Thursday, February 08, 2007

When I was in graduate school in the early 1990s a small lump developed in the front of my throat. It started out as a little speck, then became a pea, and within days it was the size of a grape. I went to the Arizona State University health service and they were perplexed. One doctor thought I had been exposed to tuberculosis or maybe had HIV. Those tests, anxiously awaited, proved negative. Another thought I had an infection and gave me antibiotics that made me turn beet red and extremely itchy, the band of itchiness starting at my head and slowly descending to my feet. And the lump kept growing.

I started having problems swallowing and I was sent to a throat specialist who decided that it was fetal thyroid tissue that had somehow gotten into the wrong spot inside my throat. She scheduled surgery. I was uninsured and nice Grandma sent me $2000. It is amazing how cheap doctors can get once you tell them you have no insurance. Overnight stay became outpatient. The nice suture material replaced with the cheapest brand. And so on.

On the day of the surgery my friend Korri drove me to the hospital. She brought along her camera and took a picture of me with a tennis-ball sized lump sticking out of the front of my neck. The day before the surgeon had offered an alternative diagnosis. Cancer. At that point I didn't know what to think, I just wanted it gone, since I looked bizarre and had to hold my head a certain way to swallow.

100...98...97...96... I fell asleep. A moment later I awoke in a different room and promptly vomited yellow bile. "Korri, don't take my picture," I said to her. We laughed. After I got home I looked in the mirror- I had a three-inch-long incision across the front of my neck. It looked like a second set of lips, sewn together with coarse black thread.

The surgeon had said it was some sort of cyst or a benign growth. The biopsy report came back merely stating it wasn't cancer. The stitches came out and the careful work of the surgeon prevented the scar from being visible, it is in a skin fold and you can only really see it when my beard grows out there.

A few years later my sister had the same thing happen to her. She went home from the doctor's office after she had told her that the doctor thought it was non-Hodgins lymphoma. Sister was too startled to ask what that was. At home nice Grandma Reader's Digest dictionary from the 1960s provided a concise answer: "Non-Hodgins lymphoma, a terminal cancer." Needless to say, Sister didn't sleep well. In her case, a real diagnosis was made after the doctor asked her if someone else in the family had the same condition. After being told about me, she said, "Oh, you have sarcoidosis."

It is a condition with a genetic component and my great-grandmother Maybelle apparently have had it as well. You can how much her neck was swollen up in the picture below. Everyone thought it was a goiter.

It's a strange story, the closest I have come to facing my own mortality.

Great-grandma Maybelle, back row fifth from left.

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