Last week I managed to “pop” my shoulder (getting a bag out of an airplane overhead compartment no less. Air travel is a contact sport you know). Having done this before, I knew a trip to the doc was in order so they could manipulate it back into place.
Yes, that hurts.
Standard procedure here is to take x-rays to make sure nothing is structurally amiss.
Two days later the urgent care doc calls and says, “The radiologist reviewed your x-ray. The shoulder looks OK, but there is another problem.”
“What might that be?” I asked.
“There is a nodule in your upper right lung.”
“A nodule? What the hell is a nodule?”
“It’s a spot. A growth. A mass.”
“There’s a mass? In my lung? Is it cancer?”
“Usually not, but you’ll need to have it checked out right away.”
“Define ‘usually not’ please.”
“There are many factors, typically less than half are malignant. Do you smoke?”
“I used to.”
“For how long?”
There’s a slight pause. I can just tell the doc is trying to formulate the right words. “Oh. Well that changes things considerably. I recommend contacting your doctor. Today if possible. Given the size and location of the growth, your age and past history, this could be extremely serious. But, it could also be nothing to be alarmed about.”
He gave me a few more details before we hung up. A 12mm growth, in an upper lobe of the lung. His final words were, “Don’t freak out, but get it checked. Now.”
Don’t. Freak. Out. What the hell do you expect someone that just heard, “there is a growth in your lung” to do?
Of course I freaked out. My next step was turing to the Internet to learn more.
That was a bad idea.
Did you know there are “calculators” out there on the Interwebs that after you enter various details of your “findings” it will spit out a probability of having a malignant tumor?
The number I got back was 86%.
Here’s the Mayo Clinic site telling me that there’s an 86% chance this thing in my lung is cancer. The Mayo Clinic. It’s not like we’re talking “Joe’s FREE Uber-cool Malignancy Calculator App” here.
The doc’s last words, “Don’t freak out” were of no help. A reputable web site telling me the odds are overwhelming that it’s cancer. Another site says the odds are 75%. Another says “Greater than 60%” None of these odds are exactly pleasing to the ear. Multiple sites say the average five-year survival rate of upper lobe lung cancers with tumors the size of mine is 9%.
Trust me, you hear and read these things and you WILL freak out.
Over the next couple of days a flurry of activity takes place. A full chest x-ray confirms the ‘nodule’ – now labeled a “suspicious growth”. That was a Friday, a CT scan is scheduled for Monday. Now I have all weekend to “not freak out” about some unknown thing taking up residence in my right lung.
I read things like, “prognosis is poor.” I rerun those calculators, hoping for different results. I try to figure out how to tell my kids about this. I hide some things I’m reading from my wife, and I never hide ANYTHING from her.
Tuesday morning I have the CT scan and the tech tells me it will take 24 – 48 hours to be reviewed. Great, another two days lying awake in bed, wondering if cancer cells are coursing through my body.
Fortunately, I’ve got some amazing doctors, and they knew that I was really struggling with all the unknowns surrounding this. They put a rush on the CT scan results.
Last night I got the call.
“The tumor is benign. We can’t be 100% sure without a biopsy, but based on what the CT shows we can say with 98% confidence that it is not malignant. It’s a hamartoma, not a malignant tumor. ”
“Overwhelming relief” doesn’t describe the feeling hearing that news. After I hung up the phone I broke down into a blubbering mess.
For six days I was convinced that I was about to enter a battle with lung cancer that in all likelihood would not end well. It sucked. It was miserable. Those six days were some of the longest, most torturous days of my life.
It’s all my own fault. I owe it all to the stupidest habit in the world — smoking.
I’m lucky that this tumor in my chest is benign. I was lucky to survive a heart attack that kills most people.
I’ve got to stop pressing my luck, as it’s bound to run out some day.
Warning: preachy rant forthcoming
I started smoking when I was 16. Why? Who knows. Why does anyone start smoking? To fit in with the “cool kids” I suppose. To seem more “adult.” Because, “I won’t get addicted to cigarettes, that only happens to weak people.” Because I was 16 and too young, dumb, ignorant and invincible to worry about the long-term effects of smoking. Who worries about what will happen in their 50s when they are 16 years old?
Whatever the reason, I started smoking and I didn’t stop for good until two years ago when I had a heart attack. And while I’d like to blame genetics for that little life-altering-stare-death-in-the-face event, fact is smoking was a huge contributor to the heart attack, of that there is zero question. And despite that heart attack, I’ve slipped up and had a few smokes since then.
How fucking stupid is that??
I *know* how hard it is to quit smoking. Believe me, I tried and tried and tried. Having a heart attack at 51 is a hell of a motivator, but even with that, quitting is hard.
For the love of everything, if you smoke or know someone that does, you have GOT to quit and help your friends quit. I’m about to turn into “that guy”. The dreaded ex-smoker that preaches the evils of smoking to anyone that will listen, and even to those that won’t.
Yep, that guy. Deal with it.
Smoking is the single stupidest thing you can do to your body. So stop it. Now. Easier said than done, I know. But there’s help out there. There are support groups, there are medicines that can help. Talk to your doctor. Talk to your family. A counselor. Talk to someone that can help you quit. You don’t have to do this alone.
You’re out at a bar and it’s 2:00am and you want a smoke? Call me, I’ll talk you out of it. My number is 480-235-4447. I’m serious, call any time and I’ll happily read you my CT scan report; the one that says thanks to years of smoking I now have some beginning signs of emphysema. I’ll tell you about the now calcified hunk of shit in my lungs–that while luckily isn’t cancerous–will be in there forever. I’ll tell you about how now I get to have a chest CT scan every year to see if any new nodules, or cancer, have popped up.
Please, don’t wait to quit until you have a heart attack, or some spot on an x-ray shows up that could very well be something that will kill you.
I got lucky. Six days of pure hell wondering if you’ve got a cancerous tumor in your lung sucks, but that’s nothing compared to months of surgery, chemo and radiation all in what is most likely a dismal attempt to prolong your life while you waste away with cancer literally eating you alive from the inside, killing you. Dead. Forever.
You’ve got to quit smoking, now. Please. You can do it.
Snuff out the smokes, not your life.
Photo credit: Curtis Perry via Flickr. CC Licensed.