This very prestigious surgeon was booked, of course, but the when the receptionist asked me my husband’s date of birth, she got very quiet. “That’s my brother’s birthday, too, she said. “Thirty-four years old. Don’t worry, I’ll get him in.
The summary translation from all the “doctorese” was this: my husband had one big, weird looking tumor that might be about 5 different types of cancer, and there were some funny looking lymph nodes, too. Yikes!
After each appointment, I’d come home, sit on the back porch and cry. Pregnancy hormones, young husband with cancer, slim savings account, baby on the way, living with in-laws (thankfully, really nice ones.) Not how I had envisioned my life. I felt like actor in a really bad play, kind of how I described the Valentine’s Day, a year and half ago when my father was found dead in his car along the highway. Heart attack.
We went with the surgeon at Columbia Presbyterian, a reassuring, kind man, who believed he could do a partial nephrectomy (remove only half the kidney), but he recommended doing open surgery, rather than laparoscopic, because some of those lymph nodes looked fishy. He thought we had about a 50/50 shot that they weren’t cancerous, and that the tumor, although a bit atypical, seemed likely to be a rather common type of kidney cancer with an excellent treatment. Of course, we wouldn’t know for sure until the pathologist had a look at the specimen.
Best of all, he said, “There is nothing I see here today that makes me think this is incurable.”
Everyone had a glass of champagne that night to celebrate, except pregnant little me—OK, puffy, huge me.
A month later, Friday the 13th, we all drove to Columbia Presbyterian at 4 am. We sat in a beautiful waiting room with a view of the New Jersey skyline. It was odd to feel frightened in such a posh setting.
I saw a man hugging a crying old woman. I’m about 99% certain he was my old publisher. I’d heard he’d been struggling with cancer. I figured anyone high up in the medical publishing world would go to the best docs. I felt reassured again that we were in a good place, but felt sorry to see him. (I didn’t say hi. Kind of awkward, right?)
They made an “X” on my husband’s left side, so they wouldn’t pull out his right kidney by mistake. We hugged him, went to the food court, and waited.
The surgeon came to find us in the waiting room four hours later. He looked upset.
The surgery was a technical success. It was a partial nephrectomy, 12 suspicious lymph nodes removed, some surrounding tissue, too. All the cancer out, “clean as a whistle.”
Then the kicker. The tumor was “curious.” They were sending it to Memorial Sloan Kettering to confirm, but it was probably a rare variety with little treatment options, or something deadly that would require more surgery.
This was not computing. Deadly, didn’t want deadly, and what do you mean, no treatment options? That sounded ridiculous, impossible. I couldn’t decide which one I wanted it to be.
Feeling brave, I said, “Doctor, you said that nothing you’d seen on the CT scan made you think this was incurable. After opening him up, would you say the same thing today?”
“Yes,” he said, gruffly, almost tersely. It felt like a lie.
“When I can I see him.”
“He’s in the ICU, vomiting. When he’s stabilized, you can go in.”
They called me over an hour later. My husband was hooked up to a hundred wires, and a nurse was by a computer monitor at his feet.
“What did the doctor say?” he asked weakly. (It broke my heart seeing him like this.)
I told him the surgery was a technical success.
“Really, he looked pissed about something when I saw him.”
Damn, even after being cut half open he was still sharp. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about the ‘curious’ tumor, and the moment passed.
Machines started beeping. They told me to go, and I blew him a kiss goodbye, with what I hoped was a reassuring smile on my face.
The door slammed behind me. I hobbled down the hallway on swollen ankles, praying for his life. I never could have predicted in less than a week’s time that I would be the one who’d almost die.