D-Day: When the Diagnosis Dropped

Hearing the word 'cancer' come from your doctor's mouth changes your world
August 1, 2019 Updated: August 1, 2019

Cancer is one of the most common diseases of our age, and yet those who face it rarely know what’s about to happen to them beyond the broadest terms. “Cancer up Close” is an open recount of Michele Goncalves’s cancer journey from pre-diagnosis to life after treatment.

My fear was steadily rising in the days leading up to my diagnosis, but when the word finally came, it landed like a punch in the stomach.

“You’re going to need a colonoscopy.” That’s what the gastroenterologist told me on Nov. 11, 2017, after our short 10-minute consultation.

Despite our quick interaction, I can’t say that I was surprised by his recommendation. All throughout our appointment, I had explained that I was not feeling well, with belly pains in my lower abdomen and severe constipation that I was “managing” by drinking a cap full of Miralax stool softener in a cup of water each night.

As I sat in my living room on Dec. 13, 2017, the eve of my first colonoscopy, a sick feeling started to come over me. Yes, it was partly due to the fact that I was drinking a pitcher of lemonade spiked with Miralax to cleanse my bowels for the procedure, but mostly it was because I knew that I’d probably be getting some information the next day that I didn’t want to hear.

At 2:30 p.m. the next day, I arrived at the outpatient surgical center where my gastroenterologist was located and waited in a crowded room for what felt like an eternity. My father, mother, and brother all came with me.

Finally, my name was called, and it was my turn to go in. I was taken to a small room for pre-procedure evaluation, where they took my temperature and other vitals, plus a urine sample. Afterward, I changed into a hospital gown and was asked to take off my pants and underwear, but to keep on my sports bra and socks.

The nurse then walked me into a surgical suite where I saw my doctor, who was behind a surgical mask. It was all very surreal. I had never had surgery or anesthesia before, so I was very nervous and felt like I was having a bad dream.

I got up on the operating table and laid on my left side. The anesthesiologist introduced herself to me, inserted an IV into my arm, and I drifted away into la-la land in less than a minute.

My next memory was slowly opening my eyes in a curtained-off post-procedure area, with a nurse checking in on me every few minutes. As I came back to reality, she let me rest a few minutes, then asked me to get dressed and meet her outside the curtain.

As I dressed, I started to hear other patients next to me get their results. “Hey, everything looks good,” one person was told. “No problems, everything looks fine,” someone else heard.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I thought. What about me? Where is my good news, or words of encouragement? Nobody said a word to me.

That was the moment I realized I was facing a different outcome.

I came out and met the nurse. She sweetly took my arm and led me to a small, private room. “Have a seat. The doctor will be here in a minute,” she said. “Would you like a warm blanket?”

I said, “Sure, why not?” She came back and carefully wrapped me up, then my doctor walked in.

“We found a mass, and we couldn’t finish the procedure because the scope could not fit past it. We’ve taken a biopsy and tattooed it. Do you want to see the images from the procedure?” he asked.

“Sure, why not?” I said.

He showed me the mass and it looked big and ugly, but the word “cancer” didn’t come out of his mouth.

At this point, I was in a haze, a crazy fog, but appeared cool as a cucumber on the outside.

He then said that I needed to get another CT scan as soon as possible (this time with contrast), and he wanted me to see a surgeon right away. He had the name of someone he could refer me to and offered to call him right then and there if I wanted. I said, “Sure, why not?” Yet oddly enough, the word cancer still had not been spoken.

The next thing I knew, I had an appointment at 8:30 the following morning with this surgeon. My head was starting to really get dizzy at this point.

The doctor asked me, “Do you have any more questions?”

I asked, “Is this cancer? Are you sure this is cancer?”

He replied, “We won’t know until the biopsy for sure, but I’ve been doing this a long time, and yes, it is cancer.”

I didn’t start to cry until I got up to leave and the doctor gave me a genuine hug.

He said, “You are young and in good health, so good luck with everything.”

At that point, my emotions took over and I was sobbing and felt a strange combination of shaking and numbness take over my body.

Somehow, I managed to get to the bathroom, washed away my tears, and went out to the waiting room to get my family so we could leave.

I decided not to tell them yet, and only mentioned that they had found a mass that was getting biopsied. I kept my composure during the car ride back to my house, though I don’t know-how. But I was dead inside. I needed time alone to process this devastating news, at least for one more day.

Join me next time when I share what happened during my visit with a colorectal surgeon 17 hours after my diagnosis, which I handled all by myself.

Until then … breathe deep, be kind, and take it one day at a time.

Michele Goncalves is a financial compliance and fraud auditor for a Fortune 500 company by day and a passionate pursuer of holistic and functional medicine knowledge by night. She is also the author of the column The Consummate Traveler.