The Thinker

More intimations of mortality

Doctors are busy people. Generally, if I get a phone call from our doctor’s office, it is some nurse giving me the banal details of some lab results. When out of the blue your doctor gives you a call it feels unnatural. If your heart does not start racing a bit, it should.

My doctor left a message on my voice mail at work on Wednesday asking me to call her back. I was at home attending my wife, who was recuperating from back surgery. I was not aware she had even called until Thursday morning when I got to the office. We played more telephone tag but she eventually called me at home on Thursday evening. She said that she received copies of my sonogram. Recently I had a sonogram of my bladder and kidneys. It was precautionary and part of some steps I had taken dealing with my annoying lower back pains.

While the technician was examining my kidneys, my liver must have been close by. The sonogram turned up some sort of lesion on my liver. My doctor felt that it was probably nothing to worry about. Most likely, it was some sort of benign cyst. Just to be on the safe side she wanted me to get a CT scan of my liver.

My wife would shrug off a CT scan. Her body has been scanned, poked, prodded and examined repeatedly from all sorts of directions for much of her adult life. She has had CT scans as well as MRIs and is something of a pro at this business. (“Close your eyes when they put you in the machine and try not to move.”) She expects things to go wrong. Me, I expect things to go right. There is a reason I hit the health club regularly, ride my bike to work and pop baby aspirins at night. I expect to remain healthy. I do not particularly like my minor back pain and my slightly enlarged prostate. However, these are all normal and almost predictable conditions for middle-aged men. What I do not expect is anything weird to be going on inside my body.

A cyst on my liver is not normal. On the other hand, neither is it all that abnormal. Thanks to the power of Google, I have learned that many people have cysts on their liver. At any one time, approximately 5% of the population has them and they are largely benign. I may have had one for decades. It is only now with sufficiently advanced medical devices that these things are even noticed. So it is probably just a benign blood cyst. Yet undeniably, it could be something more dreadful, like the early stages liver cancer. My maternal grandfather died of liver cancer. Of course, he did not die until his late 80s, which was a remarkable lifespan for someone born in the 19th century.

Women get cysts all the time, particularly on their ovaries. Gynecologists just keep an eye on them. In fact, women deal with all sorts of medical crap, from ovarian cysts to fibroid tumors, PMS, menopause as well as breast and cervical cancer. We middle aged men think it is unfair because our enlarged prostates make us run to the bathroom a couple times during the night. We are such whiners. Women learn to deal with their bodies giving them abuse. They have had a chance to get comfortable with their own mortality. For me the back problem and the enlarged prostate are mere annoyances. A lesion on my liver though, is a cause for concern. I wonder if I should be panicking.

I do not like prolonged periods of ambiguity yet I must wait. I must wait to get time inside a CT machine. I must wait for a radiologist report and for my doctor to ponder what it means, if anything. I should feel grateful for all this wonderful modern technology. This sonogram might have been a blessing in disguise by locating a problem before it turned into a much larger or life threatening one.

Or I could be one of these men whose life’s clock much shorter than they think it is. For me September 11th is memorable for two reasons. The first reason is obvious. I worked in Washington D.C. and saw the smoke rise from the Pentagon. I was part of the fear and chaos that marked that day, although somewhat tangentially. The second was because I was commuting in a vanpool at the time. The driver and owner, Dan, drove us all back early, fighting hellacious traffic to get us out of the city. In retrospect, his actions were almost heroic. Yet it would be the last day Dan would ever drive the vanpool or even go to work. He was complaining of stomach pains. It turned out he had pancreatic cancer. He was dead within a month. He was 48.

Life is a roll of the dice. In general, I inherit good genetics from both my parents so I know that my chances of premature death are slim. I am and feel very healthy which explains why this all feels so surreal to me. If I had some potentially major affliction I sense I would know about it somehow. Most likely, that is not how these things happen. More likely, you move through life in ignorance then discover rather suddenly that you were deluding yourself.

Overall, I am taking this news is stride. I am concerned but not anxious. Logically I know the odds are small that I have any condition that could be either serious or fatal. The emotional part of my brain is not quite so sanguine and is hyper vigilant. I am hoping in a week or so this ambiguity will be gone and I will resume enjoying life to its fullest.

Update: 3/14/2008: I received the results of the CT scan yesterday. As I hoped I have nothing to worry about and my doctor had guessed correctly: I have a blood cyst on my live which is nothing to worry about.

 

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