Where do I start? I mean, seriously. It’s like the last year and a half of my life has been a bad dream. Part of me always expected to wake up. So you can imagine, it’s been very strange to have the bad dream resolve itself and not to wake up. If the bad part of the dream is over, does that mean it isn’t a dream at all, or does that make the happy conclusion a dream too? It makes the whole cancer thing seem even more unreal. The entire thing is hard to conceptualize and even harder to communicate.
To put it plainly, the surgery was miraculous. The plan was never to make me cancer free. That wasn’t supposed to be possible. I remember waking up after surgery, very sluggish and blurry, to my parents and brothers next to my bed. There was a tangible excitement that was buzzing in the air, just over my head, outside my reach, beyond what I was able to understand and make sense of. My mom leaned over the bed and said softly “They got it all, Sweetie.” I frowned, internally I think, I’m not sure I had the control or energy to actually frown. I didn’t like my mom saying that to me because it couldn’t be true. The disease was too small in my lymph nodes, it was microscopic. I was almost irritated that she misspoke and my head was too foggy to figure out what she meant to say. But then she continued… “They got the whole chain!” She was very emotional, that much was plain, she was happy and tearful. “The chain?” I questioned groggily. Irritation and hope began wrestling over my heart. What chain? She didn’t mean… “The… ” my brain hiccuped. What was that word? The lymphatic chain, the one the radiation oncologist talked about and wanted to radiate as my best chance for a cure… “My lymph node chain? No way!” I slurred through my lazy post anesthesia fog. Thats all I remember. I fell back asleep? We talked of the cosmos? I don’t remember.
I woke up the next morning, half expecting to have dreamed what my mom said. Rational me didn’t want to talk about it, I’d wait for my surgeon to tell me himself. I wanted an official report, to be told more formally. “They got it all,” HA! The resident came in at some point that day, I’m sure it was the morning but in that post surgical haze chronological order barely exists. But I remember what he said with remarkable clarity. He talked about how the lung surgery went well, it was cancer they removed, but they got the whole nodule and the regional lymph nodes. Then Dr. Reeves and he got started. My intestines were amazing, there was barely any scar tissue. He wasn’t sure why, maybe my age, maybe my diet, maybe how fit I was, it didn’t really make sense taking into account the two previous surgeries. This made it easy for them to find my rectal stump and reattach my colon. I inwardly praised my intestines for handling surgery so well and thanked God because, lets be real, if it doesn’t makes sense to the doctors then it’s God. Then they went after the lymph node they missed during my first surgery. The one that was too risky to go after because of how close it was to my aorta and how little time they had. The resident said, “we wanted to go in up high, by your liver, since the lymph node is so high in your abdominal cavity it made sense to start high. We couldn’t, there was too much scar tissue by your liver from the first surgery. So we went in down by the colostomy. Now, this is where things get a little magical…” My eyes widened. He explained that because my intestines were still out of my abdomen it made my posterior retroperitoneal lymphatic chain very visible. He wasn’t sure why it was so visible but it was. “Im not sure how he does it, I sure can’t, but Dr. Reeves can tell when a lymph node has been treated versus a healthy lymph node. They don’t look any different to me, so I don’t know.” Basically my surgeon can somehow see with his eyes that a lymph node has dead cancer cells in it. But where there are dead cancer cells it only takes one cell to survive to cause a problem in the future, so even dead cancer cells indicate danger and need to be removed whenever possible. They took the whole chain out and whats even better is they were able to trace the chain up to where the peri-aortic lymph node was, the one they were looking for. They removed it without an extensive search. “So you’re pretty much cancer free. It was basically a miraculous surgery.” He concluded.
I burst into tears.
I was in no way expecting to hear that phrase. I was completely caught off guard. Later that day my surgeon, Dr. Reeves, came in and also told the same story. It was much more practical and grounded than the way the resident told it so I’m glad I heard the story from him first. I enjoyed hearing words like magic and miracle being thrown around. But my surgeon was beaming, not so much with pride but with joy, his own version of “magic” and “miracle”. He was so happy that he could do this for me. His conclusion was better than the way the resident put it. He smiled down at me and said… “so we can say with certainty, you are cancer free.”
What a dream!