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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Adventures in ...Cancer?: If Only You'd Been Bad Asthma (Or, Leading to Up to Diagnosis -- Part One)

(You can read my earlier post about the ten year anniversary of my first chemo treatment here.)

Thanksgiving.  It's that time of year when we all hang out with family, eat lots of food, and avoid contracting deadly diseases.  It's a time of thanks, too, though nature has this odd tendency to understand "thanks" to mean "how can I make your life difficult today?"  Thus begins my long road to discovering the cancerous tumors that at one time riddled my body, trying their hardest to kill
me slowly and painfully (excuse me while I say a giant "fuck you" to cancer.  You're dead, suckas).  But let's step back a little first...
Darko Suvin and Louis Marin think Disneyland is problematic.
I agree, but they're not going to steal my imaginary childhood from me...
2002 was not a good year for me.  Around September or so, I totaled my car in Los Angeles while driving to Disneyland for a weekend of fun.  We got sideswiped in an intersection that didn't have a turn signal, which was something I'd never seen before (we didn't have such things in my small town, because all our signals were properly marked -- if you didn't have a turn signal, it told you that you had to yield.  In this case, the turn lane had a signal, but without the arrow OR a "yield to oncoming traffic" sign.  But L.A. is evil, so it was all my fault.).  Luckily, nobody was hurt, despite the fact that the other car was moving at close to 40 miles an hour and struck the car a foot or so from my legs, smashing the frame up until the engine block.  No broken bones.  No pain.  Just a lot of hot chocolate everywhere and crying (which is what I do when I'm suffering from shock).

Things didn't improve from there.  Maybe a month later, I got fired from my job as night manager of a local fast food restaurant.  They blamed me for money that had gone missing in the safe, despite the fact that the general manager and the franchise owner had previously been shown evidence that the office in which the safe was kept was not secure (we had video evidence of an employee adjusting the focus on the camera while out of frame before returning after closing to try to Spider Man his way through the crack above the office door).  But I got blamed for it and fired without notice.  Literally.  Nobody told me I'd been fired.  I had to find out about it through a letter sent almost a month later (after I began filing a complaint with the unemployment office).  To add to the irony, the general manager was caught siphoning funds from the safe a year later.
This is what he thought he was like...
This is how he actually looked, minus the wine...
After losing my job and my car, I continued on with school, hoping to at least make something of myself through education (that's a half-truth).  About halfway through the semester, I started having asthma attacks.  These didn't surprise me terribly much.  I've had asthma my whole life; some of the attacks have even sent me to the hospital.  But my doctor thought these attacks seemed associated with chronic bronchitis, and he put me on some meds and prescribed asthma treatments (through the respirator of doom) to hopefully curb the illness.  I didn't challenge it because I didn't have any reason to.  All my symptoms said "bronchitis" -- night sweats and cold saps, coughing, asthma-like symptoms, etc.

All these things didn't help make the year a particularly pleasant one (a factor which helped lead to severe depression over the next few years).  But I made plans to spend Thanksgiving with my mom, her partner, and my brother and sister along the northern coast of California, thinking "yay, rocky beaches and Fort Bragg."  I dragged my respirator of doom along and resolved myself to have as good a time as a sick person can have.  Everything seemed fine, and a fun time I had indeed!

But 2002 is the only year that hates my guts.  I know this because I lived during that year, and I remember the distinct moment when its physical form descended upon my person and accosted me for no reason whatsoever.  Its breath smelled suspiciously like old socks...

While returning home, I started to have another asthma attack.  Once we arrived, I sat down and took another treatment...only it didn't do anything.  I could feel my heart rate surging and my lungs struggling against some unknown constricting force, and I knew "this is the worst asthma attack I've had in a long time, and I need to go to the hospital."

This is where the wonders of the U.S. healthcare system come into play.  Emergency rooms tend to work from "most serious" to "least serious" based on available information.  Someone who comes in complaining of a broken toe, for example, will get passed over for someone with chest pain.  But that's not how it went in my case.  When we arrived, there were a number of people already waiting.  Most didn't have severe issues going on, as far as I can remember -- some folks had cold symptoms and some had fevers.  But we were forced to wait for 6 hours (or something like that) anyway, despite my symptoms -- difficulty breathing and an increased heart rate.  They even put someone ahead of me who had fallen out of a tree, who seemed to have done little more than hurt his arm (why he was climbing a tree in the middle of the night is beyond me).  It's possible all of these people were actually worse off than myself (or seemed so based on whatever they reported to the orderly), but it didn't seem so to my 19-year-old-I-can't-breathe-oh-my-god self.

Someone eventually brought us into the emergency room, took my vitals, and raised some concerns about my heart rate.  They gave me some treatments, tracked my heart rate, etc., and even ordered an X-ray to see if there were any obstructions or what have you in my lungs.  And then came the two enormous shocks of the day:

  1. Because of my vital signs, they needed to get an IV in me to administer certain treatments and so on.  I hadn't voluntarily allowed doctors to put needles in me for as long as I could remember.  In fact, I still have a memory of doctors and nurses holding me down when I was a young lad so they could administer a shot.  I was deadly afraid of needles.  You can understand, then, why I resisted the notion of letting them stick anything into me.  Eventually I had to give in, because if I didn't, they wouldn't have as many options to help me.  Needless to say, I hated every minute of it (I still hate needles, though I've accepted that they have to go into me for my own good).
  2. The X-ray showed abnormalities that the doctors could not diagnose properly without a better image (CT scan).  As a general rule, you don't want to hear "there are abnormalities in your chest x-ray" from a doctor.  Nothing good comes from it.  Trust me.  Nothing at all.
So I got over my fear of needles -- in the sense that I let them stab me -- and learned that I'd need a CT scan, which I'd never had before (donuts -- if you've had a CT, you get what this means).  Meanwhile, the doctors were telling me that my heart rate could not stay where it was for much longer without causing damage to my heart, and that I'd have to stay in the hospital for observation.  Oh, fun.  Woo!

And that's where I'm going to leave part one.  Any questions?


Note:  Some details may contain slight inaccuracies.  I am trying to remember exactly what happened a decade ago.  Memory is a fallible beast.

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