The view from my hospital room, September 26th, 2013
This evening, Pacific Coast Time, marks the one year anniversary of finding out I did not have ovarian cancer. One year ago today, at this very time of writing this very blog – I was wheeled out of surgery. Major surgery. I was barely conscious when I heard a voice say “benign”.
I’m one of the lucky ones.
On July 12th of last year, I decided to go in for an exam. Something wasn’t right. My belly was swollen, I couldn’t eat much without getting full fast, and I found myself getting out of breath while walking. After finding the right doctor (I didn’t have a Gyno in LA), I made an appointment. I was seen immediately.
A technician did a thorough ultra sound, wrote down some notes, and left the room. My doctor called me into her office to tell me I had an 18 cm mass on my ovary. It was the size of a small watermelon, and surgery was required. I felt my insides cave inside with the weight of terror. I looked out the window at the Hollywood Hills in the distance, LACMA was beyond her window, the Miracle Mile spread out below the building. I was transported from the land of the living – to the land of people with a mass the size of a human head growing in their belly. I was a carnival act, the sychophantic twin I always thought I had inside, was now groaning to come out. Yes, the movie Alien entered my mind.
“I can tell by the ultra sound pictures that it’s likely benign,” my lovely Russian Gynecologist said. This doctor assists women giving birth, and here she is telling me that I’m pregnant with a mass of mucus, that is likely benign, but one can’t be sure until blood tests are made, and pathology confirms it during surgery.
“You’re not overweight. How did you feel when things weren’t fitting you?” She asked.
“Because I’m getting into that time of life when a woman’s torso turns into a bread basket – so I thought it was middle age.”
She laughed, agreeing that in middle age, everyone’s midriff tends to thicken without actually gaining fat. It’s just the normal process. But this? This was different..
She wrote down the diagnosis: Ovarian Cystadenoma. She encouraged me to Google it. I didn’t. I waited until after surgery to face what was in me.
When my appointment was over, she stopped at her assistant’s desk to order up lab work. I had to go straight to the blood lab and spill some plasma, but not before she rattled off a few tests, none I can remember since I don’t know what they were. Nevertheless – one stood out. She asked that they do a CA-125 test on me.
CA-125. I read about that in Gilda Radner’s book. It’s the test they do when they want to see the protein levels that mark ovarian cancer. Now I thought I was in cancer territory.
It took two weeks for the test results to come in. Low CA-125 numbers. Phew. But still – nothing was 100% until surgery.
Two months went by before I could get a surgery date at Cedars Sinai, the famous hospital where all the celebrities go to give birth, to have plastic surgery or to die. They have the best medical care on the west coast, a terrific progressive staff, and every room is private – you didn’t have to share with anyone. Score.
I finally got my surgery date: Friday, September 13th. Yes, I was supposed to have surgery on Friday the 13th. I took it as a gift. I just wanted to get this fucking thing over with already. I had spent the entire summer hunched over with an alien inside me. Whenever I’d go into Gelson’s, I’d look at the baby watermelons piled at the front door with scorn. Besides, Friday the 13th are lucky days for me.
The week of my surgery was upon me. I had a pre-op exam with my new GP. Then I had a consult with my gyno, who was originally going to do the surgery laproscopically. However, I was concerned about my legs. They were really swollen, especially my left ankle. Gone were my bony feet and lower legs, now expanding to canckle proportions. My gyno took one look and said, “I’d like you to have an ultra sound on your leg to make sure there isn’t a blood clot or something there.”
Another ultra sound?
I went across the street to a lab where they gelled up my leg and dug a nubby thing up and down my thigh and calve.
After thirty minutes, the tech said, “Okay, you can go now.”
Her assistant told me, “Good for you! If you can go, you’re okay. It’s when they tell you to wait – that’s something else.”
I walked out the door to go the other building to get my car and go home. Within ten seconds, the same technician came out and called after me, “Excuse me! I’m sorry, but you must come back.”
I had a blood clot just below my left knee.. Well that put the kabosh on the whole surgery I was supposed to have done the next day.
I walked back into my Gyno’s office, where her assistant and surgery coordinator looked at me with sad eyes. I heard someone on the phone with Cedars canceling my surgery.
“We cannot do surgery without doing something about the blood clot, ” my gyno said.
“Also, your cyst has grown larger since I first saw you. It’s like your five months pregnanet. You will need open surgery – not laproscopic as originally planned. You will have to see your GP to talk about getting you on blood thinners and to get an IVC filter placed in your vena cava so if the clot dislodges it will capture it before hitting your heart and lungs. With all that medication flowing through you during surgery, we don’t want to have you get an embolism.”
Really? What? Now I have a cyst the size of Gigantor in my pelvis AND a blood clot in my leg?
“And…she continued. I can’t do the surgery. This is beyond my expertise since it’s getting complicated.”
COMPLICATED?! I’m now a complicated physical specimen? I’m being invaded by foreign bodies! A blood clot in my leg is a ticking time bomb waiting to run up my leg into my lungs! I’m a freak, with a sycophantic twin clinging to my ovary!
I will never joke about my ovaries exploding when I see cute puppies on the internet again. Never.
“So, I’m going to send you to Dr. Cass at Cedars Sinai. She’s a gynecological oncologist, and an expert who can deal with this. She’s also a resident, and can get you a surgery date faster.”
I’m now going to a cancer doctor. I almost pooped out this ovarian cyst, I was so scared.
It was arranged. I had to see Dr. Cass at the Samuel Oschin Cancer Center at Cedars Sinai. But first, I had to get an IVC filter in my main artery – that little vena cava thing – the vein that helps pump blood from your lower extremities to your heart.
Dr. Van Allen was the radiologist who did the deed. He had a voice like an actor, and a warm sense of humor. I fell in love with him immediately – especially after he noticed that I was born in White Plains, NY.
“White Plains? Do you know Central Avenue?”
Wow! Yes! Central Avenue was the main commercial area where my family did the majority of our shopping.
“Do you remember Nathan’s in Yonkers?”
“YES! My dad used to take me there as a kid!”
“Mine too! I used to walk from my home in Yonkers, and spend my afternoons after school there!” he exclaimed.
Wow, this doctor who was about to insert a doohickey that looked like an upside umbrella in my neck down to my artery, was from my neck of the woods. Not only that – but we shared the same comforting memory of a place that no longer exists 3000 miles away, back home, back in a place I miss so much.
I closed my eyes. I opened my eyes.”You’re done!” He said.
The IVC filter was in. I felt like nothing happened, like I had fallen asleep during a commercial.
Now, I have to meet doctor Cass. Or maybe I already met her – I can’t remember. The mind plays tricks when you’re scared shitless for your life.
I entered the Samuel Ochin Cancer Center, and I was immediately struck by the zen-ness of it all. Fish tanks are everywhere, and the whole level is below ground, like an underground bunker where a really big war is being waged.
Everyone who takes that elevator downstairs is dealing with life threatening cancers. Some are there for chemo. Some are there for transfusions or tests. There are people there who have cancer. There are people there who find out they don’t have cancer. Dichotomies everywhere. A cancer ward isn’t always awful. But it frightened me. I didn’t want to be in the cancer arena. I wanted to flee.
The exam room was quiet. I waited about twenty minutes. Then, the door burst open, and this woman with thick wavy hair came through with an entourage of young doctors – I swear – as good looking and sexy as the ones you see on Grey’s Anatomy.
“I know what you’re thinking!!” She shouted, “What the hell am I doing here?”
“The reason why Dr. Preys wanted me to see you is because with the clot and the cyst and all the mishigaz, I have the skill to handle all these things at once. And…I can get you a surgery date immediately.”
“Now here are the scenarios we have to tell you, just so you know because we’re required to.”
She pulled out a chart and started to write.
“Okay. We go in – take out the cyst. Pathology is in the OR with us. They take a sample – here’s what we have. Scenario one: We scrape your uterus, test your ovary cells, if you have a malignancy – we do a hysterectomy and you go on chemo.”
Fuck. Are you kidding me? I’m hearing the world chemo today? I disconnected from my body thinking I’m in a dream.
“Second scenario. We do a test for pre-cancerous cells. We scrap a sample from your uterus, cervix, the good ovary. It takes two weeks for the results, but if there are pre-cancerous cells, we have to go back in – give you a hysterctomy. No chemo.”
For the love of God.
“Third scenario – we go in – you’re benign, pre-cancer test comes out clean – we just take out your inflated ovary, your tube – and you go home with all your parts. You still get your period.”
I vote for scenario three please.
“Your blood work is perfection. You’re a very healthy girl. Your CA-125 levels are incredibly low, so there’s no cancer to be expected. But we have to hold out that there’s a 5% chance there’s something going on there.”
Let’s just do this.
So, they did. At 11am on Wednesday, September 25th, I checked into Cedars Sinai in West Hollywood/Beverly Hills adjacent and got prepped for surgery that was scheduled for 2:00pm. They wheeled me into the OR where I saw Dr. Cass all suited up. Ironcially, just like Dr. Van Allen, she comes from Westchester County, NY by way of Larchmont. (I happen to live in an area of L.A. called Larchmont as well). As the drugs began to pump into my veins, she told me to think of Fall back home, how the leaves were changing yellow and orange. how the smell of hickory and chimneys filled the air….
The next thing, I woke up to someone saying the word “Benign”.
Day two at Cedars, Dr. Cass comes in to tell me that not only was the cyst benign, but the third and best scenario she described came true. Nothing precancerous.
“I left everything in – except the effected ovary and fallopian tube. Those guys are out.”
For the next two days, morphine was my friend.
For the next two days, I watched TV and tried to pee.
My voice was hoarse since they intabated me during surgery, a common practice when conducting surgery under major anesthesia. If I had know beforehand, I would have been quaking with fear. Just the thought…
I went home, thanks to a lovely friend of mine who picked me up, and spent the next few days dealing with staples and pain.
Two weeks later, during another follow up exam, the final pathology tests came in to confirm that I didn’t have a per-cancerous cell in my lady area.
I got through it. My oncologist had a gorgeous young doctor from Texas remove the staples that held me together, and I was told I didn’t have to see her anymore.
Medical leave from work was incredible. Languishing on my sofa, waiting for those lovely early fall evenings – it was a joy. But I was itching to get back to the real world, and came back to work raring to go. It would be another month or two of monitoring my blood clot (which didn’t shift at all – and was in fact determined to have been provoke by the cyst since it was crushing my blood flow), before I visited the awesome Dr. Van Allen again to have the IVC filter removed.
Back in the saddle again most of my lady junk in tact – and one ovary left at Cedars Sinai for research. I’m still uncomfortable wearing jeans, but I’m back in the land of the living with all this behind me.