I Don’t Mean to Frighten You, But…


Rodney Warner
Rodney Warner

This week I had an unwelcome visitor: fear of death.

Two weeks ago I went to my dentist for a teeth cleaning. As part of her services, she gave me a “head and neck cancer screening” which consisted poking my head and neck. When she felt the lymph glands in my neck, she was clearly taken aback by their size and/or shape. “I don’t know if this is your normal anatomy,” she told me, “I don’t mean to frighten you, but you should see a doctor about your glands.”

Given my five year battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma 2000-2005 (which normally starts in lymph glands) and my recent 11th year anniversary of being in remission, she got my attention. At the time of my last treatment in 2003, an allogeneic bone marrow transplant, I knew it was my last shot at a cure. If the Hodgkin’s came back it would kill me.

I scheduled an appointment with my local oncology office. I hadn’t been there for two years. I got tired of being told how healthy I was while forking over my ever increasing co-pays.

At first I wasn’t that concerned. My glands have been through a lot. Besides, she was only a dentist, what does she know about lymph glands? My new oncologist is Dr. Raj. He goes by that name because very few can pronounce his full name (Dr. Venkataraman Rajagopalan).

Dr. Raj told me there was ONLY a one or two per-cent chance of the disease returning, BUT it does happen. He couldn’t restrain himself from telling me about two of his Hodgkin’s patients also with very long remissions who had relapsed “on me” as if they did it to spite him. I didn’t ask if they were able to get back into remission.

He also gave my glands a thorough groping and told me he didn’t find “anything to get excited about” BUT there was one gland he wasn’t sure about and suggested I get a CT scan of my neck. That was re-assuring to a point.

I scheduled the scan, but had a good couple days to stew about it and fantasize about my new/old life dealing with Hodgkin’s again. The blazing fevers, bed drenching night sweats, endless coughing, ever present exhaustion and skin that felt like I rolled around naked in a pile of poison ivy.

I was pretty busy yesterday and kept my brain occupied, the scan was scheduled late in the afternoon at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne. I really started winding myself up when I was getting my IV inserted for the contrast. I was guided into the CT room, and there it was, the CT scanner. I can’t tell you how many scans I’ve had and here I was. Again.

I remained pretty calm, got on the bench, did what I was told to do. The machine did a couple dry runs then the dye was unleashed into me. The nurse left. I got that familiar hot flash in my head and the feeling that I’d peed in my pants. I stared up at that damn machine, hearing and seeing it spin in its giant plastic doughnut through a slit. Other than when I was told by the computer man to hold my breath, I pretty much sobbed uncontrollably.

I screamed in my head, over and over, begging God to help me, begging Him that there be no more cancer in me because I simply couldn’t go through this again. Given my prior experience with uncontrolled Hodkin’s, dying of it would literally be a living nightmare.

There’s nothing like a CT machine to focus my ability to pray. Doctors may hem and haw about what your problem may be, this or that may or may not be normal, such and such may or may not be malignant. The CT machine has no opinion, it doesn’t guess and it doesn’t blink. It just tells it like it is. When you’re in that machine, it’s like being in front of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates and he’s looking for your name in The Book. What’s done is done. It is what it is. Your name’s in the book or it isn’t.

There’s nothing you can do about it. You have cancer or you don’t.

The scan was only of my neck so it didn’t last long. I gathered myself. The nurse and staff were wonderful as usual, asking if I was OK, asking whether I wanted to talk to someone.  One told me she would pray for me. I left the room with my head spinning. I knew the chapel was near and I found it by the hospital main entrance. I went inside, sat down and broke down again. I couldn’t have cancer again because I just couldn’t handle it. I’d had enough for one lifetime. “No more cancer” became a mantra as I slowly calmed down and got myself back together.

That night I just couldn’t sit still, I had to get out of the house. I live in Bucks County and there are parts that are beautiful. I rolled down all the windows of the car. It was as close to a convertible as I could get. It was about sun down. It was cool and slightly damp outside and off I drove.

I drove from Yardley north through New Hope, parallel to the Delaware River and its ancient canal. The chill was wonderful. I imagined myself in some future broiling fever looking fondly back at this moment. The ride was wonderfully, intensely green. You could smell the trees and plants. A heard of deer looked like ghosts wondering through the mist in a field by the road. I was hoping to get some chocolate soft serve at Dilly’s Corner but it was closed for the night. I crossed the bridge over the river and witnessed an intense peach colored sunset to my left. There’s nothing like feeling you’re near death to sharpen your senses.

I stopped into my favorite wine store, Phillips Fine Wine and Spirits in Stockton, New Jersey. I bought two bottles of my favorite (reasonably priced) bubbly a Gruet and a bottle of Cremant d’Alsace. I told myself I’d have some after getting good news, not sure if that would ever happen.

This morning I got a phone call. It was a nurse from the oncology office. I tensed up and quickly imagined all the different results I could get. She told me the scan was normal, no signs of cancer, everything looked great. I thanked her. She asked if she made my day. I told her she made my month.

I put the Gruet in the refrigerator.