Why our decisions in the fight against cancer sometimes seem so easy
I often hear from people: “I don’t know how you do it.” I expect most people have a very doctored version of how things occur in our battle against cancer. I’m not one to correct inaccuracies that work in my favor (especially since I like to imagine myself being played by Angelina Jolie in the Lifetime movie about our story). But, just this once, I’ll give you a glimpse of how it all really goes down.
Last week we drove up to John Hopkins to meet with the radiation oncologist. The consult was to determine if we should proceed with palliative radiation on a lymph node met that’s threatening to cause some major issues for Chris if it continues to grow. Dr. Song, the radiation oncologist, was very knowledgeable and after an examination and looking at Chris’s scans, he felt that we should move forward with radiation treatment to zap the met into submission. However, he also noted that the course would be everyday for ten days, which was more than we had originally bargained for.
In typical confident doctor language, he said, “This isn’t rocket science. I can do this with my eyes closed. In fact, not only can I do it with my eyes closed, I can actually do it while I’m asleep. I’m asleep now. You don’t need someone who’s as skilled as I am. Why would you want to drive an hour-and-a-half, both ways, each day for a thirty-minute zap that you can get done at the Minute Clinic at CVS? It’s right next to the blood pressure cuff.” (I might be exaggerating a bit, but you get the gist of it.) It was a valid point, but it also meant that we needed to find another doctor and hospital to add to our already lengthy list of doctors and hospitals. Transferring years of medical records and arranging all of the bureaucratic logistics are not always easy tasks.
After the appointment, we decided to head over to the new cafeteria at Johns Hopkins. It’s a bright and sunny glass enclosure and seemed like a good place to regroup. I was relieved — happy that we had a decision, and I had pretty much mapped out our course of action in my head already. You won’t believe this, but Chris says I sometimes get a little ahead of myself. And by this, he really means I sometimes get a little ahead of him. And this time Chris apparently wasn’t on board with me. This is how the conversation ensued:
Dena: Let’s just schedule this at Inova [the local hospital where Chris had his original surgery to remove his kidney]. It’s less than a mile from our house. You heard the doctor. This is simple stuff. We don’t need anything fancy.
Chris: Seriously? I’m not really comfortable going back there. After all, that is the hospital that told me I was “cured” without even doing a scan.
Dena: Yeah, but we aren’t asking them to really do anything but zap you with radiation. They aren’t making any decisions about treatment plans.
Chris: Uhm, excuse me, but I’m the one getting “zapped.” [I think he may have actually used air quotes here.] You may think this is minor, but it’s my body. Do you remember the doctor mentioning that potential damage to the nerve means I might not be able to use my arm again?
Dena: If we go to another cancer center, I’m going to have to send a truck load of medical records – I’ll be faxing for days just so we can get an appointment!
Chris: That’s supposed to inspire confidence? You want me to be excited because the hospital will radiate me without any records? It’s like some guy offering to give you a loan without any credit.
Dena: But it’s so close! You can walk there!
Chris: I’m not walking to my radiation appointments, and I’m not picking a place because it’s conveniently located.
Frosty silence ensued. I spit out my best passive-aggressive fine, and then I began animatedly throwing away the trash leftover from the food that we didn’t eat. Chris glared at me.
Chris’s older brother, Mike, who was with us that day, remained strategically neutral, like Switzerland.
The next morning, we regrouped. I told Chris that we’d figure it out, that we’d both look around and find a place that he was comfortable with. He agreed. We decided not to make any immediate decisions. When I got into work, I sent out a slew of e-mails asking various folks if they had recommendations for RAD-oncs (short for radiation oncologists — yeah, we know the lingo). It was a busy day and I was barely at my desk, but I had a fifteen minute break from 1:45 to 2:00. Which is when Georgetown University’s Lombardi Cancer Center called me. They wanted to go ahead and schedule Chris for a consult. I stammered a bit, not sure how they had gotten my number. The woman was quick, already knew what type of cancer Chris had and answered my questions efficiently. Fifteen minutes later, we were scheduled for August 1st.
Turns out that one of the people I had e-mailed that morning was my friend Kathryn, whose husband is a doctor at Georgetown. Thanks to their quick work, our decision wasn’t so tough after all. The truth is – a lot of these decisions aren’t easy for us, but they’re made easier by the wonderful friends and family who have banded together to help us. This past weekend, we had a party at the house to celebrate Chris’s 44th birthday. As I looked around at all the folks who who care about us so much and who have done so much already, I was reminded just how lucky we really are.