How a routine trip to the doctor turned into a cancer diagnosis

My cancer story started nearly two months ago now, and like many other cancer patients, I feel the need to blog about my experiences (in as honest a way as I can muster) so that my friends and family can easily keep up with my progress. But, more importantly, I feel the need to document this journey for myself so that I can always remember what I fought against, and hopefully, beat to a pulp.

Since I’ve been dealing with cancer for awhile now, I want to chronicle what’s happened so far in the hopes that I can eventually catch up to the present day and then everyone can follow in “real time”. My plan is to lay out my initial diagnosis and start of my treatment over a couple of posts and then write about different topics that I’ve thought about in no particular chronological order.

So, how was I diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (specifically, diffuse large B cell NHL) to begin with? Well, it all started with some seemingly disparate symptoms, a cold, and my annual physical.

In early October, I started sweating buckets for no real reason. I swore that I was somehow, at 30, going through early menopause. I was sweating so much at random times of the day, after no physical exertion, that I often had to turn on the air conditioning in my office, peel off layers of clothes and mop myself off with paper towels. It would stop just as suddenly as it started. My heart was palpitating at completely random times, like when I was watching TV (I mean, the fights on Real Housewives are entertaining but certainly not capable of raising my heart rate that much), and by mid-October, I was feeling some nagging pain in my left shoulder under the scapula.

At that point, I also noticed that I was beyond exhausted. I was falling asleep in the car on my way to work and could only make it through the morning with a cup of coffee, which I had actually quit drinking last spring. I also (thank God) started to get a cold on the day that I had a scheduled annual physical.

The weird thing was that these seemingly disparate symptoms could be feasibly explained by other health issues. The sweating could have been a side effect of another medication I began taking recently, the shoulder pain could have been because I pulled a muscle or something since I sleep on my left side. My doctor has been on me about my work schedule/lifestyle and both the exhaustion/heart palpitations could have been due to lack of sleep/stress/overall exhaustion. In fact, I had heart palpitations from too much caffeine and lack of sleep in the past. I didn’t even mention the cold to my doctor that day, because I didn’t think it was a big deal and at that point, it was barely more than a stuffy nose and a bit of a cough.

Ultimately, my doctor’s main concern was my heart function so she ordered an EKG, although she admitted that it would likely be normal unless I happened to have a palpitation episode at the exact moment of the test (unlikely). When the EKG came back normal, she ordered for me to wear a Holter monitor for 48 hours. She also ordered a complete blood work up, and all the blood work came back completely normal relative to values on previous work ups. She recommended that I try to get more rest/sleep (really funny proposition, Doc) and relax when possible.

As I said, although I felt the cold coming on, I didn’t even both to mention it to my doctor. I teach at a residential college, and frankly, the entire campus is a Petri dish for colds, flu viruses and mono by mid-October. It felt like just the usual sinus and chest congestion so I took some Mucinex. My cold symptoms largely cleared up in a couple of days, except for a nagging cough and feeling of congestion/pressure in my upper chest cavity that wouldn’t go away. All of the other symptoms persisted. Eventually, I got to the point where I was having trouble lecturing because I would cough in between words and by mid November, I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without feeling like I was going to hyperventilate. I also just intuitively felt like something wasn’t right. I thought, at worst, I had bronchitis or pneumonia so I made a follow up visit to my doctor (after Jeff (my husband’s) insistence, to his credit).

This time, I saw a resident in my primary’s office, and he didn’t hear any congestion in my chest but thought it best to order a chest X ray. Little did I know, this chest X-ray would set off a domino effect that would ultimately lead to my general cancer diagnosis that night, and my specific diagnosis and first chemotherapy treatment eight days later.