What makes us think that we are special?
Is it because of our upbringing and the duty that parents perceive they have to make their children feel they can do anything in the world?
It’s strange isn’t it, how we believe what we do has a major purpose in this world inhabited by around 7 billion people. A world that is but a speck in the vast expanse of stars and galaxies we call our Universe.
Perhaps the illusion of self-importance is our way of dealing with the inevitable truth that what we do during our lives will more than likely go unnoticed in the ongoing timeline of our constantly reproducing species. Not even a blip in the history of time.
Before I go into a full-on psychoanalysis of human behaviour and the society that we live in, let me just reel this back in and relate it to what made me realise this bizarre behaviour of ours.
Cancer. Of course it’s cancer.
Recent studies indicate that the lifetime risk of developing cancer for anyone born after the 1960s in the UK is 1 in 2.
That’s 50%. Half of my generation and those that have followed it will be diagnosed with cancer.
That’s a pretty scary statistic.
So why then are we so surprised and shocked when someone we know is diagnosed with it? Why do we kid ourselves that it’s never going to happen to someone we love or someone we merely had a 5-minute conversation with one time at Tescos?
And that brings me back to my initial question: why do we think we’re so special?
A brief history of my cancer
If there’s one thing I had to comes to terms with with my diagnosis was that I’m not special. There have been thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people who have had my type of cancer across the entire history of time.
My type of cancer incidentally was Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a type of cancer that begins in the lymphatic system (imagine it as the sewage system that runs alongside our veins and arteries). Our lymphatic system houses our immune system – our own personal army to fend off any nasties that want to harm us. Hodgkin’s lymphoma begins when a specific type of these soldiers goes a bit haywire and starts over-replicating, interfering with the proper function of various systems in our body.
That was the first word that I saw on the specialist’s screen. During my consultation following a biopsy of a lymph node in my neck, the doctor brought up the results on his computer before letting me know the bad news.
Unbeknownst to him, I had already seen the term “multinucleate” and, combined with my patchy previous knowledge of some cancers, had reached the conclusion about a minute before he told me. His version of events just hammered home the realisation that I had cancer.
I will never forget that feeling. The cold, empty feeling inside as the doctor reminded you of the harsh reality of the world. His condemnation of me as no longer a person, but instead a “patient”.
Let me rewind things a bit because obviously my encounter with cancer didn’t start there.
It was about a month and a half or so before that consultation that I kicked the whole thing off with a little visit to the doctors.
I was at Uni at the time and had been suffering from a major bout of the flu the week before. This, unbelievably to some, was my first ever experience of the flu at the tender age of just 21 (I can safely say I hope I never experience it again).
As with most people who’ve had a foray with the absolute douchebag virus that is the flu, I experienced the temperature, the dizziness, the rather unbelievable feeling of nausea without actually vomiting constantly, and my lymph nodes were swollen pretty much all over.
So I got through my war with the virus in a couple of days and started feeling back to normal after that. One thing that didn’t go back to normal though was a lymph node in my neck. It remained hard and… I would say swollen but it didn’t actually hurt… abnormally big (?) for a few days later.
At the time, I was finishing up my end-of-course project entitled – and yes, this is some cold irony right here – “The Personalisation of Cancer Treatment” (something that becomes even more ironic when realising that my course was a forensics course and had nothing to do with cancer except, what felt like, a slightly out-of-place module in my third year).
During my copious amounts of reading and writing about the disease, I had come across swollen lymph nodes quite a few times as a possible symptom of cancer that has spread. Bowel cancer, for example, can often spread to the lymph nodes in our abdomen and cause a lot of pain.
Having read all of that, I figured it was probably best to get it checked. I thought the doctor would just come out with the old “it’ll pass eventually” kind of response when I pointed it out to him, but then it’s always better to be safe than sorry right?
Thank god I did get it checked out.
My Uni doctor referred me to a local hospital for an ultrasound of my neck to clarify what exactly was going on. Even at that time, he reassured me that the chances of it being cancer were pretty low.
That cold, cold gel
So I went along to the ultrasound, happy as Larry. Perhaps this would just confirm I needed to take some anti-inflammatories for the next few days and I’d be back to normal.
They applied the gel – that cold, cold gel – and started to rub away on my neck with the ultrasound scanner, searching for the “abnormally big” culprit of concern.
They found the lump immediately, gave a few extra ultrasound rubs to make sure and then lifted the scanner away. I thought that was it.
In my peripheral vision I could see him looking at his monitor in detail. After a couple of minutes, he returned, instead pressing his scanner on the other side of my neck. He then proceeded to pass round the front of my throat and towards my collar bone.
Something didn’t feel quite right to me. It now felt that he was searching for something without telling me what it was.
After a few more minutes of probing, he stopped, he looked at his monitor a bit more, and then decided to inform me that it was all done.
I am passed some paper towel to mop away the gel as he starts explaining to me what he had seen.
Apparently it wasn’t just the one lymph node that was abnormally big, it was several, either side of my neck and down near the collarbone.
He didn’t go into detail about the results too much but seemed pretty convinced that this was a result of the virus I had contracted a couple of weeks ago and that “everything would be fine”.
The phone call
Life went on like normal for a couple of days after that. I was waiting on my doctor to give me a ring to tell me the results. In the meantime, I carried on plugging away at my dissertation.
I ended up getting a phone call mid-morning another day later from my Uni doctor. Here’s how I remember the conversation:
“Hello, is that Marco?”
“Hi, yes this is him. Who’s calling?”
“It’s Dr. (I forgot his name), the University campus GP. I’ve phoned you to discuss the results from your ultrasound.”
At this point, I had already taken note of the rather sombre tone of voice he was using. It didn’t sound too promising…
“Ok, go ahead”, I said.
“Would you like to come in to see me in person or would you mind me telling you your results over the phone?”
If the alarm bells weren’t ringing already, now they were clanging as loud as they could. Why would he want to tell me the results face-to-face unless it was bad news? That was my first thought anyway, then I naturally started to reassure myself with the possibility that it was something to do with patient-doctor confidentiality. Until he added an extra line of dialogue:
“You may want to bring a relative with you.”
That was it. That was when I knew I had cancer. Not that something was wrong, no. I had cancer.
Things started to piece together too easily for me to come to a different conclusion. The careful prodding and stopping of the ultrasound man searching for something I didn’t know was there. The sadness in his eyes hidden by the false, patient-friendly smile that he gave me when he proclaimed that everything would be fine. And now my GP wanted to speak to me face-to-face with a relative if possible.
I phoned my mum. She said she’d be down in a couple of hours. She arrived and we went to see the doctor. We sat down, mother and son brimming with curiosity as to what the doctor was going to say.
I was already in tears before he said it.
“I think you might have cancer.”
Looking back, I find it incredible that a GP had the nerve to make an assessment purely based on an ultrasound. But even so, he said it. The room fell into silence for a couple of seconds and then went by in a blur as he and my mum began to discuss the results. I was busy looking out the window, wondering what would happen in the coming months or even years.
I found myself outside the doctor’s room with my mum after our 10 minute or so appointment. She immediately hugged me and told me that we didn’t really know 100% if it was cancer until I’d had a biopsy of the lymph node in my neck and at least a couple more scans.
My Uni doctor had referred me to a specialist back home who put me forward for a biopsy through the NHS, but my mum insisted on organising it through private healthcare to get a diagnosis as quick as possible.
I traveled home in the morning to get to the midday biopsy appointment.
After a couple of minutes briefing me on what exactly was about to happen, I had to lay back and be injected in my neck with some local anaesthetic, right by where the enlarged lymph node was. This was quite possibly one of the weirdest sensations I have ever felt.
The doctor had told me that there would be two types of biopsy taken that day – one was a “fine needle aspiration” of the lymph node and one was a core biopsy.
The fine needle aspiration went by fine, I couldn’t feel anything at all.
The next thing I knew, the doctor had pulled out what I can only describe as a space handgun of some sort and placed it against my neck where the lymph node was.
“This may feel a bit strange and, although you won’t feel pain, you will feel some pressure as the needle takes a core of your lymph node.”
“Strange”. Yeh, you could say that again. The anaesthetic injection to the neck was weird enough, but this coring of a lymph node was even weirder, almost like I’d been shot in the neck but without any feeling of pain.
In a bit of a daze following the gunshot I’d just experienced to my neck, my doctor proceeded to explain that the biopsies would then be sent to a specialist to analyse and that my consultant would explain the results to me in my next consultation.
He then showed the the lovely core he’d taken of my lymph node. Lovely.
“Multinucleate” – Part 2
It is at this point we return to the land of multinucleate cells.
I had already seen my consultant before the biopsy who gave my neck a feel and a prod and gave me the reassurance that the lymph node was “the wrong shape” to be cancerous.
He was pretty cheery that last time, convinced that there was nothing sinister going on in the depths of my neck tissue.
This time round he was a lot more stern and emotionless, making sure he held the door open for us both as we walked into his office and asking if my mum needed help sitting down (he hadn’t bothered the first time so even at that point it seemed a bit odd).
After a minute or so of checking if I was feeling alright, he proceeded to pull up the results of my biopsy on his screen.
And that was when that horrible word “multinucleate” shone out at me like a sore thumb.
And that’s where I’ll leave my little story at the mo. I say little, this is already 2000 words! I’ll chronicle the rest of my cancer in time.