I’m no super-athlete or adrenaline junkie, but I’ve been known to play hard from time to time in the hills of Alaska. Then, seemingly out of the blue, I drove down to Turnagain on a windy, rainy, snowy day to backcountry ski with a small group of friends and acquaintances. This particular day felt like I had two lead weights hanging off my heels. “Maybe I’m getting the flu,” I think to myself and then finally speak out loud as if to apologize for my tortoise pace. I end up ending the day early and think nothing else of it, especially since the “flu” never came. The next weekend, also while skiing, the same strong feeling of fatigue set in. I pushed through but couldn’t ignore it anymore when I looked into the mirror on the drive home to see my gums as pale as the skin of a wintered-over Alaskan.
I get in with a naturopath the next morning and go over some of my symptoms. I’d been waking up between the hours of 1am and 3am for months now, exhausted, emotional, muscle fatigue. . . What’s going on? A blood test and a stool sample point to severe iron deficiency anemia and it’s not just because I don’t take in enough iron, I’m actually losing blood. I’m put on oral iron in hopes that it bumps up my blood counts and wait to see what happens.
The meeting with the hematologist and gastroenterologist came in early March and my iron counts have gone up, still below normal but much better, so the hematologist decides iron infusions aren’t necessary. The gastroenterologist, Dr. June George, decides a colonoscopy is. “Okay,” says the woman scheduling appointments, “we’ll get you in the 17th of April.” “Wow,” I think to myself, “this must be a very popular procedure and they must not be too concerned.” So I continue on oral iron and several other vitamins and go on my way.
My regular-scheduled activities continue. I’m as active as always and feeling jazzed about the spring semester at school, my absolute favorite time with the kids because the returning light brings so much joy and energy to the classroom. I’m feeling more alive and less exhausted but continuing to see evidence of whatever is going on in my body in my stool, sometimes daily, sometimes intermittently.
The 17th finally arrives (I’ll spare all the details) and I’m pretty groggy coming out of the anesthesia, but “come to” like lighting as Dr. George points to the most hideous looking think I’ve ever seen. My ascending colon is inflamed and almost closed off by this mass. “This,” she says, as she points to the tumor, “is either inflammation, a polyp, or cancer. My friend Jenna walks in just in time to hear this and I immediately start to cry. Cancer is such a scary word to me. I’ve lost two grandparents to horrible experiences with cancer and I decided from those experiences alone that if I got cancer I’d rather die then go through with what they went through. I’m ordered a blood test to check for cancer cells, a CT scan for the next morning, the results for those and the ones from the pathologist are being rushed, and I’m to return to Dr. George’s office tomorrow afternoon at 2:15.” “Well,” I think to myself, “I think she thinks I have cancer because they waited 6 weeks to get me into the colonoscopy and wait only hours for the follow-up.”
Another friend, nurse practitioner, life coach, health coach, cancer survivor, midwife extraordinaire (an incredible friend to have), Ana comes up to my cabin on the hillside to review the notes and results. After a little bit of time she also says, “This woman thinks you have cancer.”
“I don’t have cancer.” I say to myself as I wake on that very memorable Thursday morning. I take care of my body, pay attention to what I eat, exercise regularly, have a job I love, live where I love. . . I don’t have cancer. As I drink the bottles of barium sulfate given to me for the CT scan, nearly losing them before getting them down, I’m wondering what the hell is going on. An hour later my eyes fill with tears as yet another needle is being stuck into my right arm and my body is sent under the scanner, the woman’s automated voice saying “inhale, hold your breathe” some moments go by as it does its thing, “now breathe.”
Hours later, another friend Aria and I sit with June George in building B at Regional, she states rather plainly, “It’s cancer. From the pathology report its stage two or three.” My ears are humming and my mind sticks on those two words. I’m glad Aria’s with me so that she can focus on what’s being said. As Dr. George takes a breath I finally ask, “Are you sure?”
She goes into the options; how surgery will go, what the follow-up would look like, the possibility of chemo, the importance of second opinions, staying in-state versus going out of state. . . my mind is truly spinning and I’m not going into “fast-forward Suz” mode as some friends refer to me. I’m staying right there in that room with no thoughts of the future and no attention to the past. The words sinking in, like a fog creeping down a valley.