It turns out a lot of stories start this way. Six weeks ago my mother went to her doctor, complaining of a tight, swollen belly. She was dispatched to emergency, where I joined her. Ascites says the doctor. Sounds like as-eye-tees. Fluid in the abdomen. In our hours of waiting on a stretcher in the hallway, I googled hysterically. Diverticulitis. Appendicitis. Tuberculosis. Cyrrhosis of the liver. And other grim possibilities.
Bloodwork, an X-ray later and a CT scan booked and we were still in the hallway. It was 3 am. I went home to sleep a couple of hours and change clothes. While I was gone - before seven in the morning - the junior radiologist came to her hallway cot and announced he saw cancerous activity in the abdomen. Then he left. By time I called, half an hour later, she was still lying alone in a hallway of emerg with this horrifying news. The cab took forever to arrive at the hospital in rush hour traffic.
Within half an hour of my arrival, more results had come back.There was cellular stranding in the fluid. Which usually indicates cancer. “Now can we have a bit of privacy?” I asked. We got a small room. I crawl into the stretcher with her. I use up the last juice of my iPhone googling: Malignant ascistes. Adenocarcinoma. Cancer of unknown primary source. Every doctor who passes our room looks stricken. I want to punch them in the face. I would prefer neglect to this horrible pity.
They still haven't found anything, I keep saying. How many stories have you heard where someone was told they had cancer and it was something else, relatively benign. One intern who has a mom my mom's age comes to see us at the end of her shift. “But we still don’t know anything for sure, right? Still no tumours found…” I say.
“You seem like such nice people.” She starts to cry. “I hate meeting people like you here.” She hugs me and she's kind of shakey. “I don’t want to discourage cautious optimism, but I don’t think you are going to get good news.”
And with that, mom’s 24 hours in emergency was over. 2 radiologists. Bloodwork. An ultrasound. One CT scan. One X-Ray. One Paracentesis. 3 Internal Medicine specialists. 2 Radiologists. Many, many nurses. And one very grim diagnosis.
Six weeks later, and there is still no primary source. For weeks, she was in diagnostic purgatory. No treatment or Oncologist because they have to rule everything else out. It was awful. It’s what I’ve started referring to as “WTF” Cancer. Or medspeek, ‘unknown primary source’. Look it up. Or don’t. Actually, really, don’t. I have banned hysterical Googling from my fingertips. Chemo started on Tuesday.
I wrote in a letter to my family that in addition to trying to wrap our heads around all the medical realities, it's the "Find Hope and Fight" Vs. "Find Peaceful Resignation" battle that is a hard one right now. Which side are we supposed to be taking? If it were me in her position, I know she would be saying "fight, fight, fight! don't give up!" And this is what I am saying today.