From Pain & Panic to Remission | My Fight Against Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma
In June 2019, I started having some strange health issues. First, I felt a small lump below my left ear. A few weeks later, my left jaw started to swell. I thought it was a tooth infection and put visiting a dentist on my to-do list, but the swelling went down the following week. The thought of cancer briefly crossed my mind, but I chose not to dwell on it.
By December 2019, the swelling & the lump had returned. I thought that my tooth had become infected again, but the swelling still hadn't gone away in February. I began to feel sharp pains running across my jaw and face. When I visited my doctor, he prescribed medications for what he thought to be a salivary gland infection. He also noticed that my blood pressure was way too high and prescribed me an additional medication. The medications for the swelling helped slightly, but the pain never left.
I visited an Ear Nose Throat specialist who performed a needle biopsy, sending the samples to a lab. I had to wait a week for the results, which caused my anxiety to go through the roof. These emotions are certainly not good for keeping blood pressure stable, but the medication my first doctor prescribed seemed to do its job. I couldn't sleep a wink the night before the telehealth call, dreading what the results would be.
YOU HAVE CANCER.
It was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The ENT doctor told me that this type of cancer responds well to treatment but that I needed to start chemo right away, connecting me with a local oncologist. I just tried to keep my composure for the rest of the call. The statement that haunts me to this day is when he said "If your cancer had been salivary gland cancer instead of lymphoma, we would be having a much different conversation."
I was in a daze for the rest of the day. Everything seemed trivial and unimportant. I tried to go to the grocery store but started to have a panic attack while waiting in line. What was chemo going to be like? Will I need radiation therapy? Will I need surgery? How long did I have to live? To make matters worse, I'd received a layoff notice from my work earlier that year. So now I was going to lose my job only a few weeks after starting cancer treatment. I went through cycles of near rage and panic in the days leading up to my meeting with the oncologist.
The feeling of dread weighed on me as I waited in the oncologist's exam room. I couldn't stop thinking about how long I had to live. Luckily, the oncologist was upbeat as he described my treatment options. I had Stage II cancer and needed 6 rounds of chemo 3 weeks apart from one another. He confirmed what my ENT told me, that this type of cancer responds well to treatment. I decided not to ask him how long I had to live since he told me I had a good chance of going into remission.
The next couple of weeks were a whirlwind of activity. I had a catheter put in for chemo treatment and my heart was examined through ultrasounds to make sure it could handle the chemo chemicals. The pain that sent me to the doctor in the first place was starting to travel from my face into my chest, right at the sternum. This sharp pain felt like an electric shock. Each time it happened, I thought I was having a heart attack. The logical part of my mind knew it wasn't, but my heightened anxiety caused me to freeze up in fear.
The actual process of going through a chemo infusion is actually quite boring. Most of the 4 hours I spent receiving treatment was me waiting for the drugs to slowly drip into my body. One of my biggest worries was extreme nausea, but I ended up not being too affected by that. My biggest problem was the chest pain caused by my cancer. I almost called 911 once after a pain episode. Trying to remind myself that I wasn't having a heart attack was not easy, especially at night. Chemo also caused my hair to fall out and caused me to lose about 30 pounds overall. These aren't all the side effects I experienced, but just know that the side effects of cancer treatment wear down a person emotionally and physically no matter what combination of effects you experience.
My panic attacks continued throughout the treatments, fueled by the chest pains and anxiety over the chemo's effectiveness. Some nights, I was afraid I would die in the middle of the night and not wake up. I would go through cycles of panicking all night, getting little sleep, and feeling exhausted throughout the day.
During my fourth infusion, my oncologist visited me with great news. The treatments were working & I should be in full remission after this cycle of chemo was over! I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. The intensity of the chest pains was tapering off and I felt energized again. Then, chemo decided to throw another side effect at me. I developed vertigo due to losing the balance in one of my ears. For me, feeling dizzy can be worse than being in pain.
When I tried to lie down, the room felt like it was tilting to one side. I would try to stand up and the blood pressure medication made it feel like I was sinking into the floor. At this point, frustration and anger replaced my feelings of panic. I was so close to finishing treatment, but I couldn't even walk straight. I stumbled around the house like a drunk person. I can remember breaking a few objects out of both clumsiness and anger.
After treatments ended, I had a final oncologist appointment with CT scans. I ended up being placed in the same room we had met in when he originally told me about my cancer diagnosis; only this time I wasn't overwhelmed by a feeling of dread.
"The cancer is gone, you're in remission." - I will never forget hearing these words.
Now, I moved into a 5-year follow-up period with checkups every 3 to 6 months. There was one question left in my mind. How long would I have lived if I hadn't known I had cancer and didn't receive treatment? He told me that, if left unchecked, I would have had 6-12 months left to live. I'm so glad he didn't tell me that on the first day I was in the office. If I wasn't panicking enough already, that would've thrown me into a deeper spiral.
Now it's November 2022. All of my check ups have gone well so far. The 2-year mark is important as your chance of relapse goes down drastically after that point. I hit that mark with clear scans around 3 months ago! I was told to avoid alcohol, maintain a healthy diet, and exercise daily to avoid relapsing. I do all those things religiously.
The vertigo that I thought was a temporary side effect stuck around. I decided to do rigorous physical therapy to ease it, and now it's mostly gone. My blood pressure is finally back to normal & I'm finally off the medications for my chemo side effects. THe catheter was removed shortly after chemo finished, leaving only a small scar on my upper chest. I'm so grateful for all of these positive changes in my life.
I have a little less than 3 years to go with my check ups. Fingers crossed, all will go well with those too.
It's good to be alive!
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.