Entering the world of the “C” word

Cancer. The word has a metallic taste in your mouth. Leaves you thirsty. And when the doctor first utters the word, you hear almost nothing else. The rest just echoes. Did he really say that? What else?

Dr. S called me in the surgery waiting room where CNN was covering a story of President Obama visiting the site of the World Trade Center just a few days after the killing of public enemy number one: Osama Bin Laden.

Mom had gone in for an endoscopic exploration of her left kidney. After almost six months of frequent bathroom trips and varying degrees in blood in her urine, he finally told me the news. Her urologist in Napa had done a similar procedure just nine days after her birthday and told her there was no cancer. He told her she had a rare “renal hemangioma,” a vascular tumor. Totally benign, albeit very rare. He sent pathology slides to Stanford and they confirmed his findings. We joked at how she was always the one to get the weird stuff. We weren’t sure how to fix the problem but we knew one thing: the urologist in Napa was not trained, nor experienced, enough to tackle it himself.

The UCSF urologist, an internationally recognized kidney expert, scoffed at the claims of rarity. He dismissed the Napa doctor’s claim that there were only ten reported cases of this in the world. He personally has treated over ten people. No one in the clinic even raised an eyebrow at her diagnosis. The interns and residents did not swarm the room to look at the freaky case. At UCSF this was practically routine.

But Dr. S wanted to look at it himself. He wasn’t sure from the report whether the Napa surgeon had been thorough in his examination. He wanted to see for himself.

And what he saw was cancer.

The phone call took less than a minute. He asked me again if the Napa surgeon had looked all over the kidney. How can I answer that? I didn’t see the surgical report. I wasn’t there. He didn’t tell me. He asked how long my mom had suffered the symptoms. I told him, again. He asked if my mother had ever smoked. No.

So he told me he wanted her in sooner than later to remover her left kidney. He reassured me that he didn’t think “we’ve lost any ground.” And that was it. The end of the conversation. I went back to my seat in the waiting room, feeling alone yet relieved I didn’t have to utter the words to anyone yet. I emailed some people. Posted on Facebook.

A friend called me immediately. She lost her mom last year and had the deep empathy in her voice that only someone in her position could have. And the ton of bricks came down on me. I could barely speak to her. I wasn’t ready to have a conversation about this. She could not have been more supportive. A minute later another friend called, and managed to make me laugh. What a relief that was. I rallied.

A tectonic shift in priorities happened to me that afternoon. The deadlines fell away. My obsession with my weight seemed trivial. In fact, almost everything I worry or complain about seemed shallow and self-absorbed. Being self-absorbed is a birthright when you’re an only child with no children of your own, I guess. But on that day, it shifted.

Now that I’ve had a few days to settle into it, have had a follow-up conversation with her surgeon, have scheduled her nephrectomy for May 23…I and we are in a holding pattern.

On surface things are back to normal. I’m frantic with work. I’m exercising. I’m running errands, doing chores. But I’m making fewer plans. I’m meditating again, if just to keep myself in check to focus on what we know and what we can do now, rather than the “what if” of the unknown. And I’m re-grouping.


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