August 2006: 6cm tumor. Renal Clear Cell Carcinoma.
The memory of that phone call is still profoundly shocking: sitting at my desk, pen tracing over and over on the yellow post it: 6cm 6cm 6cm, struggling to make sense of what the doctor was saying.
How does a 40-something woman with no risk factors contract a relatively rare, and frequently fatal, cancer? Every woman fears (maybe, expects) breast ca, right? But kidney? 1/600,000. Heart disease, Alzheimer’s, stroke, all much, much more likely.
The injustice of the medical system tipped in my favor, working in Pediatrics, married to a physician. Inside knowledge. Our connections, David’s extensive research, and I was rejecting the strong advice of my Boston primary doc and her preferred oncologist—instead of an open radical nephrectomy, a 2-foot U shaped scar and broken ribs—we found a surgeon new to Boston, experienced in reaching through a series of 1-inch ports to detach the kidney, the adrenal gland (and the tumor), bag it in plastic, and pull the whole cancerous shebang out through my C-section scar.
Because, goddamm, the Stars were aligned, the planets tilted, my angel sat on my shoulder. We caught it early enough. There’s no chemo, no radiation, no toxic cocktail yet discovered that nullifies Renal clear cell. The only treatment is surgical.
If I hadn’t had the incidental abdominal ultrasound as part of a hip replacement pre-op work-up, if I hadn’t waited and waited to replace my congenitally displaced hip joint through years of teeth gritting pain, then, then, well.
So, September 2016: all I have to do is get through the 10-year MRI survey, convince my panicking brain that the 7 ton machine perched precariously inches above me will not, in fact, crash down on my strapped-in chest, my face, my skull, while I imagine frantically pushing the fucking call button in my sweating palm. “Oh, sorry, the intercom system isn’t working well, we can’t hear you from the control room,” the tech said as he exited. Fuck.
Halfway through the 45 minutes of MRI hell, tears flowing, “Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out” recorded lady-voice my only contact with the outside world, full-on Panic Attack, and I. Will. Not. Give. In. Will. Not. Push. The. Call. Button. Bang bang bang goes the magnet, resetting, imaging. My “breathe out” is a loud moan. My “breathe in” feels my last breath, the “hold” contains not enough air to sustain life. Somehow, from somewhere deep, my brain holds on, the moans mimicking a remnant of a long-ago meditation yoga class. A tiny ease. The small relief was enough.
I did it. And I knew, as certainly as I had known all my life that I would one day be diagnosed with cancer (I know, macabre) I knew that the MRI would be clear, I knew I had not been quietly growing more Renal cancer cells. And, a day later, my Stanford primary doc confirmed it.
It does not fade, the terror of a cancer diagnosis. The fear of going against medical advice.
But nor does the overwhelming gratitude that I am the luckiest person alive. The what-ifs keep me grateful. I had kidney cancer. I was immensely, deeply lucky. Are you?