“You either have an inverted papilloma or sinus cancer.”
Truth be told, all I heard was sinus cancer. And all I knew was that either result — the papilloma thing or the cancer thing — would mean surgery.
That was Monday, Sept. 15 — just five days after I had a CT scan for the funky object in my nose that’s caused many problems including the inability to fully breath and swallow for at least the last four years. It also was four days before I’d be in Dallas, Texas, for an American Cancer Society summit for Relay For Life, an event I’ve been involved with for about 18 years as a way to help me keep the memory of my grandmother alive.
I was the doctor’s last patient that day. He had canceled all but two or three appointments due to an unscheduled day in the operating room that apparently went longer than anticipated.
My first visit with him in late August was when he requested a CT scan. “You’re a mess,” were the words he used — in a fun, upbeat way so not to scare me. He’s a nice guy, probably 10 years or so older than me, and he knew me — well, he knew my name — from the newspaper.
So on Sept. 15, as we looked over the CT scan results, he explained how imperative it was to have surgery to remove the funky object in my nose.
“So, this isn’t because of allergies?” I said, hoping he’d say yes, but accepting that he was going to say it’s much worse. I didn’t know. All I knew was that the damn thing has ruined my sleeping pattern — I went from being able to sleep for a solid eight hours, to being excited to get a solid hour — and had me wondering, at times, if I’d ever catch my breath again.
“Would it look strange if my obit said ‘died because he couldn’t gasp for air?’ I wondered at times.
“It’s much worse than that,” the doctor said, and began to discuss how and where this thing has camped out in my left nostril passage.
So, right then and there, on Sept. 15, 2014, I had my first biopsy. It was painless, really. No needles were involved, just a shot of some spray to numb the inside of my nose. As he clipped away at the growth inside my nose, he made attempts at small talk by asking about a story he read recently that I wrote.
I knew he knew I was scared. I was mumbling words and fumbling for letters to complete those words. But I was trying to play it cool. Meanwhile, I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
“We’ll get the results in about two days,” he said.
“What do I tell my mother?” I thought. “‘Hey Mom, so you know how I went to the doctor? Well, he sniped a piece of the thing in my nose and we’ll find out soon … well, in two days … if that thing is cancer?’ Yeah, that’s not going to work.”
So I told her nothing. She likes a good cliffhanger, but only in Salem on “Days of our Lives” — not when it involves the health of any of her family.
As soon as I got in my car to leave the doctor’s office (tissues stuffed up my nose because it was bleeding), I called a friend who now lives hours away from home. An in-person hug would have done wonders, but I had to settle for a phone call. Oh, and I went back to work. Helped to make me think it might help calm me down.
And, of course, I called the American Cancer Society’s cancer information line (1-800-227-2345) and asked for information about what sinus cancer was. The free service is available thanks to the donations you make toward the American Cancer Society and Relay For Life (so now is a great time to consider a donation toward my fundraising efforts — Amy Fuller will love this portion). The nice man on the other end of the phone (Ryan was his named) was extremely nice and comforting and e-mailed me a whole bunch of information that I read later that night.
On the second day of that two-day period for biopsy results, I saw the doctor’s office calling my iPhone. So I quickly answered. It was a woman explaining I didn’t need a second CT scan (there was discussion over whether I needed a second scan — I guess questioning if the computer file had all of the layers of the scan or whatever the hell, I don’t know medical terms).
“He got what he needed,” she said.
“But what about the results?” I said, and quickly followed it up with, “I mean the biopsy results. Do you know when they’ll be back?”
She put me on hold.
“So, this is how I’ll hear the results?” I thought. “Sitting in my work conference room on my iPhone?”
You see, as an American Cancer Society volunteer — one who spends more than 1,000 hours per year volunteering for the organization — I had this idealistic view of how people found out they had cancer. It goes like this: You go for your appointment, you have some tests and such done, and when those results come back, you are sitting in your doctor’s office with him behind his desk and you in a fancy wooden chair and he says, “Mr. Smith, you have cancer.” Never mind the fact that the story doesn’t make sense because of all of the holes in it. How do you know you need to come back to the doctor? Do you schedule that appointment prior to and just know that’s what happens?
Thankfully, she got back on the phone before my mind raced any more … and explained that the results were not yet ready.
“Not yet ready?” I panicked in my head. “That’s because it is worse than I thought. Oh god. How do I tell my mother? How do I go back to work? This isn’t how it’s supposed to work! And I know how it’s supposed to work, damn it!”
So she tells me that if I don’t hear back from them by the end of the next business day to call Friday morning.
Awesome. Except, I was to be in Dallas, Texas, that Friday morning getting ready for an American Cancer Society Relay For Life summit. There was no way I was going to be deep in the heart of Texas as I got news on whether this thing in my nose was cancerous.
So, I waited until Sept. 22 — an entire week since he took out the piece to be biopsied — to call.
But before that day, I was in Dallas … and trying to tell myself that I can’t worry about what’s going on in my nose. I did well, for the most part … until the final portion of the conference when a cancer survivor told a story about going to a doctor and being told a biopsy needed to happen, then trying not to freak out waiting for that biopsy.
“You could get flattened like a pancake leaving the doctor’s office,” the man said. I thought that. And I thought about how a plane could crash into me and a tree could fall and a meteor could land … and then that damn biopsy result wouldn’t matter.
That’s what I told myself. I don’t think myself believed it. But it helped.
So Sept. 22 comes. Mondays are busy days for me, so finding time to call was a problem. But I knew I couldn’t put it off.
I sat back in the work conference room, dialed the number and tapped the many prompts to get to some woman who sounded as if her office was in Bedrock. To be honest, she wasn’t very friendly.
“Hi, I’m looking for results of a biopsy I had last week?” I said.
After a few more questions and placing me on hold, she said: “Well, the doctor will have to call you back. He’ll call within the hour.”
“Well, this isn’t good,” I thought. “Why couldn’t she just tell me? I know why she couldn’t tell me because the doctor always tells the patient they have cancer.”
So I sat back down at my desk. My friend/co-worker looked on and I said, “The doctor will call within the hour.”
Within the hour the doctor called. I don’t know if I’ve ever sprang from my desk that quickly — not even during that freak earthquake a few summers ago! Back to the work conference room I went.
“Bobby,” the doctor started and continued with an apology for not calling back (I didn’t care, man! You’re on the phone now … spill it!).
“What’s going on in your nose is this: it’s an inverted papilloma.”
Me: “So … ??????”
Him: “We’ll remove it.”
Me, in my head: (“Yes, I know, that’s why I already have surgery scheduled with you!”)
Me: “So … is it cancer?”
Me, in my head: (“He said no. I think he said no. Did I ask it right? I asked if it was cancer. He said no. So it isn’t cancer. The tumor thing in my nose isn’t cancer.”)
He said some other things, I think. I’m not really sure. I was listening, but not comprehending anything.
All I heard was that he said the thing in my nose that’s caused breathing issues and swallowing problems wasn’t cancerous. It still was a total jagoff, but the surgery would be enough to fix it.
It’s a relief, for sure. I can focus on worrying about this damn surgery, which already has me slightly freaking out because I’m a Type A person who will not be in control of my body at all during this surgery and I can’t handle that concept.
But, like many things in life, that “no” from the doctor came with fine print.
“It probably will return,” the doctor said. “And it could return as cancer in the future. So it’s worth watching.”
So next week, I’ll have an invasive inverted papilloma removed from my nasal cavity. The inverted papilloma wreaked havoc through my nasal passage, but it didn’t affect skull bones or anything else — thankfully and surprisingly.
I’m not having my surgery done by a UPMC doctor, but their website offers plenty of information about the type of surgery, the high rate of recurrence and how the treatments and surgery apparently were “pioneered” in Pittsburgh.