The excuse I have for not writing many blog posts since last spring isn’t my usual ‘Just keep not getting around to it’ business. I had made a commitment to write every week and for a time I was doing well. I especially wanted people to join me on an excursion into the land of health and health care in Mexico. Everyone wants to know about it, and to feel safe and knowledgeable in his or her overseas choices. I felt entirely confident having had my parasite cleared with a single test in Mexico, after two years of grueling tests in the US—all of which had come up empty. But what I didn’t expect with a run-of-the-mill blood screening was a diagnosis that rocked my world. The decision to share that journey has taken me until now. But I do want to share it. Maybe because a lot of the fear has passed, which allows me the slow ride back into critical thinking. And maybe because even though I still have lots of questions, it’s a way to share a personal journey with others who have had similar rides.
So we’ll go back to the beginning. It all started with a gynecological exam. Having just settled into my new home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I wanted a general blood test to get a baseline reading. I found a great female gynocologist who came highly recommended and figured that with the much lower costs of medical tests in Mexico, I may as well get some of the mid-life biggies out of the way.
Like many gynecologists in Mexico, Dr Sandra uses the great radiological wand, one I formerly described when writing about my pregnancy in Thailand. I have no issue with the tool as it seems to give a more full and clear picture of the inner working of my body. My particular screen showed some growths near my kidney so Dr Sandra suggested further screening. I wandered downstairs to the radiology department of the new hospital in San Miguel and was taken in right away. Nothing seemed to bother the radiologist. Come back in 6 months, he said, and we’ll see if there’s any change. I paid my $45 and went on my way.
That week I also went in for some blood work. A full panel to start – with a couple cancer markers thrown into the mix. It didn’t seem odd to me at the time that my doctor had requested them; I figured some past abnormal paps made her want to cover all bases. Knowing what I know now, I might have explored her reasoning a bit more. But at the time I didn’t ask why; I figured all information is good information.
Most my blood work was completely normal, except – you guessed it – one of the cancer markers, which was slightly elevated. At the time I knew absolutely nothing about the many reasons a marker might be elevated (and there are many), so let’s just say I was a bit freaked out. I would learn later that in the US doctors had stopped giving random marker tests because of the false positives, and generally unless readings were over 200 they rarely inspired great concern. While still at the lab, I pointed to the number on the sheet and said, “That’s a bit high, no?” “Yes,” the receptionist agreed, nodding her head. “You should call your doctor.”
I tried to call the doctor’s office but there was no answer. Then I called her cell. She was at a birthday party an hour away in Queretaro but was happy to hear my concerns. She asked me to send her my blood work via WhatsApp, which alone made me appreciate her more. I sent her my blood work and within 24 hours she told me she had made me an appointment for more radiology of my ovaries. Two days later I was back in the radiology department with my familiar radiologist. His nickname was Tweetie, he told me, because of the bright yellow Audi he drove. Tweetie scanned my abdomen again and, first in Spanish and then in halting English, said I had growths (uh, somewhere. Did he just say my ovaries?), and may have to have them removed surgically. Then added “And you should probably have an oncologist assist with the procedure.” An oncologist? He nodded yes. I will talk to Dr Sandra.
I paid my $35 (X rays were on special that month) and, a bit panicked now, sent Dr Sandra another WhatsApp. “Radiologist suggests surgery – with an oncologist. I’m scheduled to leave for the beach but if this needs to happen immediately will cancel all. Please advise.” I may not have a lot of detail but I do know that the possibility of cancerous growths in one’s ovaries is not something you mess with. You take care of it — and fast. Sandra said to stand by; she would consult with Tweetie and get back to me.
I went home and did the worst possible thing: started researching online ovarian growths and cancer. As most people know, its one of the most deadly forms of cancer as its often detected too late for successful treatment. One to five years seemed the best prognosis if found at a later stage. One to five years…
I sat quietly for a long, long time. It was one of those silences where I swear you could hear a butterfly pass. I didn’t know what the outcome of this would be, but if it turned out that I might have only one to five years then what would I do? I certainly wouldn’t worry about saving for retirement, or even my son’s schooling, which had occupied a lot of my brain mass of late. No, instead we’d do a bit more travel and knock off some of those bucket list items: elephants in Thailand, a caravan in Morocco, maybe a term at the Green School in Bali… plan some more parties with friends… That would take care of any (and possibly all) my savings and post sale funding of other items. Of course I’d have to have enough to cover medical expenses – whatever those would be (would I undergo an aggressive form of chemo? Would I choose Western medical options over quality of life if it would give me more time with Aiden??) so I wouldn’t leave Aiden with my debt. So many questions, so many things to consider… but none of this could possibly be real. Could it?
Whatever the diagnosis, I also wouldn’t take anything lying down. I had read years ago Andrew Weil’s book Spontaneous Healing and at the time was inspired and impressed. Most of those featured had completely unheard-of remissions after changing diet and mindset. I repurchased and downloaded the book onto my kindle. I decided that day to stop drinking coffee and eating ice cream (which at that point was, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit, an every day habit). Sugar would have to go, and likely all red meat. And that would just be the start. I went out to buy some green tea.
A long day later Dr Sandra asked that I get an MRI to confirm the need for surgery. This was a day before I was to leave for a week at the beach. I dropped Aiden at school then swung by an MRI center and asked for details on the procedure. You need to fast for the 8 or 12 hours prior and make an appt for the following week… Then while I was waiting for more information a technician stuck his head out the door. What did I eat today? Just coffee, I said, thinking, who can eat when this is on the agenda? Did I want to do it right now, he asked hastily? Um… yes? I sent a text to a friend asking if she could grab Aiden at school. I hadn’t yet mentioned any of my health adventures to anyone. The truth is that I still had so few answers, I hated the thought of others bombarding me with questions of their own.
I was led into a small locker room where I changed into a skimpy cotton gown then sat half-naked, as the nurse attached an IV dripping some marker fluid into my veins. That’s when I had my first breakdown. Maybe it was the pitiful glances of Mexicans as they wandered by my bench, or the growing anxiety of being encased in the MRI machine for a full hour without moving. Or maybe it was some notion of what I was really looking at here. It was all going so fast.
At the end of the hour I was sent home with my images and a bill for almost $300 – the most money I had spent at any doctor at any time in Mexico. I was shocked, which I admit distracted from the situation at hand. I held my images up to the light and tried to make out what I might be looking at. Strong hips, lots of curves and shadows. Darkness. Light? I frankly had no idea what I was seeing, or if these shadowy forms showed any danger at all.
The images were also sent to my doctor and to Tweetie, the radiologist. The verdict was that nothing would be done right away. I needed to take the MRI to the oncologist and he couldn’t see me until the following week. There would be no immediate surgery, said Dr Sandra.
This was a break, a gift: a full week to unwind and prepare my mental state. With a week of waiting almost forced upon me, I entered a state of calm dedication, convinced that right now my only job was to relax, sleep and invest in the practice of intense self-care. I could do that. In fact, I now could give myself full permission.
Stay tuned for my meeting with the oncologist. Or, the saga continues.