My sister and thymoma

This is an x-ray image of a chest. Both sides ...Image via Wikipedia

No one ever wants to hear bad news, especially when the bad news involves cancer. Twelve days ago, we received simply dreadful news.

My dad called me that Saturday morning, and said “Are you sitting down?” If you’ve ever heard those four words, you can be almost guaranteed to receive Very Bad News, or find out that you’re pregnant. My dad, being of the male persuasion, was not going to be pregnant unless God decided to do something Truly Bizarre, so that was out. He had just had a cat scan the previous day on his carotid arteries to see if there was any blockage. So, naturally, I assumed he was calling to tell me he was going to have surgery. Since I’m a doctor, this does not constitute Very Bad News in my book, although I will readily admit that unblocked neck arteries are far better than blocked ones, and carotid surgery isn’t on my Top 10 List Of Fun Things To Do. However, it’s not a life-threatening kind of thing. I continued pouring the morning coffee into my mug.

He said, “Your sister, Kate, has cancer.” Those five words were indeed Very Bad News. I sat down. I set my coffee cup on the table because I wasn’t sure how bad the shaking in my hands was going to get, and coffee burns on top of Very Bad News would have made my day even worse.

My sister is 3 years younger than me. Unlike me, she will readily admit she’s 40. I still am in denial and state that I’m 29. Permanently. So it’s not like we were expecting something like this in the prime of life.

Kate is an amazing woman, beloved wife of a pastor (‘pastor’s wife’ being an unpaid full time job in and of itself, but that’s a story for another time), fantastic mother of 3 terrific kids, and owned by this completely cute giant fuzzball of a sheltie. I say ‘owned by’, because Kate is so nice, she doesn’t know how to say ‘no’ to giving the dog treats like, say, whole hamburger patties and the remains of last night’s casserole. She says he makes these really sad puppy dog eyes at her, and it makes her heart break. The dog is now on special prescription low-calorie dog food because he’s as wide as he is long, but I suspect a hamburger sneaks its way into the special diet food just the same.

It’s been a long 12 days, not unlike riding a giant roller coaster, except not fun. The initial diagnosis was lung cancer or mesothelioma. There are several tumors in her chest cavity, including one wrapped around the major blood vessels as they enter and leave her heart. I despaired, because the prognosis for that, with as big as the tumors in her chest are, was Very Bad. ‘Horrendously Bad’ would have been the understatement of the century.

Then we got news that it might be lymphoma. More tests were done, including a needle biopsy and then a surgical biopsy. By this time, my poor sister had turned into a giant pin cushion. Good thing she had an air mattress in the hospital. The surgeon even told us a week ago after doing the surgical biopsy that he was pretty sure it was lymphoma, but, like everything else, we had to wait for the final pathology results. I told my pastor that you’re in a really weird place in life when you pray FOR lymphoma, the alternatives being that much worse. We did a little happy dance at the surgeon’s news, because lymphoma has something like a 70% cure rate, not just ‘treat it until you can’t see it on tests, and then treat it again in a year or two when it comes back’.

A couple days after that, we got bad news again on this down-up-down evil-coaster ride. The oncologist and pathologist thought some of the cells on the pathology slides looked like a kind of rare cancer called thymoma, rather than lymphoma as we were hoping. They decided to transfer her to Northwestern University Hospital on Monday so that she could get more advanced care because it’s such an unusual cancer. After yet more tests, and some initial treatment with prednisone to shrink the tumors, they finally confirmed today that it is indeed thymoma (a type of cancer that starts in the thymus gland), and actually started chemotherapy tonight. The ideal treatment is to do surgery to remove all the tumors, but the ones she has are so big right now it would be too risky to do it. Of course, being a doctor, I immediately went to the National Cancer Institute’s website to learn more about it. I also found the Foundation for Thymic Cancer Research, which I forwarded on, that being about the only thing that is within my power to do aside from praying, which I’ve been doing since we got the Very Bad News. Waving a magic wand is outside my sphere of knowledge. I work with eyeballs, and God has the corner on miracles. My sister is a woman of amazingly strong faith, but she’s going through a rough time emotionally as well as physically. If you’re the praying type, please put her on your prayer list. There’s a verse in the Bible, James 1:2-4, that says “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” I told God, “I understand the testing, but perhaps a little less joy and perfection would maybe be OK?” God replied, “Yeah, right, I don’t think so.” I’m not sure, but He might even have rolled His eyes at that one. Nuts.

In the Ultimate Irony Category, I got a phone call tonight. It was from the American Cancer Society. They were calling for a donation.

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