Calgary in the 90’s was the perfect place to begin life on my own. Jobs were plentiful and rent was cheap. The sun shone for most of the year, friends were easily made and that wide open blue sky just continued forever.
I tried to forget what had happened to me in Pincher Creek – I chalked it up to a freak accident, dodging a bullet. But out of the blue my mind would go back to that summer and start to play over the sequence of events, tumbling them around, trying to understand why the bleed in my lungs happened. The wonder would always turn to a deep, black dread that would threaten to rise up inside of me; thoughts like ‘what if it a bleed happened again, outside of the water, just walking down the street?’. That sense of panic and confusion sometimes turned instead to elation for having dodged a bullet – maybe THE bullet. Most people don’t have something this serious happen to them, right? If I had dodged my bullet, nothing else bad could happen to little ol’ me – so let ‘er rip right? I quickly found a job, a place to live with friends. School could wait.
Physically I felt fine, great in fact. I was too poor to own a car or even a bus pass when I first arrived in Calgary, so I had my family send out my mountain bike to me, and for a few years walking and cycling were my main modes of transport. My body was in perfect shape, I never tired and felt like I could walk and ride forever. I did however take other risks and do things that I had never thought of doing before the accident; on my bike I would weave in between cars along 17th Ave; I went out to smoky bars and drank too much, staying up all night long; I darted across C-train tracks when it wasn’t safe; I got a few tattoos and piercings. I was living life, having fun and trying to drown out the indistinct but very present black panic that I had felt ever since my ‘swimming accident’.
In the middle of my new exciting life I met and fell in love with my husband. We met by both going stag to a mutual friend’s Y2K New Years Eve party. The first time we went on a date I felt an almost indescribable level of comfort with him that I have never experienced with anyone else; I could literally hear us ‘clicking’ in to each other. He is my better half and we really do finish each other’s sentences. He is the smartest person I have ever met and we can always make each other laugh. While dating and during the early years of our marriage we would often go cycling and hiking, we were always active and enjoyed the outdoors together year-round. I am so fortunate that we were able to share those healthy, youthful years together.
About the same time that we were becoming more serious as a couple, I began having brief, short lived, random bouts of knife-like abdominal pain. The same pain that I felt as a young girl; the lightning in my belly was back.
That summer, the pain and frequency of these attacks increased, so much so that I went to a walk-in clinic asking for help. I didn’t have a family doc at the time – it was next to impossible to find one in Calgary during the boom years. I explained my symptoms to the GP (General Practitioner) and she did a quick exam and concluded that it was probably IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). I was referred to a GI (gastrointestinal) doc and would have to wait for the specialist to call with an date for an appointment and a definitive diagnosis. There was no gas, strange bowels or blood, just random bouts of stabbing, excruciating pain. I decided to improve my diet and had started regularly taking enterically coated peppermint oil capsules, which seemed to help most of the time. When it got really bad and I had an ‘attack’ I would just crunch one of those capsules up in my mouth for an extra kick.
The pain continued to escalate, so much so that I once called in sick and stayed in bed for a full day, curled in the fetal position waiting for the pain to subside (it finally did). Walking too became problematic because from time to time it seemed that this motion would aggravate my condition. I remember multiple times having to stop walking and gingerly sit down on a curb, bent over, waiting for the pain to pass. But I held out waiting for the appointment with the GI and remembering that the visit to the GP didn’t find anything to explain what was happening.
By the late fall my then boyfriend and I had moved in together and I finally heard back from the GI with a date for my first appointment. I remember it was a rainy day when I walked to the specialist’s office, located in a medical building just outside of the Kensington area in Calgary. I told the doctor about my symptoms (knife like, all around my abdomen etc. etc.), my health history (including the lung bleed) and provided my thought that maybe it was IBS. He did an examination and agreed but also wanted me to have an ultrasound just to be sure.
Since I was not in any pain on the day of my doctor’s visit and my condition did not appear to be urgent, several months passed before I was scheduled for the routine ultrasound that would help the GI in making the correct diagnosis. Going to get an abdominal and pelvic ultrasound was going small peanuts, I sent my boyfriend to work the morning of the procedure assuring him that I was comfortable in a medical setting and felt like an old pro since Pincher Creek– no big deal. I was thinking it would be so great to finally get a diagnosis and fix my digestive woes!
On a cold and slushy spring morning I took a cab to the lab in downtown Calgary where my ultrasound was scheduled. The clinic was very clean, the room where my procedure was to take place was softly lit and comfortably warm. The gel they used with the wand was warm too and I relaxed as the tech told me to turn this way and that, taking picture after picture. And then more pictures…. After some time had passed and she was still taking pictures on my right side I had a suspicion that something was up, but she was very professional and gave me a smile when the procedure was over. The procedure was a pain free event and I went on to work rather relaxed and a bit perplexed that the technician had taken so many pictures.
I kind of forgot about the appointment; weeks passed by – no news was good news – right? The snow melted and the grass turned green. Fresh bright green buds began to appear on the trees again. On the first really warm day, a co-worker told me that I missed several telephone calls while working with a client. Annoyed at the persistence of the caller, begrudgingly I returned the call, and listened to the GI doctor tell me in a grave voice that the ultrasound had found a tumor on my kidney and that I had to have an CT scan as soon as possible to obtain a full diagnosis. He would contact my GP right away to arrange the scan and a follow-up appointment with my GP.
I felt OK, like, my lungs weren’t bleeding, this wasn’t an emergency. In fact, I felt fantastic; so what the doctor told me over the phone didn’t really sink in or have an effect on me, my reaction to the news on the phone was more like a ‘Huh! Really? Ok, thanks.’
That same week I met with a GP at my local walk in clinic. I arrived and was immediately ushered in to the examination room, I didn’t even have to sit in the waiting area, I was surprised. My appointment with the GP consisted of a palpitation of my abdomen, a Q & A and coaching that I remember going something like… ‘don’t panic, get lots of fruits and vegetables in your diet, take it one step at a time, we will get through this together’. She was kind, and had a laser focus on staying positive, I didn’t see pity in her eyes, just determination and I drew strength from her.
As I left the GP it sunk in, I had a mass on my kidney and the doctor – the first I had seen in person since getting the news – was worried, even if she appeared strong. I had never seen a doctor that fast before, never seen a doctor so concerned for me, never had an appointment for a test lined up that quickly – shit, this was bad. I left the office feeling like my head was floating five feet above my body, nothing felt quite real. I don’t remember how I got from the medical building to the sidewalk outside, where I met my boyfriend to tell him the news. I might have cancer.
After the initial shock of the visit to the GP, I continued on with life as normal as much as I could; my reference to the medical world and hospitals had been in an emergency situation. I wasn’t bleeding like before and so I was able to somehow compartmentalize and separate what was going on with my abdomen and kidney from the rest of my life. The routine of work was a welcome distraction and kept my growing anxiety at bay. Through all this I physically felt strong and healthy and assumed that the CT scan procedure would be similar to an ultrasound. On the day of the CT scan I told my boyfriend that I was fine and that I would take a close girlfriend along for moral support. She and I took the C-train to the hospital up to the north end of the city and planned to shop in a nearby mall after my appointment.
We arrived and I changed into the gown and chatted with my friend while we waited for my name to be called by the technician. When my name was called I was brought in to a chilly room and the technician told me where to lie down and helped me get comfortable on the table just outside of the big doughnut-shaped CT machine. I was given a waiver to sign and a quick explanation about the dye that they used for abdominal CT scans while an IV was inserted in to my arm. The CT scan began.
Even though the tech told me that I might feel a ‘warm sensation’ as the dye was being injected I was not quite prepared for the physical sensations of the moving table I was lying on along with the whirring rush of huge magnets swirling around my body while a disembodied voice told me when to hold my breath and when to breathe. The warm, flushed (not in a good way) feeling along with the sensation that I had just emptied my bladder on to the moving table of the CT machine along with the week-old anxiety of knowing I now had a tumor was almost overwhelming. I wanted to get off of this ride.
The procedure was painless and quick but nerve-wracking just the same. The technician was at my side as soon as it was over, efficient and courteous; I could tell that they had a full roster of people to get through. I shakily got off of the CT table after the technician had removed my IV and walked on rubbery legs to the waiting room where my friend waited for me. I felt like a cat that had just escaped being accidentally put in the dryer for a few minutes. I was so glad my friend was there to talk to that afternoon as the adrenaline wore off.
Now the wait began. I tried to not think about what type of tumor it was and what the approach to treatment would be. I would cross that bridge when I came to it. The walk-in clinic called me back within a week; they wanted me to come in to discuss the results with a GP.
This time my boyfriend came with me and waited in the waiting room while I was quickly escorted in to the doctor’s office. Again, I didn’t have to wait long, the door swung open, this was it.
A new doctor came through the door with a smile on his face; I didn’t have a cancerous tumor, I had an angiomyolipoma.