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.
More than 20 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I can remember how scared and sad I felt, yet how calm and confident she seemed to be. On the day after her diagnosis, I recall sobbing at her bedside while she told me with full confidence that she was going to be OK.
Isn’t it funny how roles reverse? Now, unfortunately, it was my turn to deal with the big C. Only I wasn’t quite the steel magnolia that my mother was. I think it had to do with the fact that I was facing a late stage cancer, while hers was caught relatively early. It’s easier to be optimistic when you have stage 1 or 2, but hearing that you have stage 3 (maybe even stage 4) cancer is a very tough pill to swallow.
For me, the first week after getting my diagnosis was so incredibly difficult mostly because there were still so many unknowns. Has the cancer spread? Will I die? How bad is the pain going to get? Oh yes, and my personal favorite, will I look like a walking skeleton and lose all my hair?
I felt like my head and everything around me had turned into a tornado. This is the only way I know how to describe it. My mind would swirl in repetitive circles and think about death, chemo, throwing up, and getting radiation treatments.
Miraculously though, I did have moments of inner calm and even laughter! I purposely watched old episodes of “I Love Lucy” and “Frasier,” which made me chuckle and forget about the horrible situation I was in for a while.
Everyone deals with traumatic situations differently. Some people hold everything in and carry on as if nothing happened. Some need hugs and a ton of people around them to talk to for comfort and strength. Some may fall completely apart and need others to take over everything. There is no right or wrong way to react.
So, what about me, you ask? How did I handle this crisis? Well, I chose the “run for the hills” approach and isolated myself in my house for about seven days!
In order to process this news, I really needed the quiet solitude. I was able to cry, pray, think, go for long walks, and stay up to the wee hours of the morning researching rectal cancer treatments and life expectancy data on the internet at my leisure without anyone judging me or telling me how to feel. This isolation also gave me time to put on my “spiritual” coat of armor to face the battle ahead.
c. Not even from my parents. In fact, the thought of hugs or seeing my friends and loved ones in person was just too much for me.
Why? Well I guess it was the thought of possibly dying and having to say goodbye to everyone that I just couldn’t face. So instead of having to deal with all of that, I delivered my bad news to those I wanted to tell as impersonally as I could. I remember thanking God for the invention of texting and emails.
“Hi. My colonoscopy didn’t go well. They found a mass and it’s malignant.” This was the text message bomb that I dropped on everyone, including my parents and siblings. I know this was harsh, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Let me re-phrase that. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth without sobbing uncontrollably, so writing them was the only way I knew how to communicate.
However, within minutes of my text, I received a call from my mother and got through my first telephone call with my family. I was an absolute mess (they cried, too), but I was relieved that this contact was over. I knew that despite my very independent personality, I couldn’t tackle this huge challenge without them.
And as if all this emotional turmoil wasn’t enough by itself, the first week also brought a laundry list of urgent “tasks” that needed to get done, too.
First, I had to inform my boss that I had cancer and would be going out on disability. I sent him a long email explaining the details of what was going on. I had a business trip to Dubai coming up in a few weeks, so I knew they would have to reassign that job. Unfortunately, a few days later, I had to lead a very technical conference call with the consulting firm we hired to take over the job. How I managed to get through that coherently, only God knows.
Second, I had to contact the third party handling my company’s short-term disability plan to get my coverage started. They, of course, asked me to fill out a ton of papers and fax something within a 24-hour window. I found this incredibly stressful.
Third, I had to coordinate booking a CT scan (pelvis, chest, and abdomen) and a rectal MRI appointment ASAP. However, due to my claustrophobia in regular MRI machines, I also had to research the closest open MRI facility that my insurance would cover.
At the same time, I also found out that hospitals charge different prices for the same service. The location I had booked my CT scan with was quite expensive, so I logged into my insurance carrier’s portal to find another facility that was a better value ($1,802 out of pocket versus $635). I could not believe I was having to do comparison shopping at a time like this.
Fourth, I initiated contact with the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia to set up a visit for a second opinion. This was a suggestion from my functional medicine doctor, who was quite open to alternative therapies and said it may be a good fit for me and my preference for holistic medical treatments.
This initial call lasted a really long time. I had to go through my medical history, hand over my insurance information, which they needed to review before I could schedule an appointment, and I had to listen to a long explanation of their services.
Then, last but not least, I had to attend a consultation with a very unprofessional and pushy oncologist (and her equally obnoxious sidekick nurse) to discuss chemotherapy and treatment options, which I went to alone. You’ll have to tune in next week to find out the details of what happened in that crazy appointment.
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.