One of the biggest challenges I confront when dealing with cancer is knowing what is not cancer. As a general rule, proving a negative is a tall order, and when you apply that rule to cancer – which seemingly can take on any form that it desires (it is cancer, after all) – it can be hopelessly upsetting to determine that something is not a manifestation of one’s hyperactive and useless white blood cells.
Although some of this is part and parcel of the cancer patient’s mind, some of it definitely is not. I will provide an example: A few months before I began chemotherapy, I went for my regularly-scheduled visit to my neighborhood dermatologist. I showed her a red spot on my arm that had come from seemingly nowhere but resembled a bug bite. It did not itch, however, or otherwise command my attention. It was just there – a large-ish red protuberance occupying some real estate on my right bicep (and because my biceps aren’t quite what they could be, comparatively it was taking up a fair chunk of the area). When I pointed out this scarlet blob to my good doctor, she looked at it for a moment. She then proceeded to do what all dermatologists do – look at it again under bright lights and her magnifying lens. (The dermatological examination is not for the easily self-conscious.) After staring at it for a few moments, changing angles to get different perspectives and a series of “hmms” and “mmms” she finally turned off her search lights, removed her monocle and said to me, “I really don’t know what that is.”
Call me oversensitive – it won’t be the first time – but I did not find that reassuring. I know how knowledgeable and skilled a doctor she is, so the fact that she could not identify this grotesque growth upon my humerus was not in the least bit comforting. Of course, she then did the other thing that all dermatologists do: She took a biopsy of it, which for those who have never been to the dermatologist, means she sliced part of it away for some lab to look at with presumably an even more powerful monocle and still brighter wattage. I was feeling uneasy, but she tried to reassure me in the manner in which all doctors do: “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
It was something. She called me several days later. The conversation was to the point: “Hi Jeff. This is Dr. Derma. The pathology from that spot on your arm came back. Can you give me the number of your oncologist?” Again, call me over-sensitive, but any time one doctor of mine asks to speak to another – particularly the one treating me for a terminal disease – I get a little nervous.
As it turns out, the splotch on my arm was actually a meeting place for many of my increasing number of useless white blood cells. Apparently, having already junked up my blood vessels to a great degree, they were looking for a new place to hang and since, as noted earlier, my biceps didn’t do much anyway, they thought this was as good of a place as any. After my dermatologist spoke to my oncologist – a meeting of the minds I would have preferred to have avoided altogether – they came up with a strategy of removing this mass of a mess. Allegedly it was not dangerous, but for some reason that I never understood it needed to come out/off anyway.
I have the scar of its removal to remind me of the episode, but a visual is not really necessary as any ailment, disorder, growth, pain, itch or other unexplained phenomenon is always first viewed by me as follows: Could this be the cancer? To the mercifully cancer-free, this may seem like much ado about nothing. But because something as random as a bug-bite that did not come from a bug nor a bite can be cancer, what else could be? Even after having endured chemotherapy – which, by the way, would have killed off that headless-pimple on my arm without scarring me forever (at least not physically) – I still worry that anything out of the ordinary could be my leukemia at work. This concern is only exacerbated by the fact that there is no cure for my cancer and that while the chemo seemed successful, we won’t know for another year-and-a-half if it indeed was. So for now and the foreseeable future, no matter how unlikely it seems, I feel compelled to consider the possibility that anything awry is the Big C in action. Of course, that is a bit of an exaggeration. It is highly unlikely that everything could be my leukemia at work. It could well just be the other cancers that I am now susceptible to as a result of the leukemia that are causing the issue. That’s a relief.