Sunday, June 2, 2013

It's Not a Tumor, Or, 5 Symptoms that Aren't Symptoms At All

Some people spend many years worrying about whether they'll ever get cancer. Whether its family history or natural anxiety, every mole, every unchecked symptom, every unanswered question is  potentially cancer in the wings. 

Ironically, I was never like that. 

Which is not to say I didn't obsess about whatever ailed me -- I've had many visits to the doctor or walk-in clinic to check out various medical issues, but I never thought that the root of any of those issues was cancer. Even when we were chasing the diagnosis that would eventually be follicular lymphoma, it was only in a passing exaggerated worry that I imagined it could be cancer.  Now, the possibility of any ailment being a tumor is the first stop on my ride to diagnosis. The symptom detection train first stops at cancer, even if the eventual destination is much more benign. There are no express trains; It goes with the territory.

Sometimes I'll email Dr. L to check it out. Sometimes I'll  wade deep into the murky swamp of the Internet. Sometimes I'll  just wait for common sense to take hold. Here are a few symptoms that turned out to be nothing but signs of life.

1. Maybe I'm just getting old -  My knee began hurting one Thursday in between chemo rounds. By Friday evening, I had waded deep into the cloudy water online and was pretty sure that I had TLS - which was, after all, a potential side effect of my chemo, and which also could require immediate medical attention. It's hard to see clearly in the swamp but an email to Dr. L and a couple of Advil kept the train moving.

2. Maybe I'm just tired - Every appointment from here until I stop seeing an oncologist, I will be asked by doctors, nurse practitioners, and anyone else whether I'm feeling tired. Unexplained fatigue, along with night sweats and weight loss, are telltale symptoms of lymphoma's presence. So when is fatigue attributable to cancer, and when is it due to the fact that I wake up between 4:45 and 5:30 every day, work a full time job, do freelance work, coach youth sports, run, and blog. I don't think I need an MD to figure that one out.

3. Maybe this running thing works.  At the height of chemo, on day two of my last treatment, with steroids and fluids at their bloating best, I weighed about 5-7 pounds more than I've ever weighed, and about 15-17 pounds over what I would call my ideal weight. Some of those pounds naturally disappeared a week or two after the chemo ended. But since then, I've made a concerted effort to lose the rest. I've been trying to watch what I eat and take in more fruits and vegetables -- although this is very tough to do in April and May when 90% of our meals seem to be on the way to or from a soccer field, baseball field, track meet or karate dojo. Most of my weight loss effort has been through running, and I'm happy to have lost most of the pounds I've wanted to, but every time I step on the scale, I kind of want the number to be low, but not too low. 

4. Good-bye standing desk. The harm of a sedentary lifestyle has been well documented. So too, has been the rise of the standing desk and the treadmill desk. For $23 at Ikea, I bought the parts and converted to a standing desk. Problem is: the veins in my leg aren't as fond of gravity as they used to be.  Standing 4-5 hours a day led to some swollen lower legs, an ultrasound and bloodwork. When that revealed nothing, it also led to the dismantling of the standing desk. 

5. It's not a TUmah -- In one of Arnold Schwartzenager's "finest" acting performances, you may remember, he plays a cop undercover as a kindergarten teacher. When a kid suggests that maybe he has a tumor, Arnold responds, "It's NOT a TOO-mah," a line we have used often in our house, both before and after diagnosis. The other morning, I felt something inside my cheek. It felt like I could move it about and instantly the train pulled into cancer symptom station. But on further review, I could feel something irritating the outside of my cheek as well; and looking closely at it in the mirror, it became pretty clear that what I could feel wasn't a lymph node gone rogue, but a pimple forming. Didn't call the doctor on that one.

So there you have it. Five symptoms so-to-speak, two calls to the doctor. None related to lymphoma. As I move further out from treatment, I know that the symptom-mania will subside, if not completely disappear.

I also know that I'm not the only one chasing potential symptoms.  Fellow patients/survivors out there - what crazy symptoms did you have that turned out to be unrelated to cancer?