Cancer, With a Twist (One Cancer Survivor’s Story of Humor, Hope and a Hint of Sarcasm) Chapter 2: How I Found “It”

Here’s my story. It was a dark and stormy night…(just kidding). In December of 2008, shortly after my thirty-seventh birthday, I was shaving in the shower and I noticed that my right underarm looked swollen. About a week before I had noticed some swollen glands in my neck that seemed to be coming and going. It was winter time so I chalked it up to my body fighting off a cold or a virus. I mean the typical response to swollen glands isn’t, “oh crap, I might have cancer.” Post cancer, swollen glands are a different story, but more on my newfound hypochondria later on. When you haven’t had cancer you think, oh, it’s probably just a cold. The underarm swelling though, well, that raised an alarm in my head that I wasn’t as willing to brush off. I got out of the shower and compared my underarms. The right one definitely looked swollen to me but I didn’t want to freak out and jump to conclusions. Ok to be really honest I was slightly freaked out, but being a relatively rational, Type A personality (yes, I realize the irony in that statement) and being a person who likes to see the glass as half full, I did my best to remain calm and try to think rationally about what it could be.

I thought maybe since I get itchy after shaving, perhaps I had scratched my underarm too hard one day? Maybe I scratched one too many times and that was the cause of the swelling? Maybe I had an ingrown hair? These were logical questions, but in the back of my mind there was this nagging thought of how you hear about lymph nodes with cancer. Even though I wasn’t an expert on the exact location of lymph nodes in the human body, I knew that there were some in my armpits. I felt around my right axilla (armpit to us lay people, but doesn’t axilla sound so much classier than armpit?) and I could feel the slightest little lump but it was there.  I waited about a week and a half, not wanting to seem like a hypochondriac, hoping that the swelling would go down, but there was also that part of me that wanted to run to the doctor screaming “I think I might have cancer!”

As I came to the end of that week and a half I was now obsessed with my armpits. I compared them in the bathroom mirror incessantly and felt for the lump every day. On the flip side I was trying really hard to leave it alone thinking I could possibly be making it worse by poking at it every day. “Maybe it’s nothing, leave it alone!” I would try to tell myself before forcing myself to walk away from the mirror.

I asked both my mother and my husband on separate occasions if they thought my armpits looked different. They did. I could see the swelling wasn’t going down.  I took a deep breath and made an appointment with my doctor. It’s important for me to mention that I wasn’t feeling particularly sick at this time. Sure I was very tired, but my children were seven and three, and my son had never been a good sleeper from the moment he came out of the womb. The fatigue I was feeling wasn’t new for me and wasn’t much different than most other parents with young children; we’re all exhausted. The only other symptom I had was that I was itchy which I would later learn is a symptom of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (Are you suddenly itchy now?  Don’t freak out. Strange how the moment anybody mentions itching, we start scratching, isn’t it?) I’m still itchy all of these years post-treatment and cancer-free, so who knows?

In retrospect, I’m thankful for the lumps and bumps that started showing themselves because who knows how long I would have gone undiagnosed had they not appeared since I wasn’t feeling much different than normal. I want to take a moment here to stress the fact that I didn’t wait long at all to see the doctor after I found the lump in my armpit and it was already stage two. Pay attention to your body. Don’t wait to go to the doctor if you think something might be wrong: go with your gut and get it checked out. I’m not going to get political here but if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, because plenty of people aren’t and no one should die from something treatable, thank your lucky stars and go to the doctor. I have my own nightmare story about being underinsured in another chapter. That was fun…not.

When I saw my primary care doctor in her office, she and I could barely feel the offending lump at the time. Thankfully she sent me for more testing to rule out the possibilities. She referred me to an oncologist and my appointment with her was scheduled for a week later. By then the lump in question was much bigger, and seemed to be screaming “Here I am! Bet you can feel me now!” The doctor questioned me about possibly being scratched by an animal. Who knew Cat Scratch Fever (also called Cat Scratch Disease) was actually real? Score one for you if you did. If you’re like me and you didn’t, you learned something new already! I explained that the only animals in the house were my children, (whom I love and adore), and that nope, they hadn’t scratched me. I hadn’t been around any other animals lately either.

The oncologist then referred me to a surgeon so they could biopsy my new unwanted friend, the lump. I had my biopsy done and the surgeon called me about a week later, confirming everything that I had Googled and was afraid of. Here’s what that sounded like:

Me: Hello?

Surgeon: Hi, can I speak to Jennifer Donohue please? (Sometimes I leave out my maiden name so as not to confuse people more than I have to. You’d be amazed at the confusion that a simple little hyphen can cause,…but I digress).

Me: This is she.

Surgeon: Hi Mrs. Donohue. (Uncomfortable pause) We got the results back and I didn’t want to make you wait until you saw the oncologist to hear them. (Yet another uncomfortable pause) You have something called Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Me: Ok. That’s cancer right? (Who was I kidding by asking? I totally knew it was cancer she was talking about. I had Googled and Yahoo’ed the internet like crazy looking up everything I could about lymphoma, because the surgeon had mentioned that my oncologist was probably looking for some type of lymphoma. I just needed to hear her say the word CANCER).

Surgeon: Yes, it’s cancer but it’s very treatable. There’s a very high cure rate with the Hodgkin’s.

Me: Ok, well that’s at least some good news…thank you very much for calling me back so soon. (Third uncomfortable pause. I can’t imagine that this call is easy for the doctors to make. The surgeon had been so nice to me throughout the biopsy and everything.  I wanted to console her and say “It’s ok, I’m going to be fine, cancer knocked on the wrong door” but I didn’t really know what to say in this situation either, so all I could muster was a thank you).

Surgeon: You’re welcome. Good luck with everything.

Me: Thank you very much, doctor.

I let out a big sigh and dialed the phone to call my husband. Here’s what that sounded like:

Me: Hi, hon.

Dan: Hey babe, what’s up?

Me: I just heard back from the surgeon. They got the test results already. It’s definitely cancer. It’s the one we thought it might be, the Hodgkin’s, not the Non-Hodgkin’s. The good news is it’s very treatable. I have the good cancer (sarcasm intended, this was an unfortunate term that I would hear over and over again from well meaning people. I know what they meant, I had a good prognosis, but the terms “good” and “cancer” should never be used together. There is no such thing as a good cancer.)

Dan: Isn’t Non-Hodgkin’s better? That makes sense by the name.

Me: I know it’s confusing but the Non-Hodgkin’s isn’t as treatable. It’s the Hodgkin’s.

Dan: So it’s not the Non.

Me: Not the Non.

Dan: It’s the Hodgkin’s.

Me: Yes, the Hodgkin’s. I’m sorry to ruin your day but I just couldn’t wait all day until you got home to tell you.

Dan: Don’t apologize. Damn, this is crazy.

Me: Tell me about it. All right, I’ll let you go. I have a few more phone calls to make and a few more people’s days to ruin.

Dan: Ok hon, I love you.

Me: I love you too, babe. See you later.

Thus began my cancer journey and being diagnosed with Stage 2 Mixed Cellularity Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (try saying that five times fast) or Hodgkin’s Disease as it’s sometimes called. It’s a blood cancer, and fortunately for me, one of the most treatable forms of cancer.

– Jenn G.D.

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