An Unexpected Diagnosis
How a Feared Ending Led to a New Beginning
Nothing brings perspective quite like facing the possibility of dying. That’s exactly what happened to me last Friday, September 7th. In the three days prior, I’d been experiencing what I thought was indigestion. Only it kept worsening by the day, evolving into agony. Finances haven’t been great, so I really didn’t want to make an unnecessary doctor’s visit. Although I have insurance, I didn’t want to squander money on co-pays for something that would probably resolve with time and enough doses of an over-the-counter stomach medication.
If anything, the pain became so unbearable I had trouble walking normally and I dreaded having to take deep breaths for the same reason. Pain that had originally started around my navel soon shifted toward my right oblique as it radiated outward. A simple drink of water set my belly ablaze and took roughly fifteen seconds to self-extinguish. This wasn’t normal. I knew it was time to make an appointment when I started comparing my agony to what I’d experienced during childbirth.
My doctor, suspecting that I had appendicitis, sent me to the ER for a CT scan with contrast and intravenous dye. Writing this, I feel somewhat ridiculous for wondering how we’d pay for whatever balance our insurance wouldn’t cover for ER services. I even bemoaned the terrible timing of all this, both fiscally and productively.
Prior to becoming ill, I’d been working on a poetry book, website revamp, building an online store, and several art projects, all while doing my very best to be a good mother. My husband, Max, who is also doing his best to balance challenging responsibilities, advised me to focus on the most urgent task at hand, finding the cause of my pain and doing whatever possible to alleviate it.
Max and I decided it was best that he return home with our daughter since children aren’t allowed in triage for obvious reasons. Besides, chances are I’d be there for at least a few hours before we’d hear anything. After saying our goodbyes, I was given a bed in triage and changed into a hospital gown.
After drinking a copious amount of what tasted like liquefied cardboard with a dash of ink, I underwent the scan (after the standard two hour wait) and awaited the results. For nearly three hours. I figured, if anything was seriously wrong the doctors would’ve rushed out with the results long before the elapsed time.
I was wrong.
The radiologist came to my bedside, wearing a solemn expression, papers curled in his hands. He gave me the good news first, all the while subtly shifting his weight from one foot to the other. My appendix was completely normal. Then came the bad news.
“The scan shows a six to seven centimeter mass in your colon.”
The words he spoke afterward came to me in fuzzy fragments.
Colonoscopy… Biopsy… Possible surgery…
Nothing seemed to make sense in that moment.
The doctor asked me a series of questions: if there was any history of cancer in my family, have I passed any black, thin, or bloody stools. Regarding the latter three inquiries, the answer was no.
He concluded with the obvious, that I’d be in the hospital for a while. Perhaps up to a week. Then I was left to respond to text messages on my phone, battery nearing the teens in percentage. How does one convey such jolting news over the phone? My silence would only induce further concern, so I shared the information all the while trying not to share my fear.
I was admitted, given a room, and restricted from eating or drinking anything. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t hungry despite only having a small bowl of cereal the entire day. My mind was spinning with thoughts of my family. Also, I realized that this was the first time I’d spend a full day or so apart from my daughter. Naturally, I didn’t sleep at all that first night.
The final CT scan report was completed the next afternoon (Friday), confirming the preliminary findings, that there was a 6 cm x 3cm mass in my ascending colon. I was cautioned to hope for the best, but to prepare for the worst since such results were suspicious for cancer. There was also some good news, my blood results revealed very low carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) markers, which gave me some hope. Though, I knew it didn’t necessarily mean I was in the clear. Only the colonoscopy and biopsy could indicate that.
My colonoscopy was scheduled for Monday, so I knew I was in for a very long weekend. In the meantime, I was introduced to a series of specialists: an oncologist, colorectal surgeon, radiation therapist, all stating that they hoped I wouldn’t require their services, but just in case…
During such an ordeal, the worst thing a person can do is turn to Google. So naturally, that’s exactly what I did. I learned that although colon cancer is associated with older age groups, an increasing number of people in their twenties and thirties are also being diagnosed with the illness, though it often goes misdiagnosed since colon cancer screenings aren’t recommended until age forty-five or fifty.
I considered the size of the suspected mass in my colon and it made my heart drop. If it happened to be malignant, what stage must it be in at that size? I thought of my daughter and how I wanted to see her grow up. I thought of the life I lived so far and if I thought I’d accomplished enough, if I’d done enough for others. I was gripped with sadness and regret as I realized how much I had let fear govern my life, how much I had let it seal me off from opportunities and experiences. How much I had cheated myself and others by shielding my most authentic self out of fear of judgment.
I think the thing that weighed on me the most was not the possibility of dying, but having my memory vanish like vapor in the minds of those I haven’t truly connected with as a result of my aforementioned fear. I’ve often diluted myself for the comfort of others as I sought their acceptance. Yet, in my darkest hour I wondered, what was the point of having existed in the first place if I couldn’t shine my light in all its quirky authentic glory? I also noted my selfishness, how I’d hoarded my experiences in pursuit of appearing minimally flawed. Experiences that could help others whom are struggling with similar difficulties. I promised myself that regardless of my outcome, I’d spend whatever time I had left rectifying this.
All of this played in my mind as the days elapsed. All the while, I did my best to reassure my family of my strength and relied heavily on humor to distract everyone, including myself from whatever lie ahead. My roommate, who’d been admitted the day after I had been, was another welcome distraction. Throughout our stay we volleyed jokes that frequently left us in fits of laughter, earning curious stares from doctors and staff as they passed our room. I’m sure some of the other patients wondered if we were getting the “good drugs.”
My roommate and I thoroughly enjoyed one another’s company and discovered mind-boggling similarities, including a shared birthday, which our nurse happened to point out. In addition, we both loved spelling bees during childhood, took an interest in fashion design and marketing, lived in East New York in the ’80s, currently live in Midwood…
The similarities go on and on. We’re both middle children, specifically with an older brother and sister, and two younger sisters. We both write poetry and aspire to publish our verses in a book, something I had been actively working on prior to being hospitalized.
The day prior to the procedure I broke down upon relieving myself in the bathroom and seeing blackness in the toilet, something way out of the ordinary. Once the wave of anxiety and sorrow ebbed, I redirected my line of thinking. Now was not the time to mourn. Doing so would mean surrender.
To hell with that.
I trained my focus on chugging down four liters of a foul-tasting laxative. When the nurse walked in with the jug of clear liquid I joked that it looked as though she were about to start a fire. Little did I know the solution in the container would taste like a combination of seawater and fuel. As the strange concoction took effect, I noticed my pain reduce to mild pressure, which literally helped me breathe easier.
By the morning of my colonoscopy I had reached a point where I no longer felt as anxious or afraid as I had when I was admitted. I figured worrying would do nothing to change the impending results. If anything, it would rob me of the energy I’d likely need to tackle any challenges I’d face going forward. That’s not to say I was carefree. Far from it. I just refused to let fear rob me as I’d already allowed it in the past.
Unlike the prep for the procedure, the colonoscopy itself seemed like nothing at since the anesthesia that was used is like a time thief. I awoke about an hour later, not fully aware I had even been asleep. Through my fading disorientation I noticed the gastroenterologist’s relaxed expression as he raised both his thumbs.
“We didn’t see anything [meaning no cancer],” he said. He did, however, mention that my colon had been twisted, which caused an obstruction. I believe the medical term for this is Epiploic Appendagitis. Not nearly as serious as cancer, but serious nonetheless. Left untreated for too long it could lead to severe complications or possibly death.
The kicker is, based on what I’ve read online, this occurrence is apparently quite rare in the US. Yet, my roommate, who raised the possibility that I had a twisted colon just the night before my procedure had the same problem in the past. She mentioned this a day or so prior to my diagnosis and suspected I had the same thing. Not long after I underwent a follow-up CT Scan, she and I both received the okay to be released from the hospital that day…unintentionally wearing similar colored outfits.
My follow-up appointment is in a few days, where my GI specialist and I will likely discuss diet, and measures to prevent recurrence. This may or may not include surgery.
It’s amazing how quickly life can change. When I was admitted to the hospital, I feared I’d face my death. Instead, I left with a renewed sense of purpose and a friend for life.
UPDATE: This story has been edited to include the name of the condition epiploic appendagitis