Worst week of my life

Through the first 44 years of my life, the week of Dec. 8 pretty much goes down as the worst I've experienced.

By Dec. 8, I was a full month into knowing I had cancer - and what kind of cancer it was. The reality had pretty well set in, and chemotherapy was scheduled to start Dec. 15. I had just told my mother about the cancer after she returned from a month-long visit to India, and now I was telling close friends and assorted co-workers what was going on. Until this point, I'd held off telling people because I felt my mom needed to know first.

On the morning of Monday, Dec. 8, I noticed some swelling around my left armpit. Swelling of any kind can be disconcerting, but this was in the area where I knew I had a five-centimeter cancerous growth in my lymph nodes. I called my doctor's office at the Tri-Cities Cancer Center, and this prompted the doctor and nurses to decide they should move up my first chemo treatment to the end of that week, Dec. 12. This also meant moving up other appointments, such as a CT scan, an echocardiogram and - most importantly - surgery to have a mediport installed in my chest.

Additionally, I was in the throes of production for the Winter issue of Wine Press Northwest, the quarterly wine magazine for which I am editor.

Not that cancer is ever convenient, but the timing for all of this could not have been much worse.

On Tuesday, I was supposed to meet with the surgeon who would install the port. Through a couple of mix-ups, I was sent to the wrong doctor, then spent a couple of hours waiting to see the correct one, who then couldn't see me until the next day because of an emergency.

So Wednesday, I saw the surgeon, who was shocked and awed by the level of swelling I was now experiencing in the area of my left armpit. I don't know about you, but I don't like it when a doctor says, "Wow! That's impressive!" when he examines something that is going wrong with your body. He said he would stick a needle in and pull a sample while he had me out and on the operating table the next day. Meanwhile, I visited another doctor for an echocardiogram before swinging by Kadlec Medical Center in Richland for another CT scan and to preregister for Thursday's surgery.

On Thursday morning, my wife and I showed up at Kadlec for what was billed as a fairly simple surgery, something that shouldn't take more than 30 minutes to perform plus the pre- and post-op procedures. If only it had gone so smoothly.

I'd been having a fair bit of back pain the previous few months, and that pain was going down my left leg, which felt like a hamstring pull that never healed. The pain had flared up the prior day while I was getting the CT scan, and it intensified when I was put on the operating table. Even a pillow under my knees didn't help. As I laid there on the operating table, I prayed the doctors would put me under quickly so the intense fire in my back and left leg would go away. That strategy worked for the hour or so I was unconscious, but when I came to, I was quickly reminded of just how much pain I was in.

This was magnified by the thing that was installed in my chest, the PowerPort. The port is a catheter that goes just under the skin and is connected to a main artery. It is used to inject the chemotherapy drugs and to pull blood samples. Doctors and nurses love it because it is so much better than finding a vein in the arm. And it is a lot easier on patients because the chemicals used in chemotherapy are pretty caustic and can beat up veins in a hurry.

That didn't matter to me at this particular moment, however. I was more concerned about escaping the increasing levels of pain coming from my back and left leg. I talked the nurse into letting me sit in a regular chair in an effort to find a position in which the pain would subside. But that didn't help, so the nurse gave me some morphine. I thought that was a fairly extreme measure, but I didn't disagree. Unfortunately, even that didn't ease my deep discomfort.

The doctor came by to see how I was doing and said the liquid he pulled from the swelling on my left side was clear and didn't seem to be an issue to be concerned with.

We went home, and I took it easy. I was feeling like I'd been in a car wreck on the way home from a bar fight.

But the worst was yet to come.

Up next: chemotherapy.