Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Little Health Scare

     It started as a small, barely perceptible pain on the right side of my chest. It occurred a few weeks ago, after I'd been doing some work over the weekend. It didn't concern me. I thought maybe I'd pulled a little muscle.

     After a couple of days, the pain -- it wasn't even really a pain, just a "feeling" -- seemed to migrate to the center of my chest. Maybe I hadn't pulled a muscle. Maybe I'd breathed in dust or mildew and it was causing some congestion. Regardless, I thought, it would clear up in a few days.

     But it didn't go away. I developed a little cough, and it felt like there was something caught in my throat. The pain wasn't there all the time, but as soon as I thought it was gone I'd lie down to go to sleep at night ... and there it was. Especially when I lay on my back. If I slept on my side, I didn't get the feeling. But if I woke up in the night to go to the bathroom, when I crawled back into bed, there it was. A little pain in my chest -- nothing major, just something knocking inside, refusing to allow me to ignore it, reminding me that, yes, it was still there.

A chest X ray -- not mine
     A week went by, then ten days, and it didn't go away. I got a little worried. I went to my computer and called up WebMD and the Mayo clinic site. Chest pain. They advised me to seek medical attention immediately. But I knew they were thinking "heart attack," and I was pretty sure I wasn't having a heart attack. I have no history of heart disease in my family; my cholesterol counts have always been good; and besides, if it was a heart attack I would have been dead ten days ago!

     The sites wanted to know if I had any other symptoms. Body aches? No. Increased sweating? No. Decreased appetite. No. Cough? Maybe a little. Fearful? I had to admit, I was getting fearful.

     I searched through the list of possible maladies. Common cold. I didn't think I had a cold, because I wasn't sniffling. Allergies? I checked the pollen count, and it has been high. I didn't have itchy eyes or other symptoms, but I've had mild allergies in the past, so I bought some Claritin and took it for a few days, but it didn't seem to make any difference.

     My symptoms didn't get any worse. They didn't get any better. Indeed, the pain, or the "feeling" seemed to move around in my chest. First it was on the right side, then in the center, then on the left. Then lower down. Was it possible I had some kind of stomach issue?

     I checked WedMD and the Mayo clinic again. Got past the warnings of a heart attack. Could I possibly have COPD, or sinusitis, or bronchial adenoma (whatever that is)?

     Then I saw it: Lung cancer. And that's when I did break out in a nervous sweat. I have a history of cancer in my family -- not lung cancer, but my brother had cancer; several females in my family have had breast cancer; even my dad eventually died of cancer although it wasn't until he was 91.

     I went on to do a little research in small cell cancer (the most deadly) and non-small cell lung cancer (the most common). There are over 200,000 new cases of lung cancer diagnosed every year -- about the same number as prostate cancer or breast cancer. But breast cancer kills only about 40,000 women per year, and prostate cancer kills only 30,000 men; while lung cancer is far more deadly, killing more than 150,000 Americans every year.

     The chances of getting lung cancer increase if you're a smoker -- or if you've been a smoker. I smoked when I was in college and for a few years after that. Even after I gave up, I cheated for quite a while. But in my favor, I hadn't touched any kind of cigarette or cigar in at least ten years.

     Chest pain shows up as a symptom of lung cancer in about a quarter of the cases. But often there are no symptoms at all until ... basically, it's too late. Did I have shortness of breath? No. Had I lost weight? No. Was I coughing? Yes, a little bit. Was I hoarse? I didn't know. None of my friends or family had mentioned that I sounded hoarse. But I was too scared to ask B outright.

     First I convinced myself that I might have lung cancer. Then I convinced myself that I didn't -- it really didn't seem as though I had the symptoms. Besides, I've had a few aches and pains in the past, and eventually I'd gone to the doctor, and it was always "nothing." So this must be nothing.

     Or was I in denial? Did I think it just couldn't happen to me?

     One day last week I woke up in the night. When I slid back into bed the now-familiar pain started pinging me in the chest. I tried to ignore it; I turned on my side; I tried to fight my way back to sleep. After two hours I got up, went downstairs and read my book for a while, until I fell asleep in the living room.

     That was the day I decided I really should see the doctor. I'd had the pain for three weeks. It wasn't going away. I should either face up to the fact that something might be wrong -- or deal with the embarrassment of going to the doctor and finding out that "it's nothing."

     My primary care physician fit me into an appointment the next day. The nurse took my pulse and blood pressure; the doctor asked about my symptoms and nodded thoughtfully; he thumped my chest and made me breathe deep. He finally declared that he thought it ... was nothing. "It sounds to me like it's something muscular," he concluded.

     But he sent me for a chest X ray and an EKG, just to make sure. I took the stairs down to the lab, got the two tests and drove home. I was supposed to call the office later in the afternoon for the results.

     The tests only took a few minutes and seemed very routine. But even though I'd had a measured, unworried response from my doctor, I'd be lying if I told you I didn't break into a sweat when I made the call later that day. The nurse came on the line. "Oh yes," she said. "I got a note from the doctor. Hold on a minute."

     She put me on hold. I paced the living room listening to the barely audible hum in the background. The seconds ticked by. Nothing. Maybe a minute, before I said aloud into the phone, "Come on, what's the hold up?"

     The nurse came back. "Hi, I found the note," she said. "Nothing showed up."

     I queried her three times to make sure that "nothing showed up" meant that everything was normal; there was no disease; I was completely normal.

     We hung up the phone, and I know I had a smile on my face. A silly smile because I was happy that nothing was wrong, and a little embarrassed that I'd bothered the medical group for no reason. And I was also amused by my own ... my own what? Frailty? Weakness? I dunno. I just panicked. But I was glad the doctor was there to tell me everything was okay.


Douglas said...

A twinge, a spasm of the muscles controlling the lungs, perhaps. It is good that nothing major was happening. I think, however, in the future you might consider consulting your doctor (if you trust him, that is) sooner than you did.

I don't trust doctors very much myself, having had bad experiences with them and having "fired" a couple along the way. But they do have a bit more knowledge of the human body than the average layman such as us. Still, remember they give advice and not really orders.

Stephen Hayes said...

I'm glad everything turned out okay for you. I've been having similar symptoms and I'm going to the doctor tomorrow. I hope my test results are as good as yours.

Rubye Jack said...

It's that time of our lives when we begin to take our aches and pains seriously. Especially when they don't go away quickly. I just wish I had my own cat scan so I could just check out my insides on my own every so often. ha.

Arkansas Patti said...

You went through a series of feelings and actions most of us experience. We are past the age when such pains can be written off as just a cold or pulled muscle. We have reached the life threatening stage of life. Pay attention and get it checked out right away next time. Those three weeks of worry you will never get back.
Now hopefully I will follow my own advice:))

Barb said...

Im lgad everything was okay-I agree with the see the doctor immediately next time. Aside from being a safety/health issue, how much was your quality of life issue affected by the worry.

That said, my immediate thought after your first couple paragraphs was "spontaneous pneumothorax" or the beginning of a colllapsed lung, which my husband had repeatedly in his younger years.

MerCyn said...

There is nothing so scary as a phone message saying 'call us' or the time between the nurse saying 'hold on' and the doctor or someone else saying 'you're okay'. Glad you will be around to continue writing for us for a long, long time!

rosaria williams said...

Glad everything turned out o.k. Yet, we should all heed our bodies' warnings and "bother" the medical community to search for solutions. Little things can mean big trouble.

Retired Syd said...

Glad it was nothing!

Now, is this a man thing? My husband is the exact same way. He'll make an appointment at the doctor and I'll ask why. Then he'll tell me that (insert ailment here) has been bothering him for weeks. (Of course he hasn't mentioned it to me either over those weeks!)

Sightings said...

Oh, no, we're the opposite! B is skeptical about doctors and never worries about an ache or pain. She just figures she'll keep on going -- until she stops. Of course, her mother 96 and still going strong, so B has reason to believe.

I'm the hypochronriac in the family. I don't go to the doctor for all those little things, but I do worry about them.

Linda Myers said...

What an excellent description of the analysis and worry! And the waiting three weeks! I felt your fear.

I do it all the time myself.

June said...

I am very glad it was nothing.
And I must ask you . . . did the sky not appear to be bluer, the grass greener, the voices of loved ones sweeter . . . after your scare?

schmidleysscribblins, said...

These chest pains are strange. I had a pain about 12 years ago, figured it was heartburn, and felt stupid calling 911, but David did anyway. It turned out to be a heart attack.

Still in denial, I stopped taking the stupid meds they put me on and had a stroke about 6 years later. Fortunately, I survived both, but you never know. You guys are weak and die younger as you know so err on the side of caution, will you? Dianne

PS I still take the meds and everyday I think, 'When can I get off these expensive drugs?'

Anne Holmes said...

Thanks for sharing your story. We're going through a similar thing with my Mom right now. She's 82 and was experiencing a cough. Nothing to worry about she said, though my daughter, who visited her in March said she turned purple with each cough.

Finally Mom DID go to the doctor, who did a chest X-ray - and then continued checking.

Bottom line 6 weeks later: It seems there's a "small spot" on my mother's lung, and it's cancer. She's never smoked, which is a good thing.

Yesterday she was in for a PET scan, to see if the cancer has spread anywhere else. Hopefully we will know the outcome of that test next week.

so I'm with Dianne here: Err on the side of caution. Don't worry that you will end up being told "It's nothing." Best to know that for sure.nTecoop