cancer.
The transmission in my car is acting funny. Now is not the time. I cursed all the way home, until my son reminded me that he was in the back seat.
My stomach hurts, my throat hurts, I’ve stopped sleeping. I can’t tell any more what are symptoms and what is stress. I have to calm down. It’s going to be fine …
Thursday’s appointment was not great. The surgeon couldn’t find the nodes that show in the ultrasound. If he can’t find them, he can’t biopsy them, right?
So the cat scan was Friday. They don’t tell you anything at a cat scan. The nurse was very nice. She put in an IV, then put that chemical in the IV that shows up on the cat scan, to make everything more clear. That chemical, combined with the stress of the week and the whirring of the machine, made me nauseous.
There’s something about the efficiency of hospital nurses that’s very comforting. She got the little pink bucket for me, and put ice on the back of my neck. She held my hair. She complimented my watch while I was puking, which made me laugh. Cute watch—bleaaaa.
And then I went home. There’s nothing to do but wait.
Three Weeks Later
I’m fine. The doctor has assured me that I’m perfectly fine, but I’ve asked him to take this lump out of my neck and biopsy it just to be sure. He insists that it’s benign, he ‘just knows’.
My sister’s doctor “just knew” that the lump in her breast was nothing, and my twenty nine year old sister did not insist. Her breast cancer was diagnosed eighteen months later. By that time it was at stage 4, and had metastasized to her liver. She lived for twenty-two months before the cancer overtook her. She was thirty three. Her husband chose not to sue for malpractice, deciding that their small town doctor knew very well what he had done, and the money would not bring Shannon back to us.
I am not so understanding. My son is only nine years old. If the lump is not benign, I explain to the surgeon, I will sue, if only to ensure that my son is cared for after I’m gone. After listening to me carefully, he decided that the lump should be removed after all.
He warned me that I would have a scar. Like I care at all about a scar on my neck. Considering the alternative, I’d be comfortable with Frankenstein’s bolts sticking out just under my earlobe.
Nope, take it out.