Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Racing from Death and Celebrating Life

Three years ago I was diagnosed with Indolent Non-Hodgkin's B-Cell Lymphoma. “Indolent” is the magic word here, as it means lazy, idle, or sluggish. And thank God it’s a couch-potato cancer or I would have an aggressive, severe disease that would probably have already killed me.

I recently moved with my husband to Aiken, South Carolina, and needed a new house, a new driver’s license, new insurance, and new doctors. I hated giving up my Maryland oncologist, Doctor Selonick, as he is a brilliant cancer doctor who teaches medical students and oncology staff at Johns Hopkins.  

Oncology Pavilion at Aiken Regional Medical Center
There are only two oncologists in Aiken, a Turk and a Pakistani, both of whom received their degrees in their native countries. My new primary doctor, a woman named Doctor Kulik, who I still haven’t met, referred me to the Pakistani, Doctor Ahmed Gill. I had misgivings. 

I got an appointment and met Doctor Gill. Swarthy, with a beard, he had wonderful intelligent eyes and a kind face. He was astonished when I said my lymphoma had presented itself as bilateral tumors in my lungs. Nowhere else. My case was so unusual it was presented to Johns Hopkins in 2010, so I guess I have to cut Gill a little slack.

Gill was concerned that I’d had only chest scans during the last three years. He insisted I have a PET scan to make sure the cancer had not popped up elsewhere. 
PET Scan Machine. Just love being swallowed by this thing!

“PET scan: a positron emission tomography scan. A unique type of imaging test that helps doctors see how organs and tissues inside your body are actually functioning. The test involves injecting a very small dose of a radioactive chemical, called a radiotracer, into the vein of your arm. The tracer travels through the body and is absorbed by the organs and tissues being studied.” 

As I understand it the chemical also contains sugar and cancer loves sugar. I believe that any organ with cancer lights up like a carnival. Now you have another reason to cut back on sugar: cancer loves to eat sugar.

The test was scheduled, and the waiting began. Wait for the scan, wait for the results. Wait, wait, wait, all the while feeling heavier and more frightened. A week after the scan, I cooled my heels in the waiting room with other cancer patients. Two cups of coffee later, I was shown into an examination room by a male nurse who was holding my chart. My chart! He put the papers onto a small desk outside my room and closed the door. I waited. I sat in the chair, I stood up, I opened the door and peeked at the chart on the table. Two nurses came down the hall. I scurried back inside. 

I sat in that room like a sheep and then I thought, “What would Nikki do?” I darted from the room, grabbed the chart, sat down, and read the radiology report. 

No cancer in the body, except the radiologist noted the middle lobe of the right lung had a 1.3 centimeter nodule. The uptake on the radioactive sugar was fairly minor, but of some concern.

Okay, this was the old one, right? I’d had a bunch of tumors and Selonick had treated me with Rituxan. The drug and knocked out all the tumors save one, which was essentially just residue. Selonick’s last test had shown a withered shrunken thing compared to the first reading in 2010. But damn it, I couldn't remember the last recorded size. Was the current 1.3 bigger? Was the cancer growing again? 

I didn’t know the answers to those questions. I did know I didn't want to be caught with the chart.

I opened the door and scanned the hall. Nobody. I whisked the chart back onto the table and disappeared into my room and waited some more.

When Doctor Gill came in, he told me what I already knew. I gave him an okay-and-this-means-what-exactly look, and I got nothing. He said he would have to compare this latest test to the records from Maryland.

“You mean you have not received my records from Maryland?” I was incredulous. “You haven’t spoken to Doctor Selonick?” 

Apparently Gill had wanted to get the PET scan results before he did anything. But he showed himself to be a pretty cool dude. He picked up the phone and called, Selonick, although I could tell by his expression he never expected to reach another oncologist so easily. But Selonick took the call and the two doctors had a ten minute conversation, including sociable facts like Selonick’s wife is from Sumter, South Carolina. Selonick is very personable that way. And I knew he probably was in an examining room with an anxious patient who was ready to strangle him while he spoke to Gill. God knows he took plenty of calls in the examining room when I was his patient. 

I almost hugged Gill when I heard him ask Selonick, “What do you recommend?” No prima donna in this Aiken office. He was more concerned about his new patient than playing a game of “who’s the best doctor?” Turns out that the last time I had a chest scan the tumor residue was 1.5 centimeters. The miserable little monster is still shrinking! Gill and Selonick agreed the best course of action is to wait six months, take another chest scan and if all is fine, wait another six months and so on.

I got in the car, drove myself home, and when Rosco met me at the door, I bust into tears.  

THE NEXT MORNING: What a difference a day makes.

The Darley two-year-olds "backing up" on their way to the gate.
The next day I got up very early, put Rosco in the car, and off we went to the Aiken’s "Breakfast at the Gallops" event. 
Aikenites on the rail watching the youngsters gallop.

I met some great new people, 
The legendary Cot Campbell, who moved to Aiken 26 years ago.

Two of Cot Campell's stretch their legs on the Aiken mile track.

celebrated life, and Rosco vacuumed up stray biscuit crumbs. He also got to see a lot of horses, meet a Pomeranian, two Skye Terriers and a Welsh Corgi. A most excellent experience for both of us.

But I think the best thing I saw was afterwards. I stopped at the Darley stables and saw their two-year-olds turned out together, just being horses, not locked into stalls 23 hours a day. Awesome!
A paddock at Darley Stables, Aiken, SC.

One of the Darley Barns at Aiken.


Kaye George said...

Wonderful news on your health, Sasscer. I love you thinking, "What would Nikki do?" May you continue to heal! Do you know I used to live in Sumter, SC?? Small world. This morning I tapped your blog for the Liebster Award. If you want to play along, details are at

Sasscer Hill said...

Thank you, Kaye!