Rib pain leads to unlikely discovery

If not for a broken rib, it is likely I still would not know I have cancer.

I woke up one morning in early October - a day before my 44th birthday - with a stitch in my left side. Seemed odd, but I ignored it. Throughout the day, the pain intensified, and by the time I got home from work, I lived in fear of coughing or sneezing.

I had no reason to suspect anything was wrong, and I could not figure out why I might have a broken rib. I'd given up playing in city league basketball and flag football leagues long ago, and the only suspect was my 4-year-old daughter, who has a tendency to "hop on pop."

For most ailments, I ignore the pain as well as the prodding of my wife, grit my teeth and avoid the doctor's office. But this time was different. The depth of the pain had me walking into a local clinic the next morning. There, I got an X-ray, which showed nothing. Fortunately, the doctor wanted to know the answer, so she set me up to get a CT scan. I stopped by Kennewick General Hospital a few days later and got the scan, then waited for the results. By this time, my ribs no longer hurt.

A nurse at the clinic left me a message a few days later, and we played phone tag for a few more days. On Oct. 29, she got ahold of me and said that indeed I did have a hairline fracture in one of my ribs. She said some sort of growth was pushing against my ribs and must have weakened the bone. She sounded very concerned about the growth and said I needed to get to a doctor right away. I asked her what it might be, and she replied there was a possibility it was cancer, though only more tests could tell for sure.

Cancer was the last thing on my mind, and the potential that I had it literally floored me. I sat down quickly and began to contemplate my own mortality as I tried to catch my breath. After a few minutes, I gathered my thoughts, regained my composure and called my wife. She is from hearty Montana stock and, though she was stunned by what I told her, she also jumped into action, setting up doctor's appointments and reassuring me that we knew nothing at that point.

My next call was to my brother, who lives in the upper Midwest. He could tell immediately from the tone of my voice that something was terribly wrong. He thought it had something to do with our mother or perhaps my wife or daughter, not me. Not this. He talked me through my emotions, pointing out that we did not know what this was. We talked about when, how and whether to tell our mother, who was getting ready to leave on a month-long vacation to India and determined there was no reason to worry her about anything yet.

Then we headed to my regular doctor's office. He studied the CT scan report and gave me a quick once-over, at which time he noticed a bulge on the left side of my neck. He looked concerned and wanted me to see an expert.

The next day, I met the surgeon who would perform a biopsy and get to the bottom of this mystery. He looked over the CT scan report then noticed the bulge on my neck. He studied the CT again and said I had a six-centimeter growth under my left arm and a nine-centimeter growth at the base of my neck.

He said he couldn't be certain what it was until the biopsy was performed and tests were run, but it didn't look good.

Fantastic. All from a pain in my rib.