April 11, 2013. Hearing those three words changes your life forever! It's like the wind gets knocked out of you and your body goes into shock. Until you've been there or been with a loved one in that moment you really cannot comprehend. TIME-STANDS-STILL until the fear floods your entire being and the floodgates open.
Flashback to December 2012 hiking up Machu Picchu. I went on a trip of a lifetime with a beautiful group led by Michelle Karen. I couldn't understand why I was huffing and puffing, always falling at the end of the group on each hike. Our group ranged in age from about 17-80. I was 54, recently divorced, and had already gone through menopause. After losing the added weight I gained from menopause, my belly was disproportionate. It appeared to be getting bigger, almost like I was 6 months pregnant. By the time February rolled around, my stomach was even larger. I had to go to the doctor. I knew something was off. My OBGYN was positive I had fibroid tumors that grew after menopause. It wasn't time for my annual exam yet. I was worried about my health insurance coverage. During the gynecological exam, the doctor couldn't find my ovaries. Hmmm! At the time, I had no idea what THAT meant. Since I drove an hour to this appointment, I asked her if having an ultrasound would be appropriate. She agreed to order. Here I am in the office with the Ultrasound Technician, who brings in a second technician, who brings in the doctor, who brings in her colleague. They finish with the external ultrasound and continue with an internal ultrasound. RED FLAG ANYONE?! Dr. R. explained I needed a hysterectomy very soon. Both doctors agreed they were looking at fibroid tumors. I asked if we should be doing a blood workup. She told me I had my bloodwork done the previous May and that it wasn't necessary at this time. I asked her if she thought I had cancer. NO was her response. I asked her if she felt I should get a second opinion, which she replied, "If you feel you need to." My gut was telling me to, which I talked myself out of. April 11, 2013 I entered hospital #1 to have a hysterectomy. Since I was recently divorced, my sister was my medical POA. Just as my sister was settling in after the operation began, the doctor appeared in front of her minutes later. She led her to a private room and sat knee-to-knee with her and uttered those words..."She has cancer! It's extensive and it's everywhere!" When I returned to my hospital room, my sister, Eileen, knew I knew because of the tears streaming from the corner of my eye. I was still groggy so my sister had to explain to me what was going on. That's a position I wouldn't want to put upon anyone. The hospital I was at was not set up to handle complicated cases like mine. Initially, they thought it was ovarian cancer. When the doctor walked in to follow up with their diagnosis, I immediately said, "I don't want to hear Stage-4." He couldn't look me in the eyes. Looking down, he uttered Stage-3 while shaking his head back and forth. The hospital staff made me feel as though I was dying. I endured one extra, full abdominal cut, that probably could have been avoided had my doctor listened to me, the patient, by ordering more tests. The doctor explained that I would need to go to a larger hospital capable of handling advanced cancer patients since they were not equipped. This was the best blessing in disguise!!!
Luckily, living in the Chicago area, I had options. Hospital #2, Loyola University Medical Center was closest and is also a medical school. I first met with the head of the Gynecological Oncology Department, Dr. Potkul. He was thoughtful and reassuring. He said, "I do this all day, every day. I have your back!" When we left the first appointment, we were scratching our heads and doing the Snoopy Happy Dance. Night and day differences in each hospital's approach and treatment. Again, they initially thought it was ovarian cancer but wouldn't know for sure until the pathology reports came back after surgery. It could have been one of three sources: ovaries, colon or appendix. Prior to my hysterectomy, Dr. Potkul insisted I have a colonoscopy to rule out colon cancer. Done. So on April 22, 2013 I entered Loyola waiting my turn for surgery. Remember this is 11 days after my first full abdominal incision. As part of my hysterectomy, the major debulking took place. I guess about 15 lbs. of tumors were removed, which included the uterus, ovaries, appendix, and omentum. No wonder I was huffing and puffing in Peru!