The discovery of my first cancer, Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, was made when I had a hernia. This may seem like an odd or even funny way to learn that you have cancer, but it's exactly how I got the bad news. Let me explain.
The year was 1998. I went to see a doctor for some reason, probably for bronchitis. I had a recurring problem with bronchitis all through the '90s. While I was there, I asked the doctor about a lump that I had found on the back of my neck. Dr. S. examined the lump briefly, then said, "It's probably nothing to worry about. Just keep an eye on it and see if it gets any bigger." Clearly, Dr. S. was not an oncologist. With that, he ushered me out of the exam room and sent me on my way. After this false start, I'm lucky the truth was discovered before it was too late.
A short time later I noticed a somewhat larger lump in my lower abdomen. I don't remember how I ended up seeing a urologist about it, but just the same I found myself in an exam room with Dr. D. He told me that the lump was a hernia, and he scheduled me for an ultrasound to see how serious it was.
I'll probably never know for certain how I got the hernia. Maybe it happened while I was helping some men from our church move a baby grand piano up two flights of stairs. Maybe it happened while I was helping a friend load boulders into the bed of a pickup truck so they could be hauled away. By whatever means I got it, the hernia caused me no pain or discomfort, so it could have been new, or it could have been biding its time.
I had gotten into the habit of examining the hernia site several times a day. At the time I suspected that I would gain nothing by examining it, but I checked it anyway. Then one day I noticed a smaller lump not far from the hernia. The smaller lump puzzled me. A few days later I saw Dr. D., the urologist, again. The ultrasound had revealed that the hernia was serious enough to need surgical correction. I asked Dr. D. about the new small lump. After examining it intently for a while, he said, "I don't know what this is, but it needs to be biopsied." I didn't realize it at the time, but Dr. D. had come through where Dr. S. had dropped the ball.
Soon the day of my hernia surgery arrived. I don't know why surgical suites have to be so cold that you can almost see your breath. This is especially uncomfortable when you're wearing only a flimsy hospital gown and have a stomach which is 12 hours empty. That morning Krissy, who was then my girlfriend, sat beside the rolling bed that I was lying on. She was doing everything she could to make me more comfortable and less anxious. A nurse gave me something to make me loopy before they gave me the anesthetic, and the last thing I remember before losing consciousness was being wheeled into the operating room.
When I woke, Krissy again was sitting beside me, saying comforting words. She made the entire experience a lot less stressful for me. The surgeon came in, said that everything had gone smoothly, that the hernia was repaired, and that I could leave soon. I asked him about the small lump. He said it was an enlarged lymph node which he had removed and sent to Pathology to be studied. His office would call me at home when they had the results.
I was at home asleep a few mornings later when the surgeon himself called with the Pathology results. He told me that the enlarged lymph node was malignant. I blearily thanked him for the information and went back to sleep. An hour or two later I woke up and wasn't sure if the surgeon had called, or if I had dreamed it. I phoned his office; he told me that he had called and that the lymph node was indeed malignant. I had a strange feeling that the news wasn't real. I also had the sick feeling that the news was very real, and that left me numb.
I knew what malignancy meant, even though I didn't know the specific medical name of the illness I had. I also didn't know yet that very soon I would need all my faith in God, all of Krissy's support, and all of my own stubbornness to wage a battle of wills with a terrible enemy: cancer. But that is another story.