Here’s what I’ve learned about having Stage 4 lung cancer during the last eight months. Hang on, it ain’t all pretty. First, remember to remove your cell phone from your top pocket before you slide into the MRI tube. The phone doesn’t actually get catapulted through your soft tissues and create a magnetic implosion, it just makes you think you’re in V-tach as it rapidly slaps against your chest on cue with the loud buzzing of the machine.
There’s a book, magazine articles, and even a cute TV commercial lauding the health benefits of laughter and how it adds eight years to your life. My ol’ buddy Patch Adams has spent a good part of his life’s mission dispensing the laughing supplement (and making medicine more user friendly). I’m 53, laugh more than anyone (except Jim Carrey), and now I’m a bit skeptical about that eight-year promise. Hey, I’m still laughing anyway.
My lung cancer has been notoriously and thankfully minimally symptomatic. The mild, episodic,wheezy cough I developed in March I self-diagnosed as allergies or a virus (see Crozet Gazette, “Just a little cough...”, Sept. 2007, p. 20). My astute nurse, Michele Snead, said, “Go to the doctor, I don’t want to work with any- one else.” We laughed. My primary care doc had recently moved, which allowed me to procrastinate (as men do) a bit longer. Six weeks after the cough began, I experienced a few days of mononucleosis-like fatigue. On Sunday, May 20, I dragged myself to the Urgent Care Center, where Dr. Ortiz diagnosed pneumonia and a mass. Within a week my fears were confirmed. I had entered “The Land of Sick People” (see New England Journal of Medicine, “Of Dragons and Garden Peas” Alice Stewart Trillan, Vol. 304, No. 12, 3/19/1981, pp. 699–701).
The first month was torturous. Not because of the chemotherapy and other drugs that tried to alter my body and mind. It was fear. I was convinced that every sneeze was a pneumothorax, every chill was sepsis, every cough a pulmonary embolism, and every chest pain an M.I. I even landed in the emergency room one night. Diagnosis: panic! All the thoughts grew worse at night. Remember to help your patients with fear; it’s as real and as harmful as the aforementioned medical diagnosis. continued ...