At first this seemed a bit of a softball daily prompt. For a cancer patient or cancer spouse (like me), symptom is a pretty important word–whether you had any or not. If you did, you likely ignored them for as long as you could, hoping they’d go away, or or maybe you stayed deeply rooted in denial. Perhaps you acknowledged your symptoms as real, but were still shocked when you were diagnosed with actual cancer. And if you didn’t have any symptoms, you probably thought back through any little ache or pain you felt in the last decade and tried to figure out if it had been a symptom, precursor or red flag ultimately leading to the cancer diagnosis. In either case–whether real, imagined, lacking or ignored–symptoms are a crucial part of any cancer journey. Of course, hindsight always leads to more clarity than anything that’s happening in the present tense–the proverbial “Monday morning quarterbacking” leads to vastly improved (though fictional) moves on the field, and the same is true with the diagnosis of cancer or other serious illnesses. It suddenly becomes clear what steps we should have taken (but didn’t) to lead to an earlier diagnosis.
For J, his symptoms were, in hindsight, a giant red flag waving at us, screaming “Small Intestinal Cancer”, but, of course, in real time, we didn’t see the flag–at least not at first. The first time J experienced cramps and vomiting, he chalked it up to food poisoning. After all, he had been to a buffet retirement reception that very evening. No red flag there. The next two episodes were six or eight weeks later, but J was on a short work trip and had eaten airplane food on the way over (I can get sick just thinking about it) and on the way back he had enjoyed a fish dinner with colleagues just before boarding the plane, so truly, no red flag there. And besides, neither of us even remembered the first episode, so it didn’t seem like the third episode, but more like an elongated first and only. And then there was the fourth episode (aka the “second”) a few weeks later. At that point, I asked J if he had eaten spoiled food. “Come on”, I said, “you need to be more careful about not eating food that’s spoiled or has been sitting out too long.” J was and is famous for saying spoiled milk smells okay to him, and if his Romaine lettuce isn’t crispy, he doesn’t even notice. It wasn’t until the next time that I saw the red flag. Even then it took a while. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was enjoying a glass of wine with a friend on her patio. “Where’s J?” she asked. “Oh, he’s not feeling well. Just a little stomach thing.” “Girl, she exhorted, if that was my husband, I’d take his ass straight down to the doctor.” And she was serious. She knew this wasn’t his first episode, and she, unlike us, didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, you know J”, I mused. “He’s not going anywhere near a doctor. You know, though, his dad died of small intestinal cancer.” As the words floated calmly out of my mouth, my insides suddenly knotted up. When I got home that evening, I looked up “symptoms of small intestinal cancer”, and, guess what? J’s symptoms matched the description to a “t”. I knew. I felt it in my gut and I cried myself to sleep. J made an appointment with a gastroenterologist the next day. It somehow took us another two months to receive the diagnosis, but that is definitely a whole other blog post! Stay tuned for that one, folks. (Warning: be prepared to meet my angry side!)
Diagnosing cancer in its early stages leads to a much better outcome, statistically speaking. But we can’t go around thinking we have cancer every time we feel sick. Every twinge is not and was not a symptom of cancer. We have to figure out how to be cautious and observant without being paranoid and obsessed. Just like parenting: we can worry about our children’s safety every step of the way, never letting them walk home from school with friends or stay home alone or bake brownies. We can constantly remind them not to talk to strangers or “friend” people they don’t know. But if we overdo it (think: Helicopter Parent), we’ll create little monsters who don’t know how to cross a street safely, think for themselves, make new friends, or experience adventure.
Be mindful, but not too cautious.
Words to live by.