This is a story that I have not shared details about, but for some reason, I felt compelled to do so now.
In 2005/06, I experienced something that changed my life. A lymph node in the right side of my neck swelled three to four times its normal size to about the size of a small grapefruit. You should not feel or see your lymph nodes. To give some perspective of just how large it was, my coworkers joked that I was growing a second head and nicknamed it “Bob.” That is how much it protruded from my neck. After a month of no change, I finally saw a doctor. The doctor showed little to no concern. It was a viral infection, keep an eye on it, and wait it out another month. I was too anxious to wait. Discouraged and not happy with her diagnosis, I asked her to recommend a specialist. She recommended an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) down the hall from her office. He examined my neck. He sat down in a chair opposite me, crossed his legs, draped his right arm over the back of the chair, and casually said: “You have lymphoma. It’s a very popular cancer among people your age.” Immediately I went into a self-preservation mode. What? Did he just say cancer? Popular? Are you kidding me? Did he mean to say it is common? Wait, did he say cancer? He went on to tell me that I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and he would like to schedule surgery to remove my lymph node. Three thoughts came to mind: (1) He is wrong. (2) There is no way I have cancer. (3) He is not cutting me open. He did not conduct a single test yet. I had no x-ray, no MRI, no biopsy. How the hell could he make such broad statements and diagnosis me with cancer? There was not one ounce of me that believed him, and I voiced my reluctance because he had no tests to back it up. He appeared perturbed that I would dare question him, but I didn’t care. It’s not his neck. The rest of the conversation was a blur. I do remember him saying that he was going to order an MRI. He decided to do a biopsy right then and there. My poor Mom was with me at the doctor’s office. I could see her level of concern, fear, and uncertainty by the expression on her face. I could relate to all her emotions, but deep down I knew he was wrong. When the nurse walked into the room to prep me for the biopsy, I was calm. I was not a fan of needles. Ironically, now I’m all about acupuncture. I’ve come a long way. When I saw the needle he was about to inject in my neck, I nearly passed out. I’m not certain whether I experienced an adrenaline rush or a natural defense mechanism kicked in, but I decided to buck up and be brave. I think I went to another place because I barely felt the needle. I was determined to prove this doctor wrong. After the test, I felt a sense of relief that I would get some real answers. Nothing is more frightening than not knowing especially when it comes to your health.
I walked out of the doctor’s office in a fog and completely numb. My Mom and I spoke two words to each other until we got into the car. I remember telling her, “he’s wrong.” I still do not know what she was thinking. I did not know what to think myself, other than I wanted a second opinion. For a split second, I had doubts and my life literally passed before my eyes. There were so many things I wanted to do, needed to do: travel to Italy again, travel anywhere, move to San Francisco, fall in love (for real this time), and a long list of other things that I had not yet experienced. I instinctively knew it was not my time yet.
The biopsy came back clear but no change to my neck. The otolaryngologist would not rule out lymphoma just yet. My original doctor prescribed me a Z-Pak (Azithromycin is a macrolide antibiotic. It fights bacteria in the body). The otolaryngologist suggested I take it and see if my lymph node responded. After the seven days on the Z-Pak, there was still no change. I had the MRI. I remember going to the MRI on my own. The technician could not say much other than my scan looked good to him, but something was off with my liver. He was right. My liver ducts were inflamed. I’m not a heavy drinker, so I knew that was not the cause. The problem was likely hereditary. I called my sister Victoria after the test, happy that my scan appeared to be cancer free and assured her that the doctor was still wrong. She was reassuring and said she agreed with me. I did not have cancer, and I knew it. More tests followed. I was probed and prodded. You name it. I had it.
The doctor prescribed another medication for me. Unfortunately, I had a horrible allergic reaction to it. It felt as if I had swallowed shards of glass. So much so, I was sitting in the passenger seat of my Mom’s car struggling to chew a piece of gum. My throat was on fire, and I could not swallow my own saliva. Once it was pliable, I remember shooting, not spitting, that gum out of my mouth and out the window. I also had what I can only say to be a non-itchy rash on my arms and legs. It was awful and painful but not itchy. So that was one plus. At this point, I found another otolaryngologist. He was wonderful. Finally. He noticed the horrible allergic reaction I had to whatever medications I was on and recommended I see a Dermatologist. The Dermatologist was also wonderful. She conducted punch biopsies on both my legs. No need to get into the details of that. Suffice it to say it was noneventful. I remember her putting round smiley face band-aids on the two areas. On the plus side, she found nothing out of the ordinary. I simply had an allergic reaction to the medication. Thankfully the scars disappeared over time.
I was missing work, but I was not at all concerned. I had bigger fish to fry, and they could manage without me. I had to get well, and that was my focus. Next on my list of tests was a chest X-ray to make sure my lungs were clear and not compromised, and make sure no abnormality reared its ugly head. I walked into the hospital by myself; I did not want anyone to waste his or her time. It can be so unnerving to sit in a hospital waiting room. I chose to go alone. When I was sitting in the waiting room, I grabbed a copy of the San Diego magazine and read whatever the featured story was to get my mind off of this crazy adventure. There was no one else in the waiting room, which in of itself was odd. I flipped the page, and there was an ad for a lymphatic center in La Jolla called Cove Wellness. I casually glanced at it and then flipped the page. I dropped the magazine on the floor by accident, and it opened up to the same page again. Almost as if someone was trying to tell me something. I decided to take down the information. My chest X-ray was also clear, but my lymph node was still large and beyond stubborn. That little Bastard!
I called Cove Wellness with the resolve I had nothing to lose at this point. I hate when things touch my neck (even if my seat belt brushes my neck it drives me bonkers) but I got in the habit of wearing turtlenecks, zipping up hoodies all the way up, or wearing lightweight scarves around my neck. I walked into the center and they ran through their services. I was then lead to a dimly lit treatment room. There was some new age music playing, and I felt peaceful for the first time in days. I unwrapped my scarf from my neck, and the technician stunned by the sight of my neck fell backward against the wall. I recall her saying she had never seen a lymph node that swollen. Apparently, my second head was enough to throw off even her. Good thing it did not talk… yet! I started a regimen with them of Electro Lymphatic therapy; detox foot spa, and lastly colon hydrotherapy/irrigation (Yeah, no judging) and some herbal detox tea my aunt bought me. In three weeks time, my lymph node had reduced in size significantly, and my strength was nearly 80% back. I was not aware of non-traditional or herbal remedies prior to my misdiagnosis. I didn’t buy into it. I do now. It opened my eyes to new wellness techniques, ancient Chinese herbal remedies, and acupuncture. I also realize now that it is good to mix the old with the new, modern and ancient medicines.
Two weeks later. I met one last time with my Otolaryngologist Dr. Andrew Beros. He told me that he believed I had either fought off the dreaded “C” word or the virus, a stubborn one at that, ran its course. He eventually gave me the all clear. I was so relieved I could have hugged him. The whole ordeal took four months out of my life. I went back to work, and life started back to where it left off. I was particularly thin and frail, but I was back on track. My Mom later told me she was in awe of how strong I was through it all. I think I did what I had to do. I needed to get answers and get well.
Months later I accepted a job at Yahoo! I fulfilled one thing on my list and moved to San Francisco. It was an amazing three years. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to live in such a fantastic city and work for such prestigious companies. More importantly, I had more to live for, and I did not take one minute for granted. I also broached one other list item – I fell in love. It was not meant to be and I will not dive into that here. It is all water under the bridge as “they” say.
I write this as I think of four wonderful women I knew who passed on: Micheline, Paula, Jodi, and Julie. Their stories and my own remind me how precious life is. I forget sometimes how precious. It did change me. I am better at speaking my mind, do not hold back as much as I used to, appreciate the good in life, and process the bad even when I want to sweep it under the rug. I also know not to sweat the small stuff as much, know when to cut my losses, and most importantly I have the strength to carry on with faith, hope and love.
Post by: Gina Cafasso