About two months ago I (Charlie) received a real wake up call that literally saved my life. In the middle of the night, in the midst of a deep sleep, my body was wracked with a searing pain that startled me into a state of agonizing consciousness. No amount of medication, meditation or position-changing had any effect on the pain which was becoming increasingly more acute with each passing minute. Linda, who had been awake throughout most of the ordeal, offered to drive me to the emergency room. Having decided that I wasn’t interested in martyring myself with unnecessary suffering, I gladly accepted her offer.
The trip to the hospital seemed to go in ultra-slow motion. Every passing moment brought new spasms of agony and the recurrences were increasing in frequency rather than diminishing. The trip seemed to take forever even though there was no traffic on the road at 1 AM. We finally arrived at the hospital where I limped into the emergency room and got in line behind four other suffering souls who were going through their own version of hell. Unable to stand upright, I slumped over and practiced doing some conscious breathing hoping that that might bring some small measure of relief. It did. It also brought the attention of one of the intake nurses who asked me how I was doing. After a very brief conversation she brought me to the front of the line, quickly processed my admitting paperwork, then got me into a private room where an angel gave me an IV of painkilling meds that magically, practically instantaneously, removed all the pain. I went from hell to heaven in the space of about three minutes. Ahhhhh!
After about fifteen minutes of deep relaxation and feeling blissfully pain-free, I was wheeled a few doors down the hall to a room in which I received an MRI scan which revealed the presence of a large kidney stone, the undeniable culprit of the problem. The doctor who reviewed the results with me told me that in the process of diagnosing the source of the pain, they noticed a “suspicious mass” located on the kidney that had produced the stone. He said that although they weren’t certain that there was anything to be concerned about, that to be on the safe side, I was being referred to a urologist who would see me the next day to discuss the situation. I left the hospital with a healthy supply of heavy-duty drugs that were guaranteed to handle the kidney stone pain until a more permanent solution was found.
The next day Linda and I revisited the hospital and were introduced to Dr. Tsang, the urologist assigned to my case. A no-nonsense professional, Dr Tsang initiated the conversation by announcing that he was practically certain that the growth on my kidney was malignant and that if it was, the next step would be surgery. He ordered another scan which I was given, after which I returned to his office to review the results. “Yes, it’s a solid mass, so it looks like it’s cancer. We’re probably going to need to remove the entire kidney because of the location of the tumor. Do you have any questions?” “Uhhh. . . where do I begin? Am I going to die? What does this mean in terms of my kidney functioning? Are you sure? Can I get a second opinion? When does it have to happen? Are you sure? Is there any alternative to surgery? Will I need chemotherapy or radiation? Do I really have cancer? Are you really sure?”
Some of these questions I spoke, some I just thought. I left Dr. Tsang’s office with a different identity than the one with which I entered. In addition to the identities of husband, father, son, brother, uncle, teacher, etc. I had the new identity of “cancer patient”. I tried it on for size with Linda on the drive back home. I didn’t particularly care for it so I decided to reject it. I also decided that when this was all over I was not going to be a “cancer survivor”. Why identify yourself in terms of an illness? I was the same person I’ve always been, who just happened to be dealing with a physical condition that required medical attention. Not the first or in all likelihood the last time that this would be the case.
Within a couple of days I had scheduled an appointment with another physician, referred by a good friend, who was the head of urology at a large prestigious medical school in the area. I shared the notes and MRI results with him and he concurred with everything that Dr. Tsang had said and strongly encouraged me to go ahead with the surgery and reassuringly said that this type of cancer is generally contained within the kidney and in all probability, based upon the scan results and the size of the tumor, is unlikely to have metastasized to other organs. If the surgery is successful, there would be no need for any additional treatments like radiation or chemotherapy.
“That’s great!” I said. “Is there any relationship between the kidney stone and the tumor?”
“Absolutely none”, he said.
“What if I hadn’t gotten the kidney stone? How would the tumor have been discovered?”
“Well, in most cases like this, the tumor isn’t discovered until you’ve become symptomatic and by then, it’s frequently the case that it’s grown and metastasized to other organs, and then you’ve really got a problem.”
“What kind of a problem?”
“Like this.” He showed me a scan of one of his patients. The kidney was completely covered by a huge tumor that had metastasized to several other organs. “This guy doesn’t have much longer to live”.
We shared a moment of silence in which I felt a sense of profound gratitude for the horrendous pain that just a few days ago I had cursed.
“So that kidney stone saved my life?”
“You might say that. Without it, there’s no telling when that tumor would have come to your attention.”
Three weeks later Dr Tsang performed a radical nephrectomy, removing the tumor, the kidney, and the associated adrenal gland. In a follow-up appointment with him shortly after I got out of the hospital, he assured me that the pathology report from the lab revealed that “they got it all”, and that the margins around the tumor were clean and there was no sign of metastasis anywhere. “Come back in six months for a follow-up appointment, but as far as we’re concerned, you’re cancer-free.”
“Thanks” seems like a colossal understatement when you’re talking to someone who just saved your life, but that’s all that I managed to say. On the way out of the office, I remembered what I had been told about the kidney stone, and I again felt gratitude for the pain that it had created in me.
I’ll know that I’ll never experience pain as the enemy again. Ever.