How I became one in 25,000

On January 9, 2011, I noticed my armpit was swollen when I went to put on deodorant in the morning. It had not been that way the night before which alarmed me, but I assumed it was due to a skin condition I already had in that same armpit. I did not become panicked until January 12 when I brushed my hand over my collar bone at work and noticed that it too was swollen. I immediately jumped up and scheduled an appointment to see my doctor the next day.

I distinctly remember telling my best friend, “I think I have lymphoma.” It was said hyperbolically, but I had this nagging feeling that something REALLY wasn’t right. I managed to push that worry aside with the more logical explanation that it was most likely some kind of infection blowing up my lymph nodes.

When I got to the doctor the following day, she called in several other people for consults with a very worried look on her face. It was at this point that I really started to panic. Rather than give me the antibiotics I expected, I suddenly found myself being ushered to have bloodwork done and then being told I needed to rush to a neighboring hospital for a bunch of scans. When I questioned the best way to get there since I do not have a car, my doctor told me to either get a friend there immediately or to take a cab because “this could be life threatening”.

After having initial CT scans and ultrasounds done, my doctor called that night and told me that it was “most likely a lymphoma” and that I had lymph nodes of up to 6 cm in my body. Anything larger than 1 cm is considered abnormal. Unfortunately, most of my swollen nodes are in my chest where it is not palpable, which is why I did not know I had swollen glands in at least two regions of my body until the last few swelled. She scheduled me an appointment the following day with the chief of oncology at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Dr. Tim O’Connor.

Doctors are trained to think horses, not zebras when they hear hoofbeats. Lymphomas are not rare, but certainly much rarer than infections. Dr. O’Connor calmed me down, diagnosed me with cat scratch disease (which is really a thing, who knew?) because my playful cat tends to leave a few marks, gave me some antibiotics, and told me to come back in a week when we got the results of the blood test.

I came back a week later with no reduction in swelling and a really bad feeling. Dr. O’Connor confirmed those feelings with the news that the blood tests were negative for cat scratch. He sent me to Dr. Morton Kahan the following week for a lymph node excision and biopsy to test for cancer. Dr. Kahan is literally the most unsurgeon-like surgeon I could imagine- incredibly sweet, personable, and reassuring. He put me under for the biopsy and now, a week later, the scar is healing up just fine. After the procedure, which took about an hour, he told me that the pathologist suspected Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The following week I returned to the cancer center where I was introduced to Dr. Jeffrey Wisch, the clinical director of the center and my new oncologist, who confirmed the diagnosis.

That is how we got to this point. From initial symptoms to diagnosis, it was less than a month. That is fantastically quick as the internet seems riddled with stories of people who had to beg their doctors for CT scans and biopsies of swollen lymph nodes. I am very lucky that my medical care team has been very on top of things, if not a bit overzealous (in the case of my primary care doctor).

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Posted in Diagnosis

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