Late last year I had a whirlwind work trip to Mexico and the USA. I hardly slept, ate meals on the run and spent a lot of time in planes, trains and automobiles. And toilets – you’ve got to love that Mexican street-food! After returning to Melbourne I was slammed by a fever for a week then ended up in hospital with pneumonia. What has followed has been a six-month physical and emotional roller-coaster journey with the C word being an elephant in the room.
For those already playing along at home – read on to the bottom of this post for the updates. There is some excellent news waiting for you!
As the weeks after my hospitalisation ticked by my pneumonia was still lurking about. I had been referred to the Austin Hospital’s Respiratory Outpatients who eventually booked me in for some CT scans. What followed was a surprise; a 12mm lump in my lung! I’m 33, a little overweight and often crook with whatever bug is in season, but I don’t smoke and generally eat well. I was told the chance of it being cancerous was very slim; 10,000:1.
After another couple of months the lump wasn’t shifting, so I had a PET scan to check whether it appeared cancerous and whether it was spreading anywhere else in my body. A PET scan is much like a CT scan and in fact many machines are coupled with a CT machine to capture both sets of imagery. I was put in a darkened room, injected with a a radioactive glucose and left for an hour. A cancer will metabolise the sugars faster than usual, creating a red hot-spot on the scan.
The PET result was another shock; the lump was active but not conclusively. More importantly my lymph nodes were slightly enlarged and also showed activity; a sign that whatever it was was spreading. The odds of cancer suddenly changed to 100:1.
This was the first time I really started to worry. My wife and I have been discussing baby number two, but the fear of battling cancer while supporting both a pregnancy and our gorgeous little girl was pretty scary! My brother had died a couple of years earlier at 28. After years of terrible diabetes complications, a double transplant, heart surgery, small amputations and a ton of other procedures, he unbelievably died of cancer in his brain.
Around this time one of the Respiratory docs sent me off for a Lung Function Test to determine whether I was having any trouble with my lung capacity and its, well, function I suppose. Even though I felt terrible on the day I had a capacity of 7.5 litres, well beyond the adult male average. There’s the years of trumpet playing paying off!
The docs then sent me off for a bronchoscopy and biopsy of my lymph nodes which, thankfully, came back negative for cancer. (Woohoo!) It did however leave us in the dark about the lump. (Doh!) It was in a part of my lung that is simply impossible to reach through my gullet. The general consensus was now to remove the lump; this would be keyhole surgery but, should the lump be a cancer, they’d need to break a rib and, well, make a mess.
The night before my meeting with the thoracic surgeons I had a call from one of my other docs to say a culture from the bronchoscopy had revealed a very rare infection. The micro-bacteria was something similar to TB but not as contagious and again quite possibly something I picked up in Mexico. Thankfully the odds of cancer had now stretched back out to 1,000:1.
So after this stint with the Austin Hospital’s Respiratory Outpatients, it was time to try Infectious Diseases (I.D.). Here the inconclusive results were set to continue…
During the bronchoscopy two “washes” had been performed; fluid was injected into and suctioned back out of both lungs. This was then used to grow cultures of any nasties that might have been lurking about. My I.D. doctor explained to me that only one of the washes showed any sign of the micro-bacteria and it was such a small sample that it could have been picked up while moving my results around the hospital. Trying to treat it would be like shooting a mosquito with a shotgun at 100 paces. Another inconclusive result. Poo.
The doc was however still of the thought that some sort of infection could be causing the lump and that it was my body’s defences putting up a wall around whatever was in my lung. So with the Respiratory docs wanting to get their hands on it and I.D. now wanting to have a look at it, an operation was back on the cards.
It was in June that I had an appointment at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre at the Austin Hospital. Walking from the sterile, linoleum-covered clinics I had previously attended into the wood-panelled hallways of this wing was a wonderful change of pace. The centre is bustling but has a very peaceful atmosphere. After collecting a pager that would buzz me when my doctor became available I was shown to the Wellness Centre, a small sanctuary for people to escape the hustle and bustle of their appointments.
The Wellness Centre appears to be built into an old chapel, resplendent with it’s vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, public kitchen and various areas to sit and relax.
I met a Thoracic registrar who explained to me a little about what my procedure – Video-Assisted Thorascopic Surgery (or VATS) – would entail. Using a small camera the surgeon would find and remove the lump and send it off for analysis. If the result showed cancer, which she again reassured me was only a very small possibility, a lobectomy would be performed. This would see an entire lobe of my lung removed; a little over a third of my right lung.
Ten days later I was admitted to Warringal Private hospital and after a lovely 24 hours in bed while my surgery was delayed I had my VATS performed. Once again I am absolutely astonished by science and medicine and by what doctors and surgeons are able to accomplish.
I clearly remember arriving in the theatre and moving myself onto the operating table, after which I was giving the happy happy sleeping juice. And this is where the magic started. For the surgeon to do his thing my lung was collapsed by carbon dioxide being pumped through my back and into the cavity around my lung. I picture this as a balloon in a box. Two other small incisions were then made for the camera and the tools the surgeon used.
I first woke in the recovery room and have vague memories of the trip back to my ward. I was on a morphine drip I could press a button to receive a limited dose of and had an anaesthetic drip attached to my spine – much like an epidural but into the space around my spine, not into the spine itself. I was also connected to a “Pleur-evac”; a garden hose sucking blood and fluid from the space around my lungs. I wasn’t immediately conscious of pain from this but in hindsight this was the sole cause of most of my post-op discomfort. Having this removed was definitely not a highlight of my stay.
I didn’t hear from my surgeon for a while. I was hoping for some news, though he had called my wife immediately following the surgery to say he was pleased and that his initial guess was that the lump was an abscess; a small fortress my body had built around an infection in my lungs that would have possibly caused my pneumonia.
I have been so pleased with every doctor, nurse and technician I have had the pleasure of meeting during my adventure. From the X-ray, CT and PET scans, to the countless blood tests, lung function test, the doctors and nurses at the Austin and finally the staff at Warringal, I had absolute confidence that a resolution would be found with all of the incredible minds involved. One highlight at Warringal was the night Tweedledum and Tweedledee ran my ward; two nurses who barrelled about doing everything in tandem, talking over each other and lacking some of the bedside manner the other nurses had shown. They were still entertaining though and broke the mundane cycle of pain management and regular observations.
Spending time in and around hospitals requires patience. While waiting outside theatre I had a chat with one of the nurses about my music; she had lived in New Orleans many years ago. The next morning she looked up my ward and room and came to tell me she had gone home, listened to Funk Buddies’ EP on iTunes and loved it so much she bought a copy! How ace is that? Another young bloke who drove my wheelchair to an X-ray room has since liked us on Facebook. Have I missed a calling?
Thanks for reading my story. I love writing but never give myself a chance to do it. Most of this was written overnight at Warringal while sleep was avoiding me. I hope that sharing my experiences will help anyone else facing a similar situation. I also hope it explains to my family and friends why I have been so preoccupied over the last six months.
Finally, I must thank my absolutely amazing wife who once again is supporting me through surgery. This is all a bit of déjà vuvu after my back surgery in 2004, but she’s now juggling two babies and I love her enormously.
UPDATE 1: It’s Friday afternoon and I have been discharged from the hospital. My surgeon rang this morning to say he had been very pleased with the procedure but that the lab results were not yet available for the lump he had removed. He said my lung still showed signs of the pneumonia that had knocked me down months ago which explains why I have had some symptoms I just couldn’t shake; the occasional cough and shortness of breath. He’s hoping to get a result today but for now I’m setting in on the couch, preparing for the next few weeks of recovery.
UPDATE 2: It’s Wednesday morning, a little over a week from my surgery and I’ve had a mixed 24 hours. I have suddenly found that lying down is painful and incredibly uncomfortable; it feels like my lung has a hundred small fingers scratching at it when I breathe. I also copped 15 minutes of uncontrollable shivering. I was terrified this was a fever taking hold, but it cleared and hasn’t returned. My wife called the hospital who in turn got my surgeon on the line. He suggested taking an extra dose of pain meds and going to emergency if it happens again.
It was only then that he was able to tell me the results from pathology had come in. The lump was definitely an abscess and had no sign of cancer. You bloody little ripper! I can’t celebrate too much as he also said the microbiologists are giddy with excitement as they now have a very rare case to treat. But no cancer is certainly a huge tick in my book. Phew.