Did you say that I have cancer, or I might have cancer?
I had a small white painful sore on the lower back left side of my tongue that I thought was a stubborn cold sore. For many years I had dealt with painful cold sores and they always showed up when I had a cold, too much stress in my life, or just simply wore myself down. I could also get them if I made poor food choices that didn’t set well, such as sausage, pepperoni, or something of that ilk. With that long historical precedent I just didn’t think anything of it.
Over the years I even had my dentist look at various cold sores or white patches, as well as some leukoplakia that had formed on the top of my tongue. The leukoplakia was like a white film that wouldn’t go away.
Years earlier, perhaps 2001 or 2002. my dentist did a brush biopsy of a white sore and it came back negative. Cold sores and leukoplakia were persistent. I should mention, too, that the cold sores were always on the left side of my mouth and never the right side. Additionally, for many, many years whenever I would get a cold or sick in some manner I would get pain underneath the middle tooth along the lower left hand side of the mouth. Sometimes I would jiggle that tooth to try to relieve some of the pain, but that didn’t really work. I consistently reported these issues to my dentist and he did x-rays but nothing could be seen that would cause the pain. When the cold or illness dissipated, so too did the pain under the tooth. There was a point, though, when my dentist did clean infection out of that problem tooth and put a cap on it.
Eventually my dentist, Dr. Fred Peck, sent me to an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist, Dr. Mark Deutsch, and he did a biopsy of the leukoplakia and a small white sore. Dr. Deutsch said if it was cancer he would fall out of his chair, and as it turned out he was safe because the results came back negative. Those biopsies, by the way, are very painful. It requires a very long needle to numb the area and several shots are given before the biopsy cut is taken. I remember Dr. Deutsch giving me those shots while I was leaning as far away from him as I could because shots to the tongue hurt … a lot. I then would sit in the chair and unwittingly drool to the point of making quite a mess of the front of my sweater before some gauze was provided. The whole process was painful, embarrassing, and worrisome. So, this was a persistent problem for years and I actively stayed on top of it, as did Dr. Peck.
In the fall of 2005, this particular sore that developed was stubborn, painful, and wouldn’t move, meaning it wouldn’t decrease in size as the cold sores had always done before going away. This particular sore of 2005 had grown to about the size of a quarter so, given that previous biopsies in other areas, not this particular sore, proved negative Dr. Deutsch sent me to Dr. Drore Eisen, who was not an ENT but was apparently a specialist in such matters and I immediately made an appointment.
I met Dr. Eisen in an early morning as his first patient in early December, 2005, and he took one look at that sore and his reaction gave me an ominous feeling for the first time. It’s five years later as I write this and I still remember his look and the feeling it engendered. Dr. Eisen gave me a steroid cream to apply to the sore to see if that would cure it but after a couple of weeks it hadn’t budged. The doctor told me to go to Dr. Deutsch and get a biopsy and he added that if Dr. Deutsch wouldn’t do it he would get someone who would. Again, the way he said that gave me an ominous feeling and it was back to the ENT, Dr. Deutsch, I went.
Dr. Deutsch immediately scheduled surgery to remove the tumor and do a biopsy at the Evendale Medical Center on January 13, 2006. Sadly, this was all occurring at the exact same time that my beloved Mother was fighting a courageous and strong battle against cancer. I can say with complete honesty that, yes, I was concerned about my situation but I was overwhelmed emotionally, spiritually, and physically with love and concern for Mother. This was true of our entire family! I have never seen anyone go through something so difficult with such grace, quiet courage, and serenity. She was simply amazing and I have called on her countless times since this struggle began. In fact, Dad lent me Mother’s brown rosary to hold and pray with and every time I am about to experience something painful or I go to a doctor fearing bad news you can rest assured I am clutching her rosary which is always the only thing in my right front pocket. Given what was happening with Mother at the time and not wanting to bring attention to this matter I played it down and kept rather quiet about it.
The tumor was the size of a quarter and was white with a hardened red outer edge. I went to Evendale very worried but as surgeries go, this was minor. Well, I say that despite my belief in the saying that the definition of minor surgery is surgery done on somebody else. That surgery went off without a hitch but it is my recollection that Dr. Deutsch told me that he took more than originally planned. The net effect was that about 5% of my tongue was removed and I had a deep gash where that tumor used to be. In the months to come food would get stuck in that gash and it was awkward having to put my finger in there to get it out because rinsing wouldn’t necessarily do the trick. (Little things.)
Results of the biopsy in 7 days. Countdown to January 20, 2006.
I don’t know about you but over the years I have had various aches and pains and the hypochondriac in me often thought it was something serious, but then I would go to the doctor only to find whatever it was just wasn’t a big deal. That’s what I thought this time — much ado about nothing, just a stubborn cold sore. Seriously, despite my foreboding feeling with Dr. Eisen I fell back on years experience of aches and pains that ended up being nothing.
As I sat in Dr. Deutsch’s office in the afternoon on that cold Friday, January 20, 2006, I initially felt very little anxiety and was really just wanting to get the heck out of there and get on the road to Lancaster, a two hour drive. I wanted to be with Mother, Dad, and my siblings, not sitting in an office in Cincinnati. My thoughts were totally and completely with Mother as I sat there drifting through a Golf Magazine.
There were maybe 15 patients in the waiting room, some who were there before me, others who arrived after. You know how it works in waiting rooms, you just sit there either reading or pretending to read a 6-month old magazine until your name is called. One by one patients who arrived after me were called back to see the doctor before me. I thought it was a little odd and I was in a hurry, but buried my head and mind in the magazine.
When it became obvious I was the last person in the room, it was the first time I wondered if that was planned because he had bad news. It was at that point that my paranoia kicked in and I again had this foreboding feeling that I first felt in Dr. Eisen’s office over a month earlier. It was no accident that place emptied out and I was last, alone again, naturally. No more pretending to read, I was officially concerned. It can’t be, can it? Nah, this is my silly paranoia.
Finally, I was called back to the examination room and I sat there alone, now wondering what was going on. Dr. Deutsch finally came in and sat across from me and put his hand on my leg and said very matter-of-factly, “Mr. Bowes, the biopsy report came back and it is cancer.” He then put his hand on my leg again and said he was sorry and would let me digest that and come back, and with that he left the room.
I didn’t budge.
Confused thoughts ran through my head.
I wasn’t overwhelmed, just confused and sort of in a light state of shock.
It couldn’t be.
I heard him wrong.
They’ll cut that out and that will be that.
I can’t tell my family because we are all dealing with Mother’s tragedy and no one needs this added on.
I’m sure I heard him wrong.
I think he meant I might have cancer.
The doctor finally came back in and wrote down his recommendation. “Radiation, possibly chemotherapy.”
“Blue Ash or Barrett Cancer Center.”
I asked, “Did you say I have cancer, or I might have cancer?”
“You have cancer.”
“You removed the tumor. What if I just leave it alone, can it go away?”
“It will spread and you will die.”
“When do we do this?”
“Right away – the sooner the better.”
My mind was racing and I kept thinking that this wasn’t happening.
Cancer. Me? Why? I never smoked. I never chewed. Is this really happening?
It’s a surreal experience, being told you have cancer. My guess is people take the news in a variety of ways but I would be willing to bet my reaction was fairly typical. Yes, I knew he could say that, but I nonetheless didn’t really expect it. Stunned. I didn’t cry, didn’t fall out of my chair, didn’t do much of anything, really. Just sat there – thinking, wondering, questioning.
He gave me a card with two locations and the names of radiologists to choose from, one in Blue Ash and one in downtown Cincinnati, The Barrett Cancer Center and Dr. Bill Barrett. I thought that a guy named Barrett working at a place carrying his name must know what he is doing even though the Blue Ash location was more convenient and likely more modern, so I chose the Barrett Cancer Center. I asked if he could call them and get me in right away and Dr. Deutsch was kind enough to set that up for me.
With that I left the room and walked to my car in a daze. I sat there, just sat there. Soon, I got a call from an employer asking about a woman I used to date whom they were considering hiring. She used me as a reference and they were calling to follow up. I had absolutely no interest in talking to the guy right then and it seemed weird to be having that conversation at that time. I said nice things about her and kept trying to get him off the phone and finally had to politely say I had to go. The timing of that was so odd and in retrospect I’m not sure why I answered the phone other than force of habit.
I sat in the car motionless, unturned key in the ignition, still in a state of shock, mind racing, unable to share the news, wondering what just happened and how to handle this.
The journey through the hell that is cancer was about to begin.