I found out in a letter from my doctor.
It arrived late Saturday afternoon so I couldn’t call for the specifics. And it didn’t actually say I had cancer, but it might as well have.
Five days before I joined the very morose crowd of folks waiting to have blood drawn. (Note to medical labs: Make sure the only TV in the waiting room is not tuned to The Disease Channel, where you learn how the slightest symptoms can indicate the onset of sometimes fatal infections, all of which can be treated by doctors in this fine medical complex).
I was there for the routine blood test following my annual physical. After my two prior physicals, I had received a very nice letter from my physician with test results attached – last year he called my blood-work “superb” – and he had joked on prior visits that if anything serious turned up, his office would call. “But you don’t have to worry about that,” he said. If he could high-five my blood chemistry, he would.
So I didn’t worry when his office left a message on my machine the day after my visit to the lab, asking me to call for my results. And I worried just a little bit when another message was left on Friday.
I’ll just wait him out, I thought. He’ll send me my results and another compliment-filled letter praising my most essential bodily fluid.
Sure enough the letter arrived, my name handwritten on the front. From the security mailbox to my front door, I was walking on sunshine.
Until I noticed the thinness of the envelope. There should have been three sheets of paper, the complimentary letter and two pages of results. But this envelope contained one sheet at best.
Maybe my doctor just decided to praise me, summing up the amazing results rather than boring me with the details.
I ripped open the envelope and drew out the two-sentence letter.
“We’ve tried to contact you twice by phone but have yet to get in touch. Please call our office for your test results at your earliest convenience.”
My earliest convenience? Was that “We’ve got bad news”-speak for “as soon as you possibly can”?
Yes, I decided. The results had to contain something terrible.
That’s when I just knew I had cancer.
I’d known all about how the PSA test screens for antigens that can indicate the presence of prostate cancer. I also knew the test was controversial, that it had a fair amount of false positives and false negatives, that many doctors didn’t like to use it.
I went to the online source – the National Cancer Institute. There it was in black and white and blue (hyperlinks). From diagnosis to testing to treatment to prognosis. The biopsy alone sounded like something out of the Spanish Inquisition, pushing a needle between two very private parts to snag a chunk of prostate.
I worried about it the rest of the weekend, going back and forth between “It’s a false positive” to “No way I’m doing chemo.”
A few years ago, I watched the most important woman in my life die from the chemo she underwent for fourth-stage colon cancer. Here I was not even knowing for sure (yet deep down knowing for sure) I had cancer, and she bravely battled it for almost five months.
I have no idea how she did it. I have no idea how anyone does it.
After another sleepless night, I called the doctor’s office at 8 a.m. Monday, prepared for the worst. As I was on hold, my heart thumped while the rollercoaster teetered on the edge of the first drop, and I couldn’t see the track from here.
A woman’s voice.
“Scott? I have your results right here. I’ll just need your birth date and last four digits of your Social Security.”
I gave them.
She rattled off numbers. Blood sugar. HDL. LDL. Some other meaningless stuff. I listened carefully.
“Prostate was negative for cancer.”
More numbers, but I wasn’t listening anymore.
“Overall, everything looks good but you should-“
Something something something.
“No,” I said. “Thanks.”
I was incredibly happy, and incredibly disappointed in myself. I was such a wuss in the face of potentially bad news.
To those who have had real confrontations with cancer, and faced it head-on, I salute your courage. You are all amazing bad-asses.