What we never wanted to find

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My mother is radioactive. You wouldn’t know it by looking at her. She’s dozing in a recliner, and the only hint that something is wrong is the sign on the door which reads “Caution: Radioactive materials.”

In about half an hour, a nurse will escort her down the hall and put her on a table that slides into a donut-shaped machine. Today is my mom’s first PET scan.

I wish a PET scan was as pleasant as its name implies. I wish it was for cute pictures of beagles and basset hounds. But this kind of PET scan happens weeks after a doctor walks into a room and says something completely unexpected: “We found a mass.”

Generally speaking, you never want a doctor to find anything in your body that shouldn’t be there. But the word “mass” lands differently than medical terms like “growth” or “polyp.” Mass means something big has happened, and life is about to change in massive ways. Mom and I both felt the word reverberate through us as the doctor went on to say that, based on its size and appearance, he was almost sure the mass was colon cancer. And five days later, the pathology report proved him right.

Let me back up here so you’ll have the whole picture. My mom is 79 and still works full-time as a bank teller. She tried retirement years ago, but the slower pace didn’t interest her. So, she retired from retirement and got a job at the bank. Still sharp with numbers and great with people, she quickly became that smiling white-haired lady behind the bank counter who reminds you of your mom or grandma and always asks if you’d like your cash in large bills or tens and twenties.

She’s good at taking care of people, and that’s what she did for 10 years after dementia began to shroud my dad in a thick fog of confusion. When he died a year ago, it broke our hearts, but it also set him free from a disease that can often make the toughest guy you’ve ever known feel lost and afraid.

Because Mom was still working, cooking, baking, and grocery shopping like a woman half her age, this cancer diagnosis came as a shock to all of us. She had zero symptoms. She was only there for a routine colonoscopy – a test she’d had done at least three times over the years.

But cancer has a way of blowing up assumptions. A few days later, we met with a surgeon who explained how he would cut out the mass and then rearrange and reconnect the healthy parts of Mom’s colon in what sounded like a game of Legos (only he used intestines instead of plastic bricks). We think he’s a genius.

Surgery and recovery went well in November, and we’re beyond grateful. But because cancer is a nasty little weasel known for hiding in lymph nodes, Mom will also need chemo. That’s why we were at the cancer clinic today getting that injection of radioactive material used during PET scans. The test results will serve as a baseline that guides this next phase of treatment.

Although she’s new to cancer, this is not the first time Mom has faced something scary and hard. Thankfully, she has a spirit that is as remarkable as her lemon apricot cake. So, I’m trying not to worry (excessively) because I think this particular case of cancer is in for a real butt-kicking. I’m praying for that outcome, and we’d certainly welcome your prayers, too. Her doctor said her chemo drug is available in pill form, so she’s planning to keep on working during treatment.

Millions of us have either experienced cancer personally or love someone who has. (Sometimes both.) And even though each person’s struggle is different, there’s something comforting about “strength in numbers.” We don’t feel alone. We have family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even some favorite bank customers helping us through it. I bet there are a few angels involved, too.

The chemo starts in two days. Are we nervous? Yes. There’s still so much we don’t know. But we are also hopeful, determined, and stubborn enough to do the next right thing, even when it sucks. From my family to yours, may 2024 be the year of healing, blessings, and good news. I’ll keep you posted.

Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at gwenrockwood5@gmail.com. Her book is available on Amazon. 

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