I think the story of how someone finds out they have cancer is a crucial one. Life literally hangs on this thread of detection. Looking back, the symptoms that led me to my diagnoses are painfully obvious, but that was not the case while I was experiencing them. That’s the thing about hindsight.
The Final Symptom
The emergency room doctor stood at my bed side. “Your blood count numbers are extremely low. Your red cells, white cells, platelets… all are low and we’re not sure why. You’ll need to stay so we can run some tests.”
As she spoke, her eyes darted to the bruises on my hands, and I saw a look of concern. In that instant I knew. I’d seen this all before with my mother’s leukemia years ago. Symptoms, once viewed in an isolated manner and explained away, suddenly melted together to form a deadly diagnosis in my mind.
I looked back at the past few months and all the signs came rushing forward. I thought about the times I berated myself for being out of shape. Walking from the bedroom to the kitchen included a stop to lean on the counter and catch my breath as my heart raced. For weeks I’d opted to sit on my bed and work from my laptop, rather than climb the stairs to my second floor home office. I’d hiked the Grand Canyon a few years earlier, yet now my twelve carpeted steps seemed insurmountable. I researched nutrition and switched to a plant based diet, knowing my habit of filling up on meat and ignoring fruits and vegetables probably wasn’t helping. Since I had a history of anemia, I started taking iron pills and a multi-vitamin.
There were other signs too, like the tiny cut on my finger that took far too long to heal. And the day I noticed how pale and yellow my skin looked, and made a mental note to spend more time outside. While bathing, I discovered a large, unexplained bruise on my leg and wondered when I had bumped myself. In hindsight, as a whole, these symptoms screamed, “You’re sick! Get help!” But, I’d always been healthy, and it never occurred to me that anything was seriously wrong.
The final symptom, came on a Sunday. A month prior, I had suffered through a very heavy menstrual cycle and I remembered my older sister telling me it was normal and she had gone through this as she approached menopause. Now, four weeks later, it was that time again, and I was losing too much blood.
I texted my sister, “Please call me, I’m getting scared. This can’t be normal.”
I needed her to explain once more what the women in my family went through at this time in life. As I waited for her call, the realization that I should go to urgent care began to sink in and I headed for the bathroom to shower.
The hot water washed away any energy I had left and as I stepped out my legs began to buckle. Before collapsing I caught a glimpse of the pale body, white lips and sunken eyes, looking back at me from the mirror. For a fraction of a second, time stood still, and I truly saw myself. I saw how sick and scared I was, and the image burned itself into my memory.
In the coming weeks, I’d think back on that moment often, as it was the moment that saved my life. It was the symptom that would not, could not, be ignored.