Last June, I found some lumps where I never had before. A little Googling revealed that they were probably lymph nodes–enlarged lymph nodes. More Googling informed me that infections often cause lymph node enlargement. But I had no known infections. My doctor put me on antibiotics just in case. They had no effect on the lumps. Why else do lymph nodes swell? Cancer, cancer, and more cancer. So, she sent me to a surgeon to see if he thought I should have one biopsied. He said no, they were really nothing to worry about.
I went home and read tales on internet forums about people with enlarged lymph nodes who were young and/or otherwise healthy who were told there was nothing to worry about, only to learn months later that they had lymphoma and their prognoses weren’t good because their cancers hadn’t been caught early enough.
I was determined that this would not happen to me. My boys would not lose me before they could even remember me, not if I could help it. And thus began three months of careening between doctors’ offices, submitting to countless tests, and enduring a marathon of caregiver condescension and dismissiveness as I hemmorhaged money “advocating for myself.”
There were at least a dozen blood draws, a colonoscopy, abdominal ultrasounds and a CAT scan, and a head and neck MRI, and I eventually demanded to have one of the enlarged lymph nodes biopsied. The pathology came back benign reactive, but containing tattoo pigment. I have plenty of tattoos but my only tattoo near this lymph node was ten years old at least, so I was confounded by this result. More Googling revealed that melanoma cells can look like tattoo pigment in lymph node tissue.
A few weeks before the biopsy, I discovered a weird mole, had it removed, found out it was melanoma in situ, had a wide excision and was supposedly cured. In a follow-up visit with my dermatologist, I mentioned the lymph node and its tattoo ink to her because I thought she might find it interesting. I didn’t think my melanoma and the lymph nodes were connected because she told me in situ melanoma, by definition, has not yet migrated anywhere. (Google confirmed this.) She seemed distressed though, and paged through my chart for a long time before finally telling me I needed to see a melanoma surgeon at a local university hospital to make sure he didn’t want to do a sentinel node biopsy. I was stunned.
Weeks later, I burst into tears upon entering his office in the COMPREHENSIVE CANCER CENTER wing of the hospital. It was all I could do to keep the forms I had to fill out dry. The melanoma surgeon decreed that my skin cancer was not the cause of my lymph node swelling, but that he could see why I had worried (this was the one thing I hadn’t been worried about, mind you). “You had your bell rung,” he said. I had my bell rung? What, like, my death bell?
Meanwhile, even more Googling uncovered a study which found that women who’ve used fertility drugs (I had to use them for both of my pregnancies) are more likely to develop two kinds of cancers as a result: melanoma (check!) and non-hodgkins lymphoma (#%@#!).
So what did I do? I panicked anew.
There was more to it but the whole summer is a blur for me now, both because I saw so much of it through tears but also because it’s hard to lay down memories when your heart is slamming around all the time and your brain keeps tripping the imminent death alarm, falsely it turns out, and your family is as exhausted by you as the doctors, and Google becomes a harder habit to quit than any you’ve quit before (and there have been many other far uglier ones).
I still don’t have definitive explanations for what all went wrong in my body and my mind this year. I still have the enlarged lymph nodes in their original inguinal location (which I now attribute to my body’s delayed macrophagic attack on an offending “tramp stamp”) and now in my neck too. Yes, I have an anxiety problem, and probably IBS and TMJ as a result (the latter of which may explain the neck lymph nodes that plumped up in August). No, I will not be getting any more tattoos.
All of this is to say I apologize for my long blog absence and for this paltry excuse of a 5-month recap. I’ll probably write more here about my anxious summer later. It’s just that I’ve got other topics pressing now, finally, and I don’t want to get mired again in the mess I just crawled out of. In other words, cue Dolly: