Cancer #2: Who Names These Things?

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When I went into the doctor's office on Monday, I knew that they were going to tell me that I had cancer. If the receptionist hadn't clued me in over the phone beforehand, I probably would have guessed when I signed in. Usually the office staff is curt and argumentative, but on that day everyone had sad smile-grimaces for me.

However, the doctor's style of speaking was so difficult to understand that there when he first came in to explain everything, Amir and I thought I didn't have cancer. When he left the office we both were laughing and shaking, hysterically happy. Then when the doctor came back in to talk to me again, I asked why they had led me to believe I had cancer for a weekend, and he said that I actually do have cancer. So I experienced the entire gamut of feelings in about two minutes.

It turned out that I have a rare kind of cancer, it's a mix between adenocarcinoma and carcinoma. It's a special cancer, just like I'm a special girl :(

Because the biopsy results were pretty grim, the doctor changed my plan for surgery. When I found out that my pap came back abnormal, he told me that I would have to do a LEEP. However, the biopsy results were serious enough that he had to change the procedure from something where they burn your cervix with an electric wire to a cold knife cone biopsy.

I was pretty happy about this. In terms of future childbirth, there's no difference in risk to the fetus. Unlike the LEEP, I would be under full anesthesia, which I greatly preferred. I would be knocked out for every pap smear if that was an option. But the name, really, I don't think they could have chosen a worse one if they tried.

"Why can't the knife be warm, or at least room temperature?" was a question that I posed to Amir before breaking into bitter laughter. It endures, for me, as a legitimate question. Also, "knife" sounds like they're using an kitchen utensil from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. How about 'cool blade excision cone biopsy?' That sounds infinitely more pleasant and professional.

The office staff messed something up, which was to my advantage, because I was able to get into surgery that week. One thing I can be grateful for is how quickly this process has moved along. When I compare my story to people on cervical cancer message boards, the time I have waited for each step of the process is literally half of what other women have experienced.

My mom came out for the surgery because I thought Amir would need to work that day, but he ended up getting the day off, too, so I felt very loved and supported going into it. I pulled an all-nighter the night before writing a paper and a lesson plan, and then I slept through the eight-hour fasting period. I got up in time for my mom and Amir to take me to the hospital.

The surgery was at San Jose Regional Hospital, which is also where I got my bunionectomies. I always feel really re-assured by how often they check my bracelet, and how kind the nurses are. I've seen a few of those CNN 'Medical Horror Stories' shows, but I'm never worried that I'm going to turn into one at that hospital.

The nurses gave me warm blankets and an IV, plus a TV remote. That was pretty exciting because we don't have a TV, so I only get to control one a few times a year. It gave me a sense of power over my situation that was pretty out of proportion to reality.We watched a Friends clip show and Seinfeld. It was a good way to distract myself, and I focused on those episodes like there would be an exam afterwards.

The doctor came in a little bit before the surgery started and asked for the anesthesiologist. He wasn't there yet, which caused the doctor to remark "now I'm REALLY pissed." Great, just who I want coming at me with a cold knife!

Anyway, surgeries alway go the same way: some nurses wheeled me in a bed to another room with bright lights, then I had to move onto the table, then the anesthesiologist said hi, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in a room with a ton of other people and some paperwork to sign.

After I had gone through the paperwork, a nurse wheeled me out to the car where my family was waiting. They drove me to Walgreens, where we picked up some pain meds and the only food I was supposed to eat, popsicles. I took the meds, ate a popsicle, and staggered into bed.

I woke up the next day with pain a lot like intense menstrual cramping. It wore off through the week, and I was off the pain meds after three days or so.

While the pain wasn't horrible, my mood was. I felt angry about the whole thing. It all seemed really unfair, and our prospects looked bleak. For some reason, our default conversation was about property values, another depressing topic, since we have recently been completely priced out of the housing market in our area.

Earlier this year in Spring, I had stopped going to the farmer's market. It reminded me of something Nicole Kidman says in the movie 'Stoker', that at a certain point life becomes tiresome, and you want it to be joyful again, so you have children in order to see the world through that lens once more. The kids at the farmer's market are constantly running around a circular fountain in the middle of the square, and sometimes splashing each other with water. I remember that there was a time when I might have been equally excited about a fountain, but I'm never going to be there again. At that time, having children wasn't feasible, and seeing them was so painful that I didn't like going to synagogue, the farmer's market, or really any place where a lot of young children might be found with happy-looking families.

After the surgery, we went to the farmer's market, and I didn't feel deprived anymore when I saw these families. I just felt flat and tired. It's actually a worse feeling, even though it's closer to zero in terms of intensity, because there's no life force behind it. At least when I was upset before, I was really sad, I was living through something. Now I just don't feel like anything.

A week of waiting passed before I went into my doctor's office to get my results. I have gotten much better at being a patient patient during this process; it's a steep learning curve but I was relatively calm the whole time during that period.

On the ride to the office visit, despite my better judgment, I convinced myself that the test was going to come back with good news. This last-minute positivity worked well in the sense that it allowed me to keep it together in the waiting room until I heard the results, but I also fell a little further than I would have if I had expected bad news. The cancer was up to the margins, meaning that the operation didn't work to remove it all.

There was some confusion about which kind of cancer it was, which took a week to clear up with both lab results being double-checked. In the meantime, I called people with the additional bad news. It's really hard to keep making these calls without feeling like a depressive person intent on bringing all of my friends and family down.

We decided I needed a new doctor, specifically a gynecologic oncologist. I got an appointment with a really great one thanks to my Rabbi's recommendation. In the time between appointments, I focused on school, work, and trying to sleep.


Me and my mom, post-op. 

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.

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