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.