Climbing with Cancer: The Diagnosis

Some people ask why am I so crazy about training and climbing. My response is, it's my reason for living. I see in most people’s eyes that they think I’m being dramatic, and I usually leave it at that. But for the select few that I share my full story with, I like to believe they can appreciate where I am coming from.

Here is my story:

Twenty four years old and everything in life was going great. Half way through medical school! Dating a wonderful guy for a couple of months. Going on weekly climbing trips! I really was in a great place in life.

Then suddenly, I couldn’t breathe when I raised my arms or when I laid down. Eventually I just struggled to breath all the time. Doctors just said it was my “asthma” acting up. My new boyfriend, Brian, asked me to go to his best friend’s wedding where I would meet his entire family. I was so excited to be integrated into his life. But at the wedding, I discovered I couldn’t swallow food anymore. Definitely put a damper on the whole situation.

Afterwards, I saw a commercial for same day appointments at the Cleveland Clinic. I made appointments with every doctor that I could because I was confident, this wasn’t “asthma”. The multiple specialists agreed that something was wrong and ran every test they could. The next day I received a phone call that there is a mass in my chest. The doctor told me not to worry, that it could be an infection, but I needed to get a CT.

A few days after the CT scan, my phone rang and the physician said I needed to come into the hospital to get my results. Panicked, I ask why, since they have given me everything else over the phone. They refused to tell me more, even after begged and pleaded. I booked it to the hospital, terrified of what they were going to tell me. While waiting in an exam room, there came a procession of very sad doctors. All the specialists I saw the previous week were standing in this tiny room looking at me as if someone had died. I knew that someone was me.

I don’t remember who actually broke the CANCER news to me or how they broke the news to me. But it was very somber without any hope in their voice. They didn’t know what type of cancer I had or what type of treatment I would need. They didn’t know if it was something curable or something fatal. I needed a biopsy of the mass to know my fate. The only woman doctor saw that having a group of sad doctors stare at me while I got life changing news was not the most helpful. She politely asked them to leave, so we could talk. I was trying to stay strong and not cry, but I couldn’t hold it in any longer. She proceeded to give me a pep talk that I still remember to this day. She said that if I was climbing and going to medical school with such a huge mass (11 cm) in my chest, that I had enough strength to beat this. I was almost excited to start this battle. Unfortunately, it would be much more than a single battle, it would be a life long war.

Some people ask why am I so crazy about training and climbing. My response is, it’s my reason for living.

What happens next are a blur. A friend drives me home and stays with me until Brian arrives. He holds me while we are crying and watching my favorite season of Big Brother. Until this point, I had never said “I love you” to any male in my entire life, but I knew I was madly in love with him. I couldn’t believe I could die before I got to start a life with him. Still too scared to say it, I wrote it down on a piece of paper and handed it to him. We were in love!

The next few days were fantastic because I lived life as if I wasn’t coming back from the first surgery. I learned how to change the oil, went out to eat at fancy places, played with a lot of cats, and just tried my best to forget my impending doom.

Then, the day come when I had to check in to the hospital for my surgery. I walked in, tightly grasping Brian’s hand, alongside my family. The doctors explained to me that the surgery would be easy. They would get a sample of tissue and the pathologists would make a quick diagnosis, and I would start treatment right away. Everything sounded easy and not scary whatsoever.

Before the surgery, I needed a CT scan with contrast. The nurse gave me contrast and I quickly became itchy and break out in hives. The doctor gave me IV benadryl, and then I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I felt way worse with the benadryl than I did without it. Evidently I’m allergic to contrast AND benadryl. This experience would foreshadow the next few years of my life. Even simple plans can go wrong.

I went in for my first biopsy, and according to the surgeons, everything went well. But when I woke up, I was violently vomiting and swollen. I was not recovering well whatsoever. The vomiting was from the opioids, but why was I so fat? The doctors didn’t seem to care that my upper body was like the Michelin man and discharged me.

I needed 24/7 care, so I moved into Brian’s house, although we had only known each other for a few months. During my first night there, I looked in the mirror for the first time since before surgery. My face and arms were incredibly swollen, so we made our first of many trips to the emergency room. In the small, but scary emergency department of the Cleveland Clinic,the doctor told me I had SVC syndrome (superior vena cava syndrome). I had no clue what that was, so I turned to wikipedia and read this sentence: “Even with treatment, 99% of patients die within two and a half years.” Horrified, I decided that either the sentence was wrong or somehow that sentence didn’t apply to me.

I was admitted to the hospital for clots and was started on IV heparin, an anticoagulant. This initially also caused my throat to close as well, but we discovered if given EXTREMELY slowly, I didn’t have such an extreme reaction. A couple days later while still in the hospital, the pathology report came back with no definitive answer so I needed a second biopsy. The surgeons came into my room and told me they were going to try two more biopsy spots, but if those did not work, they were going to break open my ribcage to get to the tumor. I reluctantly agreed.

After surgery, I woke up with tubes coming out of EVERYWHERE, and both of my pecs were sliced, but I had no broken sternum! Evidently during surgery, my lungs collapsed, fluid collected around my heart, and my bladder became infected. Luckily, I improved, but the chest tube had to stay in for a while. Let me tell you, chest tubes are incredibly PAINFUL!!! I couldn’t really walk much, so I had a toilet next to my bed. The nurses would pull on my chest tube when trying to move, which caused excruciating pain. I basically timed my bathroom breaks around Brian who could lift me and place me on the toilet. My new boyfriend was now carrying me to the toilet, but when you’re in as much pain as I was in, that fact didn’t matter. Days later, it was finally time to remove the chest tube. The surgeon walked in and said, I’m going to remove this tube now and it is going to hurt. The nurse interrupted and said, give me a few minutes to give her pain medication. The surgeon said no, and promptly pulled it out of my chest. The physical pain for an instant was horrendous, but the lasting pain was mental. The doctor who couldn’t wait five minutes for me to be numbed made me grow to distrust and hate doctors. This was unfortunate since most of my friends were soon to be doctors.

Three weeks after my initial biopsy, the pathology report was finally in. CANCER: HODGKINS LYMPHOMA. I was relieved because everyday without a specific diagnosis, I was a day closer to death and now I could finally start the next phase of my life: CHEMOTHERAPY.